Discord Vis-a-Vis Chords in Bach's Time
By: Heather DeRome, with thanks to Frank Koonce.
We always make a point of inviting questions and comments regarding the articles 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 article and in this 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 Jean-Philippe Rameau, and even though it did describe Bach’s work, it was, at that time, absolutely revolutionary. Indeed, 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 really 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 Stradiveri, 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 are 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.

Many of the videos on this website look at Bach’s music in these terms, with the goal of helping musicians in their endless search for a deeper understanding of this music, as they continually strive to give it more meaning. Feel free to peruse these videos, and, by all means, ask questions if anything is not clear. You may also subscribe to the newsletter and be informed as new articles or videos are added to the site.

Copyright, Koonce/DeRome, 2019. All rights reserved