Robert Donington writes with zeal about a wide range of musical topics. Two of my favorite books about music are his, both the Ring Cycle book that includes the quote from above and Baroque Music, Style and Performance. I've had the great pleasure of poring over both of these books in the last year, as I've recently had the great pleasure of spending energy in both of these musical extremes: the continuation of my Bach sonatas recording project and a trip to Vienna to hear my first Ring Cycle.
The quote leapt out at me for several reasons. I'm trying to piece together an answer to the question, "Why does Bach's music still communicate after 250 years?" And while Donington's quote is in the context of Wagner, I think it sparks a lot of the feelings I have that surround my answer to the question. That the quote comes from someone who writes convincingly about both of these areas of interest only serves to underline for me the notion that music, no matter what its style or period or usage, carries the power to communicate.
Wagner, immersed in a culture that was beginning to embrace the psychological underpinnings of human behavior and to realize that these could be described through the archetypes of mythology, coded all sorts of universal themes and emotions in his music, and, of course, I'm sure that, subtle or not, the fact that his themes are so human plays a huge role in the translation and timelessness of his music.
Bach, from such a different time, and seemingly of such different persuasions, was immersed in a culture that, of course, was no less fascinated by human feeling. Bach's embrace of humanity was metaphysical. His culture was dominated by superstitions about numbers and their universal meanings, experimentations with alchemy and its promise of transformation of everyday matter into gold (which carried philosophical and spiritual connotations) and fascinations with classical ideals about the power of persuasive speech. All of these elements empowered Bach to write music that is no less connected to emotion than Wagner's.
Both composers relied on harmony and tonality to symbolize feeling. Both relied on the power of language and the vulnerability of the human voice to express specific thoughts. Both wrote for listeners who would immediately understand and make connections to their own culture through sound. So the music, at either time period, wasn't all that subtle, really. But music is, essentially, abstract. And yet it speaks. Still.
Happily, as a musician who has the opportunity to live inside of the sound world of both composers (and many more) on a daily basis, I sense that the clues that may now, after so many years, seem subtle, are still translatable. Bach's clues were based in philosophy and spirituality whereas Wagner's were based in psychology and mythology. But the clues are universal.
Bach used structure, linguistic gestures and manipulations of tonality to render the human experience in sound. That he did it fervently and with grace, creating art that holds not only the actuality of great form, rhythmic scope, gesture and color but also the (alchemical?) promise that we can transform all of these devices into inspiration in our imaginations is what allows his music to speak to all of us. Now.