By Heather DeRome
Revised by Frank Koonce
Thanks to all of you who responded with questions and comments after last week’s blog. Your feedback gives us ideas for future discussions, and so it is always appreciated.
The videos this week are parts one and two of a four-part series about the well known and much loved G-minor Fuga, BWV 1001. Part one discusses only the exposition of the fugue, from the point of view of the Rule of the Octave. If you have read the performance notes in our book and want to know more about how the Rule of the Octave works, in an actual musical example, this video will help. Part two discusses the rest of the introductory section of the fugue, where Bach establishes his key. The video also has a look at some of the magical moments in this section, which may sometimes be overlooked, because we have heard the piece played so many times.
I keep these videos short, so that people can absorb the concepts, and then try to incorporate them, with perhaps a new way of hearing and interpreting, into their playing. I suggest watching the videos and playing the exposition and the rest of that section of the fugue, until you can really hear how the lines are working contrapuntally, and how the chords and non-chord tones work together to set up the tension/resolution motif that permeates the whole work.
Since we are discussing the First Sonata, I would like to mention here that it is interesting to ponder Bach's alternating of the sonatas, which were based on music from the church, with the partitas, which were based on stylized dance movements. People usually realize that each of the various dance types has its own historical background as well as its specific characteristic rhythms and affects. But what of the devotional music? What is Bach alluding to in these movements from the sonatas? The answer to this, in a large part, is that they take from the vocal music of Bach’s forefathers, both the sacred polyphony and the secular songs. Secular songs, in fact, had been played in church services either as instrumental arrangements or else sung with newly written sacred words, since time immemorial, and this ancient tradition was still alive in Bach’s era.
For example, this fugue’s subject has its original roots in an old Renaissance canzona. Also, as discussed in the performance notes of our book, Giussepi Colombi (born in 1635 –fifty years before Bach), used the same canzona material in a sonata for violin with bass. Colombi may have been being slightly modern in his choice of this particular canzona, by virtue of his use of repeated notes in instrumental music. Repeated notes were not actually “invented” until 1624, when Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) discovered that they could be used to portray the affects of extreme agitation and anger for his combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. “I thus explored rapid tempi" he said, “which, the best philosophers agree, were born in an agitated climate of war … And I found the effect I was looking for, by dividing the long whole note into sixteenths, which would be separately attacked beneath a text that expressed anger.” –I am not sure when repeated notes were first used in vocal music, but there are none to be found in the madrigals that precede il combattimento. In later music, perhaps from the classical period and forward, repeated notes were often more jovial and humorous, but this was not their original affect.
With regard to Bach’s G-minor Fuga, it would be very interesting to find the text for that canzona; I believe it must deal with some sort of strife. The original canzona, as used in Colombi’s sonata, actually only has three repeated notes, not four. As shown in the video, Bach’s fourth repeated note is part of an ornament, an appoggiatura, which he has written into the melody. The way that Bach has set those repeated notes with the added appoggiatura creates another layer of harmonic intensity to a tune with which people of that era were already familiar. In fact, it is quite possible that the same appoggiatura may have been performed by some singers as well, as a matter of course, as an improvised ornament.
It is unclear whether Bach ever heard Colombi’s sonata; however, the point here is that even though the sonata da chiesa was conceived for an instrumental idiom, it was very strongly influenced by vocal polyphony as well as by the wealth of simple songs that were passed down in an oral tradition through the ages. Accordingly, even though fugues do have a strong rhythmic drive, it is important to realize that their thematic material often evolved from lyrical music, and that their references to well known songs – as well as their deviations from them, were very recognizable to the people who were listening to these works, when they were new.
 Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Le discours musical [Musical Discourse], (Residenz Salzburg and Wien, 1984; French translation: Editions Gallimard, 1984), 180, 181.
Written by Heather DeRome
Revised and edited by Frank Koonce
I always make a point of inviting questions and comments regarding the blogs and videos that are posted on the Sonatas and Partitas website and YouTube channel. By far, the most common question or comment goes something like: “I want to learn more about theory for Bach” or “I want to understand chords more” or... “I am bad at theory” – which gets me every time, because I refuse to believe it. In my early days as a student, the prevailing mindset was that those people who were theorists were the “musiciens manqués,” the musicians who had somehow missed the boat. But really, it seems to me now that the most musical players usually are the ones who have a deeper understanding of the music. What I have found is that there is no such thing as being bad at theory; it’s just a matter of having it explained a little more hands-on.
In this blog and in the attached video, I will start addressing some of your questions. First, I need to point out that talking about Bach’s music in terms of chords is a little ahead of Bach’s time because, in fact, Bach was not trained in harmony in the same way as we now are trained. Our system was developed when Bach was in his thirties by J.P. Rameau, and even though it did describe Bach's work, it was, at that time, absolutely revolutionary. Its assimilation did not come about without resistance and strife.
For example, if we see a stack of notes, E/C/G, we would call this a first-inversion chord with the root being C. And if that chord were in the key of C, we would label it a “I” (or “tonic”) chord. This was not Bach’s musical language. Instead, Bach was trained to use “the rule of the octave” and “partimenti”: he essentially had a bass line as a foundation, and wrote intervals above it, combining the voices into counterpoint. For him, that E is the third scale degree, and therefore it usually wants a sixth and third above it. So, whereas we relate to the sonority as essentially a “C” sonority––and as a chord, Bach related to it as a type of E sonority. A potential drawback to us studying Bach’s music in terms of chords is that it may lead us to hear the music more vertically, and we might miss-out on the beautiful interweaving of the melodic lines throughout the voices. However, having said this, even though Bach was not trained in––or even aware of––“functional harmony” when he composed the Sonatas and Partitas, most of his music did yield those principles––as Rameau discovered while analyzing the music of Bach and his contemporaries.
Labelling these sonorities as chords and then classifying them as tonic, dominant and pre-dominant type chords was the essence of Rameau’s treatise: Dominant chords never went to pre-dominant chords, but always to tonic-type chords, either the tonic itself or, in the case of a deceptive cadence, to another unexpected tonic-type chord, usually the vi chord.
To highlight one of the differences (see the example below), insofar as how we perceive music as a result, consider the chord we call ii 6/5: In the key of C major this is F/D/A/C. We hear that as D minor, D/F/A, with an added seventh, C. But for Bach, this a chord built on the fourth scale degree therefore it wants a sixth, fifth, and third above the bass. Note that these are all consonant intervals, and that the C, which we relate to as a dissonant seventh, is simply a fifth above the bass note, F. Bach would view this essentially as an F chord (F/A/C) with an added sixth, D. That D, his unstable note, is our root. So, there is a fundamental difference in viewpoint.
Taking a step aside, one must wonder how on earth Rameau, being steeped in the music of his own century, might have been able to come to see such a radically different system at work in the compositions of his peers: Most historical developments grow out of other parameters already at play, but Rameau's treatise was entirely "outside the box.” In the last newsletter, we looked at a disparaging comment that Schiebe made towards Bach. The footnote mentioned that although Scheibe did admire Bach's talent, he disagreed with Bach's music owing so much to the Italian style. Scheibe was more of a nationalist in a time that saw a decline of nationalism. Most of the European countries, with the exception of France, had assimilated the Italian style of writing and playing, especially in regard to––and because of the role of the violin. The Italians made the best violins, notably those by Amati and Stradaveri, and they produced the best soloists who were then hired at courts and palaces throughout the rest of Europe. Before 1600, the violin was mostly used only for dance music, along with the loud sackbuts and crumhorns; violin technique was extremely primitive, and the instrument was latent with possibilities waiting to be discovered. The viola da gamba (of all sizes and registers) was the instrument for serious, contrapuntal music. Throughout the early seventeenth century, the rise of the violin and of the soloist changed all that and, everywhere in Europe, people were looking to the Italians for direction and tutelage. Everywhere; that is, except France. French music and dance were proudly nationalistic. This began with Lully who, ironically, was Italian by birth. He arrived in Paris at the age of fourteen in 1646. By the age of twenty, he was head of music at the king's palace, and soon became the uncontested master of French music. Lully developed the overture, giving the form a distinctly nationalistic nomenclature (Ouverture à la française), and though using Italian elements, he combined them into new large-scale forms for his operas, establishing a truly French style. Similarly for the chaconne: Lully took this ancient instrumental dance constructed on a repeating bass figure, and made it into a grandiose "piece de resistance" that might conclude an act, or most often, the opera in its entirety. ––Then, in 1683, Jean-Philippe Rameau was born into this lavish world of opera, dance and instrumental music. A strong French nationalism was established, which by Bach's time was very influential.
(For a delightful exemplification of this, consider the Allemanda that begins the first Partita, in B-minor: It has an Italian title which was translated from the French "Allemande", which means "German". So this is a German composer's take on an Italian perspective of the French "German Dance". --And it is written in the style of Lully's French overture! But I do not think that this little bit of fun was without a deeper significance. Here, Bach was introducing the first set of dance movements in his Sonatas and Partitas, and in the same way that the first sonata begins with the violin's signature chord, this first partita begins with the very essence of European courtly pomp and gaiety.)
Coming back to Rameau's treatise, we may surmise that his was a genius mind, born at a time of independence and exploration, and in the right place to really flourish.
Rameau's treatise further pointed out that the notes we relate to as dissonances all receive special treatment in that they first are sounded as a consonance, then are repeated as a dissonance, and then resolved by step.
The harmony “rules” that we are now taught were not actually rules in Bach’s time. These are the aspects of the music that Rameau observed and wrote about in his treatise, which, at the time, was very polemical. However, it was gradually accepted, and the treatise went a long way towards influencing music in the direction of the classical style and homophony, which essentially consisted of melody accompanied by block chords. In the Baroque, the big advantage to this new way of thinking was that it could be learned in two to four years and could easily be taught to adults, i.e., the patrons of music (and now, first- and second-year university students). Learning to use rule of the octave with partimenti and schemata, as discussed in the introductory notes of our edition, took about ten years to master, and was most successful when taught to children. This way of learning by rote and by memorizing hundreds of schemata and partimenti comes naturally to children, whereas learning the language of music using logic and manipulating chords and inversions, is more suitable to the adult brain.
Functional harmony is a great tool, which Frank and I used to come to a better understanding of the Sonatas and Partitas; it helped us see patterns and structures and, as a result, brought us to a deeper appreciation of the music.
There are videos already posted on this website that you can peruse, or you can simply follow the newsletter, where they will be introduced in order. One of the common themes addressed in the videos is understanding the long-range arch of pieces. The videos also address fingering concerns, and they discuss the occasional changes we have made to Bach’s music when adapting it for the guitar. You can think of these newsletter/blogs and videos as a "course" that is parceled-out in small amounts so that you may reflect on it for a couple of weeks. Some, but definitely not all, of the content will be specific to our guitar edition of the Sonatas and Partitas. The newsletter will add to the performance notes at the beginning of the book, but anyone is welcome to follow the newsletter, whether or not they have our book.
watch this week's video
As always, let us know what you think and feel free to ask questions!