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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form
Richard Taruskin

We can witness the new instrumental style at its most sublime, and experience its newfound power to deliver both intellectual gratification and a powerful emotional payoff, by stealing an advance look at the work of Handel’s exact contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s impressive organ Toccata in F major—probably composed between 1708 and 1717 while Bach held the post of organist at the court chapel of Weimar (a town in Eastern Germany, then known as Saxony)—is in some ways an old-fashioned work, but in others it is downright prescient. A virtuoso showpiece for the organist, Bach’s Toccata belonged to an ancient tradition, one that we have traced back to the Gabrielis and Sweelinck at the end of the sixteenth century, and which lay behind the development of the Corellian “church sonata” as well. Toccatas, etymologically, were “touch pieces.” They foregrounded the playing process itself. And what could be more characteristic of the organ’s particular playing process than the activity of the player’s feet? It was in the fancy footwork that organ playing differed from the playing of any other instrument of the time, and Bach spotlights that footwork in various highly contrasting ways.

Bach and “Dramatized” TonalityBach and “Dramatized” TonalityBach and “Dramatized” Tonality

ex. 5-15a J. S. Bach, Toccata in F, BWV 540, mm. 1–82

The opening section of the piece (Ex. 5-15a) is accompanied through most of its duration by what may well be the longest “pedal point” ever written, one that dramatically advertises the derivation of what is often thought of as an abstract harmonic device from the practical technique of organ playing. The organist plunks his foot down on the F pedal and thereby opens up a flue pipe through which air will rush as long as the pedal is depressed. The low F thus produced can last indefinitely; Bach lets it sound for the two minutes or so that it takes to execute the canon that runs up above between the two keyboards (or manuals). The organ is the only instrument capable of sustaining a note of such a length without any break. The implied harmonies that it supports—notably the dominant—are often dissonant with respect to it, but Bach concentrates for the duration of the pedal on the tonic (I) and subdominant (IV) harmonies (both of which contain the F) and on the tonic-plus-E♭, which functions as an “applied dominant” of B♭ (“V of IV”).

Bach lets the canon in the manuals peter out in mm. 53–54 without any real cadence, whereupon the pedals take over with one of the most extended solos for the feet that Bach or any organ virtuoso ever composed. It lasts 26 measures, roughly half the length of the preceding canon-over-pedal, and consists entirely of sequential elaborations of the canon’s opening pair of measures, itself already a sequential elaboration of a “headmotif” with a characteristic contour consisting of a “lower neighbor” and its resolution, followed by a consonant leap down, a larger consonant leap up, and a return to the original note. The blow-by-blow description is cumbersome indeed, but the contour itself is instantly apprehensible. (Indeed, the sense of triple meter in the piece depends on our apprehending it, since the rhythm is just an undifferentiated stream of sixteenth notes, and the organ cannot produce accentual stresses; thus the only thing that can serve to define the measure as a perceptual unit here is the recurrent pitch contour and its sequential repetitions.)

A 26-measure section or “period” comprising nothing except sequential repetitions of a single pitch contour is a quintessential display of the technique of melodic elaboration and form-building known as Fortspinnung (“spinning out”). This handy term was actually coined (by the Austrian music historian Wilhelm Fischer) in 1915, but it very neatly defines the techniques of melodic elaboration that arose with the concerto style as a sort of by-product of the circle of fifths and the other standard patterns of chord succession that we have already observed, the melody arising (for the first time in the history of musical style) out of an essentially harmonic process.

In Bach’s long passage of pedal Fortspinnung, the circle of fifths acts as a long-range modulatory guide, within which many smaller cadences and sequences take their place. The long-range workings of the circle of fifths can best be gauged by noting accidentals as they occur. The first accidental to appear (in m. 61) is E♭, which has the effect, here as previously, of invoking the scale of B♭ major (IV), which in turn identifies A as leading tone (“vii of IV”). When E-natural occurs (in m. 66) as an accidental that explicitly cancels the E♭, it asserts its function as leading tone to the original tonic (I). The next accidental to appear (m. 70) is B-natural, the leading tone of C (V), and the next one after that (m. 78) is F♯, the leading tone of G (ii, but retaining the B-natural so as to turn ii into “V of V,” and with the E♭ reinstated to suggest—colorfully but falsely, as it turns out—a cadence on C minor).

The whole passage may be summed up harmonically in terms of a slowly unfolding circle of ascending fifths: B♭ (IV)–F (I)–C (V)–G (ii/V of V), all preparing the bald cadence formula on C (V) in mm. 81–82. That the first explicit cadence in the piece takes place so late is a testimony to the efficacy of the Fortspinnung technique in organizing vast temporal spans. And the same vast span is now replayed on C (V), replete with 54-measure canon-over-pedal and mammoth pedal solo, now expanded to 32 measures in length.

Again a cadence on C (V) is elaborately prepared and the same cadential formula is invoked. But this time the cadential preparation is detached from the resolution and repeated no fewer than seven times (Ex. 5-15b), dramatically delaying the arrival of the keenly anticipated stable harmony (the “structural downbeat,” as it is often called). When the C major triad in root position is finally sounded, it can no longer be merely taken for granted as the inevitable outcome of a standard harmonic process. The process of delay has “defamiliarized” it and made it the object of the listener’s keenly experienced desire.

Bach’s Toccata is one of the earliest pieces to so dramatize the working out of its form-building tonal functions, adding an element of emotional tension that is inextricably enmeshed in its formal structure. The listener’s active engagement in the formal process is likewise dramatized. The listener’s subjective reaction to the ongoing tonal drama is programmed into the composition. Subjectivity, one may say, has been given an objective correlate. It even makes a certain kind of figurative sense to ascribe the desire for resolution to the notes themselves, objectifying and (as it were) acting out the listener’s involvement.

So far we have had a decisive tonal movement from I (the opening pedal) to V (the long-delayed and intensified arrival at m. 176, shown in Ex. 5-15b). We may now expect the usual leisurely return, by way of intermediate cadences on secondary degrees. And that is what we shall get—but not without dramatic withholdings and ever more poignant delays. The measures that immediately follow Ex. 5-15b unfold a sequential progression along the by-now-familiar descending circle of fifths: C (V)–F (I)–B♭ (IV)–E (viio)–A (iii). The chord on A is expressed as a major triad, connoting an applied dominant to D (vi), just where one might expect the “medial cadence” on the way back to the tonic.

Bach and “Dramatized” Tonality

ex. 5-15b J. S. Bach, Toccata in F, BWV 540, mm. 169–76

That expectation will indeed be confirmed, but only after a really hair-raising strategy of delay shown in Ex. 5-15c has run its course. At the short range the A major chord (“V of vi”) is allowed to reach its goal (m. 191), but the D minor chord is immediately given a major third, a seventh, and even a dissonant ninth, turning it in its turn into an applied dominant (“V of ii”) along the same circle of fifths. The G minor chord (ii) is also manipulated and compromised as a goal, first by harmonizing the G as part of a diminished seventh chord (m. 195), then as part of a “Neapolitan sixth” such as we observed in the last chapter in connection with Alessandro Scarlatti (m. 196). The Neapolitan sixth always acts as a cadential preparation to the dominant, and so the A returns (m. 197) with its previously assigned function (“V of vi”) intact. Again (mm. 197–203) we get the elaborately stretched-out preparation we heard previously in mm. 169–76. But this time, the already much-delayed resolution is thwarted (m. 204) by what was probably the most spectacular “deceptive cadence” anyone had composed as of the second decade of the eighteenth century.

Bach and “Dramatized” Tonality

ex. 5-15c J. S. Bach, Toccata in F, BWV 540, 188–219

A deceptive cadence (as it is called in today’s analytical language) is not just any avoided or interrupted cadence. In a deceptive cadence the cadential expectation is partially fulfilled, partially frustrated, producing an especially pungent effect. Most often it is the leading tone that is resolved, the fifth-progression that is evaded; the most common way of achieving this is to substitute a submediant chord for the tonic (Ex. 5-15d).

Bach and “Dramatized” Tonality

ex. 5-15d Ordinary deceptive cadences in D major and D minor

Bach does something similar, but much spikier. The leading tone, C♯, is resolved to D, the expected tonic, in m. 204; but the bass A proceeds, not along the circle of fifths to another D, but rather descends a half step to A♭, clashing at the tritone with the soprano D. And the tritone is harmonized with one of the most gratingly dissonant chords available in the harmonic language of Bach’s time: a dominant seventh in the “third inversion” (also known as position), in which the bass note is the seventh of the chord, dissonant with respect to all the rest.

The chord is a chord in drastic need of resolution, and Bach resolves it in timely fashion. That local resolution, however, takes him far afield of his long-range harmonic goal. It is to the Neapolitan sixth chord. Bach first “normalizes” the Neapolitan harmony by treating it as part of a standard sequential progression (mm. 204–209) similar to the one noted in Marcello’s oboe concerto, but made stronger by putting all the applied dominants in position. In m. 210 the Neapolitan is regained, reiterated, and (after yet another set of feints) finally directed “home” to the long-awaited D in mm. 217–19. The process of delay, from the initial adumbration of the cadence to its ultimate completion, has unfolded over an unprecedented span of 32 intensely involving measures, a passage full of finely calculated yet overwhelmingly powerful harmonic jolts and thrills.

The Toccata’s progress from this point to completion can be briefly summarized. In the section that follows Ex. 5-15c, the familiar cadential formula is used to navigate through a complete circle of fifths and beyond, to a cadence on A minor (iii). Over the next 62 measures, an almost identical harmonic process (dramatically extended by the use of the deceptive cadence) is used to establish G minor (ii). From there to the end it is just a matter of holding off the inevitable V–I that will complete the main cadential circle of fifths, and with it the piece. Once achieved, the dominant pedal is held for twenty-three measures while the hands on the manuals go through a frenzy of sequential writing that descends, ascends, descends again, and ascends again in ever-increasing waves. The pedal gives way to a series of cadential formulas that only reach the home key after yet another eruption, like the one in Ex. 5-15c, of the bizarre deceptive cadence to the “ of the Neapolitan,” a chord of crushing disruptive force that makes the final attainment of the tonic seem an inspiring, virtually herculean achievement.

The Toccata in F is thus a tour de force not only of manual (and pedal) virtuosity but of compositional virtuosity as well. Bach deserves enormous credit for sensing so early the huge emotional and dramatic potentialities of the new harmonic processes, and for exploiting them so effectively—at first, presumably, in thrillingly experimental keyboard improvisations of which the “composed” Toccata is the distilled residue. By harnessing harmonic tension to govern and regulate the unfolding of the Toccata’s form, he managed to invest that unfolding-to-completion with an unprecedented psychological import. Thanks to this newly psychologized deployment of harmonic functions—in which harmonic goals are at once identified and postponed, and in which harmonic motion is at once directed and delayed—“abstract” musical structures could achieve both vaster dimensions and a vastly more compelling emotional force than any previously envisioned. Harmonic tension could from now on be used at once to construct “objective” form and “subjective” desire, and to identify the one with the other.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05006.xml