Saturday, June 08, 2024

Bachmotifs for Batvillains


Shirley Walker, the composer who did the music for Batman: The Animated Series, was a skilled crafter of leitmotifs (musical themes to used as the signature music for particular characters).  Sometimes she missed the mark a bit (what possessed her to give Two-Face a theme that's in THREE, I cannot imagine).  But the fact that themes for the Penguin, Two-Face, and (especially) the Joker are all based on Elfman's Batman theme is simply genius.  

In this episode ("The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne", Oct. 29, 1992), the three themes are all played in immediate succession as they get off the plane to visit Hugo Strange.

But what if Walker had not been available and we had to rely on an earlier musical talent? Say...

J.S. Bach.

Batman may merit a more serious composer.
But I have still chosen Bach.

That is to say, what pieces of J.S. Bach would one use as leitmotifs for Batman's most iconic villains? Here are my choices.

The Joker 

Die Kunst der Fuge, Contrapunctus IX, BWV1080

Bach wasn't exactly a free spirit.  A obsessively hard working perfectionist with anger issues, who still had a tender side.

Reminds me of someone else, seen here firing Alfred's predecessor. 

Bach was pretty strait-laced. But if there is any Bach piece that can be said to sound unhinged, it is Contrapunctus IX.  Boldly themed, it leaps out of the gate with an octave jump and pell-mell scalar run that always remind me of a madman's laugh, its theme punching through frequently, almost mockingly, above the melee of the voices. 

The exemplifying performance I offer you is by the modern madman of the keyboard, Glenn Gould.  I find it easy to imagine this version playing as the accompaniment to scenes of chaos perpetrated by the Joker as he is chased by Batman.  In fact, when I listen to it, I find it hard to picture anything else.

The Penguin

English Suite #5, Prelude (BWV 810: I)

This piece, like the Penguin, has a peculiar rolling gait. Bach's having a bit of fun with the "English" style; it's a bit precious and seems almost to take itself too seriously. It's trying to be dignified with its pompous theme, but can't help coming across as risible.  

However, the repeated reassertions of the theme give it a diehard dignity with a dark undercurrent. This is still Bach, after all, and despite his rolly-polly appearance, his ability is not to be underestimated. And genius disguised as gentility is the hallmark of the Penguin.

This harpsichord version by the impish Chiara Massini captures this feel.  The Prelude is the opening part, but you might enjoy the rest of the suite as well.


Now, some people would have gone right to Bach's Two-Part Inventions, which are all about the interplay between two voices with related themes.  But I am not among those people, because I think Two-Face is a much more complex character than that.

I mean, c'mon; it's music for KIDS.

Instead, I have thematically chosen not one, but TWO pieces that could serve as leitmotifs for Two-Face.; one is for keyboard, the other is choral.

Canon 1 à 2 from J. S. Bach's Musical Offering (BWV 1079).

You don't see the Soprano Clef often.
Let alone a REVERSE Soprano Clef.

This deceptively simple-looking piece is more commonly known as Bach's Crab Canon.  A crab canon is a piece that can be played forwards or backwards, and --

here's the tricky part--

forwards and backwards SIMULTANEOUSLY.  Let that sink in a bit.

If you are old enough to, like me,  have suffered through the painfully baroque Goedel, Escher, Bach, you will already be familiar with this piece, or at least its structure.

The forward and backwards versions of the canon are like the obverse and reverse of a continually flipping coin. They are two opposite melodies that nevertheless fit perfectly together, both balanced and inextricably intertwined. Neither can "triumph" over the other, since they are the same thing. As such I think they well represent the "good" and "evil" sides of Two-Face and how he views those as merely two sides of the same coin, each implying the other.

It also sounds pretty creepy, and I have chosen Jos Leys' version for your listening AND watching enjoyment because it illustrates its unique nature well.

That is my cerebral, "amoral" choice of theme. My other (also creepy) choice is a more emotional and morally charged choral piece: the opening motet-style chorus from the cantata Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (BWV 179).

Mein Gott, what a terrible translation.

Boy, this baby had them squirming in their pews in Leipzig on August 8, 1723! "Mind that your fear of God isn't hypocrisy" is a rather scoldy title, even for a hard-ass JSB church cantata.  But he wasn't kidding around here; the work is considered his musical condemnation of, well, people who were two-faced.  Being Bach, he built that into the musical structure. Each time the theme enters, it is answered (in stretto!) by an inversion of the theme as a counter-subject, with some chromatic spin, which is Bach's nifty (and salty) way of demonstrating (and condemning) two-facedness.  

It can be hard to pick out by ear if you aren't looking at the score and lyrics can be distracting, so I offer you a malinowskigram of the piece that may make it easier to perceive and, if you really want to get into it, here's a detailed analysis of the chorus.

The Riddler 

The Fugue in A minor (BWV543, No. 2)

What were you expecting: Schubert's Ave Maria?

This one was easy.

It's a fugue, because only a fugue could convey the complexity of the Riddler's schemes. It's in A minor, because the Riddler is weird and creepy.  It's relentlessly driven yet still capering, like the Riddler; its hiccuppy melody evokes Frank Gorshin's manic giggle; its frequent suspensions mimic the tension of confusion that the Riddler causes in those he challenges.

For decency, I must present you with music-stud Matthias Havinga's definitive organ interp, for atmosphere, I offer you Michele Bianco's plangent accordion version; and for clarity, a version that follows the score AND an especially helpful malinowskigram.

And, no, don't be silly: I didn't consider any of his "riddle" canons. Those are "riddles" only in historical context and nothing in their musical nature is appropriate to the Riddler.

The Catwoman

Ricercar à 6 from Musical Offering

Like the Crab Canon, this six-voice fugue is from Bach's Musical Offering (BWV 1079), which has a bunch of separate but related pieces.  It's a little sad, a little slinky, with an oddly jumpy melody that's a bit like a cat walking on a keyboard.   Being a ricercar, it's not strict and formal like Baroque fugue, so it's got a meandering quality, as if it simply can't be bothered to follow the rules.  And that reminds me of Catwoman.  Like Catwoman, the piece is actually more complicated than it might seem. 

Ordinarily, I don't approve of Bach played on a piano, but this version captures the Catwoman feel I get from the piece. Stretch out and relax to listen; it takes its time.


Anonymous said...

I am a big dumb Hal Jordan fan and I can't even begin to respond to this with the appreciation it deserves. You picked tunes that absolutely suit the characters, but my brain-damaged skull can't process the finer points you're making. I feel bad I can't offer more than a simpleton's praise, plus frustration with the translation of "Heuchelei".

I wonder if "Heuchelei" was deliberately mistranslated for the comfort of the audience. It's been known to happen with the Bible itself, where the Greek word for "justice" routinely made it into English as "righteousness", which has a very different meaning. Righteousness is very forgiving of Heuchelei, while justice is not.

- HJF1

Scipio said...

If you're interested in the comfort of the audience, you don't use this cantata at all, LOL.