Monday, April 25, 2005

Herzliebster Herzliebster Herzliebster Herzliebster Jesu Jesu Jesu Jesu

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

CHORALES on "Herzliebster Jesu" (four of them): Nos. 105 and 78 from "St. Matthew Passion" and Nos. 59 and 111 from the "St. John Passion"

It's easy to develop the subconscious belief that Bach wrote his chorales solely as fodder for future harmonic analysis. Which is to say that - unless you had an unusual choral or (Lutheran?) church organist background - you'd never heard these pieces before they were stuck in front of you for a music theory class. You might have come upon them in their proper context (i. e. within a cantata or passion oratorio) but almost certainly never as the neat filets laid end-to-end in Schirmer's Riemenschneider edition.

Looking over that Riemenschneider book just now, I'm struck by how ugly it is- the notes are tiny, the staves are jammed together, and trying to play from it at a keyboard gives me a headache. What's worse is the sheer amount of information between the thin paper covers- I feel weary when I hold it and think of all the "revised, corrected, edited, and annotated" chords inside. How are we supposed to use this book? Isn't its existence an implication that the serious musician will go through it from front to back, somehow slurping all the information and sweetness and high baroque voice-leading technique from each one? I tried, a couple years ago, to play through the whole thing, ticking the chorales off one by one over the weeks and making pathetic little margin notes like "highly chromatic" or "interesting cadence" with my pencil. Judging from the markings, I abandoned the enterprise after 142 of them (out of 371).

And what do I remember about these chorales, which are supposedly such a treasure-house of music knowledge? Very, very little. They all blur together as a sight-reading exercise (I had my reasons for playing them rather than doing pencil analysis at the time). Now, as I go back to play a chorale or two at random for this entry, I have many of the same thoughts, and one in particular: these are awkward to play at a piano. The alto and the tenor lines keep crossing, and you'd need a giant's hands to play some of these spacings. I suppose that's a lesson in itself about baroque choral harmony: when your fingers get tangled up, it drives home how tangled-up the voice leading is.

I do, now, appreciate just how weird some of Bach's harmonic choices are. This strikes me most when I pick some chorale at random out of the book- I throw a dart and it hits chorale No. 138. This one starts in E Minor but then lurches through a particularly convoluted little patch of diminished chords into E major and cadences on the B dominant. The chorales are often like this, harmonically- normal normal normal VERY ODD normal normal. In No. 138, I can only assume it's something to do with the text, since the music switches to the parallel major for the 'exquisite' ('erlesen') night. Really, the parallel major amounts to a distant key, even if they share the same tonic, and it seems almost lazy that Bach gets there using fully diminished chords (which are, of course, harmonic skeleton keys). He has lots of 'tricks' like this- one of his favorite being the unexpected arrival of a weird, severely chromatically-altered chord which then, in a couple steps, resolves through standard voice-leading practices to some mundane key which isn't too far from the original tonic.

My tone might sound curiously bitter, and I imagine this is the fault of the Riemenschneider concept. Amputated from their places within oratorios, their texts buried in an appendix, the harmony of these chorales can seem perverse and arbitrary. The 'Bach chorale' as a concept seems pointless- a short block of 4-part harmony with no emotional musical purpose except to get in and out of some neighboring keys with a little harmonic flash. I also wonder if it wouldn't be fair for another Albert Riemenschneider to put out a massive paperback of the collected Telemann chorales, for comparison.

DeVoto deals with this problem pretty elegantly in "Mostly Short Pieces". He is clearly familiar with the sensation of having a page of no-context chorales plopped in front of you- enjoy scrunching your little V6s and V of Vs under the bass notes, kid! So, instead he tears a page from the "178 Chorale Harmonizations of J. S. Bach: A Comparative Edition for Study" by a Professor Donald Martino. This book by Martino is a darn good idea: he takes chorales based on the same hymn tune, transposes them all into the same key, and then stacks them on the page in a sort of score format so that you can see the alternative harmonization choices very easily. (Of course, the damn thing is out of print.)

The chorales in question are taken from the St. Matthew Passion (Nos. 105 and 78) and the St. John Passion (Nos. 59 and 111). I copied these out onto manuscript paper (figuring that in Bach's era most musicians learned a lot by copying out music) and then did a standard roman numeral analysis of each. And what did I come up with? Well, giving a blow-by-blow on what happens harmonically in each chorale would be chloroform in print, so instead I'll describe how they vary. (Incidentally, I found an instance of parallel 5ths- the horror).

1.) Bach cadences on different pitches within the original tune ("Herzliebster Jesu", the Crüger version of which I discussed in an earlier entry). There's more variation with regards to these cadence points within the first half of the tune, as the melody tends to demand cadences at certain points in the last few phrases. This sheds a little light on the way Bach uses abrupt diminished sonorities to steer to goals in seemingly strange keys- if your text demands a cadence, these little bursts of intense harmonic activity will give it a little more solidity even if it's occuring at an unusual point on a well-know melody line.

2.) Bach is pretty relaxed about how he treats the "Herzliebster Jesu" melody line. He embellishes it with sixteenth notes and passing tones in the different chorales, and even varies those accidentals which are flexible within the melodic minor (i.e. the natural/sharpness of scale degrees 6 and 7).

3.) These chorales DeVoto picked are actually really mild examples of the sort of chromaticism of which Bach is capable- Bach sticks to the tonic minor and relative major, only briefly touching on the submediant major in one chorale and, arguably, the subdominant minor. Even in these cases, the tonicizations feel more like extended V/iv stuff rather than a new key- the things are barely 10 bars long, after all.

Next post: more Bach, in context.


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