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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 8 The Comic Style
Richard Taruskin

One very dramatic way of pointing up the problem and suggesting solutions to it (even though it means staying for a while with the Germans) would be to begin with a close look at the work of Bach’s sons, starting with the eldest, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–84).

The Younger Bachs

fig. 8-2 Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, eldest son of J. S. Bach, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a North German church organist.

We last heard of him as the arranger of his father’s huge Reformation cantata for a gala performance on the anniversary of the Augsburg Confession. Thereafter, W. F. Bach (henceforth “WF”) followed a career in his father’s footsteps as Lutheran organist and cantor. Although far less successful than old Sebastian’s in terms of steady employment, owing to what we would probably now diagnose as personality disorders, it was by no means an undistinguished career. WF’s most prominent job, and the one he held longest, was as successor to Zachow, Handel’s teacher, at the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of the Virgin Mary) in Halle, Handel’s birthplace. And despite his career difficulties, WF inherited his father’s reputation as the finest German church organist of his time.

It would be reasonable to expect his music basically to resemble old Sebastian’s. Some of it, notably his church cantatas, did. And yet as the harpsichord sonata in F (Ex. 8-1) suggests, much more of it does not.

Although composed around 1745, that is to say within J. S. Bach’s lifetime, the work occupies a different stylistic universe than anything the elder Bach composed. The very word “sonata” had come to mean something different to WF from what it meant to JS. For JS the word meant chamber music in the Italian style—basically trio sonatas, not keyboard works at all. For keyboard one wrote suites, not sonatas. The only exceptions were keyboard arrangements of chamber sonatas (like the one by Reincken we looked at in chapter 6), or else deliberate imitations of such works, like the set of six sonatas for organ composed in Leipzig around 1727, in which the two hands of the organist represent the two “melodic” parts of a trio sonata and the feet on the pedals played the very active and thematic bass. (The organ trios were thus pedal studies in effect; they were actually composed for WF to practice.) Even JS’s sonatas for solo instrument and harpsichord were usually trio sonatas, thanks to obbligato writing for the keyboard. The most common formal approach in all of these works, especially in the outer (fast) movements, was to spin them out in fugal style.

JS never dreamt of writing keyboard sonatas like WF’s (not just the one given here, but all of them), in which all three movements were in binary form and in which the texture is either two-part or else makes free use of harmonic figuration. But these large formal and textural differences, though significant, are really the least of it. The stylistic and rhetorical gulf is the mind-boggler, and it widens with each movement.

At first blush WF’s first movement does not look all that “un-Bachlike.” It actually begins with a canon. That canon, though, lasts all of two measures, and contains a repeated phrase that turns it into mere “voice exchange.” Imitative counterpoint, though clearly something at WF’s beck and call, is for him an occasional device, more a decorative touch than the essential modus operandi. But even that is not the most basic difference of approach between WF and his father. The most basic differences lie in the interpenetrating dimensions of melodic design and harmonic rhythm.

The Younger BachsThe Younger BachsThe Younger Bachs

ex. 8-1 W. F. Bach, Sonata in F (Falck catalogue no. 6), first movement

WF’s melodic design, at the opposite pole from JS’s powerfully spinning engine, is based on the dual principle of short-range contrast and balance. The first four measures tell the whole story. Both melodically and harmonically, they divide in the middle, two plus two. The first pair (our “canon”) continually circles around the tonic, touching down on it at every second beat. The second pair of measures does the same with the dominant harmony and underscores the harmonic contrast with a motivic one. Melodically, the second pair has nothing to do with the first. But the contrast is forged into a sort of higher unity by the principle of balance when the tonic is restored in m. 5.

Melodic contrast then seems to run rampant. The fifth measure has a new motive (based on the opening rhythm in m. 1), and so does the sixth (no longer related to anything previous), and so does the seventh! These little melodic cells qualify as “motives” through independent repetition: in m. 5 directly in the right hand, in m. 6 by a twofold exchange between the hands, and in m. 7 by a single exchange; from this perspective, too, variety seems at first to know no bounds. Measure 8 continues with the same motive as m. 7, which once again creates a symmetrical divide (that is, a divide at the middle); measures 5–8 break down into (1 + 1) + 2.

Parenthetically, let us also note that these motives are cast in rhythms that carry definite associations to the “galant”—the “affable” (lightweight, courtly, “Frenchy”) style that JS Bach tended to shy away from, even in the actual galanteries (the “modern” dances) from his suites. The fast triplets alternating freely with duple divisions are one specifically galant rhythm (exploited somewhat ironically by JS, we may recall, in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with its most ungallant juggernaut of a harpsichord solo). The “lombard” rhythms (quick short–long pairs) are even more distinctly galant, and even rarer in the work of Bach the father.

But all the surface variety and decorative dazzle in WF’s writing is a feint that covers, and somewhat occludes, a very deliberate and structurally symmetrical tonal plan. Like any binary movement, this one will follow a there-and-back harmonic course, moving from tonic to dominant in the first half and from dominant to tonic, by way of a “far-out point” (FOP), in the second. What distinguishes one piece from another is not the foreordained basic plan they all share but rather the specific means of its implementation. Some pieces rush headlong from harmonic pole to pole. This one, to a degree we have never before encountered in instrumental music, takes time to smell the daisies (and, in the form of unpredictably varied motives, takes care to provide a lot of daisies to smell). That placidity is also part and parcel of what it meant to be galant. It’s a bad courtier or diplomat who’ll allow strong emotion to show.

A stroll around a garden, then—and a very meticulously laid out garden it is. Taking in the first half at a glance now, we count sixteen measures—and it’s no accident. It means that the portion we have examined so far, exactly half of the total span, will be balanced by the rest, so that our observations about short-range harmonic and melodic symmetries will hold at the long range as well: 16 = (8 + 8) = (4 + 4 + 4 + 4), and so on down to pairs and units. The longest-range symmetry governing this half of the movement concerns harmonic balance. The establishment of the dominant as local tonic, or modulatory goal, takes place exactly on the downbeat of m. 9 and is repeatedly confirmed thereafter, thus dividing the whole span into 8 bars of tonic, 8 of dominant. Within the second 8 (that is, mm. 9–16), the motivic contrasts take place in a fashion that continues to emphasize symmetrical divisions on various levels simultaneously. Thus m. 9 introduces syncopes; m. 10 has exchanges of triplets between the hands; mm. 11–12 coalesce into one exchange of triplets and larger syncopes; mm. 13–14 feature a twofold exchange of motives; m. 15 has a single exchange, and m. 16 provides the cadence. Thus in summary we get (1 + 1) + 2 + 2 + (1 + 1), which adds a kind of palindromic symmetry to the mix. The ideal, far from the “Baroque” aim of generating a great motivic and tonal momentum, seems to be to provide a maximum of ingratiating detail over a satisfyingly stable ground plan.

The second half starts off like a palindrome or mirror reflection of the first. Its first four measures (mm. 17–20) are a simple transposition to the dominant of the four-measure gambit that got the whole piece moving, and that we analyzed in some detail above. In m. 21, however, we hit a big jolt, expressed at once in every possible dimension—harmonic, textural, melodic. The harmony is a diminished-seventh chord, the most dissonant chord (as opposed to contrapuntal or “non-harmonic” dissonance) in the vocabulary of the time. The texture is disrupted by it: in fact this is the first actual chord we have heard in what up to now has been a strictly two-part texture, one that implied its harmonies rather than stating them outright. Melodically, too, there is disruption: obsessive (or constrained) syncopated repetition of single tones and dissonant leaps rather than smooth melodic flow. (And there is disruption in phrase length, too, as we shall see.)

In a way this is not unexpected, since it is time to move out to the FOP. But never yet have we seen the move so dramatized. The diminished-seventh at m. 21 is built over the leading tone of vi (d minor); and when resolution is made, the opening motive, familiar from both halves of the piece, returns, only to be brusquely shunted aside by a new diminished-seventh disruption on the third beat of m. 24. This is a far more serious disruption, because it is built over D♯, the leading tone to E, which is the seventh degree of the scale, and the only pitch in the scale of F major that cannot function as a local tonic because it takes a diminished triad. Therefore, when resolution is made to E major in m. 26, there can be no sense of stable arrival, even at a FOP, because the harmony still contains a chromatic tone and expresses no function within the original key.

Harmonic restlessness continues through an asymmetrical (because binarily indivisible) five measures—during which, with a single exception (find it!), every degree of the chromatic scale is sounded—before settling down on A minor (iii), the true FOP. At this point, stable thematic material is resumed for two measures—literally resumed at the very point at which it had been interrupted (compare mm. 31–32 with mm. 5–6)—only to be superseded by another five bars’ restless modulation, aggravated this time by quickened syncopes, during which every degree of the chromatic scale is sounded without exception.

This last, extraordinarily chromatic, modulatory passage lets us off in m. 38 within hailing distance of the tonic—on IV, which proceeds to V, thence home. Again the return of stable harmonic functions is signaled, or accompanied, by the return of stable thematic material. The “retransitional” bar, the one that zeroes in on the tonic, brings back the “lombard” motives first heard in m. 7. When the tonic is reached in m. 39, however, the original melodic opening abruptly supersedes the lombards. This is the “double return”—original key and original theme simultaneously reachieved with mutually reinforcing or “synergistic” effect—that we first encountered, but only as an anomaly, in Domenico Scarlatti. Two bars later, in m. 41, the whole section originally cast in the dominant (mm. 7–16) returns transposed to the tonic and finishes the piece off with a sense of restored balance and fully achieved harmonic reciprocity.

In the music of W. F. Bach and his contemporaries, the double return and the large-scale melodic-recapitulation-cum-harmonic-reciprocation that it introduces are no longer anomalous features, as they had been with Scarlatti. They have become standard. Whereas Scarlatti’s use of it created a little historiographical problem (what, precisely, was its relationship—or his—to the “main evolution”?), there is no question of its absolute centrality to the musical thinking of WF’s generation and the ones that followed. Indeed, it would not be much of an exaggeration to dub the whole later eighteenth century the Age of the Double Return, so definitive did the gesture become.

The last movement of the present sonata, a rollicking Presto, offers immediate confirmation. Although it contrasts with the first movement in mood and texture, it follows the very same formal model and achieves the very same sense of roundedness and stability. Practically the whole of the first section of the piece is recapitulated in the second half. The first six measures are actually restated twice: at the very beginning of the second half, where they are transposed to the dominant, and towards the end, where they provide the double return. The middle movement (Ex. 8-2), a minuet (or a pair of minuets to be exact), is a simple galanterie such as J. S. Bach might have included in a suite. Simpler, in fact: JS would never have settled for such an uncomplicated texture, or for so much artless alternation of tonics and dominants, bar by bar, such as one finds here (especially at the beginning of the second minuet or “trio”). Yet we sense that WF is not “settling” for anything, but using the simplicity and “naturalness” of the unaffected dance as a foil for the very sophisticated constructions in the outer movements.

The Younger Bachs

ex. 8-2 W. F. Bach, Sonata in F (Falck catalogue no. 6), second movement (Minuet and Trio)

By the use of this foil, the composer points up that very sophistication by reminding us that all the movements in his sonata are cast in what is basically the same form, and also showing us how much variety of surface detail and structural elaboration that basic form can accommodate. The outer movements, with their tremendous profusion of motives, their cunningly calculated harmonic jolts, and their dramatically articulated unfoldings, are teased-up versions of the old galanterie, set on either side of a basic version that provides a moment of repose.

But where did all these teasing-up devices come from? And where did WF learn them, if he did not learn them at home? Every distinctive feature of the son’s style—its melodic profligacy, its reliance on the contrast and balance of short ideas, its frequent cadences, its self-dramatizing form, its synergistic harnessing of melodic and harmonic events, even its characteristic melodic and harmonic rhythms—were absolutely antithetical to his father’s style, and to Handel’s as well. To see this style surfacing all at once in Germany explains nothing; it merely makes the problem more acute. Its apparent suddenness is but the result of our skewed perspective on it—our skewed Germanocentric perspective, as Heartz might wish to warn us.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 The Comic Style. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 The Comic Style." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-08002.xml