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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)
Richard Taruskin

It was as “predefined” as that because J. S. Bach happened to come from an enormous clan or dynasty of Lutheran church musicians dating back to the sixteenth century. So long and firmly associated was the family with the profession they plied that in parts of eastern Germany the word “Bach” (which normally means “brook” in German) was slang for musician. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists no fewer than eighty-five musical Bachs, from Veit Bach (ca. 1555–1619), a baker from Pressburg (now Bratislava in Slovakia) who enjoyed a local reputation for proficiency on the cittern (a plectrum-plucked stringed instrument related to the lute and the mandolin), down ten generations to Johann Philipp Bach (1752–1846), court organist to the Duke of Meiningen.

Fourteen members of the family were distinguished enough as composers to earn biographical articles in the dictionary. They include two of Johann Sebastian Bach’s uncles (Johann Christoph and Johann Michael), three of his cousins (Johann Bernhard, Johann Nicolaus, and Johann Ludwig), four of his sons (Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian), and his grandson Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst (1759–1845, son of Johann Christoph Friedrich), who died childless and extinguished his grandfather’s line.

The outward shape of Johann Sebastian Bach’s career did not differ from those of his ancestors and contemporaries, and was far less distinguished than those of his most successful sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and especially Johann Christian, whom we have already met briefly as a globe-trotting composer of opera seria. Most of the elder Bachs were trained as church organists and cantors. That training included a great deal of traditional theory and composition, and as church musicians the elder Bachs were expected to turn out vocal settings in quantity to satisfy the weekly needs of the congregations they served.

The greatest composers of this type in the generations immediately preceding Bach—or at least the ones Bach sought out personally and took as role models—were three: Georg Böhm (1661–1733), whom Bach got to know during his student years at Lüneburg and whose fugues he particularly emulated; the Dutch-born Johann Adam Reincken (1643–1722), a patriarchal figure who had studied with a pupil of Sweelinck, and who died in his eightieth year; and, above all, Dietrich (or Diderik) Buxtehude (1637–1707), a Dane who served for nearly forty years as organist of the Marienkirche in the port city of Lübeck, one of the most important musical posts in Lutheran Germany.

Within that cultural sphere Buxtehude’s fame was supreme, and he received numerous visits and dedications from aspiring musicians, including both Handel (who came up from Hamburg in 1703) and Bach (who took a leave from Arnstadt to make a pilgrimage on foot to Buxtehude in the fall and winter of 1705–1706). According to a story related by one of his pupils in a famous obituary, the aged Reincken, having heard Bach improvise on a chorale as part of a job audition, proclaimed the younger man the torchbearer of the old north-German tradition: “I thought this art was dead,” the patriarch is said to have exclaimed, “but I see that in you it lives!” The story may well be apocryphal, but it contains an important truth: Bach did found his style on the most traditional aspects of north German (Lutheran) musical culture—a culture that was by most contemporary standards an almost antiquated one—and brought it to a late and (in the eyes of some of his contemporaries) virtually anachronistic peak of development. The keyboard works he composed early in his career while serving as organist at Arnstadt and Weimar show this retrospective side of Bach most dramatically.

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fig. 6-6 Johann Adam Reincken, engraving after a portrait by Gottfried Kneller.

One such apprentice piece, a harpsichord sonata in A minor, was based on a sonata da camera by Reincken himself, originally published in 1687 when Bach was two. Reincken had scored the piece for a trio sonata ensemble of two violins and continuo, enriched by a viola da gamba part that sometimes doubled the basso continuo line, sometimes embellished it, and sometimes departed from it to add a fourth real part to the texture. This kind of saturated texture was very much a German predilection and harks back to the full polyphony of the stile antico. Another Germanic trait was the sheer length of Reincken’s fugal subjects, a length achieved by the use of very long measures ( meter being the most note-heavy meter in general use) and through devices of Fortspinnung or “spinning out” such as we have already associated in the previous chapter with Bach.

In Ex. 6-1, the first section of Reincken’s last movement, a gigue in typical fugal style, is juxtaposed with Bach’s reworking. It is a true emulation: not just an imitation, not just an homage, but an effort to surpass. One way in which Bach sought to accomplish this was by a sheer increase in size—in two dimensions. Reincken’s nineteen measures are swollen to thirty, and his three-voiced exposition is augmented by a fourth fugal entry in Bach’s version. At a time when many composers—especially composers of opera—were pruning and simplifying their styles in the interests of directness of expression, Bach remained faithful to an older esthetic tradition, seeking instead a maximum of formal extension and textural complexity. Throughout his life he was famed for the density of his music—sometimes praised for it, sometimes mocked.

At the same time, Bach managed, by varying the texture and pacing the harmony, to give his fugal exposition a much shapelier, more sharply focused design than Reincken’s, despite the increase in length and (so to speak) in girth. At the beginning, Bach allows the initial exchange of subject and answer to take place without accompaniment, dispensing with Reincken’s bass line as if getting rid of clutter. Then he gives greater point to the cadence at the end of the subject (m. 3) by spinning the sequence down as far as the leading tone, where Reincken had marked the end by repeating the approach to the tonic pitch.

This sharpening of tonal focus could be thought of as a modernizing touch: a response to the newly focused tonal style that was emanating from Italy, and that had quickly established itself, for musicians of Bach’s generation, as a norm. Indeed, Bach greatly intensifies the harmony both in color and in “functionality,” accompanying Reincken’s long sequences of three-note descents with explicit circle-of-fifths harmonizations that sometimes (as in the full-textured “fourth entrance” in mm. 11–13) go into a sort of chromatic overdrive thanks to the use of secondary or “applied” dominants. For the rest, Bach expands the length of the exposition by devising an “episode” motive consisting of a decorated suspension chain (first heard in m. 7 between the two subject/answer pairs) that is finally brought rather dramatically into contrapuntal alignment with the subject on its last appearance.

Both Reincken’s and Bach’s versions are followed a couple of measures into the second section before Ex. 6-1 breaks off, to show the way in which both composers, following an old tradition, invert the subject to complement its initial statement. Here, too, Bach managed to outdo Reincken by building the inverted exposition from the bottom up instead of repeating the original top-down order of entries, thus achieving inversion, as it were, on two compositional levels at once.

Devices like these, and competition in their ingenious application, were standard operating procedure for church organists, who learned to do such things extemporaneously. More than anything else, they hark back to the learned artifices and contrivances of the stile antico. Bach delighted in these erudite maneuvers that he learned in his prentice years, employed them in every genre, and in his last years brought them to a peak of virtuosity that has been regarded ever since as unsurpassable. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel recalled that when listening to an organist improvise, or even when hearing a composed fugue for the first time, his father would always try to predict all the devices that could be applied to the subject, taking special pleasure in being surprised by one that he had failed to predict, and, contrariwise, reproaching the player or composer if his expectations went unmet.

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ex. 6-1a J. A. Reincken, Hortus musicus, Sonata no. 1, Gigue, mm. 1–21

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ex. 6-1b J. S. Bach, the same, arranged as a keyboard sonata, mm. 1–34

From Buxtehude, Bach inherited the toccata form sampled in the previous chapter. The Toccata in F included there as Ex. 5-15 may have originally been paired with a fugue (in F minor), according to a process that Buxtehude had pioneered, whereby the “strict” and “free” sections of a toccata—that is, the rigorously imitative or “bound” vs. the improvisatory passages—became increasingly separate from one another and increasingly regular in their alternation, with the improvisatory passages serving as introductions to the increasingly lengthy fugal ones.

By the early eighteenth century these sectionalized toccatas had developed into pairs of discrete pieces, the free one prefacing (or serving as “prelude” to) the strict. Such a pair, although still called “Toccata” or “Toccata and fugue” when the “free” part was especially lengthy or virtuosic (as in Ex. 5-15), or “Fantasia and fugue” when the free part had strongly imitative or motif-developing tendencies, was by Bach’s time most often simply designated “Prelude and fugue.”

Bach was the latest and greatest exponent of the prelude-and-fugue form, to which he contributed more than two dozen examples for organ, along with works in even more traditional genres, like his famous organ Passacaglia in C minor. Most of these are early works, the bulk of them composed at Weimar, where he was employed primarily as an organ virtuoso. One of Bach’s most famous and mature compositions, however, was a monumental cycle of forty-eight paired preludes and fugues called Das wohltemperirte Clavier, in two books, the first composed in Cöthen in 1722, the second in Leipzig between 1738 and 1742.

Das wohltemperirte Clavier means “The Well-Tempered Keyboard.” Its subtitle reads “Praeludia und Fugen durch alle Tone und Semitonia,” or “Preludes and Fugues through all the Tones and Semitones.” This meant that each of the books making up Bach’s famous “Forty-Eight” consisted of a prelude-and-fugue pair in all the keys of the newly elaborated complete tonal system, alternating major and minor and ascending by semitones from C major, the “purest” of the keys since it has an accidental-free signature, to B minor (thus: C, c, C♯, c♯, D, d, and so on). Only a keyboard tuned in something approaching “equal temperament,” with pure octaves divided into twelve equal semitones, can play equally well-in-tune throughout such a complete traversal of keys.

Equally well-in-tune actually means equally out-of-tune. Except for the octave, intervals composed of equal semitones do not correspond to those produced by natural resonance, known (after the well-known legend of their discovery) as “Pythagorean” intervals. The whole history of tuning has been one of compromise between natural resonance and practical utility. Since musical practice almost always demanded the ability to move from key to key—that is, to transpose scales so that their tonics and other harmonic functions are “keyed” to different pitches—and since the musical practice of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries suddenly demanded the ability to do this with increasing freedom and variety within single pieces, it was precisely then that the idea of equalizing the semitones decisively overcame the long-standing resistance of fastidious musicians who objected to the total loss of undeniably beautiful “pure” fourths, fifths, and thirds.

Bach’s own preferred tuning was probably not yet quite equal. His practice may have accorded with that of Andreas Werckmeister (1645–1706), the author (in 1691) of the earliest treatise on equal temperament, who nevertheless declared himself willing “to have the diatonic thirds left somewhat purer than the other, less often used ones.” Bach and his contemporaries may in fact have relished the dramatizing effect of greater harmonic “impurity” in remote tonalities. And yet Bach’s twofold exhaustive cycle of preludes and fugues in all the keys celebrated what he clearly regarded as an ongoing triumph of practical technology, enabling a greatly enriched tonal practice that Bach, as we already know from the Toccata in F, was very quick to exploit.

For this, too, Bach had an immediate model. Twenty years before he wrote the first volume of the “WTC,” in 1702, a south German organist and Kapellmeister named Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer published a collection of preludes and fugues under the title Ariadne musica, after the mythological princess who led the hero Theseus out of the Cretan labyrinth. The labyrinth, or maze, had long been a metaphor for wide-ranging tonal modulations, and Fischer’s nineteen prelude-and-fugue pairs are cast in as many keys. (The fact that five “remote” keys are missing from his traversal probably means Fischer presupposed one of several tunings in use at the time that, while basically “well-tempered,” were farther from equal than the one used by Bach.) As early as the sixteenth century, modulatory sets of this kind, placing tonics on all the semitones, had been written as curiosities for the lute, whose frets even then were set in something like equal temperament. But Fischer was undoubtedly Bach’s model, for Bach paid him tribute by quoting a few of his fugue subjects, for example the one in E major (no. 8 in Fischer, no. 9 in Bach).

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ex. 6-2a J. C. F. Fischer, Ariadne musica, subject of the E-major Fugue

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ex. 6-2b J. S. Bach, Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Book II, subject of the E-major Fugue

And yet just as in the case of Reincken, Bach far surpassed his model even as he kept faith with it. Not only did Bach complete the full representation of keys; he also greatly expanded the scope and the contrapuntal density of his model. And perhaps most significantly of all, he invested the music with his uniquely intense and emphatic brand of tonal harmony.

To take the full measure of the WTC in a brief description is impossible; yet something of its range of technique and its intensity of style may be gleaned by juxtaposing the very beginning and the very end of the first book: the C-major prelude and the exposition of the B-minor fugue (Ex. 6-3).

These are both famous pieces, albeit for very different reasons. The C-major prelude is a piece that every pianist encounters as a child. It is in a classic “preludizing” style that goes back to the lutenists of the sixteenth century. That style had been kept alive through the seventeenth century by the French court harpsichordists (or clavecinistes) who took over from their lutenist colleagues like the great Parisian virtuoso Denis Gaultier (1603–72) both the practice of composing suites of dances for their instrument, and also many “lutenistic” mannerisms such as the strumming or arpeggiated style Bach’s prelude continues to exemplify.

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ex. 6-3a J. S. Bach, Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Book I, Prelude no. 1 (C major)

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ex. 6-3b J. S. Bach, Das wohltemperirte Clavier, Book I, Fugue no. 24 (B minor), mm. 1 – 19

The French called it the style brisé or “broken [chord] style”; early written examples, like those of the claveciniste Louis Couperin (ca. 1626–61), preserve many aspects of what was originally an impromptu performance practice akin to the old lute ricercar, in which the player prefaced the main piece with a bit of preparatory strumming to capture the listeners’ attention and to establish the key. Couperin’s “unmeasured” preludes, like the one in Ex. 6-4, are especially akin to improvised lute-strumming. Their notation actually leaves the grouping and pacing of the arpeggios to the player’s discretion.

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ex. 6-4 Louis Couperin, unmeasured prelude

Thus, descending from a literally improvisatory practice, Ex. 6-3a is cast in a purely harmonic, “tuneless” idiom. (It was so tuneless as to strike later musicians as beautiful but incomplete. The French opera composer Charles Gounod [1818–93] actually wrote a melody, to the words of the antiphon Ave Maria, to accompany—or rather, to be accompanied by—Bach’s prelude. It is a familiar church recital piece to this day.) Even without a tune, though, Bach’s prelude has a very clearly articulated form—as well it might, since as we saw in the last chapter, it is harmony that chiefly articulates the form of “tonal” music even when melody is present.

The first four measures establish the key by preparing and resolving a cadence on the tonic. Measures 5–11 prepare and resolve a cadence on the dominant: and note that even though all the chords are “broken,” the implied contrapuntal “voice leading” is very scrupulously respected. Dissonances, chiefly passing tones and suspensions, are always resolved in the same “voice.” Thus the suspended bass note C in m. 6 resolves to B in the next measure; the suspended B in m. 8 resolves to A in m. 9; the suspended G in the middle of the texture in m. 9 (its “voice” identifiable as the one represented by the fourth note in the arpeggio—let’s call it the alto) resolves to F♯ in m. 10; while the suspended C in the soprano in that same measure resolves to B in m. 11. (Ex. 6-5 shows this progression in block chords, so that the voice leading can be traced directly.)

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ex. 6-5 J. S. Bach, Prelude no. 1, mm. 5–11, analyzed for voice leading

Measures 12–19 lead the harmony back to the tonic, characteristically employing a few chromaticized harmonies as a feint, to boost the harmonic tension prior to its final resolution. That resolution turns out not to be final, however: the tonic chord sprouts a dissonant seventh, turning it into a dominant of the subdominant; and the subdominant F in the bass, having passed (mm. 21 – 24) through a fairly wrenching chromatic double neighbor (F♯/A♭), settles on G, which is held as a dominant pedal for a remarkable eight measures (remarkable, that is, in a piece only 35 measures long) before making its resolution—a resolution accompanied by more harmonic feinting so that full repose is only achieved after four more measures. This apparently simple and old-fashioned composition conceals a wealth of craftsmanship, and in particular, it displays great virtuosity in the new art of manipulating tonal harmony.

That new art is really put through its paces in the B-minor fugue (Ex. 6-3b), famous for its chromatic saturation and its attendant sense of pathos—a pathos achieved by harmony alone, without any use of words. The three-measure subject is celebrated in its own right for containing within its short span every degree of the chromatic or semitonal scale, a sort of maximally intensified passus duriusculus, which at the same time symbolically consummates the progress of the whole cycle “through all the tones and semitones.” What gives the subject, and the whole fugue, its remarkably poignant affect is not just the high level of chromaticism, but also the way in which that chromaticism is coordinated with what, even on their first “unharmonized” appearance, are obviously dissonant leaps—known technically as appoggiaturas (“leaning notes”). The two leaps of a diminished seventh in the second measure are the most obviously dissonant: the jarring interval is clearly meant to be heard as an embellishment “leaning on” the minor sixth that is achieved when the first note in the slurred pair resolves by half step: C-natural to B, D to C♯. But in fact, as the ensuing counterpoint reveals, every first note of a slurred pair is (or can be treated as) a dissonant appoggiatura.

A thorough analysis of mm. 9–15, encompassing the entries of the third (bass) and fourth (soprano) voices, will reveal an astonishing level of dissonance on the strong beats, where the appoggiaturas fall. The bass G in m. 9 is harmonized with a tritone; the B on the next beat clashes with the C♯ above; the E on the downbeat makes the same clash against the F♯ above; the C that follows is harmonized with a tritone; the F♯ that comes next, with a fourth and a second; and the D on the fourth beat of m. 10 creates a seventh against the suspended C♯. Most of these dissonances are created not by suspensions but by direct leaps—the strongest kind of dissonance one can have in tonal music. Turning now to the soprano entrance in m. 13, we find a tritone and a diminished seventh against the D on the third beat; a leapt-to seventh on the fourth; a simultaneous clash of tritone, seventh, and fourth on the ensuing downbeat; a tritone against the sustained B on the second beat; another leapt-to seventh on the third beat, and so it goes.

It will come as no surprise to learn that these slurred descending pairs with dissonant beginnings were known as Seufzer—“sighs” or “groans”—and that they had originated as a kind of word-painting or madrigalism. The transfer of vivid illustrative effects, even onomatopoeias, into “abstract” musical forms shows that those forms, at least as handled by Bach, were not abstract at all, but fraught with a maximum of emotional baggage. What is most remarkable is the way Bach consistently contrives to let the illustrative idea that bears the “affective” significance serve simultaneously as the motive from which the musical stuff is spun out.

Structure and signification, “form” and “content,” are thus indissolubly wedded, made virtually synonymous. That was the expressive ideal at the very root of the “radical humanism” that gave rise to what Monteverdi (unbeknown to Bach) had called the seconda prattica a hundred years before. Monteverdi could only envisage its realization in the context of vocal music (where “the text will be the master of the music”). He never dreamed that such an art could flourish in textless instrumental music. That was what Bach, building on a century of musical changes, would achieve within an outwardly old-fashioned, even backward-looking career.

Clearly, Bach’s art had a Janus face. Formally and texturally it looked back to what were even then archaic practices. In terms of harmony and tonally articulated form, however, it was at the cutting edge. That cutting edge still pierces the consciousness of listeners today and calls forth an intense response, while the music of every other Lutheran cantor of the time has perished from the actual repertory.

The other traditional genre that Bach inherited directly from his Lutheran organist forebears, and from Buxtehude most immediately, was the chorale setting. This was a protean genre. It could assume many forms, anywhere from a colossal set of improvised or composed variations (the type with which Bach enraptured Reincken and called forth his blessing) to a minuscule Choralvorspiel or “chorale prelude,” a single-verse setting with which the organist might cue the congregation to sing, or provide an accompaniment to silent meditation. The chorale melody in such a piece might be treated strictly as a cantus firmus, or else melodically embellished, or else played off against a ritornello or a ground bass, or else elaborated “motet-style” into points of fugal imitation based on its constituent phrases.

Toward the end of his Weimar period, ever the encyclopedist and the synthesizer, Bach set about collecting his chorale preludes into a liturgical cycle that would cover the whole year’s services. He had only inscribed forty-six items out of a projected 164 in this manuscript, called the Orgelbüchlein (“Little organ book”), when he was called away to Cöthen. But in their variety, the ones entered fully justify Bach’s claim on the manuscript’s title page, that in his little book “a beginner at the organ is given instruction in developing a chorale in many diverse ways.” We can compare Buxtehude and Bach directly, and in a manner that will confirm our previous comparisons, by putting side by side their chorale preludes—Bach’s from the Orgelbüchlein—on Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt (“Through Adam’s fall we are condemned,” Ex. 6-6).

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ex. 6-6a Dietrich Buxtehude, Durch Adams Fall, mm. 1–23

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ex. 6-6b J. S. Bach, Durch Adams Fall (Orgelbüchlein, no. 38)

Although the first line makes reference to what for Christians was the greatest catastrophe in human history, the real subject of the chorale’s text is God’s mercy by which man may be redeemed from Adam’s original sin through faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it is the first line that sets the tone for the setting, since the first verse is the one directly introduced by the prelude. Both Buxtehude’s prelude and Bach’s, therefore, are tinged with grief. The chorale melody, treated plain by Bach, with some embellishment by Buxtehude, is surrounded by affective counterpoints.

In Buxtehude’s case the affect is created by chromatically ascending and descending lines that enter after a curious suppression of the bass. In Bach’s setting, the most striking aspect is surely the pedal part. This in itself is no surprise: spotlighting the pedal part was one of Bach’s special predilections, as we already know from the Toccata in F (Ex. 5-15), and fancy footwork was one of his specialties as an organ virtuoso. On the title page of the Orgelbüchlein, which he intended to publish on completion, Bach included a little sales pitch, promising that the purchaser will “acquire facility in the study of the pedal, since in the chorales contained herein, the pedal is treated as wholly obbligato,” that is, as an independent voice.

What is a powerful surprise, and further evidence of Bach’s unique imaginative boldness, is the specific form the obbligato pedal part takes in this chorale setting: almost nothing but dissonant drops of a seventh—Adam’s fall made audible! And not just the fall, but also the attendant pain and suffering are depicted (and in a way evoked), since so many of those sevenths are diminished. A rank madrigalism, the fall, is given emotional force through sheer harmonic audacity and is then made the primary unifying motive of the composition. Again the union of illustration and construction, symbolic image and feeling, “form” and “content,” is complete. And if, as seems likely, Buxtehude meant the three falling fifths that accompany the first phrase of the chorale in the bass to symbolize the fall, we have another case of Bach’s propensity to emulate—to adopt a model and then surpass it to an outlandish degree, amounting to a virtual difference in kind.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Aug. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Aug. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06003.xml