Bach on piano. Thoughts?

This thread is for continuing an interesting discussion started elsewhere.

Comment away!


Bach did WHAT?! Oh. Well, ok then.

When I first ran across this tumblr I was initially intrigued. “What contrapuntal circumstances,” I wondered, “might force such a master of control and planning as Bach to let errors or missteps stand?” But I was disappointed, and the adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” was once again confirmed.

Somewhere in “Free Composition” Schenker observes that parallels in the abstract middleground can be obliterated (to use his term) by diminution in the foreground, and that some foreground parallels can be admitted because they do not represent real voice-leading (ie, one or both of the notes in question are superficial, decorative, and do not comprise real motion – eg, a simple neighbor note). So almost none of these alleged parallel perfect intervals are legitimate parallels. Most often they are the result of a written-out mordent.

And simple proximity alone does not create a cross-relation between a diatonic pitch and a chromatically altered pitch. The cadence in the voices shown in the first example (BWV 248) can be thought of as a distinct event from the movement-initiating diminished 7 (of which the C- natural is a part) which follows in the orchestra, even if in practice they overlap ever-so-slightly. Schenker explained that cross-relations are real only if there is no reason for the diatonic and the chromatically altered pitches to be where they are. If, however, they are fulfilling functions, there is no cross-relation. The vocal tenor C# fulfills the expectation of a cadence in major, set up by the C# in the vocal bass, and the C-natural in the violas, together with D#, heralds harmonic motion to E minor. The other examples of alleged cross-relations are similar.

Only one of the examples on this tumblr represents a legitimate misstep, imo, and it’s not inconceivable that it could be a copyist’s error. It’s the third example – the harmonization of “Du, o schönes Weltgebäude”. I don’t see why Bach wouldn’t have resolved the tenor G# to A, thereby avoiding both the hidden and the overt parallel fifths. Having the full triad at that cadence doesn’t seem like a necessity to me. But like I said, perhaps it’s a copyist’s error.


“Me” post II

This is the first in a short cycle of four songs I wrote a few years ago. Poetry by Sara Teasdale.


The “Me” post

Here are some compositions and performances of which I’m rather proud:

The above is a chorale-prelude on Londonderry Air, in the style of J. S. Bach.  The occasion was a half-day marathon of recitals, organized by Michael Barone, honoring Bach’s 327th birthday (March 21st, 2012).  The actual date of the recitals was March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day.  So there you go.

I’m particularly proud of the coherent harmonic plan: the major structural cadences are on I, V, vi, iii, and I.  It is a little unusual that V is not reasserted before the final appearance of I, but the tune is such that moving directly from iii to I made sense.  I also attempted to satisfy the desire for V by writing an extended pedal 6-4.  I think it was successful.  Bach’s architecture is always solid. Bach never meanders.

I’m also proud of the careful and deliberate use of chromaticism and dissonance.  This is an important element in Bach’s style.  Bach constantly uses “colorful” or even “audacious” pitches, but not without proper justification; not without an organic raison d’etre.  Listen especially for the two instances of properly executed diminished octaves (!).

I’ll add more compositions later.



I’m quite sure many musicians will disagree with this post.

One of the dogmas handed down from musical generation to generation is that the motive is a musical element of the utmost primacy, and that motivic manipulation/development is where all the cleverness in composition lies. It’s promulgated by musicians at every level, from complete amateurs right up to figures like John Adams. Adams praises Beethoven for “taking [a] minimal amount of information and turning it into fantastic, expressive, and energized structures.” He cites the ubiquity, in the fifth symphony, of the four-note “short-short-short-long” motive as evidence of this.

I used to subscribe to this idea. It’s hard not to when everyone around you is boggling at the “stone soup” Bach created by using, over and over, one rhythmic/melodic module. But I think Bach and Beethoven would be the first to admit that this is not what makes their music great. I tried very hard in my first couple years of composition lessons to create “intellectual” music. I thought this meant doing all sorts of things to motives: augmentation, diminution, inversion, reharmonization, etc. The results were generally not compelling. I had been neglecting what Schenker called the background. Motivic manipulation is like a final layer of varnish, or a ribbon on a package. It certainly plays some part in generating attractiveness or interest, but most of the work went into creating the piece of furniture or the contents of the package.

Motives are extremely elastic. They can be stretched and draped in almost infinite ways over a harmonic scaffold. The true test of great composition lies in creating coherent and organic harmonic architecture. Schenker complained that music theorists and historians of his day were making too much of the fact that Haydn generally wrote monothematic sonata-allegro movements while most other classical composers used two themes to achieve a sonata-allegro form. Those theorists had struck on the least important and most superficial characteristic in their attempts to explain how sonata-allegro form is achieved. Themes and motives are low-hanging fruit, from an analytical perspective. It’s easy to point at all the variations of a given motive. It’s more difficult to perceive the harmonic entities at work in the background.

None of this is to say, as I admitted above, that motivic manipulation is totally unimportant. But we shouldn’t give it the primacy in the composer’s arsenal it currently enjoys.


Chords: invisible barriers

What on Earth can that title mean?!

Here’s what I mean: Well over half the tonal (or “tonal-ish”) repertoire I come into contact with and am required to play/learn/spend time with suffers from “chorditis.” Many composers think chords are the irreducible building blocks of music. We have Rameau and his treatise to thank for that.

But this is most emphatically not the case. Certainly Rameau was not incorrect insofar as we can identify certain specific vertical entities. But these entities are emergent; that is, they result from horizontal movement governed by more fundamental, contrapuntal considerations. Chords must be achieved via logical horizontal movement. It is poor music that consists only of chords, plopped down one after the other, with no thought given to how (or even if) the first chord should proceed to the second. Frederic Chopin lamented this compositional weakness when he said (in a criticism of Berlioz): “It has become customary to learn chords ahead of counterpoint, which means, ahead of the sequences of notes by which the chords are formed. Berlioz simply sets down the chords and fills the interstices as best he can.”

So what’s wrong with simply stringing a bunch of pretty or interesting chords together, as virtually all pop “composers” (think Ben Folds) and a good share of classical composers (think Gerald Custer or Stephen Paulus or Eric freakin’ Whitacre) do? The answer can be found in that qualifier: “simply.” It’s simple. For Pete’s sake, a person with no musical training or experience could find some interesting chords if you put a piano in front of them and gave them enough time. Also, the illogic of the way the individual chord members proceed, as is unavoidable if you don’t explicitly think about and control their movement, is audible. It really, really is audible, despite the dismissive grunts uttered by many musicians: “Pfft, how can you hear that? Don’t be so picky!”

Don’t we want our art to be well-crafted? The composer who first sets down chords and then thoughtlessly fills in the notes would be rather like an architect that roughly sketches the facade of a building and then says to the construction crew: “Okay, now get building.” No. Detail is required. But so many musicians resist dealing with, or even learning about, the detail. They are apparently content not to penetrate the invisible barrier imposed by this idea of “chords.” “That’s far enough”, they say. “No”, I say, “you haven’t even peeled back the first layer yet!”


Missing the boat

I can hardly bear listening to interviews with performers. The vast majority reveal that despite possessing impressive technical facility, they have exceedingly odd, misinformed, or simply ignorant conceptions about the music itself. They have missed the boat.

But they dive on into the water anyway, trying to make do with whatever piece of driftwood they manage to latch onto.

Today I heard mandolin-player Chris Thile, on Fred Child’s Performance Today, assert that he loves Bach because he discovered that Bach anticipated the fiddle-tune and banjo-picking style you hear in traditional bluegrass. Now, this is not totally incorrect. One can observe a similarity between certain of Bach’s pieces and the bluegrass style in question. But this is a simple observation, and Thile was content to leave it there, implying that this observation was something profound all by itself.

Nope. Thile hasn’t really thought about why this similarity is observable. Thile is referring to the way a banjo or fiddle-player would arpeggiate members of a chord. This practice is known as multilinearity, and one can find it all over the place in Bach. It is a way of “horizontalizing” vertical harmonies (or, to wax Schenkerian, a way of “re-horizontalizing” vertical harmonies that are a result of horizontal contrapuntal motion in the first place). It is a result of writing idiomatically for an instrument that doesn’t handle simultaneous multiple voices very well. Of course you’re going to see this kind of writing in music for string instruments – but by lots of composers, in many different genres, and across the ages!

In fact, you can even find this kind of writing in music written for instruments that can handle chords easily, i.e., the Alberti-bass style, or the style brise in keyboard literature. These are all simply ways of spreading out vertical sonorities over a span of time. There is nothing especially notable or bluegrass-like about the way Bach spread out harmonies in the Praeludio from his E-major Partita, which was the specific work cited by Thile.

Yet even many professional musicians would listen to Thile make the assertion from the third paragraph and proceed to nod knowingly, stroke their chin, and say something like: “By gum, you’re right! What a fantastic insight! You obviously know a thing or two!”



Curious harmonies in “Ein Deutches Requiem”

Brahms was at once innovative and conservative.  It seems a strange thing to say.  What I mean is that he knew how to tease fresh sounds, fresh harmonic events, out of established contrapuntal “best practices.”  Rather than simply throwing something weird at the page, completely out of left-field, his method was to achieve the surprising or unusual phenomenon organically, so that it could be justified from a contrapuntal (and/or harmonic) perspective.

The fiery portion of the 6th movement from his Requiem contains a curious move from C-minor to E minor.  You can hear the shift to E-minor at 4:13 in this performance:

How shall we explain this?

One could say that Brahms was simply exploiting a third-relation.  Well, C-minor and E-minor certainly do stand in a chromatic third relationship to each other.  But this doesn’t necessarily justify the move.  Why should he have exploited that relationship?

One could also say that E-minor is not foreign to C-major (that is, it occurs diatonically), and so it represents a kind of borrowed harmony.  Usually, however, one borrows from the minor mode while writing in the major mode, not the other way around.  But again, while E- and A-natural do indeed come from the major mode, this says nothing in the way of justification.

I think the final answer is that the “visit” to E-minor represents an unfolding of an auxiliary note, namely the leading-tone with respect to the subdominant: E-natural.  Indeed, much of the movement is spent gravitating toward the subdominant.  There are many appearances of the Phrygian II in C-minor, which is also the diatonic VI with respect to the subdominant F-minor.  There is even a portion that unfolds G-flat minor (spelled enharmonically as F-sharp minor) – this would be the (minor) Phrygian ii with respect to the subdominant.  These harmonies create the sense of gravitation toward the subdominant I mentioned because they require accidentals in the key of C-minor.  They do not “belong” to C-minor, they “belong” to F-minor.


Two beautiful things

Here is some excruciating beauty:


There are some pieces I cannot ignore, that demand my complete attention for their duration, no matter what else is going on.  As Socrates put it: “Beauty is a short-lived tyranny.”




Bach’s 327th

For Bach’s birthday (March 21st), I think I’ll let some other, more respected musicians than I share their thoughts about the master:

Mozart, upon hearing a motet performed at the Thomaskirche: “Now there is music from which a man can learn something.” He then proceeded to spend the day studying Bach’s scores which were kept in St. Thomas’ library.

Beethoven, who built his reputation as a pianist on performances of the Well-Tempered Clavier: “Bach is the orignal father of harmony,” and “He should not be called Bach (stream), but Meer (ocean).”

Schumann, who helped found the Bach Gesellschaft: “Playing and studying Bach convinces us we are all numbskulls.”

Brahms, writing to Clara Schumann about the Ciaccona from the D-minor violin sonata: “To me, the Ciaccona is one of the most beautiful, incredible compositions. On one stave, and for a small instrument, the man pours out a world full of the most profound thoughts and most powerful emotions.”

Schenker, writing in 1906, 156 years after Bach’s death: “The paragon of composition…it seems to me, is still the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. What planning, what perspicuity, and what endurance!”

And Debussy (!): “And if we look at the works of JS Bach – a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity – on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday…”

May 2022