„What fascinates me is Bach’s music and what’s encoded in it” – Interview with Gergely Fazekas

15. July 2018

Gergely Fazekas, associate professor of the Musicology Department did not come home empty-handed from the United States, where he was teaching as a Fulbright visiting professor for a year: he turned his PhD dissertation into a monograph just published under the title J. S. Bach and the Two Cultures of Musical Form. Please, welcome an exclusive interview with the author.

First we asked Dr Fazekas on the background of his work: ten months ago, he set out on a great journey with his family to teach at Bard College in New York State, USA:

I had quite a few reasons to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship: I had been on the academic staff of the Liszt Academy since 2006, and in the last years I felt I would run out of steam to teach and could really use a change of air. I had also been otherwise engaged: I had acted as the artistic director of the Liszt Kidz Academy, the youth programmes of the Liszt Academy, I was editor of the Concert Magazine and editor-in-chief of the music publisher Rózsavölgyi & Co. All this – in addition to my academic work – seemed unbearably too much, and the time was ripe to apply for a year abroad, which would allow and enable me to think over which activities I wanted to carry on and which ones I didn’t. I turned forty last year, and when I was granted the scholarship, I believed it to be a real milestone in my life. It never occurred to me to go alone, and from the perspective of my family, timing was just right: my daughters were old enough to benefit from it for a lifetime, to gain a proper command of English and to, literally, see the world. A journey like this, of course, is a great adventure, daring enterprise, but the fact that at the Liszt Academy, everyone unanimously supported my plan made the decision much easier. I knew I would be welcome home again.

Now, having returned from abroad, have you managed to redefine the main cornerstones?

I would like to concentrate on teaching and research as much as possible. This urge was prompted to a great extent by an academic year at such a marvellous liberal arts college as Bard. It was incredibly exciting to see how instruction works there, how students think differently from their peers in Hungary, and to see from inside how the deservedly famous academic life in the US works. They have a completely different notion of knowledge: its most important aspect does not correlate with the amount of the acquired information, rather it is defined as a skill of creative thinking, as an ability for understanding and interpreting various phenomena. It is not easy to re-adjust to Hungary, not so much because of the academic experience but rather because of the radically different world we lived in for nine months, and having come back home, everything seems clearer: both the good and the bad, and there is plenty of both. I can highly recommend doing what I did: if you can, take a deep breath, step out of your comfort zone, travel to some distant place for a longer period of time, and then return. It is an electrifying experience. Only by coming home did I realise that many classical music pieces are “about” what I had gone through: the music at the beginning of a movement mostly returns at some point following various musical adventures and developments, but the return can never be exactly the same because of the diverse musical experiences in-between. In a certain sense, the exposition–development–recapitulation structure of the late 18th century sonata form makes one go through in a few minutes what I experienced during a journey of several months.


Photo: Liszt Academy / Zoltán Adrián


Let’s move on to your recently published work. To what extent does it differ from your PhD dissertation defended in the Doctoral School of the Liszt Academy?

It is definitely based closely on it, but is not identical with it. It was enriched with about 30-40 pages of newly written text and of course, with numerous corrections, and as some chapters have been published in various journals both in English and in Hungarian, I kept revising it at each publication. Thus, part of the work on the book consisted of transferring these corrections back to the original. It was a really thrilling experience to see that even those texts did change that seemingly did not change at all just by turning a thesis into a book. Let me clarify this with an example: in the introduction of the dissertation I explain how fascinating I found the postmodern turn of American musicology in the early 90s – I really appreciate that doors were opened for minority-oriented and feminist approaches, for the scholarly discussion of pop music and to the expansion of the classical musical canon, yet, the central topic of my thesis is the music of a white male composer who is not only a representative of classical music but one of the most significant figures of Western art music. This part was transferred to the preface of the book virtually without change, but while in a dissertation it seems to be the disclaimer of a PhD student struggling with his complexes of his own perception of himself as a progressive spirit picking a conservative topic, in the preface of the book, it turns into a text written by an established musicologist with over ten years of academic experience, informing the reader where to place the work in the jungle of current musicological trends. To put it extremely bluntly, the real difference is that while writing and reading a dissertation is a troublesome experience, writing and reading a book is great. 

How about the actual topic of your monograph: what do you mean by the „two cultures” of the musical form, and how are they related to Bach’s oeuvre?

My starting point was an odd niche: I realised that the theoretical books of Bach’s time hardly ever discussed the issue of musical form, that is, the question of the disposition of musical ideas in time. I didn’t understand the reason, since Bach’s musical forms seemed spellbindingly conscious constructions for me. I tried to collect the scattered excerpts of the 17th and 18th century musical theoretical literature which refer to the issue of the musical form, I also tried to give an overview of how the posterity thought about Bach’s formal thinking, and in the second half of the book I concentrated on the analysis of Bach’s music. Based on the latter, it became obvious to me that his pieces work in two ways from a formal perspective (which, I believe, applies to the works of many other composers too): in certain cases, he follows a previously designed pattern, at other times, the musical process follows a spontaneous lead. This ambiguity is comparable to the process of writing novels. While Balzac would produce fiction in weekly instalments, publishing chapters in magazines, which were later published in a single volume, Thomas Mann would, however, predesign the entire structure of his novels, and only then did he set off to actually write it. These are the „two cultures” referred to by the title.


Photo: Liszt Academy / Zoltán Adrián


It was your ambition to decipher the mindset of one of the greatest mind of the history of humanity. Did you manage to come closer to knowing Bach’s personality during this process?

This is an interesting question. Although I’m aware that curiosity about the human side of great and famous people tends to lurk inside most of us, I must admit, Bach as a person is quite indifferent to me. There are very few documents that would help us get to know him better, and through his music, we cannot come to know his personality at all or only very indirectly. What fascinates me is Bach’s music and what’s encoded in it: his mindset. I am far from believing that I have now understood Bach, but I see the various directions of his way of thinking more clearly.

„In Bach’s case, it can often be perceived that he means to express something quite different than the genre he picked.” This is a quotation from the preface of your book. Musical genre does therefore not pre-determine meaning? 

„Expressing” does not refer here to a specific meaning; I use it in an abstract sense. What I mean is Bach’s radical treatment of long established conventions. The concerto, the fugue, the sonata are not his inventions, but he had completely original ideas about how to transform their traditional frameworks. In the 1st movement of his E major Violin Concerto – which I analyse in detail in my book – Bach uses the da capo form, the typical form of opera arias of the era. This form was hardly ever used in concertos (Vivaldi never used it), but Bach would use it quite frequently. It feels as if Bach was turning genre-specific conventions upside down, without the unsuspecting audience noticing a thing.


Photo: Liszt Academy / Zoltán Adrián


Who is the target group of your book? Musicologists or music-loving Bach fans?

The first half of the volume may also interest music lovers ready to learn more about Bach’s music. The „hardcore” detailed musical analyses, however, come in the second part, which are there to demonstrate my actual message. In academic writing, one tends to think less of readers, but rather of capturing the given question, so I won’t be disappointed if the servers of the largest moguls of the book trade industry won’t crash due to the vast public interest in my work. I hope that musicians and academics who wish to develop a deeper understanding of Bach will read it. And I also hope that it won’t lose its validity – or at least its historical value – in just a couple of years or decades.

In the preface, you said your original plans had been different from the actual outcome; you changed your mind about the basic concept in the last minute. Are you happy with the form of the book as it was eventually published?

I originally intended to show, how early 18th century theories of time are represented in Bach’s formal procedures. Two time-concepts were prevailing in Bach’s days. One was connected to Newton, who thought time to be absolute and would even exist if the world came to an end. Leibniz, on the contrary, thought that time was relative, relating to the successive order of events: if there were no things and no events, there was no time either. I was going to draw a parallel between the spontaneous form and Leibniz’s time concept and another between Newton’s absolute time and the predesigned form – irrespective of musical events. Although these parallels sound impressive, we have no evidence whatsoever whether Bach was aware of these two views or not, so when I calmed down from my philosophical „spree”, I realised that no matter how much I pushed, the history of musical form could not be turned into the history of philosophy and vice versa. I ended up using the two concepts of time only as analogies. And if I am happy with the final form of the book? The author always knows best what possibilities were left unexploited. A monograph like this represents a snapshot in a music historian’s career just as much as a record represents a snapshot for a performer: this is what I thought of Bach’s music in 2018. If I could start working on it with my present knowledge again, after all the research and work I have done so far, I would probably get much further and deeper. There is a beautiful metaphor attributed to Pascal: knowledge is like a ball surrounded by ignorance. The more the ball expands, the greater the surface that borders upon ignorance. This is also how I feel: I now see much more clearly what I don’t know about Bach’s music.


Anna Unger