Random, half-baked generalities about Bach

Yesterday I did something that is always fraught with danger. I had a lengthy discussion with a musician about Bach. There are two dangers in such an enterprise. First, everyone involved finds themselves inevitably using one of these concepts: architecture, God, cosmos, DNA, mathematics, genius. I think all of those terms were used yesterday. But in our defense, even Beethoven was reduced to calling Bach the “immortal god of harmony.”

Second, if you participate in any such discussion, and it lasts any length of time, you are compelled to disclose a half-baked theory that you’ve been harboring about the “essence” of Bach. And our talk yesterday went past the tipping point. She explained that based on her study of the unaccompanied violin works, the essence was how seemlessly he moved from one tonal center to another, without the listener knowing it until the transition had already happened. (She likened his overall tonal scheme to moving from one galaxy to another.) To her this was important because she said that the same part of the ear that detects or resolves tonality is the part that governs the body’s balance. (Is this why music and dance are always associated? Even German music that isn’t “dancable” hews closely to the French dance forms, like Bach’s cello suites or Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ.”) So the ear should be able to detect a change in key, as for example, it can readily do in the 12 Telemann violin fantasies. But Bach uses some as-yet-undiscovered-by-her device to “mask” the change, and she is planning on finding it out. (One way I’ve noticed this is accomplished is by the use of a rapid line (say eighth note or sixteenth notes) with large intervals between notes so that he can artfully use accidentals to “step” away from one key to another. If the notes were closer together the modulation would be easier to detect.)

My own half-baked theory was that being steeped in the fugue (and fugue-like forms) early and through-out his life strongly influenced (in a way I have yet to fully explain) his “melody” or thematic construction in all his works. My thinking goes as followings: Whenever one makes a piece with more than one voice and expects the second voice to come in using the same statement (or one manipulated in the way that the rules of the fugue allow) and overlap part of the statement of the first voice, the “architecture” of the statement has to be such that it accommodates the harmonies that will result from the overlap. In medieval music the vocal lines were not designed to produce the same kind of euharmonious effect (if you will permit a neologism just for this purpose) that Bach intended. Therefore medieval music will contain all sorts of startling (but accidental) dissonances. (It is Bach’s reduction of these unplanned dissonances that forms Adrian Leverkühn’s complaint that Bach destroyed polyphony in Mann’s Doktor Faustus.) So two characteristics of Bach’s “melody” lines (for example, even in arias in the cantatas, which are not designed to produce the counterpoint of the fugues or fugue-like pieces) are that they are long and their parts are self-referential (in a way I have not worked out). Now the counter-evidence for this “theory” is the Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079. Bach took a melody written by Frederick the Great — a melody that was probably not designed for counterpoint because Frederick thought the old Bach was somewhat old-fashioned in his devotion to these old forms — and Bach was able to create a “fugue” with up to 6 voices. The human mind is nothing if not able to protect its own creations, so I attribute that to Bach’s unearthly ability to make fugues by that point in his career and still maintain that if Bach wrote the “melodic” statement himself, it would have been better. Besides, he manipulates the statement in such a way (I convince myself) that he is able to use it just like he would have used his own statement.

The conversation never came to any conclusion, so it was in fact much like Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080, where Bach allows the performer to provide his own ending. But, since, unlike Bach, there was no correct ending to the conversation, I will include here a description of one of the canons of Musikalisches Opfer by meta-metatician Douglas Hofstadter from his Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (NY: 1979), p10. He uses it to introduce his concept of “strange loops,” but for now, I’ll use it to merge the two concepts discussed yesterday, the modulation of keys and the construction of fugues, in this case the more simplified “canons” (all in the context of the Musikaisches Opfer):

“There is one canon in the Musical Offering which is particularly unusual. Labeled simply “Canon per Tonos,” it has three voices. The uppermost voice sings a variant of the Royal Theme, while underneath it, two voices provide a canonic harmonization based on a second theme. The lower of this pair sings its theme in C  minor (which is the key of the canon as a whole), and the upper of the pair sings the same theme displaced upwards in pitch by an interval of a fifth. What makes this canon different from any other, however, is that when it concludes — or, rather, seems to conclude — it is no longer in the key of C minor, but now is in D minor. Somehow Bach has contrived to modulate (change keys) right under the listener’s nose. And it is so constructed that this ‘ending’ ties smoothly onto the beginning again: thus one can repeat the process and return in the key of E, only to join again to the beginning. These successive modulations lead the ear in increasingly remote provinces of tonality, so that after several of them, one would expect to be hopelessly far away from the starting key. And yet magically, after exactly six such modulations, the original key of C minor has been restored! All the voices are exactly one octave higher than they were at the beginning, and here the piece may be broken off in a musically agreeable way. Such, one imagines, was Bach’s intention but Bach indubitably also relished the implication that this process could go on ad infinitum, which is perhaps why he wrote in the margin ‘As the modulation rises, so may the King’s Glory.'”

Bach is probably more deviously intricate than we will every know. That’s why we always revert to generalizations. Note that Hofstadter doesn’t  explain the mechanism of the modulation and only calls it “magic.” All these generalizations mean only one thing: We are slack-jawed in awe and admiration of what Bach’s mind was capable of.

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