Consecutive 5ths and Octaves in Bach Chorales

So did Bach actually write consecutive perfect fifths or octaves in his chorales, breaking the First Commandment of part-writing? The short answer is yes, he certainly definitely. The long answer, however, will be far more informative if it addresses additional questions regarding consecutive perfect intervals: What kind of consecutives or parallels did Bach write and in what specific contexts? How many consecutives are in parallel motion as opposed to contrary motion? Did he only write parallels that involve non-chord tones (i.e. parallels that disappear with the removal of NCTs)? Conversely, what do the chorales tell us about how Bach prevented parallels? What kinds of parallels did Bach intentionally prevent? These last two questions will be taken up in a later post. For now, let’s concern ourselves with the data relating to the first set of questions.

An interesting paper on this topic has already been written by George Fitsioris and Darrell Conklin who used a computer program to locate parallel fifths in the Riemenschneider edition chorales. It gave me a great head start on the data presented here. However, two problems with the paper limit its scope considerably. First, it deals only with consecutive P5s and P8s in parallel motion, ignoring any consecutives in contrary motion (which are generally considered to be categorically the same, at least in most music theory textbooks). Second, only the chorales found in the Riemenschneider edition were included in the data, thereby excluding nearly 60 chorales. For the research to be more informative and comprehensive, the scope must be broadened.

So how many consecutive P5s/P8s did Bach write in the chorale?

Well, technically, there are at the very least 46 instances of consecutives, which are listed below. The first number is the chorale’s BWV number, with the decimal indicating movement number. The “R” numbers are Riemenschneider edition numbers. And an important note about measure numbers: the Aufgesang measures of all bar form chorales (which constitutes the majority of Bach’s chorales) are counted twice in my research since the Aufgesang is always repeated. Thus, measures within the Aufgesang are numbered as “4/8.” Decimals, when used with measure numbers, refer to beats.

7.7 (RX), measure 2/6.1
22.5 (RX) measure m.27-28
26.6 (R48) measure 4.2
33.6 (R13) measure 14
40.8 (R8) measure 2.2
40.8 (R8) measure 4.2
40.8 (R8) measure 6.2
40.8 (R8) measure 16.2
48.7 (R266) measure 14.2
60.5 (R216) measure 6
78.7 (R297) measure 4-5
86.6 (R4) measure 13-14
92.9 (RX) measure 14
99.6 (RX) measure 11
99.6 (Rx) measure 12
108.6 (R45) measure 4
111.6 (RX) measure 15
115.6 (R38) measure 10-11
146.8, (RX) measure 10.3
157.5, (RX) measure 10.1
167.5 (Rx) measure 11/25-12/26
174.5, (R58) measure 23.4
183.5 (R123) measure 14
190.7 (R327) measure 18
244.40 (R121) measure 4.3
244.44 (R80) measure 14 (2 instances)
244.54 (R74) measure 14 (2 instances)
244.62 (R89) measure 14 (2 instances)
245.40 (R107) measure 23
248.33 (R139) measure 2.2
251 (R329) measure 14.1
263 (R128) measure 6.2
266 (R208) measure 5
301 (R134) measure 3.3
308 (R27) measure 9
323 (R320) measure 8
329 (R212) measure 5
333 (R226) measure 12
340 (R277) measure 21
347 (R2) measure 14
361 (R264) measure 12.2
385 (R36) measure 6
436 (R278) measure 18

Excluding consecutives following a fermata…

As I said, “technically” there are 46 instances of consecutives. However, we can eliminate over half of these (26 to be exact) if we exclude consecutives that occur between the last chord of one phrase and the first chord of the following phrase, as in BWV 244.54 below, their exclusion perhaps being warranted by the fact that new phrases constitute a syntactical restart to a significant degree.

BWV244_54_consecutive58_color

See the Manuscript: Image Link:  D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 25

The 26 instances of “fermata consecutives” are:

60.5 (R216) measure 6
78.7 (R297) measure 4-5
92.9 (RX) measure 14
99.6 (Rx) measure 12
108.6 (R45) measure 4
111.6 (RX) measure 15
115.6 (R38) measure 10-11
157.5, (RX) measure 10.1
174.5, (R58) measure 23.4
183.5 (R123) measure 14
190.7 (R327) measure 18
244.44 (R80) measure 14 (2 instances)
244.54 (R74) measure 14 (2 instances)
244.62 (R89) measure 14 (2 instances)
245.40 (R107) measure 23
266 (R208) measure 5
301 (R134) measure 3.3
329 (R212) measure 5
333 (R226) measure 12
340 (R277) measure 21
347 (R2) measure 14
385 (R36) measure 6
436 (R278) measure 18

However, before moving on and completely ignoring these “non-syntactical” consecutives, let’s consider them further, as they are not completely devoid of information. In fact, they may not be entirely non-syntactical after all. First, while 26 sounds like a high number, it’s actually not. If we estimate (conservatively) that there are on average six phrases per chorale (which means five internal cadences), then there are more than 2,000 internal cadences in the ~410 chorales of Bach. Even if we set the number at that low threshold of 2,000, then the 23 cadences represented here constitute only 1.15% of internal cadences feature consecutives between the phrases, a minuscule number. This extremely low figure would seem to suggest that Bach did not completely disregard the voice-leading between phrases as being syntactically insignificant. It should also be pointed out that not all phrase junctures are equal. Some cadences, like those internal within the Aufgesang, are more open-ended than cadences ending the Aufgesang. The more open-ended the cadence, the more syntactically connected with the subsequent phrase. Of the 23 cadences, eight consist of a half cadence followed by a phrase that begins in the same key. The other 15 either consist of a cadence after which a phrase begins in a new key or they end the Aufgesang. 14 of these 15 are authentic cadences. (In one case, a half cadence is followed by a phrase that starts in a new key area.)

[Note: I did not consider cadence transitions between the end of the Aufgesang and the repeat to the beginning of the chorale. Doing so would have almost certainly increased the number of “fermata consecutives,” thereby decreasing the proportion of “fermata consecutives” at open-ended phrases.]

If we put these 26 “fermata consecutives” aside, we’re left with 20 consecutives to deal with. In each case, I have examined original manuscripts to ensure that the consecutives were not the result of a copyist error. (Fitsorios and Conklin found this to be the case with BWV 355 (R169) measure 15. Parallel fifths result from a mistake in the melody – the soprano’s beat 1 B should be an A.) Images and links to original documents are provided. Here are the remaining 20:

7.7 (RX), measure 2/6.1
22.5 (RX) measure m.27-28
26.6 (R48) measure 4.2
33.6 (R13) measure 14
40.8 (R8) measure 2.2
40.8 (R8) measure 4.2
40.8 (R8) measure 6.2
40.8 (R8) measure 16.2
48.7 (R266) measure 14.2
86.6 (R4) measure 13-14
99.6 (RX) measure 11
146.8, (RX) measure 10.3
167.5 (Rx) measure 11/25-12/26
244.40 (R121) measure 4.3
248.33 (R139) measure 2.2
251 (R329) measure 14.1
263 (R128) measure 6.2
308 (R27) measure 9
323 (R320) measure 8
361 (R264) measure 12.2

Cadential Consecutives created by anticipation + delayed seventh…

By far the most common type of mid-phrase consecutive 5ths one finds in the Bach chorales is created by the simultaneous appearance of a Re-Do anticipation in the soprano over a delayed arrival of the seventh of a V7 (Sol-Fa) in an inner voice at an authentic cadence. Nine of the remaining 20 consecutives constitute this very specific figure.

26.6 (R48) measure 4.2
40.8 (R8) measure 2.2
40.8 (R8) measure 4.2
40.8 (R8) measure 6.2
40.8 (R8) measure 16.2
146.8, (RX) measure 10.3
244.40 (R121) measure 4.3
263 (R128) measure 6.2
361 (R264) measure 12.2

The resulting parallel fifths are considered to be “non-structural” since they involve a non-chord tone (NCT) in the soprano combined with a passing figure, the chord seventh. Of the nine instances, four of them appear in a single chorale: BWV 40.8 (R7).

BWV40_8_consecutive5_color

See the Manuscript in Bach’s own hand: Image Link:  D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 63

That leaves us with 11 consecutives yet to examine:

7.7 (RX), measure 2/6.1
22.5 (RX) measure m.27-28
33.6 (R13) measure 14
48.7 (R266) measure 14.2
86.6 (R4) measure 13-14
99.6 (RX) measure 11
167.5 (Rx) measure 11/25-12/26
248.33 (R139) measure 2.2
251 (R329) measure 14.1
308 (R27) measure 9
323 (R320) measure 8

Other consecutives created by NCTs…

As mentioned, these nine consecutives are considered non-structural since they involve non-chord tones. Eliminate the non-chord tones and the consecutives disappear, leaving a foundational harmonic framework that features faultless voice-leading. Of the 11 remaining consecutives, four others also result from NCTs. Three involve a passing tone and one involves a neighbor tone. Let’s take these one by one.

BWV 48.7 (R266) measure 14.2

BWV48_7_consecutive5_color

See the Manuscript in Bach’s own hand: Image Link:  D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 109

Here, the alto’s passing tone creates parallel fifths with the tenor. In terms of scale-degrees, these parallels resemble the nine examined in the previous section: Re-Do motion over Sol-Fa. In this particular context, the strength of the parallel tenths between bass and alto overrides the negative effect of the parallels (much as parallel tenths between outer voices in a I-V43-I6 progression overrides the effect of the unresolved seventh). Yes, Bach could have left the alto’s passing tone out, thereby eliminating the parallel fifths, but the parallel tenths were perhaps simply too compelling a musical idea. The soprano’s upward movement contrary to the parallels further masks any negative effect.

BWV 167.5 (RX) measure 11/25-12/26

BWV167_5_parallel8_color.jpg

See the Manuscript: Image Link:  D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 46, Faszikel 2

This passage represents the only instance of midphrase consecutive octaves that occur in parallel motion. All other instances of consecutive octaves occur in contrary motion, and all other parallel consecutives are parallel fifths. Two observations are worth pointing out in this particular context. First, both voices involved have NCTs. Second, this chorale features an elaborate instrumental accompaniment that is not included in the example. Still, the parallels are curious. The tenor could easily have stayed on the D instead of leaping to the F#. Alternatively, the bass could have gone to D# instead of F# just as the continuo part does (not shown in the example). So baffling are these parallels that I checked the original manuscripts for both the score and the parts. Both show that Bach indeed wrote the parallels. At least I am not alone in my bewilderment. The scholars of the BGA (Bach Gesellschaft Ausgabe) apparently were so puzzled that they decided to insert a question mark by the bass’s F#:

BWV167_BGA

BWV 248.33 (R139), measure 2.2

BWV248_33_consecutive5_color

See the Manuscript in Bach’s own hand: Image Link:  D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 32

Here, perhaps the bass’s chromatic descent combined with the use of mode mixture sufficiently attenuates the negative effect of parallels. Perhaps the passing tone in the melody had become a standardized feature of the chorale tune. Or perhaps neither of these sufficiently excuse these parallels!

BWV 99.6 (RX), measure 11

BWV99_6_consecutive5_color

See the Manuscript in Bach’s own hand: Image Link:  PL-Kj Mus. ms. Bach P647 [früher D-B Mus. ms. Bach P647]

Another head-scratcher. The parallels are created by a needless neighbor tone. In none of the other six chorale settings of this Gastorius tune did Bach add a lower neighbor in this spot.

These four consecutives (BWVs 48.7, 167.5, 248.33, 99.6) are, like the prior nine examined, created by the insertion of NCTs. The remaining seven consecutives, however, constitute legitimate midphrase chordal consecutives:

7.7 (RX), measure 2/6.1
22.5 (RX) measure m.27-28
33.6 (R13) measure 14
86.6 (R4) measure 13-14
251 (R329) measure 14.1
308 (R27) measure 9
323 (R320) measure 8

The rest, involving chordal consecutives…

BWV 7.7 (RX), measure 2/6

BWV7_7_consecutive5_color

See the Manuscript of the parts: Image Link:  D-LEb Thomana 7

These consecutive fifths in contrary motion are also a bit curious since an easy fix presents itself. The tenor could easily move from its F# to G, thereby doubling the root of the VI chord, preparing its G in the iiø65 chord that follows, and, of course, eliminating the consecutives.

BWV 22.5 (RX), measures 27-28

BWV22_5_consecutive8_color

See the Manuscript in Bach’s own hand: Image Link: D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 119

Again, curious. Why have the tenor leave its D before moving to the C? The chordal leap to G is entirely unnecessary since both the bass and the alto have the G and since movement directly to C from the D would constitute strong voice leading. It should be noted that this chorale, too, has a more elaborate instrumental texture. Yet, nothing within that texture would seem to require the tenor’s leap to G from a voice-leading standpoint.

BWV 33.6 (R13), measure 14

BWV33_6_consecutive5_color

See the Manuscript: Image Link:  D-B Mus. ms. Bach 1023

Downward leaps in the chorale melody play a role in four of the remaining six instances of consecutives, including this one. The tenor’s leap up to Do results in a doubled root. But certainly a doubled root is not reason for writing consecutive fifths. We’ve already seen Bach go out of his way to double the chordal fifth in another occasion. So there’s no clear explanation as to why the tenor doesn’t simply remain on the A here. (The beginning of the phrase that follows in no way requires it either.)

BWV 86.6 (R4)  measures 13-14 & BWV 251 (R329) measure 14

BWV86_6_consecutive5_color

See the Manuscript: Image Link:  D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 157

BWV251_consecutive5_color

See the Manuscript in Bach’s own hand: Image Link:  D-B Mus. ms. Bach P 123

These two instances of consecutives are taken together since they occur in the exact same spot in two settings of the tune “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her.” The melody features a descending leap from Re to La following a scale down from Fa. This descent of a sixth (Fa to La) poses voice-leading challenges. In BWV 86, imagining an easy fix to eliminate these consecutives is difficult. Perhaps the most easily achieved option would be for the tenor to leap down to the F# directly from the D# without the chordal skip to B. In BWV 251, Bach places the alto above the soprano in order to alleviate spacing limitations, something he does in this spot in another setting of the tune (BWV 9.7, R290). Yet, consecutive octaves still occur. The effect of these are attenuated by the voice-crossing and by the soprano’s quick movement away from the E (the only time in Bach’s five settings that the melody features this). If examining only the voice parts, a fix is easily achieved by taking the tenor up to E at the ii65 chord (see below). However, this would result in parallel unisons with the lower horn part.

BWV251_corrected.jpg

BWV 308 (R27), measure 9

BWV308_consecutive5_color

Chorale survives by way of the Breitkopf edition (pub. 1780s): Image

Taking this passage as evidence, consecutives in contrary motion are much less objectionable to consecutives in parallel motion, even if the former involves chordal consecutives and the latter involves consecutives created by NCTs. The tenor here could have moved to C instead of G, thereby creating parallels with the soprano’s passing figure. Yet, Bach opted for the contrary motion consecutives.

BWV 323 (R320), measure 8

BWV323_parallel5_color

Chorale survives by way of the Breitkopf edition: Image

Another descending soprano leap occurs here, though a simple early arrival of the B as a chordal skip in the tenor would stagger the fifths sufficiently, a simple “fix” that Bach employs frequently.

Quick Summary of the data

While Bach certainly did write consecutive fifths and octaves in the chorales, we see patterns emerge in the kinds of consecutives that appear and in the contexts in which they occur.

Consecutive fifths are far less objectionable than consecutive octaves. Of the 46 consecutives, only 10 involve octaves. If we eliminate “fermata consecutives,” only 3 of 20 involve octaves. Considering only chordal consecutives, 2 of 7 involve octaves.

Consecutives involving NCTs are less objectionable than chordal  consecutives. Of 20 consecutives not occurring after a fermata, 13 involve NCTs.

Consecutives in contrary motion are far less objectionable than consecutives in parallel motion. Of all the 33 consecutives that involve leaping voices, only six are in parallel motion. Even with “fermata consecutives,” only four of 26 involve parallel motion.

Consecutives involving inner voices are far less objectionable than soprano-bass consecutives. Not a single one of the non-fermata consecutives occur between soprano and bass. This may partly be due to the fact that chorale melodies feature far more conjunct motion than disjunct. Since Bach considers contrary motion consecutives to be less objectionable than parallels, and since contrary motion consecutives virtually always involve leaps, the lack of soprano-bass consecutives is perhaps understandable. Nontheless, chorale melodies do feature occasional leaps, so the complete lack of outer voice consecutives remains significant. Of the 26 fermata consecutives, only six involve outer voices.

Parallel fifths created at authentic cadences involving a RE-DO anticipation in the melody over SOL-FA movement adding the seventh of a V7 are not at all objectionable. Nine of the 13 consecutives created by NCTs represent this specific parallel motion. For the record, he writes them in both major and minor modes – five are in major, four in minor.

Bach does not write stepwise chordal parallels. There simply are none. All stepwise parallels involve NCTs rather than being chordal consecutives. All chordal parallels (there are only 2, and both are fifths) involve leaps.

The question of why Bach wrote the consecutives that he did, particularly those chordal ones that are quite fixable, is difficult to answer. Malcolm Boyd has suggested that Bach, who often quickly tossed off his cantata-ending chorales at the end of the week prior to Sunday services in Leipzig, simply overlooked these consecutives. They are truly mistakes. Fitsioris and Conklin, on the other hand, challenge this idea. (“After detailed research, carefully avoiding ‘wrong’ scores found in certain printed editions of Bach chorales, we came up to the conclusion that in 18 passages Bach seemed to be tolerant with such ‘forbidden’ successions.” p.2) If Boyd is right, then this research tells us something about the kinds of consecutives that evaded the great composer’s ear and eye. (Honestly hard to imagine.) If Fitioris and Conklin are right, this research tells us about the kinds of consecutives he considered allowable. Of course, both could be right to some degree, with some consecutives being intentionally allowed (an idea which seems to be supported by the patterns we’ve seen) and others being mistakes. Perhaps we can learn more by looking at the kinds of parallels Bach intentionally prevented via suspensions, chordal leaps, NCTs, voice-crossings, and other devices. Does he in some cases prevent the same kinds of parallels that have been observed here? If so, might this lend support to the idea that these consecutives are indeed mistakes? This will be the topic of a subsequent post.

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Intertextual Connections: Mozart, Beethoven & Rachmaninoff

Banner_WM_LB_SR

Last week when revisiting the sonata-form first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G minor from 1788, one brief passage began triggering intertextual thoughts. I had heard music very much like this before, but where? After some mind-scrambling, I came up with two passages, though I’m still not sure these two exhaust the intertextual connections buried in my subconscious.

The passage in Mozart’s symphony that instigated this chain of events comes from the moments just before the Recapitulation. In bars 160 to 165, the main motive of the movement (short-short-long descending figure with a weak-strong metric placement) is sequenced in tandem between flute and oboes descending chromatically over a dominant pedal just before the violins enter with the opening theme.

LISTEN

Mozart_Sym40_I_RT_excerpt.jpg

Notice that the main motive (labeled X below) is at times modified through this passage into a simple chromatic descent (labeled X’).

MotiveImage.jpg

Now jump ahead from 1788 to 1811, the year Beethoven completed and premiered his  Fifth Piano Concerto. The passage below appears in the initial statement of the main theme of the concerto’s third movement. Aside from the change in meter and mode, the two passages are so similar as to be virtually identical. The voice leading of Beethoven’s right-hand top voice corresponds exactly with Mozart’s flute part: Both contain motive X and move from scale degree 5 to 1 by way of a lower neighbor to 7 (5-4-3-2-1-7-1) with chromatic steps inserted along the way. Likewise, Beethoven’s left hand inner voices correspond exactly to Mozart’s oboes, moving in parallel thirds from scale degrees 2/7 down chromatically to 3/1. Both resolve harmonically to tonic at the passage’s end.

LISTEN

Beethoven_PC5_excerpt.jpg

Skip ahead more than a century to 1940, the year Rachmaninoff completed his final composition, the Symphonic Dances. The Mozart excerpt conjured up a particular passage from the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Dances (shown below). The similarities aren’t as exact as with the Beethoven, and the passage is stretched out considerably, but the prominent features are still there. A pedal tone runs through most of the passage (though on tonic rather than dominant). Motive X is present, and while through much of the movement the short-short-long rhythmic element is usually combined with an outlined triad rather than a stepwise descent, here the motive appears in the form of X’, a chromatic descent. Furthermore, Rachmaninoff’s assignment of the X’ descent to double-reeds (bassoon and English horn) brings a timbral connection to Mozart’s oboes. (Was it this timbral connection that initially brought this passage to my mind?) The descending chromatic voice-leading over the pedal also connects with the Mozart, with the tenor voice 7-6-5-4-3 line connecting with the lower oboe part, descending chromaticism being one of the hallmarks of the Rachmaninoff style. (Was the fact that this line begins on the same note (D) as Mozart’s prominent flute line the reason this passage came to mind?) Finally, it may be worth noting that the prevailing key of this passage is Eb major, the same key as the Beethoven excerpt. (Or was it this key relationship to the Beethoven that triggered the connection? I really don’t know anymore.)

LISTEN

Rachmaninoff_SymphonicDances_I_excerpt.jpg

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Why that note?!? — Bach French Suite No.1 Sarabande

“Why that note??” is a new series featuring musical pieces or passages in which a single note (or other musical detail) seems unjustified, out of place, or just simply wrong, within a given context. I suspect that in most cases, if not all cases, no answer will be provided to the main “why” question, which is not to say that there is no answer.

 

First, a confession. From my youth, I developed a habit of skipping over sarabandes of Bach suites. Please get me past those trudgingly slow triple meter dances to the much more exciting gavotte or gigue that follows! I prefer to lay the blame for this at the foot of Glenn Gould whose sarabande renditions I generally find to be as lethargic as his faster dances are thrilling and ebullient. (This is certainly unfair to Gould, but can you think of anyone else to blame? Neither can I.)

Then one day, I fell into love with is the sarabande from the C minor keyboard partita after learning that there is such a thing as a stirring, inspired performance of a sarabande.

French Suite No.1 Sarabande

Bach_FrSuite1_Sarabande

More recently, I’ve been taken in by the sarabande from the first French Suite in D minor, BWV 812 (above) after spending time in class analyzing it. Together, we discovered how brilliantly the piece is constructed with its bass melody in measures 9-13 being a nearly exact duplication of the soprano melody in measures 1-5 but with completely different harmonies, with its descending chromatic voice-leading (mm. 1-5 and mm. 17-20 in the bass, mm.10-11 in all voices) giving it a spirit of lamentation, with its Neapolitan chord in an unusual second inversion (m.7), with its strategically placed accented dissonances (particularly in m.8, m.18 and mm. 23-24) adding angst to lament. We also spent time trying to figure out why the arrival of the low m.13 E-flat is so striking, especially since E-flats were already present in the immediate context.

And not only is the sarabande brilliantly constructed, it’s stunning in its beauty. Just listen.

Why that F?!?

However, I can make no sense whatsoever of the measure 21 F4 in the tenor voice. Not only can I not make sense of the note, I’ll go further and say that it’s simply a wrong note! Bach has it wrong. (Did I just say that?) It should be a D4 rather than an F4.

Listen again to this passage and pay attention to the effect of the F.

Example_WhatBachWrote_

Example_WhatBachShouldHaveWritten

So why is the F wrong?

The primary reason has to do with chord structure. The chord implied here is a first inversion D minor chord, a tonic triad in the key of D minor, the immediate resolution of a V42 chord that preceded it. In first semester music theory, we learn that the strongest and much preferred chord structure for first inversion triads is to avoid doubling the bass. So why has Bach doubled the bass here? (F in tenor doubles the F in the bass.)

Of course, weak though it may be, doubling the bass in a first inversion chord is not in itself a part-writing “error” and is, in fact, commonly seen. However, such weaker doublings should only be used when voice-leading considerations dictate that they be used, and Bach follows this approach consistently in his music. But here, the most logical resolution of the V42 chord that preceded it is to the strongest doubling, with the C# resolving to D (doubling the soprano’s implied D that is never actually realized). This means that Bach has gone out of his way to achieve a chord structure that is weaker than it could be. And the fact that the D actually does appear on beats 2 and 3 of the measure adds to the confusion.

Possible reasons for the F

Perhaps Bach has inserted the F to create some kind of motivic gesture (F-D-D) that features prominently earlier in the piece. But this descending third gesture is found nowhere else in the piece. Or perhaps Bach is intentionally delaying the arrival of the D to beat two to match similar delayed arrivals in the G—F—E—D descending line beginning in m.17. The F is delayed to the second part of beat 1 in m.18, the E is delayed to beat 2 in m.19, and here the D is delayed to beat 2 in m.21.

Bach_FrSuite1_Sarabande_Descent.jpg

Relatedly, perhaps Bach is intent on never keeping three separate voices on the same note through an entire measure. See measures 1, 5, 6, 9, and 13 – even when two accompanimental voices are stationary, the third is moving.

Alternatives Explored

But do these reasons really explain or warrant Bach’s decision to put an F on the downbeat? He easily could have created movement in ways that do not result in obviously weakened chord structures.

For example, he could have created motion in the tenor by putting a C# on beat 1 creating a retardation figure like the F#—G in measure 5, like the implied F#—G retardation figure in m.13, and like the C#—D soprano figure in the final cadence. In short, the C# on beat 1 of measure 21 would fit the musical features of the piece with its accented dissonance and delayed resolutions, and it would result in a much improved chord structure.

Example_Alt1_Retardation

Or, Bach could have created motion by inserting a neighboring E on beat 3. This would increase harmonic tension on beat 3 (creating sevenths against both the soprano and bass), and would once again restore the ideal chord structure on beat 1.

Example_Alt2_Neighbor

Perhaps the best of these alternative solutions would be to move to F on beat 3 thereby creating a voice-exchange with the soprano. Voice-exchanges feature prominently throughout the sarabande, including another soprano-tenor voice-exchange in the immediate context (m.20).

Example_Alt3_VE

Far be it from me to suggest improving Bach (though apparently not too far), but I simply cannot understand Bach chose the F for the downbeat. It goes against his usual practice of preferring stronger chord structures, it goes against the most logical voice-leading in the immediate context, and furthermore, plenty of alternatives are achievable. I was so flummoxed that I considered the possibility of a scribe error. But after checking three early manuscripts (here, here, and here), two of which were completed during Bach’s lifetime, I found the F present in all three. (The image below is from document P 418 dated from 1720-1739 and copied by the hand of Bernhard Christian Kayser.) This doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility of a scribe error, but it provides no reason to suspect it.

So I’m left scratching my head about that F. Why that note??

Bach_FrSuite1_P418_Scribe_Kayser

 

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Liszt’s Nuages gris: a Tristan parody?

Post–tonal theory class, opening class agenda, two musical excerpts: the iconic opening to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Act I Prelude and Franz Liszt’s remarkable little piano piece, Nuages gris. The former, completed in 1859, is iconic for signaling the limits of chromatic saturation within common-practice tonality, and its much-debated harmonic structure provides plenty of discussion fodder. The latter, completed in 1881, is remarkable for its radical innovation especially considering the source from which it came. (It’s fun to play the “name that composer” game with this piece.) Tonal, harmonic and metric ambiguities abound throughout, leading to an open-ended final pseudo-cadence that contains elements of both resolution and non-resolution simultaneously. (Liszt’s “cadence”, with its whole-tone final chord, brings to mind the “in-between” music of Alexander Scriabin beginning around the op.53 Piano Sonata No.5. Compare, for example, Liszt’s cadence with the final cadence of Scriabin’s op.56, no.4 etude from 1908. The fact that Scriabin’s cadence has more tonal closure with its descending fifth bass line indicates just how radical Liszt’s piece was, being written 27 years earlier.)

Scriabin Etude

Alexander Scriabin, Etude, op.56 no.4 (ending)

Liszt Nuages Gris

Liszt, Nuages gris, ending (Errata: B-natural in R.H. in final chord)

At any rate, as I worked through Nuages gris once again, I heard something I had never noticed before. There is a striking resemblance between the final 16 bars of the Liszt and the opening 13 bars of the Tristan prelude, though Liszt’s “cloudy” setting prevents the connection from being blatantly obvious. Listen 

Wagner, Tristan Prelude

Wagner, Tristan (1857-59), Act I Prelude opening

Liszt, Nuages Gris

Liszt, Nuages gris (1881), mm.31-48.

The most obvious resemblance, the one that initially caught my ear, is Liszt’s rising chromatic soprano line. Like the Wagner, there are three main phrases consisting of 4 to 5 notes, the first notes of each phrase have longer duration relative to the final notes of each phrase, the final notes of each phrase fall on a weak beat with the penultimate note serving as a kind of accented dissonance, and the entire ascent occupies the same register, ultimately arriving at the pitch F# (which, in both cases, eventually leads to G). Listen to the Liszt passage again (starting at the 2:13 mark in the above YT video). With these resemblances in mind, it’s easy to hear the Tristan prelude in there.

The resemblances don’t end with the melodic ascent, however. The left hand of Liszt’s piece crawls downward chromatically matching the chromatic descents that pervade the Wagner accompaniment. Furthermore, the bass arrival on A connects with what is generally considered to be the initial key of the Wagner prelude, A minor.

Could this be Liszt borrowing from Wagner, whether consciously or subconsciously? Could he be commenting on or even parodying the Wagner passage from two decades earlier?

I investigated a bit and things got pretty interesting. Kenneth Hamilton’s fascinating book chapter entitled “Wagner and Liszt: Elective Affinities” from Richard Wagner and His World explains just how complex the relation between the two in-law composers was at this time. Hamilton, admittedly not interested in refuting the traditional view that “Wagner exploited Liszt — both financially and artistically — and that Liszt allowed himself to be exploited” (p.27), devotes his attention to showing the dramatic impact each had on the artistic endeavors of the other. Below is a timeline of relevant events drawing primarily from events Hamilton’s essay.

1841: Liszt’s song “Die Lorelei” completed.

One instance of outright thievery is obvious: Wagner’s Tristan prelude opening is right there in the opening bars of Liszt’s song “Die Lorelei” from 1841, revised in 1856. Take a listen. In addition to the obvious aural connections, notice the E#-F# motion mimicked by Wagner’s prelude.

Liszt, Die Lorelei

Franz Liszt, “Die Lorelei” (1841, rev. 1856)

(So is Nuages gris an instance of Liszt stealing from himself, filtered through Wagner?)

1844: First version of Liszt’s “Ich möchte hingehn” completed.

The infamous “Tristan chord” (bar 2 of the Wagner prelude) can be found in Liszt’s song “Ich möchte hingehn” originally composed around 1844, thus predating the opera by about 15 years. However, the truth is that Liszt inserted the chord as a quotation of Wagner much later, after Liszt had become familiar with the opera.

1847/?1849: Liszt composes the first of many Wagner transcriptions to come, the Overture to Tannhäuser.

1856-59: Tristan composed

1865Tristan premiered, led by conductor Hans von Bülow (from whom he stole Cosima, Liszt’s daughter, to be his wife). Von Bülow is also responsible for the piano arrangement of the Tristan prelude excerpted above.

1867: Liszt’s piano transcription of the “Liebestod” from Tristan completed

1881: Nuages gris completed, a few months after an accident falling down stairs left him bedridden and ultimately suffering from dropsy.

1882: Liszt’s composes his Solemn March to the Holy Grail (from Parsifal). Beginning in the mid-1870s, Liszt’s arrangements of Wagner’s music veered further and further away from their models. What began as embellishments led to “downright distortions.” Such distorted renderings reached an apex with this Parsifal March, which Hamilton refers to as a “twisted parody rather than a transcription from it, as if Liszt is trying to remember the music but can’t quite figure out how it goes.” (p.42) Hamilton points to this twisted march as the probable cause of Wagner’s sharp attacks on Liszt’s late music. According to Cosima’s diaries from November 1882, her husband referred to these late works of her father as evidence of “budding insanity.”

1883: Wagner’s death

1883: Liszt’s Am Grabe Richard Wagners completed, a “disjointed, nostalgic sketch” that even further extends the tendencies of the Parsifal march.

1886: Liszt’s death. That Tristan was on Liszt’s mind at the end of his life is evidenced by Cosima’s claim that her father’s dying utterance was “Tristan!” — that is, if we are to take that story as being anything more than legend.

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Aleatory Quiz

John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, c. 1958

John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, c. 1958

It’s Aleatory Week in my Music Theory IV class, and I always give a fun aleatory quiz for the occasion. Aleatory (derived from the Latin alea, meaning “dice”) is “a term applied to music whose composition and/or performance is, to a greater or lesser extent, undetermined by the composer.” (Grove Music) Aleatory is thus synonymous with the term indeterminacy. Two broad types of aleatory music can be distinguished: music in which elements of the compositional construction are determined by chance (resulting in fixed compositions), and music in which elements of the performance are undetermined by the composer and must be determined by the performer(s) (e.g. through the use of graphic notation or “mobile form”). Certainly it is possible for these two types to be combined in a single work.

The below quiz contains six excerpts from the following three piano works: Pierre Boulez’s Piano Sonata No.2 (1947-48), Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstückeset 1 (Nos.1-4) (1952), and John Cage’s Music of Changes (1951). Only the Cage work is aleatory. It is a composition in which each element was determined by the use of chance procedures. “Each detail of his score was determined by the toss of three coins six times, which directed him to a specific number in I Ching (the Oriental “Book of Changes”); this in turn sent him to a numbered position on one of twenty-six charts he had devised. Thus a single pitch was determined. The procedure was then repeated in the determination of duration, timbre, and other parameters.” (Watkins, Soundings, p.560) Cage’s Music of Changes is then aleatory of the first type described above – that is, chance operations were used in constructing its fixed, carefully notated score.

The quiz, then, essentially requires the listener to aurally identify Cage’s chance music from among the other two highly-controlled works. Each of the three works listed above are represented at least once on the quiz. If you are up for a real challenge, try to distinguish the Boulez excerpts from the Stockhausen excerpts as well. (No fair cheating with your Shazam app!) Answers are posted at the bottom of the page.

THE QUIZ
Number 1
Number 2
Number 3
Number 4
Number 5
Number 6

The obvious point of this quiz is the ironic fact that aleatory of the kind represented by Cage’s Music of Changes often produced results that are strikingly similar to works of composers in the modernist avant-garde, composers that came to loathe Cage’s aleatory. Boulez, who initially recognized an aesthetic affinity between Cage and himself, eventually attacked Cage mercilessly (without naming him) stating that the adoption of chance procedures only “conceal[s] a fundamental weakness in compositional technique… It is an artificial paradise, comfortably arranged, whose dreams are, I suspect, never very miraculous: a narcotic which protects against the needle-prick of invention.” (Boulez, “Alea” 1957, tr. Stephen Walsh)

# Answers (highlight boxes below to reveal answers)
1 Cage, Music of Changes
2 Boulez, Piano Sonata No. 2, mvmt 4
3 Stockhausen, Klavierstück II
4 Boulez, Piano Sonata No. 2, mvmt 4
5 Cage, Music of Changes
6 Stockhausen, Klavierstück I

 

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Glenn Gould’s Singing Transcribed – Bach Sinfonia 4

So, what to make of Glenn Gould’s incessant singing and muttering while performing? Some find it intolerable. Others find it charming. Some of us may even have favorite Gould vocalized passages. (One of mine is the 17th measure of the 14th Goldberg Variation from the 1981 recording.) Personally, I find Gould’s singing in no way distracting. I am no longer the big fan of Gould’s pianism that I once was, but that has nothing to do with his eccentric vocalizations. Most of the time, I even forget they’re there. (The subconscious mind must be at work here distinguishing the intentionality of musical tone from the non-intentionality of extraneous sounds.) If anything, Gould’s singing authenticates and humanizes his performances. It reveals a performer so entirely absorbed in the music’s moment and reminds us that this is a performance, even if within the confines of a recording studio. Gould’s mutterings distinguish his recordings from those countless note-perfect recordings available today that take on a fabricated, sterile, and even robotic quality. (Is perfection ever very interesting?)

What I find a bit more off-putting than Gould’s vocal eccentricities are the middle-register hiccups that emanate from Gould’s beloved “CD 318” Steinway piano on a couple of his recordings. The hiccups are perhaps most pronounced on Gould’s 1964 recording of Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias (the first recording project following his well-known withdrawal from the concert stage) and are apparently the result of Gould’s constant tinkering with CD 318 in order to achieve as harpsichord-like a quality as possible. Gould found the hiccup effect charming enough not to abandon his dear CD318, which traveled with him throughout his concertizing career. (In the early 1970s, CD 318 suffered irreparable damage in a moving accident, which devastated Gould.)

Below is a transcription of Glenn Gould playing and singing the fourth Sinfonia in D minor. The score reflects exactly what Gould played and not necessarily what Bach notated (i.e. embellishments are written out), exactly what Gould sang (notated to the best of my ability), and the hiccups that ring from CD 318 (notated with boxed noteheads). Gould’s notated sung part is obviously an approximation in certain passages given his use of vibrato, frequent portamenti (some before the beat, some after), and occasional intonational imprecision. Whatever you make of Gould’s singing, at least now you can follow along. (By the way, is that Gould himself in the final measures or a passing bus?)

Listen here. (Headphones are an obvious advantage.)

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

The difficulty of transcribing Gould’s singing depends on several factors such as how fast and loud the piano is, how vocal and loud Gould is, whether the lower piano part falls in Gould’s baritone singing range, etc. (This fourth Sinfonia then is an ideal piece to transcribe as it is a slow work that lies above Gould’s singing range much of the time.) What makes transcribing Gould even possible, however, is that he truly does sing, as opposed to, say, the loud, guttural, untranscribable noises that Keith Jarrett makes while performing. (I am a big Jarrett fan and have learned to ignore all of his noises as well (though jazz improvisation is admittedly a different animal than playing Bach). To me, Jarret’s physical gyrations, which were worse in his younger years, are more distracting than his vocalizations, but perhaps that’s only because I don’t often watch him play.)

Now on to the very important research made possible by this project. Which part does Gould prefer to sing? Outer voices? Inner voice? And how often does Gould provide an added part as has been claimed? Well, Gould sings the top voice 23.1% of the time, the middle voice 24.5% of the time, and the lower voice 51.4% of the time. The fact that the lower voice falls nearest his voice range may be the most logical explanation for this preference. Only 2.2% of the time (for a total of 2 beats in mm. 13 & 14) does Gould sing an added part, and even these moments are more added notes that true parts.

So there you have it.

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Review – Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner

ImageBach, the epitome of a musician who strove all life long and finally acquired the ‘Habit of Perfection,’ was a thoroughly imperfect human being – something we don’t usually tolerate in one of our heroes.” (p. 525) These words open the fourteenth and final chapter of John Eliot Gardiner’s new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. In the thirteen chapters prior, Gardiner, founder and director of the Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists and newly appointed president of the Bach Archive in Leipzig, provides a refreshing and entertaining account of a thoroughly human musician who gave us heavenly music.

What distinguishes Gardiner’s account as a unique contribution to the mound of existing Bach scholarship is Gardiner’s perspective as performer and conductor, as one of the leading interpreters of Bach’s choral oeuvre. “I seek to convey what it is like to approach Bach from the position of a performer and conductor standing in front of a vocal and instrumental ensemble, just as [Bach] himself habitually did.” (p.xxxi) This performer’s perspective is manifest throughout the entire book in a variety of ways, from practical solutions in performance (“Success in [the “Laudamus” of the B minor Mass] depends on the two solo performers keeping the essential ‘bones’ of the folk-melody always to the fore, on making adequate provisions for breath between the phrases and on gliding effortlessly through Bach’s thicket of embellishments.” p.492), to descriptions of Gardiner’s rehearsal techniques (rehearsals during his ensemble’s 2000 “Pilgrimage” cantatas tour being described on pp. 239ff), to considerations of instruments and performance materials. (“[T]hose of us who have learnt to play or direct period instruments and listened to what they can tell us feel that we stand a rather better chance of re-entering and inhabiting Bach’s sound world than was possible when we set out thirty-five or so years ago. An ensemble of period instruments played by expert virtuosi… carries with it a colossal element of excitement and zing. The performance becomes a communal rite…” p.522)

But it is for the rich insights he provides into the music, insights that will undoubtedly enhance the listening experience, that the reader will likely be most grateful. Gardiner delves into nearly one hundred of the cantatas to varying levels of degree, with individual chapters being devoted to the two passions and to the B minor Mass. (As expected, the choral works receive the most of Gardiner’s attention, though infrequent mention is made of instrumental works). Gardiner’s comprehensive knowledge of every aspect of the cantatas – historical context, original manuscripts, structure of the music, etc. – is brought to bear in his rich descriptions. Ideally, the reader is best served by listening to the musical excerpts as Gardiner discusses them, but even if this be impossible, Gardiner’s reflections will enrich future listening experiences and serve as a valuable reference. I personally wrote the word, “Listen!” in the margins at least a dozen times, most emphatically during descriptions of BWVs 6 (pp.334-5), 25 (p.249), 101 (p.321), 106 (pp.149-52), 159 (p.335), 179 (p.199), and of the two passions. A pre-existing knowledge of this musical repertory brings significant advantage to the reader, especially since Knopf has disappointingly provided very few musical examples.

Middle and late chapters are devoted to these enlightening descriptions of the music – 9 to the Leipzig cantata cycles, 10 to the John Passion, 11 to the Matthew Passion, 12 to Bach’s text-setting idiosyncrasies and the motets, 13 to the B minor Mass. The earlier part of the book (following an opening chapter in which Gardiner gives an account of own background, of the establishment of his Monteverdi Choir, and of his personal enthusiasm for Bach) is devoted to constructing an image of Bach, adding human flesh to one of our music elusive musical “heroes.” Chapter 2 (“Germany on the Brink of Enlightenment”) serves to set the historical and contextual stage onto which Bach appears. Gardiner’s thoroughly researched account includes details of Bach’s Lutheran heritage and childhood education, the regional geographical terrain, the effects of war, and of the general quality of life. In Chapter 3 (“The Bach Gene”), Gardiner places Sebastian within the Bach lineage, describing how Sebastian’s musical training allowed him to emerge from among other gifted Bachs. If chapter 3 places Sebastian among his kin, chapter 4 (“The Class of ‘85”) places him among his peers as the lives and careers of Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, Mattheson and Telemann are contrasted with those of Bach. Gardiner’s comparative tack here is quite effective in showing just how different Bach’s life might have been were circumstances, decisions (Sebastian’s, his peers’, and his [potential] employers’), and personal temperament slightly different. Bach’s uncertain relationship with opera receives attention here as well. Gardiner turns his attention to the role that the Lutheran faith had on Bach and his music in Chapter 5 (“Mechanics of Faith”), using three early Mühlhausen cantatas (BWVs 4 “Christ lag in Todesbanden”, 131 “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir”, and 106 the “Actus tragicus” funeral cantata) as mini-case studies. The beautifully rich description of these works whets the reader’s appetite for later chapters devoted more exclusively to the music. Chapter 6 (“The Incorrigible Cantor”) delves further into Bach’s temperament showing how his personality affected his often-tumultuous relationship with employers. Gardiner turns in Chapter 7 (“Bach at his Workbench”) to a fascinating account of Bach’s compositional practice, providing illuminating and vivid descriptions of his working relationship with librettists, of his work with copyists in creating scores and parts, of what those manuscripts tell us about his working methods, and of the process of working with musicians to bringing his works to life. Chapter 8 (“Cantatas or Coffee?”) includes descriptions of Bach’s secular cantatas and of his workings with the university collegium during his later Leipzig years. The book’s rather meandering concluding chapter (“’Old Bach’”) both gives an account of various activities of the elderly Bach and also serves as a kind of final assessment of Bach’s legacy, once again situating Bach among his “Class of ‘85” German contemporaries.

Gardiner truly excels in his descriptions of this heavenly music, which he obviously loves dearly. It is in his humanizing account of Bach the man that some readers may have qualms, depending largely on the expectations the reader brings to the book. Such misgivings will surely not be due to any lack of knowledge on Gardiner’s part. His thorough familiarity not only of the current Bach scholarship but also of the original manuscripts is evidence in every chapter. Copious citations and footnotes leave us confident in Gardiner’s expertise. But where gaps in our knowledge occur – gaps left by a general paucity of biographical information, by a lack of correspondence and first hand accounts, and by a less than trustworthy obituary (Nekrolog) self-servingly and hastily published by his C.P.E. Bach  and pupil Agricola –  JEG all too happy to offer missing details, often in ways that are remarkably imaginative. JEG, the consummate interpreter, gives us an interpretation of Bach that is admittedly personal (“What is presented here is very much one person’s vision.” p.xxxii). JEG, the performer, gives a stunning performance filled with imaginative conjecture that is not always supported by evidence. Several such examples are worth pointing out.

One gets the sense that some of Gardiner’s more fanciful reconstructions stem from a desire to provide a fresh take on commonly accepted views. Take for instance his questioning of the traditionally accepted reasons for Bach’s poor school attendance, namely illnesses within the Bach family, family gatherings, and an apprenticeship with his father. Gardiner finds these reasons “not altogether convincing” without ever provided any basis for doubting. “[T]here could be alternate, more disquieting explanations,” he states flatly. (p.46) Gardiner develops a habit of seeing things he wishes to see.

In Chapter 4, Gardiner proposes the idea that Bach may have visited the Hamburg opera during his trip to that city, even while acknowledging a lack of evidence and, at the same time, challenging such an eminent Bach scholar as Christoph Wolff:

“Just because the writers of his obituary do not mention the Hamburg opera or any contact with its leading light, Reinhard Keiser, does not mean that Bach ‘at the time had no particular interest in opera,’ (citing Wolff, Bach; The Learned Musician, p.65) […] Either of these men (Hamburg opera conductor Keiser or Reincken, organist and board of directors member) could easily have accompanied Bach, given him letters of introduction to attend Keiser’s theatre or even arranged for him to participate in any of the twelve operas Keiser composed for Hamburg between 1700 and 1702. We can surmise that his natural musical curiosity drew Bach as a listener into its orbit, even if, once in, what early biographers identified as an innate shyness held him back from the networking needed for success in a pressurized world whose purpose was to satisfy ‘the vanity of [its] individual executants’.” (pp.99-100)

This is quite a remarkable conclusion built on a mere assumption that “natural curiosity” would have led Bach to the opera. Being willing to venture ideas on such scanty evidence at times leads Gardiner to conclusions that are less than convincing.

ImageOr take JEG’s curious exercise of analyzing painted portraits in order to glean character traits. Scanning a portrait of Sebastian’s father reveals to Gardiner that Ambrosius “gazes out of his portrait like a prosperous brass-player – fat-chinned, full-nosed, lazy-eyed, stubborn and evidently fond of drink.” (p.61) Fondness of food and drink is also “evident” in Sebastian’s portrait which is thoroughly read by Gardiner in the concluding fourteenth chapter (pp.545-50) as if a fortune-teller reading a palm.

JEG takes the same kind of fanciful approach when looking at manuscripts. An ink blot on a title page penned by Kuhnau, one of Bach’s best copyists, is, in this sport of conjecture, attributed to an abusive outburst on the part of Bach due to a misspelling of his name in the bottom corner: “[Kuhnau] misspells the composer’s name and writes Bacch. Clearly not amused, Bach must have given his errant copyist a sharp smack: a black smudge appears right across the page – Kuhnau’s pen following the trajectory of the chastising biff.” (232)

Or the imaginative scene Gardiner paints when describing Wilhelm Friedemann’s “jittery” copying of BWV 127 under his father’s watchful eye: “[Wilhelm] gets the first note wrong […] but after the initial blip he corrects himself. The same happens with the viola part. […] Meanwhile Bach decides to take over copying the continuo part for the bass arioso himself. He is now really pressed for time. […] Caught up in the creative frenzy and elation of the moment, Bach has to rush to finish. He cannot risk the snail’s pace of his son’s progress. Perhaps the orchestra is tuning up.” (234-35) This is great drama. And apparently the “thick pen-strokes” on the manuscript of BWV 101 in the composer’s hand “by their pressure reveal his urgent intent as much as they do his failing eyesight” (323), and raindrops on the score of young Bach’s Buxtehude transcription rather bizarrely indicates to Gardiner that “it may have travelled in his rucksack.” (82)

In addition to using portraits and manuscripts to fill gaps of biographical information, Gardiner also turns to the music itself. In fact, the endeavor is central to the enterprise of the entire book, as he himself claims in its concluding chapter. Gardiner’s aim includes “scrutinizing the music and looking out for instances when his personality seems to penetrate the fabric of his notation.” (p.550) When it is that Bach’s true character emerges is up to Gardiner himself. The soprano aria from BWV 84 whose primary message is contentment with whatever lot one is given “helps us to find out how [Bach] dealt with [the] extremes” of “doing his job conscientiously and to the utmost of his abilities, on the one hand, […] and on the other, the bother of having to put up with ‘almost continual vexation, envy and persecution’.” (p. 198) BWV 178, on the other hand “exhibits such sustained defiance that one asks whether there is a submerged story here – of Bach operating in a hostile environment… How much more satisfying, then, for him to channel all that frustration and vituperative energy into the music, and then to watch as it rained down from the choir loft on to his chosen targets below.” (p.199) And the bass aria of BWV 135 is “superb, angry music executed with a palpable fury, with Bach fuming at delinquent malefactors. One can picture the city elders, sitting in the best pews, …starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable as these shockingly direct words – and Bach’s still more strident and abrasive music – hit home.” (p.200) (So this aria isn’t about Jesus giving consolation to us in our tears caused by evildoers?) And of BWV 81, “one wonders whether there is a pinch of dramatic realism here, of yawn-induced rebuke (the repetition of warum?) or even of mild satire – one of those occasions when Bach may be poking fun at one of his Leipzig theological task-masters.” (p.310) At least Gardiner wonders.

There is little question that Bach may have written his feelings into the music he composed, but using such arbitrary selection as to when his true character emerges from the notation can lead one to erect a Bach of any kind, so wide is the expression of his music. At least Gardiner acknowledges how dubious this tack is, though not until the book’s final chapter. “[O]n several occasions in the course of this book I have pointed to times when Bach allows the mask to slip and his personality to come through in his music, times when we sense his many moods: his intense grieving, his passionate beliefs, but also his tussles with faith, his bursts of anger, his rebellious subversive streak, his delight in nature or his unbridled joy in God’s creation. … These are tantalizing areas, arising from a world of subjective feeling and ultimately unprovable. Yet, treated cautiously, they provide us with a bridge – spanning the traces of Bach’s personality we think we can detect embedded in the music and such historical truths as we can establish about the nature of his character.” (pp.542-43) An extremely shaky bridge it is.

Gardiner’s episodes of conjecture sometimes result in contradiction. The story of young Sebastian’s unauthorized copying of manuscripts by candlelight during his years under the tutelage of his elder brother Christoph at once “smacks of legend” to Gardiner, being “a story heavily embroidered in the remembering and rehearsing of it” (p. 79). And yet it is taken for granted as true later when Gardiner traces Sebastian’s poor eyesight “back to the strain of that illicit nocturnal copying in his brother’s house” (p.546 footnote). The story is seemingly taken to be true merely because it served the immediate train of Gardiner’s narrative thought.

And just how sincere was Bach’s devotion to his Lutheran Christian faith? At some points, Gardiner casts doubt based on evidence that is hardly convincing. Of the transition passage between the Confiteor and the Et expecto in the B minor Mass, Gardiner “detect(s) traces of Bach’s own struggles – with tonality, counterpoint and harmony – but perhaps even with belief.” (p.482) “To what degree was he truly convinced by Christian dogma, especially the kind that emphasized personal faith and the rewards of salvation? asks Gardiner. “These are questions to which no very convincing answers can be found in the archives,” he flatly answers. (146) Yet many answers are indeed provided by Gardiner throughout the book, from descriptions of Bach’s extensive theological library, which according Robin Leaver “many a pastor in Bach’s day would have been proud to have owned” (155), to frequent reference to marginalia written in Bach’s own copy of Calov’s Bible commentary, to numerous characterizations of musical numbers in his choral works as deep expressions of a sincere faith, to simply stated affirmations that his “Lutheran zeal was sincere (and there are no grounds to believe that it wasn’t).” (p.453) One gets the sense that Gardiner’s flair for the dramatic and propensity for stating ideas that serve the immediate train of thought regardless of their credibility or the extent to which he believes them perpetually guides his prose.

If Gardiner’s historical methodologies are at times dubious, his jaded attitude toward analysis is simply curious. From the outset, Gardiner tells us that analysis will not get us very far. “The techniques we habitually use to analyse music when it is joined to verbal expression are of little use. We need a different tool-kit.” (xxxiii) This is exceedingly strange since Gardiner uses analysis throughout the entire book when describing Bach’s music. (In fact, several reviewers have lamented the amount of music theoretical verbiage Gardiner employs as off-putting to the average reader.) In my opinion, Gardiner uses analysis remarkably well, for instance, when discussing the Trauer-Ode, BWV 198, intended to commemorate the death of Queen Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony.

“First he builds up the sonic profile by introducing each of the eleven upper lines one by one, each evoking a bell of a different size – from the smallest via the tap-tap chiming of the flutes, to a sustained tolling of middle-sized bells in the oboes and a haze of plucked strings, to the deep, sonorous booming of the larger bells in the gambas and continuo that clang ominously in regular fourths and fifths. By now we have moved from D with a flat seventh in the oboe via a diminished seventh to C minor, a minor ninth on E. Then, below the third inversion of the dominant seventh on C#, comes an abrupt (and by the standards of the day, impermissible) rocking back and forth from E# to A in the bass, before the bells peter out one by one in the same order as they began. What this tonal analysis seems to be telling us is that, as a result of the queen’s death, time has stopped working with its normal God-appointed regularity – that with her demise the natural world is out of kilter.” (p. 221)

Just as with Gardiner’s historical methodologies, the extent to which such theoretical description is off-putting will largely depend upon the reader’s expectations and background. But for those who are willing (and able) to follow these analytical threads, their understanding and experience of the music can be enhanced. The number of asides in which Gardiner sets up a dichotomy between analysis and performance is unfortunate, as Gardiner himself demonstrates that the one can (and should) assist the other in tandem.

Given all these considerations, readers should modify expectations accordingly (if necessary). When done, the rewards from Gardiner’s book will far exceed any shortcomings. Gardiner’s account of Bach is one that indeed humanizes. If the exercises in imaginative conjecture sometimes run wild, the more legitimate historical exercise of counterfactuals (the “what if?” game) serve the purpose of bringing the composer to life. (cf. p.527) What if Bach had accepted the offered position in Halle? What if Bach did not receive the Leipzig appointment? What if Bach had turned to opera? These are very legitimate questions that further show just how different things might have been had Bach’s circumstances and temperament been even slightly different. If anything, musings such as these leave the reader eternally grateful that circumstances of Bach’s life led him to compose such a rich repository of masterpieces in the cantatas, passions, motets, and the “great catholic Mass.”

Gardiner, the consummate performer, has given a tour de force performance in this book. It is consistently engaging, elegantly written, and extremely informative with numerous extra-musical sources and ideas (from painting, to psychology, to science, to architecture) to assist and vivify the reading experience. Chiefly, it is imaginative, both a prerequisite and byproduct of being a superb interpreter of music. And perhaps it is exactly this quality that distinguishes this book from other Bach accounts. We have Gardiner to thank for a valuable reference for all future hearings of Bach chorale works and for a vividly refreshing image of one of the great heroes of our Western tradition.

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