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Bachs Musical Style

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

For many music lovers, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) is the greatest composer in the history of human civilization. People all over the world play his music and study his art. The value of his music can be expressed by Wagner’s famous phrase quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Music: “It is the most stupendous miracle in all music.” Style is the soul of every composer. Similarly, a good grasp of the playing style of a piece of music is an important criterion to judge the success of a performance. To grasp the work’s style correctly requires accumulated practice and the serious study of every note and every phrase and an equally important understanding of work as a whole.

The published works of Bach’s are many and include most of the mature music forms of his era including orchestral and chamber music and large works for orchestra and voice. However, Bach did not write opera and this is an important point to make when studying his ‘style’. He did not write opera because his employment in the ducal courts and education establishments occupied his creative time, and because he had an important role in the Luthern Church, a strict Protestant church which discouraged extravagance. The word ‘opera’, even by Bach’s time, had hints of ‘extravagance’, mostly because of the social circus of the public who attended opera. The public was there to indulgence themselves, to dress up and to be seen. Of course, dressing up and being seen has always been a part of church going, and Bach’s music always had entertainment purposes, but the main function of his music is to praise God and promote His teachings. Whether this purposes is conscious or not, Bach naturally adopted a German Protestant Christian outlook, in his work, one which rejects all unhealthy factors, or the “non-equilibrium” factors which bring about unexpected enthusiasm. Bach’s music is characterized by rational thinking and solemn emotion. His music is ‘behaved’ i.e. it is very structured and balanced. Bach’s works for voice and orchestra are characterized by having strictly Christian themes. They include more than three hundred sacred cantatas and the world-famous large-scale oratorios of the St Matthew’s Passion and the St. John’s Passion. They were not written for the opera house but for the cathedral.

Bach did write secular cantata, such as The Coffee Cantata (BWV 211), “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (Be still, stop chattering), but even this lightly satirical work has a Christian instructional themes. A warning against the addiction of coffee it’s main theme is Honor Thy Father’, one of the Ten Commandments of Moses. The narrator ‘Schlendrian’ sings in horror that his daughter doesn’t listen to him, though he has told her one thousand times to stop drinking coffee.

Together with the Protestant Ethic, three interesting hallmarks of Bach’s music style are Imitation, Contrast and Improvisation. Improvisation is the opposite of Imitation. The stepping-stone from Imitation to Improvisation is Contrast. To get there we must start at the beginning. To get to the beginning we will look at Bach’s work for keyboard.

At the forefront of Bach’s works is his music for keyboard. Much of his adult career was spent at the keyboard, in particular the crucial beginnings as the court organist and concertmaster at the ducal court in Weimar (1708- 1717) and the glorious finale in Leipzig (1723-50). Throughout his creative life he composed a large amount of keyboard music, such as “Toccata and Fugue in D minor”; “Das wohltemperierte Clavier” (“The well-tempered keyboard”, “Prelude and Fugue”; and the “Goldberg Variations”. Therefore to really to begin to understand Bach’s musical style we need to look closely at his writing for keyboard. Here we find the beginnings of his style and also the full flowering of his genius.

Although Bach originally wrote for the keyboards of the pianoforte and the cathedral organ much of Bach’s music has been transcribed for the piano, and it is through the transpositions for piano that pupils in China begin their studies of Bach’s style and music. Their starting point is not, of course, the mature masterpieces such as the “Goldberg Variations” but the beautifully direct and eloquently simple pieces he wrote for his own pupils.

“Inventions and Sinfonias”, BWV 772-801, also known as the “Two and Three Part Inventions”, are a collection of thirty short keyboard pieces consisting of fifteen two-part contrapuntal pieces called ‘inventio’ (inventions) and fifteen three-part contrapuntal pieces called ‘ sinfonia’. The two groups are both arranged in order of ascending key, each group covering the fifteen major and minor keys. They were written by Bach as technical exercises to develop his pupil’s ‘two-hand independence’— the ability to play independent parts of the music with each of their two hands. The autograph manuscript copy in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin includes Bach’s own intentions under the heading ‘auffrichtig’, or ‘Straightforward Instruction’:

“In which amateurs of the keyboard, and especially the keen ones, are shown a clear way not only (1) of learning to play cleanly in two voices, but also, after further progress, (2) of dealing correctly and satisfactorily with three obbligato parts; at the same time not only getting good inventions, but developing the same satisfactorily, and above all arriving at a cantabile [song-like] manner in playing, all the while acquiring a strong foretaste of composition.”

The manuscript is dated “Anno Christi 1723” and signed “Joh. Seb. Bach: Capellmeister to his Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen.”

The important point to make here about Bach’s style is that the starting point of the learning process and the creative process is ‘Imitation’. This is very clearly the case when we look at the exercises themselves. The music, and the understanding of the music, evolves out of repetition and minor variations of the form. This ‘imitation’ is a part of the Protestant Aesthetic. It is the Protestant approach of ‘Say as we say and do as we do’. But we note too that the function of Bach’s ‘imitation’ is not ‘blind imitation’ it is deliberately intended to lead the player to ‘independence’.

Only when the pupil has mastered ‘imitation’ can he possibly proceed to the next level of musical understanding, which is ‘Contrast’.

In Bach’s music contrast is shown in the whole and in the details. A good representative example is the 15 – 18 subsection of the first “two-part invention”, the contrast of strong and weak being a perfect match. Lively counterpoint voices are formed in contrast to fill the music with energy. The main theme is in coherent semiquaver notes; the counterpoint voice part is lively quaver notes. Different motive materials have different contrast,even in the same theme. such as 1 – 2 subsection in the eighth. This theme includes two motives, motive A is quaver note is a string of eight sub-note, whose staccatos are moving upward; motive B is a string of semiquaver note, whose staccatos are moving down. A motive is more active, B motives is more rounded, they have a sharp contrast.

Evolving out of ‘contrast’ is ‘Polyphony’, a texture containing two or more independent melodic voices. Polyphony has been described as “Bach’s crowning achievement” (“Bach Inventions,” Chen Ming-chi series, World Publishing Company). Unlike melody, the polyphony of voices all maintain their independence. When more voices are added, and interwoven into the texture, in the same free and independent manner, the wealth of musical expression increases still further. Therefore, polyphony is a three-dimensional approach. It has a “multi-faceted, multi-line, the multiplicity of complex thinking” (quoted from the foreword in “Piano Recital way, “Zhao Xiaosheng, Hunan Education Press, 1981). Through polyphony Bach teaches us that harmony is not simply the accompaniment of a simple melody but a means to increase the wealth of our musical language. This union of melodies gives rise to new combinations of tones and consequently an increase in the variety of musical expressions.

To the armoury of musical expression and ornamentations, such as trill, mordent, turn, appoggiatura, acciaccatura, improvisational ornamentality within a fixed space is an essential skill for every musician. Bach includes Improvisation as a part of Ornamentation. Improvisation is the opposite of ‘Imitation’. After Beethoven, the detail of music scores became more and more specific and standard, and the space for musicians to play improvisational music is getting smaller and smaller. However, in Bach’s works, this skill is indispensable. Bach did not often indicate the patterns of performing. An exception is the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, written by Johann Sebastian Bach for the keyboard instruction of his eldest son, which gives “Explanation of various signs, showing how to play certain ornaments correctly” but this is a rare exception. In Bach’s time, the execution of ornaments often varied from country to country and from composer to composer. We learn from the repeatedly revised manuscripts of the Inventions and Sinfonias that improvised ornamentation was encouraged, with the student expected to extend the logic through the entire piece.

Thus, we come full circle. “The most stupendous miracle” of Bach’s musical style, is that it teaches us that Imitation and Logic are the true pathways to Independence and Freedom.


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