That Time: Piffaro’s Back Before Bach Concert at Town Hall

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Looking back now, it was a silly question, and probably a little disingenuous. But remember that there was a time before the Internet, a time when music departments across the country, and certainly in the schools I attended, were overrun by forces of moldy old figs. I was interested in the music of Alberto Ginastera, Olly Woodrow Wilson, and Olivier Messiaen in a class where my music teacher was genuinely asking why people couldn’t just go back to writing music like Brahms.

So when a fellow student, who knew my penchant for the modern, asked me the question I had no immediate response.

“Why do you like Bach?”

Why did I like Bach? What kind of question was that? What response could I give? I could have given him as many reasons as there were entries in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (even in the as-yet-unrevised one with which I grew up). I could have taken the glib approach and said that I liked his hair or that he had a marvelous organ. Instead I decided to take him at face value.

Before I answered, I considered his “higher level goal” in asking the question. What was he trying to get out of my answer? What, actually, was the foundation of his surprise at discovering my passion for Bach? Why did it seem so strange to him? Apparently he believed that one couldn’t like modern music and old-fashioned Baroque music at the same time. Which might have been true — if I cared more about nurturing a sense of belonging to an easily labeled clique than I did about music. Certainly there were plenty of cliques, actively encouraged by various professors. But I couldn’t have cared less if all of them became victims of spontaneous human combustion, or were flushed away in the Seattle rain like the bird droppings on my window. I cared about music. Not for sociological reasons. Musical reasons. And there’s no way that anyone who claims to like Western composed music can sail through life without dealing with Bach at some point.

So I considered my answer for a moment, rather than blurting out whatever came to mind first. It was the right answer. It wouldn’t satisfy him. It wouldn’t make me any easier to label and dismiss as “not one of us.” But it would give him the opportunity, if he took it, to discover the truth behind my words.

“Because Bach contains everything.”

I’m sure it went over his head. Some days, however, I like to pretend to myself that my words planted a seed in him and that he traced the source of my words to its fountainhead — namely, Bach himself. He would find that what I said was true, and not just for me.


It’s no secret I’m a fan of early music. It’s not much of a secret that I adore Piffaro’s work over the past twenty years I’ve heard them. And it’s no secret to tell how I delighted in the evening.

To no avail, I’ve complained for years to classical musicians and orchestras that the structure of modern concerts is too brusque and careless of audiences. My experience, especially with weeknight shows, is that audiences in Seattle tend to arrive slightly late and in a hurry. Yet programrs never give audiences a chance to decompress, or to shift easily into the evening’s fare. Instead–bam! Down go the lights and no matter how much residual road rage one has, or how little general patience with crowds, or indeed how varied one’s actual knowledge of the evening’s music, one is simply expected to dive right into a massively scaled symphonic work.

Piffaro, being much smarter than the average bears, opened instead with a trio of German popular tunes from the 16th Century. Furthermore they opened by walking through the audience, slowly reaching the stage as they played. The entire setup drew the audience into the evening, into the band, and into the program. It was extremely refreshing and well-done.

It was a good thing, too, to open with such a short, straightforward bit of music, because the second item on the program, eight different constructions of Christ ist erstanden, is quite demanding. Beginning with an early version of the Easter hymn in plainsong, six separate versions of it follow from the late 15th to early 17th Century. Each version reveals a different approach to polyphonic melody in the late Renaissance. By the time the selection ends with the Bach chorale BWV 276, the tacit argument becomes explicit.

That argument is that counterpoint, particularly that stemming from chorale-based settings of traditional hymns, existed well before Bach. Bach inherited those diverse approaches and incorporated them into his own work, but their lineage is traceable, and, undoubtedly, Bach expected listeners to trace it just so.

After another interlude of three short dance pieces, two from Michael Praetorius’ extraordinary Terpsichore, Piffaro again pick up the argument concerning polyphonic practice, this time in the form of the early hymn A solis ortus cardine. Following the original hymn with two different arrangements of it by Johann Walther. The first setting, for four voices, begins quite simply but boldly, then takes on an interesting density of voices as it moves along. The second setting, for five voices, is restrained by comparison, a throwback to Josquin des Prez and his use of imitation.

The Walther pieces are followed by a chorale version from Praetorius and a canzona from Samuel Scheidt that, compared to the five-voice setting by Walther, have a fresh boldness that struck me as enlightening. Each of them fragments and transforms the original hymn by distributing melody radically. The Praetorius pieces does so through sharply dividing high from low voice; the Scheidt, by ignoring it almost completely and moving the voices rhythmically.

The first half of the program seems to be about melody, polyphony and counterpoint before Bach. Yet there is a subtler theme as well, which shows up in this selection of pieces around A solis ortus cardine — namely, a dialectic between Latin and German and, by extension, between the Roman Catholic tradition and the newer Lutheran tradition. The original hymn is in Latin. The Walther settings use Luther’s German translation of the hymn, Christum wir sollen loben schon, yet retain strong links to the Catholic tradition of polyphony. The Praetorius and the Scheidt revert to the traditional Latin text but diverge sharply from older melodic practices.

By extension the Bach chorale on Christum wir sollen loben schon represents a unification of these practices. It accepts the new German text, yet compiles virtually all the Latinate vocal devices together with the newest techniques of the Reformation composers, with even greater elaboration in harmony and compositional size.

As Piffaro closed their first half with three more dances from Praetorius’ Terpsichore, it was clear they had something to say about musical tradition, rather than simply assembling a program of pretty music with tangential links to a famous name that would pull in the crowds. Bach, I think they would argue, inherited the rhythmic tradition of European dance and fused it together with the melodic traditions of popular song, the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, and the newly emerging tradition of the Lutheran chorale. The second half of their program would argue further that Bach did very much the same thing with chromatic harmony.

In fact, Piffaro’s Bob Wiemken (who also wrote the program notes) came onto the stage at the opening of the second half and stated explicitly that the aim of music from the period was “to use the black keys on the keyboard to make beautiful music.” I smiled stupidly when he said it, understanding perfectly what he meant.


Piffaro casual. From their lovely Facebook page.
Piffaro casual. From their lovely Facebook page.

The one time I almost failed music class because of my friend involved those black keys on the keyboard. We were the class radicals among reactionaries even then, and out composition teacher was most certainly one of those reactionaries, believing as he did that music died with the overture to Lohengrin. Drawn as we were to the 20th Century — you know, the one in which we actually lived — my friend and I fought with him constantly.

Eventually my friend had had enough. He knocked on my door at 1 am, knowing I was still foolish enough to be awake, and came to me with a proposal. He was a better composer than I was but I was a better historian, so he needed me for an escapade in which we would co-write the most brutally dissonant and abrasive score we could muster in seventy-two hours — with a twist.

So Friday morning when we handed in our score, our teacher looked at it with his upturned nose wrinkling as if he’d swallowed a lemon. Worse still, he began to play it in front of the class on the piano, making fun of the discord we’d created.

“What the hell is this noise? Minor seconds put through a blender?” he castigated us.

My friend, who was much less polite than I, cut him short.

“It’s actually Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier,” he snorted. “Prelude in F. Though the opening is from Fugue 20 from Book I, so yeah, we cheated.”

You’ve never heard such silence. Finally realizing he’d been had, the prof screamed at us.

“OUT!! Out of my class!”


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Bach’s use of harmony was very important to me. But it was incomplete without his rhythm, which is why our prof didn’t recognize our little charade.

Bob Wiemken agrees with me. As he stood on stage talking about the black keys on the keyboard, he also reminded us that the heart of the Baroque was dance. “If it doesn’t dance, forget it,” he said. Listening to the second half of Piffaro’s program showed the truth of the statement.

The section called “The World of Chromaticism” on the program contains two contrasting pieces by Orlando di Lasso (or Orlande de Lassus, if you prefer as Piffaro do). The first is the beloved Musica, Dei donum optimi (Music, gift from the most high God). It is exactly what one has come to expect from pieces composed in the Renaissance polyphonic tradition: smooth, harmonious, gliding effortlessly from phrase to phrase. It’s the style that Palestrina perfected, in which you’d be hard-pressed to find a leap of more than a third in a melody, giving every melody a fluid, sonorous arc. One can hardly argue against its beauty. But one can certainly argue that it is a dead end.

Di Lasso himself must have thought so, at least a little, to have written the prologue to the Prophetiae Sybillarum. It is a mysterious as Musica, Dei donum optimi is patent. The whole piece is in twelve parts, each one representing one of the Sibyls, but also one of the pitches of the musical octave. The prologue condenses this heavily: all twelve notes of the octave are compressed into it quickly and sharply, giving it an unsettled eerieness quite unlike di Lasso’s better-known work yet one that perfectly fits its subject.

Continuing that theme of mystery, di Lasso’s pieces are followed by Jacob Handl’s Mirabile Mysterium. I’ve always loved this piece. It’s a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Having the appearance of yet another Renaissance polyphonic motet in its main melody, it also has a dark undertone and extraordinarily subtle use of chromatic dissonance. It’s conservative French-Flemish on one level, but radical Italian on a deeper one. It’s like Bach, but before Bach, in its merging of styles. My kind of work — and sneaky enough to allow Handl to experiment without losing his job as Kapellmeister.

Ending this section is a piece from Kile Smith’s Vespers, commissioned by Piffaro in 2008. At first it might seem like an odd choice when all the other composers are older than Bach. Yet it makes perfect sense. Steht auf, ihr lieben Kinderlein is a modern piece that links clearly to the past and to the popular tradition just as surely as it does to contemporary composition. I have heard that it sounds kind of like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It is certainly just as listenable, and another example of how contemporary composers use whatever is at hand, just as Bach used whatever he had at hand. That’s how one moves forward: deep respect for tradition, but always looking at the present, and the future.

The “World of Chromaticism” section was followed by three different takes on the old Dutch song, “Tandernaken.” The theme here is improvisation: specifically, how improvisation was one of the ground principles of music during the Baroque period but also all throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries. It’s also something that has fascinated me personally since I was a young player. The history of Classical music from Bach onward relies on a particular fetishizing of The Score As Gospel. The gospel goes like this: The Score is a Masterpiece, never meant to be changed, because It marks directly the traces of divinity through the Inspiration and Genius of the composer, revealing how they are closer to God than mere mortals.

Improvisation is antithetical to that gospel. And yet the harsh reality for true believers is that improvisation remains essential for any musician to play the music of the Renaissance and early Baroque. Bob Wiemken notes in his program that eventually composers sought to usurp the performers’ prerogative to improvise in effort to gain control over their music. Part of the healthiest trend in early music study is to put improvisation back into the music. Though classical musicians continue to balk — witness the absurdities argued about the second movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 — musicians who specialize in early music are likelier to be freer on the subject, and consequently produce really interesting takes.

The three versions of Tandernaken are composed with different intentions toward performers’ improvisation. The first one by Obrecht is essentially a through-composed melody with somewhat improvised accompaniment above and below the main voice. The second by Brumel is looser and aims at a kind of rhythmically-based improvisation. And the third, by Senfl, is somewhere between the two. Piffaro delight in and excel at this sort of thing. It’s easy to forget how virtuosic they actually are as players, but it all comes to the fore in these three pieces.

The evening closes as it started: with dance. A suite of Flemish dances from the compilation by Tylman Susato returns everything to its roots in the streets and halls, and helps send the audience out with, as Mr. Wiemken put it, a song on the lips, a tap in the step, and a lightness in the heart. It’s a very well-thought program from start to finish, intelligent in selection, and fabulous in performance. With any luck it scrapes away for audiences a bit of the patina overlaying the old “conservative” J.S. Bach and reveals the remarkable world around him that he worked so hard to synthesize. That time was far more interesting than many people have yet to discover. With more of these intelligent musicians assembling intelligent programs for audiences, one can hope there is an even greater renaissance ahead.

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net