Gods, Gurus, and the Search for the Holy Grail: Bach Recordings from 2018

By Elizabeth Lyon

Two hundred sixty-eight years after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the composer is a bigger celebrity than ever. Just this past year, the New York Times has run stories with titles such as “A Pop-Up Shop that Offers Bach Preludes, Fugues and Condoms” (November 23), “Bach Was Far More Religious Than You Might Think” (March 30), “Strapping on His Cello for a 600-Mile Bach Pilgrimage” (May 9), and “Yo-Yo Ma Wants Bach to Save the World” (September 28). 2018 also witnessed the release of several high-profile recordings, including Bach 333 (Deutsche Grammophon and Decca), the “largest composer project in recording history,” and Yo-Yo Ma’s third and purportedly last recording of the complete Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (Sony Classical). Alongside these were dozens of other recordings ranging from John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Consort’s Magnificat and St. Matthew Passion to an interpretation of Bach’s “Ciaccona with Just Intonation” by violinist Josh Modney on his album Engage (New Focus Recordings). The Bach of today—as portrayed in recordings, newspaper articles, books, and physical paraphernalia—is as multifaceted as current tastes and fashions, contradictions be damned. He is at once the “Fifth Evangelist”; a passionate humanist; a cool-blooded scientist; a spiritual guru; a college roommate; a fellow garage band remixer. But amid the myriad faces of Bachism, I perceive certain family resemblances. I explore them here.
 
 
Genius Incarnate: Human and Divine

In 1840, Robert Schumann wrote that “I myself make my daily confession to this high priest with a view to purifying and strengthening my musical nature.”[1] By 1905 the composer Max Reger had divinized the high priest: “Sebastian Bach is for me the beginning and end (Anfang und Ende) of all music,” alluding to Revelation 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”[2] Romantic veneration of Bach as an image of the Christian God—the Creator of Universal Harmony, Knower and Arbiter of good and bad in music—remains a strong theme in 2018, even if it is often now stripped of overtly Christian resonances. It persists in the popular imagination as an unbridled curiosity about Bach “the person”: who was this God-Musician who dwelt among us, a man like us yet greater than us? What was his personality like, and what was an ordinary day for him? No detail is too small to speculate about.

The fascination with Bach as Genius Incarnate is nowhere clearer than in Bach 333.[3] On October 26 it was released: a limited edition box set of 222 CDs, one DVD, two hardback books, and an advance presentation of the third edition of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV3), the most up-to-date catalogue of Bach’s complete works. A Deutsche Grammophon and Decca collaboration, Bach 333 is the result of two years of curation and scholarship in cooperation with 32 labels and a team of scholars at the Leipzig Bach Archive. To date, it is the largest single release of recordings devoted to a single composer, totaling 16,926 minutes (or about a fortnight) of music presented by 750 performers and ensembles. Aiming to provide an up-to-date catalogue of Bach’s works through the medium of recording, illuminating various facets of Bach as a composer through the curation of the collection, and celebrating nearly a century of recording history, the project attempts to strike a balance between a scholarly resource and an entertaining consumer product. For instance, the touted BWV3 and the technical descriptions of the historic organs heard on the recordings are resources that will really only interest musicologists and professional musicians, whereas it simultaneously boasts a 2-CD Barnes-and-Noble-esque “entry product,” with the title Peaceful Bach, as a prelude to the flagship edition in the hope of “achieving the widest possible awareness and engagement.” With its new-agey cover art of an ocean, sky, eclipse, and cosmic rays, and comprising mostly slow and well-known favorites, Peaceful Bach might seem an odd pitch to induce consumers to shell out $524.27 for Bach 333, complete with hardbound essays of erudite Germans. Yet even this underscores the recurrent message of Bach 333: for all his unparalleled divine genius, Bach is approachable and human.

The first of the 222 discs in the set is a 2013 BBC documentary tracing the life and works of J. S. Bach, entitled, Bach: A Passionate Life, written and presented by English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Although Gardiner presents the documentary as a forum to test his hypotheses about Bach’s personality and character, in order to “see if we can detect a beating heart and more approachable personality under the wig”—in this way, the program is a multimedia retelling of his 2013 book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven—he and his interlocutors end up valorizing Bach’s typically vaunted otherworldly status: “Bach is still the benchmark: the musical gold standard.” “Bach undermines any simplistic explanation of genius, his genius.” “[The violin Chaconne] on its own would convince me there was a God . . . if I were inclined to take that conclusion from it.” Gardiner’s investigative reporting involves trawling historical documents for anecdotes that might shed light on Bach’s personality and presenting these anecdotes to philosophers, psychologists, and writers for their feedback and comment. This makes for compelling viewing, but the status of these findings—whether as scholarship, magazine journalism, or just entertainment—is unclear. Of the interviews, those that amounted to speculative psychological analyses are the most sensationalizing: in one, it is surmised that Bach may have suffered from Paranoid Personality Disorder, based on conjectures as to what his experiences as a schoolboy might have been like (for which there are no personal accounts). Through means like these, Gardiner encourages his audience to hear Bach’s music through the filter of Bach’s (supposed) personality and life story and, conversely, to get to know the man via the music.

Such is the guiding idea of the Bach 333 project overall. Despite the quantity of written materials packaged in Bach 333, none are geared toward guiding a listener through the complex musical procedures, techniques, structures, and forms of any of the music in the box—that is, toward elucidating the music itself, as it were. Instead, the supplementary materials focus on the detailed exposition and analysis of his life as composer and musician. “Bach is the one composer in my experience whose range of musical expression is vast enough to fit everyone’s mood—from wild elation and joy, to passion, consolation, or even fury,” writes Gardiner in the introduction to the book Life. He even endear­ingly recommends certain pieces to fit the moods one might be feeling. As a gestalt, Bach 333 suggests that the right way to listen to Bach’s music is in light of an idea of his person. This or that work of Bach is suited (and therapeutic) for this or that emotion because in listening one experiences Bach’s compassion—through the music, one literally feels together with the composer.

But what about the music itself? While the set does include program notes by Nicholas Kenyon (Managing Director of the Barbican Centre), they tend to provide only general orientation to genre, a musical feature or two of note, and the place of the work in Bach’s biography. They are not listening guides. This emphasis on biography and personhood over musical materials seems to me a noteworthy feature of today’s listening practices, and one that we should also interrogate. What are we actually doing when we “commune” with a composer through music? What aspects of the biography actually help us to listen to the material rather than just imagine what the composer was like?

Of the 222 discs, only 6 albums contain new recordings, totaling about ten of the collection’s 282 hours; Bach 333 is more about the comprehensiveness of coverage, the quality of recordings, and listeners’ edification than a contribution of new recorded material. As a collection, the recordings privilege historically-informed performance practice (HIP) over “modern” performances, though discs bearing names such as Performing Traditions include interpretations by current “modern” instrumentalists like violinist Janine Jansen and pianists Martha Argerich and Alfred Brendel. The complete sacred cantatas, for instance, are represented by the who’s who of HIP music directors: John Eliot Gardiner, Masaaki Suzuki, Ton Koopman, and Sigiswald Kuijken, among others. I have not encountered a track that was not a tasteful interpretation beautifully performed; for a collector interested in owning a top-notch recording of all of Bach’s works, the investment is well worth the money. A welcome new recording is a two-disc collection of the complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Italian violinist Giuliano Carmignola, known for his 2009 recording of the Vivaldi violin concerti with the Venice Baroque Orchestra. With Carmignola’s long lines, silvery but warm sound, and generous use of vibrato (in comparison to other HIP performers), the recordings are an accessible set that will appeal both to HIP votaries and listeners accustomed to mainstream, modern performance traditions of these works.

The most interesting section of the collection for me is that labeled “Supplement,” which contains thematic collections such as “Bach Interactive” (CDs 207–214), and “Bach after Bach” (CDs 215–222). Here the curatorial aspects of Bach 333 extend to selecting representative pieces of composers who influenced Bach, and Bach’s revival and transcription by, and influence upon, later composers. Though for my taste, the new-music selections were a bit tame, and the final disc, New Colours of Bach, was a baffling hodge-podge of very disparate styles and materials (from cello suites played on the viola to electronic remixes), these influence and legacy sections are otherwise valuable additions, not to be found in Deutsche Grammophon and Decca’s last major composer project, Mozart 225.

For future complete composer sets, more equal gender representation should be at the top of the list of improvements to implement. Of the seventy-seven conductors represented in Bach 333, only one single track included a female conductor (Petra Müllejans on CD 106). If Bach 333 is to serve as a time capsule or panoramic snapshot of Bach performance in 2018, isn’t it rather tragic that on the largest composer project in recording history, not even one entire cantata of Bach was conducted by a woman? And if such recordings don’t already exist (they surely do), aren’t these massive recording projects the ideal opportunity to create them?
 
 
Universal (?) Spiritual Guru

It might seem like special pleading to come out with a third complete recording of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in an already thickly-saturated market. (Just try typing “Bach Cello Suites” into amazon.com or Google Shopping.) Every cellist nowadays aims to make at least one recording of the suites. Do we really need another Yo-Yo Ma Bach album?[4] Ma anticipates the question in Six Evolutions:

So, why a third time? Now that I’m in my sixties, I realize that my sense of time has changed, both in life and in music, at once expanded and compressed . . . I share this music, which has helped shape the evolution of my life, with the hope that it might spark a conversation about how culture can be a source of the solutions we need.

Ma’s wish to spark a conversation is no mere well-meaning, empty wish. The release of Six Evolutions was coordinated with the start of Ma’s massive initiative, “The Bach Project,” involving the performance of all six suites in one setting in thirty-six locations around the world. Connected to each performance is a day of action, “a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.”[5] Examples have included: “Exploring how culture can help us to protect society’s most vulnerable”; “Exploring how culture can help us to bring diverse communities together”; and “Exploring how culture can help build strong schools and promote creative expression.” “The Bach Project” continues into 2019, with performances in North America, Europe, and Australia.

The arts and social activism are old, happy bedfellows. But why Bach? The rationale for Bach’s role in particular is connected to Ma’s own six-decade experience of the suites, experience which, in his words, has helped to “shape the evolution of [his] life.” More weighty still is Ma’s belief in “Bach’s ability to speak to our shared humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division.”[6] These sentiments speak to common trends in a shared ideology of Bach performance: the supposed universality of Bach’s appeal and the particularity of a classical musician’s life journey with Bach’s music. A random sampling of other recent Bach projects immediately illustrates this ideology. The international movement Bach in the Subways professes that “the power and beauty of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music consistently transcend social and musical boundaries and inspire deep appreciation and strong emotion.”[7] Cellist’s Dane Johansen’s documentary project, Strangers on Earth, follows Johansen’s journey with his cello along the Camino de Santiago, performing and recording the Bach suites in churches along the way. Johansen testifies—in words echoing Schumann’s and Reger’s—that “Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello represent the beginning and end of my relationship with music. They were among the first pieces I played as a child, and the rest of my life will be spent working toward their mastery.” Like Ma’s “Bach Project,” Strangers on Earth claims that “the Camino de Santiago and Bach’s Suites are both journeys, timeless in their appeal and relevance and available to all people, regardless of background, age or language” (emphasis added).

While I wouldn’t attempt or wish to deny the appeal of Bach to people all over the world, we shouldn’t make the assumption that Bach is in some way naturally accessible, regardless of background, age, or language. The prevalence of the Nike brand around the world, or of the popularity of Justin Bieber’s songs, isn’t usually ascribed to any innate qualities of either, but rather to economic-globalization-cum-Western-cultural-hegemony. It shouldn’t escape our notice that Bach’s popularity and accessibility across borders is itself a manifestation of the cultural dominance of the West in shaping global culture. That doesn’t mean, given that global culture, that Bach should not be enjoyed by whoever wishes to listen. And I certainly don’t mean to diminish the enormous humanitarian efforts that Yo-Yo Ma has exerted both in this and other past musical projects. But I also think that the persistence in the popular imagination of the blindly accepted and perpetuated tenet of faith that “Bach is universal” skates dangerously near—indeed, is a relic of—the old, pernicious ideologies alleging Western superiority. Of course, Yo-Yo Ma himself has drawn attention to other musical cultures, particularly in his Silk Road Project. If anything, it shows how perniciously resilient the old story is.

The other side of Bachist faith, namely, that devotion to the com­poser and his music are privileged forces for formation of individuals’ lives, also bears some side effects I wish musicians would be more aware of. First of all, the tendency to use Bach as a personal guru and as the focus of ritualistic musical activity too often goes hand in hand with adverse judgments about those musicians who don’t use Bach in such a way. If one doesn’t practice Bach religiously every day, but plays his partitas or suites in the way one would play, say, a Geminiani or Telemann sonata, one is liable to be viewed as unenlightened or blasphemous, depending on whether one’s critic believes in Bach as a humanist or religious guru. Another consequence of this kind of adulation is the tendency of “modern” performers to play the works of Bach to the exclusion of all other baroque music. It is normal for a conservatory student’s exposure to music before Mozart to be restricted to Bach alone, and even then to the six or twelve canonical Bach works for his or her instrument. This is a double shame: it deprives students of a broader experience of repertory, ultimately making them poorer interpreters of Bach. How can one play, say, one of Bach’s sublime but downright eccentric sarabands well if one has never played any of the thousands of baroque sarabands written by others? How couldn’t players and their audiences fail to enjoy the incredibly vast and rich repertory of baroque music beyond Bach if they only forget Bach for a moment?

Side effects notwithstanding, treating Bach’s music as a lifelong companion is, for many musicians, a meaningful ritual practice for tracking their own development as persons and as artists. Moreover, documenting this development across multiple recordings by a single artist can prove fascinating listening. How does Ma’s Bach at the age of sixty-three compare to his interpretation at twenty-eight? Ma’s Bach at 28 was warm, rich, and utterly melic; the Bach of 2018 is more rhetorical—as if spoken, rather than sung—and much more intimate. A quality of Six Evolutions I found very appealing was the inclusion of more “extraneous” noise, like the whispering of the bow on the strings as it begins to catch the string. Too often, such facts of musical life are artificially scrubbed out in the production of a commercial recording, leaving a squeaky clean but somewhat uncannily superhuman (even inhuman?) sound. Six Evolutions sounds honest and human. Most of the interpretations, however, are strikingly similar to those heard on Ma’s past recordings: tempos have changed but little (as the lengths of the corresponding tracks reveal) and the governing affects suggested by each suite more or less line up. To my ears, Suite No. 6 in D major contains the most striking interpretative changes. Ma’s 2018 allemande is considerably brisker than that of 1983 and shows HIP influences in his treatment of Bach’s written-out ornamentation. The Sarabande has become more delicate and introspective—almost wistful in comparison to the confident 1983 version. Globally, however, don’t expect drasti­cally different suites in Six Evolutions; they are, after all, the same pieces performed by the same player. Instead, listen for Ma’s subtle nuances.

I admit I was initially skeptical of Six Evolutions (another Bach album?); actually listening and pondering the album was a special expe­rience. Recordings of Yo-Yo Ma populated my childhood. I remember him appearing on Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood during my first years playing cello; the PBS broadcast of his 1998 project “Inspired by Bach” in which he used each suite as a jumping-off point for exploring the common ground between music and other arts; his forays into historically-informed performance practice; his joyful collaborations with bluegrass, jazz, and tango musicians; the foundations of the Silk Road Project. In 2018, at a point in time in which tales of abuse of power have been alleged of dozens of well-known and high-profile artists in all fields, Ma is notorious only for his almost impossible kindness and eagerness to learn from all he encounters. He has been an unrelenting, generous force for humanitarianism and inclusivity in the arts. For me, the guru voice in Six Evolutions is hardly Bach’s; it is Ma’s, and it is reflective and wise. It is one that has both retained its identity and is still open to change. I am glad to hear it.
 
 
Bach and the Occult: Search for the Holy Grail

In the shadow of Bach, the Alpha and Omega hides the fascination with Bach and the occult: with numerology, puzzles, and secret messages and meanings within his compositions. Interpreting Bach is not only about connecting with Bach as a person or tracking the spiritual development of one’s life, but tapping the hidden depths for a message lying latent, stored for hundreds of years within the treasure chest built of notes, intervals, and rhythms. While serious Bach scholars (most notably, Ruth Tatlow) have indeed argued that numerological concerns underlie the designs of many of Bach’s works, over the past fifteen years there has been a veritable inundation of extraordinarily overwrought claims, made by various artists, of purportedly rediscovered Bachian meanings. Take for example Steven Isserlis’ elaborate reading of the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello as “Mystery Suites” which, like Biber’s “Mystery Sonatas” for the violin, contain the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.[8] There is absolutely no historical evidence whatsoever for this interpretation of the Suites, nor did Isserlis himself initially make an historical claim. It was just an idiosyncratic interpretive idea, and why not? (Never mind that rosary mysteries come in fives not sixes, nor that Bach was Lutheran.) Yet, the idea now circulates around the classical music world untethered from its latter-day origin, provoking a kind of paint-by-numbers popular exegesis and, what’s worse, insinuating new “facts” about the suites. Similarly, The Hilliard Ensemble album Morimur: J. S. Bach (ECM New Series) made headlines in 2002 for highlighting “hidden chorales” in the famous chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin. In this recording, the chaconne, played beautifully by Christoph Poppen, is sounded with chorales such as “Auf meinen lieben Gott” and “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” which musicologist Helga Thoene argues are encoded into the work. A chaconne, however, is based on elaborations upon a repeating bassline. The “hidden” chorales would fit above any chaconne with that same bassline (a very common one, at that). Besides, don’t the “hidden” chorales comprise harmonic patterns that are ubiquitous in eighteenth-century music? Like the search for the Holy Grail, there’s no way to prove or disprove the veracity of the find once it has been made. The very implausibility or obscurity of the argument for its existence becomes evidence that it is really there: “They’re hidden, you see,” we are knowingly reminded. Although at first the fixation on such esoterica might be seen to supply the missing focus on the music itself discussed above, in decoding such messages the seeker rather imagines getting closer to what Bach “really” meant, what he was “really” think­ing; the prima facie music instead recedes as the mere vessel of some imagined “deeper”—that is to say, non-musical—message. The fascination with Bach and the occult is, it seems upon reflection, actually not so far removed from the fascination with Bach the person.

Finding hidden treasures in Bach remains a popular game. A particularly intriguing instance is the “Ciaconna with Just Intonation,” an interpretation (or is it an arrangement? a concept piece?) of the Bach Chaconne in D minor performed by violinist Josh Modney on his album Engage.[9] Just intonation refers to the tuning of intervals such that the proportion of the frequencies of the constituent notes forms a small-integer ratio. 2:1 is an octave, 3:2 a perfect fifth, 4:3 a perfect fourth, and so on. Now, it is perfectly possible to make music in just intonation in monody (one note at a time; the melodic intervals are simply tuned successively); likewise, with dyads (two notes at time), the melodic and single (NB) harmonic interval can be reckoned. Triadic harmony (harmony based on three notes, or two stacked thirds) presents a notorious problem, because there are multiple simultaneous harmonic intervals to tune: if one tunes the outer notes of a major triad to a perfect fifth, the constituent thirds (one major and one minor) cannot both be just; that is, the single middle tone of the triad cannot be tuned such that it makes a just major third with the lower tone and a just minor third with the higher tone. One of the constituent thirds of a triad will always necessarily be out of tune in just intonation. It is because of this and related problems that there have developed, over the course of the centuries, dozens of tuning solutions called “temperament,” strategic and subtle ways of detuning certain intervals such that harmonically and melodically important intervals may be in tune. Every tuning system or temperament prioritizes certain intervals and sacrifices others; since the sixteenth century, when triads have prevailed, various meantone and circulating well-temperaments (of which modern equal temperament is a flavor) have been standard. Given that the Chaconne (indeed, all of Bach’s music) is written using triadic harmony, why would a violinist ever want to play the Chaconne in just intonation? Indeed, on the face of it it may appear that it should not be even possible to play the Chaconne in just intonation: many of the intervals that would result—even if they form small-integers ratios—would not be recognizable as the musical intervals of the composed work.

According to Modney, his impetus was his experimentation with a phenomenon variously known as the psychoacoustic, missing, or phantom fundamental. Modney first explored this phenomenon in depth through his work with composer Eric Wubbels on a piece appearing on the same album, the children of fire come looking for fire. As Modney explains in his jacket notes:

When we hear two or more pitches simultaneously, our brains fill in the fundamental of those pitches. When the pitches are tuned in a manner that corresponds exactly to ratios of the harmonic series, we perceive the fundamental strongly.

This much is true, if overstated. The effect is most pronounced when a complex harmonic sound lacks only the component of the missing fundamental itself; it becomes much less pronounced the narrower the frequency band of the stimulus or the wider the gap between the lowest sounding component and the missing fundamental. In short, the less the stimulus actually resembles the a complex harmonic spectrum, the less readily it will suggest a missing fundamental.[10] Modney continues:

If you play a series of intervals formed from different strata of the harmonic series, a ghostly psychoacoustic “bassline” emerges . . . as a treble instrumentalist, the ability to generate my own virtual bassline opened up a universe of possibility, and the beautifully ambiguous harmonic design of Bach’s solo violin music seemed a perfect match for the boundless playground of just intonation.

This all sounds fascinating and mystical in theory . . . In practice, I can’t hear any trace of a psychoacoustic bassline. And neither have any of the musicians for whom I’ve played this recording in an informal survey. And for good reasons: there’s a wide gap between the lowest sounding note and the putative psychoacoustic bassline, weakening the percep­tual phenomenon on which it depends, as explained. Furthermore, the range of the violin (196 Hz up to about 1320 Hz) is already relatively low in the range of human hearing (about 20 Hz to 20 kHz), making the range of the psychoacoustic bassline as low as 29 Hz in some places, well below normal human speech (> 85Hz) and at the very threshold of human hearing. What it does sound like is almost unbearably out-of-tune violin playing. Psychoacoustic phenomena are not disclosures of something hidden within acoustic material; the missing fundamental is not actually there. Given the right stimulus within the perceptual limits of a given individual, the brain presents an acoustic image of the fundamental to conscious attention. The same stimulus may not result in a psychoacoustic perception for all listeners, and even for the portion of the population who do perceive something, a missing fundamental for a given stimulus may not always perceive it reliably or in the same way. Variations in duration and intensity of the component frequencies (i.e., timbre) can all affect whether or not the phenomena occur. Whether Josh Modney can actually hear the psychoacoustic bassline he claims his recording reveals is both unfalsifiable and unprovable. On the basis of the facts outlined above, and on the anecdotal reports of numerous people for whom I have played this recording, I’d be very much surprised if any significant proportion of the listening public will hear a phantom fundamental.

Modney clearly has a deep interest in the mathematics of intonation and has written copiously in various forms about the motivations behind this project.[11] Based on his other performances on Engage, he seems to be an extremely creative and talented performer. But even after reading about what he intends to produce in his just intonation version of the Chaconne, I can’t say that I would wish to hear his phantom fundamentals. Modney analyzes each “just” chord structure in the Chaconne as a discrete unit, a separate harmonic universe from the chords adjacent to it. Ostensibly, the just intonation applies not at all to any melodic interval in his approach. The psychoacoustic bassline implied by his interpretation, which he has notated, is tonally inept, harmonically and melodically. Far from “revealing” something latent in Bach’s composition, it superimposes a new, poorly composed voice. To be fair, Modney himself recognizes that his approach to using just intonation in the Chaconne is more intuitive and creative than it is done to support its existing harmony. But while I’m all for experimenting with new approaches to canonic repertoire, this particular project seems—and sounds to me—ill conceived.
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Among the Bach devotee’s sincere affection and understanding of his music, veneration for the man frequently evinces an odd marriage of nineteenth-century hero worship with modern-day alternative spiritualities and occultism. He is Christ, Übermensch, and the astrology column in a glossy magazine all rolled into one. Surely many of the practices and attitudes sketched above may, in some forms, be culturally accept­able and even beneficial. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if it is really healthy for us, as a whole culture, to idolize him. Is it fair to use him as the “gold standard” against which all others must be measured? Certainly, it seems reasonable to think that Bach himself would be horrified to find himself a golden calf of classical music worship.