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References to Vocal Music in the Sonata da Chiesa
By: Heather DeRome, with thanks to Frank Koonce.
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 Affekte. 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, in the Siciliana in B flat, Bach's writing is very lyrical –– and choral (see the videos linked on the right); also, the subject of the G minor fugue has its original roots in an old Renaissance canzona. Not only that, but as discussed in the performance notes of our book, Giussepi Colombi (born in 1635–fifty years before Bach), used the same canzona material in one of his sonatas 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 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.1 In later music, perhaps from the classical period and forward, repeated notes were often more jovial and humorous, but this was not their original Affekte.

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 this 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.

[1] Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Le discours musical [Musical Discourse], (Residenz Salzburg and Wien, 1984; French translation: Editions Gallimard, 1984), 180, 181.

copyright Koonce/DeRome, 2019. All rights reserved.