What happens when that illusory arrow of progress takes a bit of a u-turn?
Today's exhibit in the zig-zag of music history is Dieterich Buxtehude, who most people only remember as a precursor of Bach, and that Johann Sebastian once hiked 200 miles to hear him play. But that organist's holiday should tell you something—Buxtehude was pretty famous in his time. He was the organist for the church at Lübeck, and judging by his published compositions, Sundays in Lübeck must have been something. His preludes whip through promiscuous numbers of textures and moods. He thinks nothing of turning a simple chorale prelude into a full-fledged multi-movement dance suite ("Auf meinen lieben Gott," BuxWV 179—score here). His imitative works are built on unusually angular and ruminative themes. Here's a particular example: the Fugue in C major, BuxWV 174 (score here). Go on—show this subject to your 18th-Century Counterpoint instructor and see if you pass.
Break out the red pen—too long, too jumpy, too harmonically ambiguous (eight notes in, and he's making the tonic sound like the dominant). But it's the final cadence that's really far out: Buxtehude just hangs on to that tonic triad in the face of all kinds of diatonic dissonance from the bass.
Now Bach certainly had his wild moments, but I can't think of anything near that crazy. In just about every one of his organ works, in fact, Buxtehude tosses off some musical inspiration—a melodic turn, a clash of harmonies, an unprepared jump-cut to an entirely new texture and tempo—that Bach would have at least thought twice about.
The point here is not to somehow demonstrate that Buxtehude was a better composer than Bach, or that one or the other of them made some sort of "wrong turn," to borrow that awful phrase so beloved of prescriptivist music historians. The point is that those composers we remember as particularly important, or influential, or innovatory—that's as much a fortuitous accident of time and place as it is the force of individual creativity. Bach had an unparalleled talent for assimilating disparate influences into an architecturally harmonious whole at a time when an unprecedented number of disparate influences—Renaissance polyphony, Lutheran chorale, Italian monody, French dance music, you name it—was ripe for assimilation. If Bach's personal style evolved in a more conservative direction than Buxtehude's ever did, that evolution intersected with the musical current of the time such that it became a river feeding countless tributaries over the next centuries. And so Bach is remembered as the singular genius, the navigator that charted the way for everyone who came after him, while Buxtehude is just the guy back in port who encouraged him to buy a boat. (It's interesting to consider what part local preference played in both careers as well. Buxtehude's avant-garde ways—in addition to his organ-playing, he was a pioneer in large-scale sacred dramatic works—apparently went over well in Lübeck: he kept his post for nearly forty years, ending only with his death in 1707. Bach, on the other hand, returned from his trip to hear Buxtehude to find local officials in Arnstadt complaining about, among other things, the over-elaborate nature of his chorale accompaniments.)
In other words, even if Buxtehude was more adventurous, more innovatory than Bach, Bach became the more important composer because he was lucky enough to live at a time uniquely suited to his formidable genius. Buxtehude is rather like Winston Churchill in 1912 or so—obviously talented, impatiently forward-looking, but lacking access to a stage on which his talents can fully flourish. Bach is like Churchill in 1940: the exact person at the exact moment in history.
Buxtehude is one of those radical composers who always seem to flourish just before a historical consolidation—think of C.P.E. Bach, or Carl Maria von Weber, or George Antheil. Would they rank higher in the Pantheon if they had come along fifty years later? Fifty years earlier? It's hard to say. But then again, what if Bach had been a contemporary of Mozart? What if Beethoven had been born in France in 1860? Contrafactuals like those always carry a whiff of the ridiculous, but they point up how, maybe even more than sheer talent, it's how that talent interacts—or doesn't interact—with the time and place it's launched into that determines the historical standing of the bearer. If I end up rating only a cursory mention in the 2200 edition of the New Grove, I may be able to claim the same excuse as Brian Wilson: I guess I just wasn't made for these times.
I got to thinking about this after Adam and Daniel were talking last week about musical innovation.