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The Nature Versus Nurture Debate in The Blasphemy of Talking Politics During Bach Year, an Article by Susan Mcclary

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Nature, or nurture? This centuries-old debate continues to spark intense research today, not just in social sciences, but also in many other disciplines like musicology and history. Particularly, in her article, “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach Year,” Susan McClary essentially lays out the nature versus nurture debate (although describing her argument as such may be over-simplistic) regarding J.S. Bach and his works, arguing that Bach’s music, when analyzed in its proper social context, does not necessarily warrant the mystification, aggrandization, and near-deification that scholars and musicians have traditionally attributed. However, while McClary definitely offers a much-needed perspective and balance in the study of Bach and his works, her thesis fails to account for, or even acknowledge, factors that cannot simply be attributed to Bach’s culture, environment, or upbringing alone.

McClary is correct in asserting that “once we understand each of the styles Bach appropriated as an articulation of a set of social values, then we can begin to detect details in his celebrated stylistic synthesis that connect his particular eclectic mode of composition with his thorny social and professional relationships and even with his situation with respect to the broader political context” (McClary 15). Instead of insisting that Bach “had nothing to do with his time or place, that he was ‘divinely inspired’, that his music works in accordance with perfect, universal order and truth,” McClary argues that scholars can only do Bach justice by interpreting his works in light of the social and musical context that he lived in (McClary 14). Examining the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Wachet auf, McClary shows how the tonality, form, instrumentation, national styles, religious themes, and even gender constructs in these two pieces can be better understood in light of the unique intersection of musical styles, cultural identities, and religious discourses during Bach’s time. Additionally, by mentioning that Pietist employers were not always satisfied with Bach’s works, McClary demonstrates that Bach understood and produced music in relation to the musical and religious debates of his time.

The implications of McClary’s argument are clear – once Bach’s musical “genius” can be disassembled and explained away by the above arguments, Bach ceases to be revered as an unparalleled, absolute “great,” and is instead relegated to the ordinary ranks of other classical composers. Although McClary logically contends that Bach’s music should not be esteemed to the extent that it cannot be questioned or analyzed contextually, in doing so, McClary risks swinging to the opposite extreme by explaining away factors that may not be completely accounted for by contextual information alone. For example, referencing the way that Bach situated his music in juxtaposition to the various musical traditions of his day, McClary summarizes: “To have thus flown in the face of each of his spheres of influence required a certain kind of personality. Bach’s career was mapped on the same forcefield of attractions and ambivalences as his style collection: never willing to commit himself entirely to any single context and its attendant ideology, he continued to shuttle among them, creating antagonisms with superiors while acting out possible means of reconciliation among these various contradictions only within his music” (McClary 20). McClary then proceeds to clarify how Bach’s music should be explained in the context of German, Italian, and French musical traditions.

However, by claiming that Bach possessed the “certain kind of personality” required to defy cultural norms of his day, McClary implicitly acknowledges that Bach’s music was a product not just of the context he lived in, but of a personality that he inherently possessed as well. Even if Bach’s music should not pedestalized as “pure mathematical order,” it cannot be discarded as a “non-unique social construct” either. Otherwise, why did no other Baroque composer produce masterpieces as spectacular and enduring as Bach’s? If context was the only factor shaping the Bach’s compositions, then other composers should also have composed similarly complex and varied works, even if in different forms. Similarly, the fact that not all musicians become renowned composers or performers hints that innate “talent” may indeed be real. Thus, failing to recognize that Bach may have possessed some unique talent and personality does the composer great injustice, just as denying Bach’s social and cultural contexts incorrectly defines his music as pure, untouchable order.

Contextualizing Bach’s music certainly reshapes the traditional view of Bach’s music as mystical perfection. In fact, McClary clearly displays how such a view negates the deliberate creativity and social considerations that Bach, like any other composer, poured into his work. However, in seeking to situate and interpret Bach in the appropriate contexts, musicians must still realize that context can only account for so much of a composer’s work. Deconstructing music simply as a product of nurture wrongfully negates the beauty and natural artistry that Bach gave to his generation and to posterity. In this context, at least, perhaps the answer to the nature versus nature debate is not nature nor nurture, but a synthesis of both.

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The Nature Versus Nurture Debate in the Blasphemy of Talking Politics During Bach Year, an Article by Susan Mcclary. (2018, November 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from
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The Nature Versus Nurture Debate in the Blasphemy of Talking Politics During Bach Year, an Article by Susan Mcclary. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2022].
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