“Bach did not intend to compose musical works”

My title is one of the famous, controversial sentences from a famous (amongst a certain crowd), controversial book, which I heartily commend to you all.

The philosopher Lydia Goehr wrote this sentence in her book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, which, in my estimation, has yet to be fully absorbed, especially by people who like to have opinions about music and the arts. In her introduction to the newer 2007 edition of the 1992 book, Goehr remembers how often this line has been misunderstood. “I did not say Bach did not compose musical works, only that he had not intended to compose them,” (xlii). She puts it elsewhere, “Surprisingly many who have read my opening sentence about Bach and his intentions have read it as claiming, if only by implication, that if Bach did not compose works he somehow did not compose music–so closely is the work-concept tied to that of music,” (xlv-xlvi).

This is the tragic thing about these quasi-ideological concepts which can so convincingly deceive us. A status which claims universality, when it is in fact a distinct, historical cultural concept, can feel indispensible. When someone comes along, hoping to point out how Bach should not be understood by that status but instead on his own historical terms, it can feel like an insult to Bach since we are depriving him of that status (that he should, from Goehr’s perspective, never have had). “Of course, the idea that without works there could be no music was exactly the equation or identity thinking my thesis tried to shatter,” (xlvi). For Goehr, it is the “work” status which manages to have this strange effect on her readers, of rendering her as a despiser of Bach rather than something of a liberator of him.

I feel a great deal of sympathy for Goehr’s project, because it strikes me as a fool’s errand to attempt to read the anxious aesthetic philosophies of the nineteenth century, intent on finding within the art works all the theology and metaphysics denied it in every other sphere, back into the Medieval or early modern music. Such music has no need of the work-concept to have its own worth and dignity and the sooner we can free ourselves of this way of reading that music, the better. Yet it can be hard to imagine what music is if it is not conceptualized through a work- concept. (Maybe another series of blog posts could grow out of that, but initial recommended reading would be Elizabeth Eva Leach’s Sung Birds.)

But Goehr gets it exactly right: “The question is whether God’s works [i.e. the sacred/liturgical music of Bach] were really what we now call works and whether the move from sacred to secular theory and practice was not extraordinarily significant in explaining why the work-concept assumed the authority it did in the era following Bach. Maybe, as some have argued, secularism was well on its way, say, in Britain; maybe it had always been on its way since Plato. Yet secularism was only part of what was needed to get God, as it were, out of the bourgeois musical picture, leaving space only for a Composer and His works,” (xlii).

To put it another way: Whereas the usual narrative is that music managed, in the late Medieval and early modern period, to “free” itself from the shackles of liturgical necessity and become ars gratia artis, Goehr would see the work-concept as a new kind of religious music, but this time replaced by the complex apparatus of ineffibility and transcendence involved in the ontology of music. From one liturgy to another, emancipated into new chains.

The story is more complicated than that, of course, as Goehr tracks in a later book, The Quest for Voice, how there are in fact two opposing forces in the nineteenth century when it comes to music: “first, a way of performing that submits itself to the work; second, a way of performing that refuses to submit itself to anything but itself, guided as it is by ideas of virtuosity,” (xxxv). That latter, of course, is a species of ars gratia artis and the former is the work-concept in all its religious–really, practically monastic–glory. Both of these coexist to give music its complex ontology in the nineteenth century.

At this point, I’m a bit over-sensitive to popular claims such as “music is the universal language,” “music can speak the unspeakable, embody that which cannot be put into words,” “music is a window into the soul,” etc., for two reasons. First, the more I learn about Medieval conceptions of music, the more this set of clichés seems specific to the modern mind and its anxieties. Second, the more I learn about how such clichés function and whence they emerged in the modern period, the more explicitly they seem to me to be a secular palliative for divine absence. The virtue of such a palliative I’m naturally keen to deprecate in any way I can. That’s why I will always be a fan of Goehr’s controversial work (and, given her 2007 introduction, I may even be a bigger fan of 1992 Goehr than 2007 Goehr herself). Or, as I scribbled in my margins, “I stan early Goehr,” and you should too.


I have fallen down on the job of recommending good music. Here is some: Erroll Garner’s magical way of playing stride base alongside a drunken right hand. It’s quite simple and so very, very effective. I have become obsessed with it recently, and you should too.

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