Friday, May 27, 2005

"This one goes out to all the cattle dogs..."

And now, mercifully, the last Bach piece in this anthology. Bach, more than anybody, it seems, is the go-to guy for harmonic analysis anthologies. The music establishment treats his works as the most basic example of how harmony 'should' work- and, when this idea gets taught to generation after generation of music students, it becomes so ingrained that it seems true. Is there any good reason why the rules implied by Bach are the first we learn? If we orient all our fundamental music training towards understanding music between, say, 1690 and 1890, it should come as no surprise that those years furnish the bulk of what people consider 'classical music.'

What a waste! It's a perfect way to mire an art form in worship of the past. Why not start with anything else? Why not Monteverdi and Byrd and those other composers who made so much of the resources of rich, modal counterpoint? Or why not go straight to Debussy and the rest of the 20th century crew?

Arguments to the contrary go something like this, I guess: 1) nobody plays the theorbo anymore, putting us at a certain distance from pre-baroque music- people play violins, so we have to cater to that; 2) music of the 20th century evolved in reaction to the tonal idiom (the 'common practice') that prevailed for the previous 200 years, so it only makes sense to learn that old music first. Which seems reasonable, in theory, but the result is generation after generation of people who seldom get beyond the 18th or 19th century in their exploration of music (this results in a weird public mindset where the opposite of pop, rock, techno and other contemporary music is, for some reason, the music of 18th century Vienna). This Bach/Mozart/Beethov-o-philic approach to music also isolates composition students from contemporary musical life- the conventions of those common practice centuries -- cookie-cutter instrumentation, large-scale sonata forms -- are incompatible with any contemporary popular music forms. As the composer Scott Johnson has very cannily pointed out, a musical genre that has lost the ability to borrow from other contemporary genres is on the road to extinction.

Okay, time to stop this train before it gets off at Whining About Contemporary Music Station. This post should be a post of celebration- the last Bach piece! And so, today DeVoto offers us:

J. S. BACH "Cantata No. 208" (1716) Aria: "Schafe können sicher weiden"

Or, in english, "Sheep May Safely Graze." And who doesn't enjoy a good aria about sheep? Fluffy, a bit grayish, strolling around meadows contentedly tearing up grass, pausing only to cast an occasional wary glance at the extremely alert border collies- perfect material for a gentle bucolic aria. This is apparently one of Bach's 'secular' cantatas, although the text wouldn't exactly be out-of-place were it in a religious one (just append God to the end of a line or two). The upshot of the words is that things are generally quite nice in areas where Rulers do a good job of ruling and Shepherds do a good job herding.

The scoring is quintessentially baroque: two recorders ("Flauto dolce " - as opposed to "Flauto traverso "), a soprano ("Soprano II - Pales"- ?), and continuo. The edition DeVoto selected offers only a bassline without figures for the continuo, and he comments "you should not have any difficulty working out an appropriate set of figures from the context." This is true, for the most part, although during passages when only the continuo and soprano are playing, it's pretty flexible just which chords you want to use. I imagine that if I had a great deal of experience playing continuo and knew this period of music inside-and-out I'd be able to pick tasteful harmonies very casually. As it was, though, I often had a little hesitation- should I use, say, a I or a vi in first inversion? This matter is further complicated by Bach's frequent use of harmonic suspensions in the bass (i.e. often, the bass note is a dissonance carried over from earlier in the measure). Is it the tasteful thing to imitate this procedure in harmonically ambiguous passages? This could make for a very rich and complicated (irritating? fussy?) realization if it suits our fancy.

Structurally, this piece is a standard 'de capo' aria- we get a 21 measure A section, then a 19 measure B section. The entire A section is in B-flat Major, whereas the B section serves as something of a development, moving quickly to a long passage in C minor (presenting a lot of the A section's material in minor mode) through to a bit of B-flat, then F, then D minor, then G minor (all of these quick modulations are very dissonant and complicated) before moving back to F to solidly close in the dominant before repeating the B-flat Major A section. There is, notably, no E-Flat Major subdominant. Presumably, the subdominant serves too strongly as a harbinger of the concluding tonic, and it would be tiresome to sit through a complete recapitulation of the 21 measure tonic A section after hearing it. That's just a theory, though.

(Note: having sat down at the piano and tried the piece again with a brief hamfisted modulation to E-flat Major before the return to F, I've abandoned this 'boring' theory- the subdominant seemed to have its traditional effect without making the recapitulation of the A section feel any more boring. So, I guess, Bach just didn't put it in because he didn't want it.)

Okay, so that deals with the overall harmonic structure (in typically thrilling and highly-readable fashion). What happens in the piece, though- what do we hear? The continuo keeps up a steady pulse of eighth notes throughout, moving usually by steps but occasionally making large leaps. In terms of harmonic rhythm, it (the continuo) moves by quarter notes- every beat has two eighth notes of the same pitch. The soprano - middle layer - sings a melody of considerable harmonic variety, moving at basically a quarter note pace with lots of embellishments. Above, the two recorders hover over the whole affair with a sweet little duet- the first recorder has the tune and the second recorder plays contrapuntal harmonies that enrich it below. Their rhythms are basically identical - eighth notes and sixteenth notes - so there's no counterpoint between the two recorders in a rhythmic sense.

The piece starts with the recorders playing their tune by themselves for four bars. At the tune's conclusion, the soprano starts in with her aria- her music is decidedly more operatic and less hummable than the sweet little recorder melody which serves as the 'hook' for the piece. Four measures after the soprano's entrance, the recorders begin their tune again, and it serves as a counterpoint to the conclusion of the soprano's A section. This time, though, their tune is broken up a little into its component phrases to embellish the soprano melody below. It's a charming effect. The soprano concludes and the recorders continue for four or so bars to draw the A section to a close.

The B section begins with just continuo and soprano, and rapidly turns to dark C minor. In terms of word painting, incidentally, the Sheep and Shepherds get much cheerier music than the Rulers. After concluding a melancholy phrase about what a fine job the Rulers are doing, the recorders enter again, this time playing their tune in the minor mode. Interestingly, it begins this time on the third beat of the measure, meaning that it's off-set from it's 'normal' state by two beats. This doesn't feel too strange, rhythmically, and has an elegant side-effect- the offset tune's concluding chord becomes an anacrusis for a modulation without requiring messy extraneous transition measures. The modulation is a bit confusing as it is, though- it moves to a dissonant chain of modulations and tonicizations that moves though (as mentioned above) F, D minor and G minor, all with lots of diminished sonorities to serve as harmonic skeleton keys. The recorders, during all this, play their tune again but - and this is sort of interesting - the only play the first half, repeating this material rather than playing the concluding part of their tune. This is a good way to keep us unsatisfied and interested in the recapitulation- we want to hear that closing phrase again.

And that, I guess, is the last we'll see of J. S. Bach in this anthology. And next- on to one of his sons. A zany piano fantasia by crazy one, C. P. E., so that should be interesting.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


For DeVoto's 19th entry in "Mostly Short Pieces" we get, for a welcome change, a bit of monophony. It's strange, when you think about it, that there are so few pieces written for solo non-keyboard instruments. There is, after all, an endless need for unaccompanied pieces for portable instruments. So where are they? Do people just not like them very much? I can think of a handful of pieces for solo instruments, and these usually form a tiny fraction of any composer's output. Bach's solo cello and violin pieces form the core of the genre, but after him we get- a stray viola sonata by Ligeti? The "Goat Dance" of Honegger for flute? The Stravinsky "3 Pieces" for clarinet? Varese's memorable ode to a ludicrously expensive piece of metal? In short, not much, and usually only one piece per composer.

Today's special:

J. S. BACH "Suite No. 1 in G Major for Solo Cello", MOVEMENT III: "Courante"

In DeVoto's notes for this piece he calls it a good example of "polyphonic melody," which I take to be a way of saying that the melody jumps around among the registers a lot, thereby implying simultaneous voices moving at different levels. I'm not sure I agree with this idea- the use of different registers breaks the piece up into different archtectural sections, but only in a few places does it 'feel' like two voices, notably places like measure 15 where an ostinato lets one pitch creep up step by step with each repetition while the rest of the figure remains locked in its groove. It feels instead, I think, radically monophonic. As such, it relies on techniques unique to single-voice music for its structure and interest.

I think this piece works as a set of melodic cells, each a measure or two long. The cells are offered in different orders and keys, sometimes melting into each other. This sounds, granted, like a pretty generic description of how melody was treated during any part of the last four centuries. The lack of accompaniment, though, makes this aspect of the music stand out so sharply that it attains a level of abstraction missing from most baroque music. This is naked melody, cut into thematic blocks that are laid out one by one, like cards in a curious game of solitaire.

One interesting aspect of this cellular approach is that the segments are of uneven lengths. As a result, phrases made of these cells almost immediately phase into rhythms that feel off-kilter- not at all like carefully-balanced classical phrasing. Cadences and strong beats fall on odd places, meaning that this would be quite a hard bit of music to actually use for dancing a courante. The weird push and pull of their accents sound a bit, in fact, like successions of 5/8 and 2/4 measures. In this sense, it rather resembles Danse Sacrale-type Stravinsky motivic thinking. Now, this comparison with Stravinsky is admittedly a bit of a stretch, but only a small one (I mean, it may be tricky rhythmically, but it still sounds, you know, baroque).

The measure-to-measure harmonic structure is a little ambiguous (for that kind of clarity in a monophonic texture, Bach would have to limit himself to arpeggios as in the first prelude of the WTC). Instead, we get fragments of scales and figures that are halfway between arpeggios and ornamental figures. Still, some things are obvious: the piece is in G major, divided into sections- the fist half starts in G and then moves to D, then repeats. This is, of course, about as basic as it gets, the cadences made unambiguous through the use of terminal double-stops. The second half of the pieces moves from G to E (the relative minor), then to C (the subdominant) before returning to G and concluding.

The monophonic single-voice texture makes modulation especially easy and slick- one accidental is all it takes, really. In terms of unusual landmarks, we get a Neapolitan chord in measure 25 (making this a slightly more interesting visit to the relative minor than usual) and a myterious bit of passage work in measure 33 which accomplishes the transition from C back to G without resorting to anything obvious. This is interesting because we get: a V7 of C (i.e. a dominant chord built on G) then mysterious figuration stuff which includes elements of that dominant, and then a vii of G which slips us back into G. That dominant, in other words, never resolves but rather mutates into a major chord, which is certainly a little strange.

And I think that covers most of my thoughts about this courante. Next post: the last of Bach! A nice bit, about sheep.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Un Apres-Midi Sur Le Cheap Umbrella

On DeVoto's "Mostly Short Pieces" menu today:

J. S. BACH, two MINUETS from the "Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach" (1725-1730)
MINUET in G MAJOR, BWV Anh. 114 and MINUET in G MINOR, BWV Anh. 115

Like "Für Elise" or "A Small Night-Music" or the "Mona Lisa" or "David," these little minuets by Bach have long since passed out of the realm of subjective art into the gray world of famous-because-it's-famous. This is a bad fate for art- it gets robbed of its content and turned into a token of middle class self-congratulation. "Starry Night" gets emblazoned on the million tote-bags of the "I mostly watch public television" crowd and Beethoven's cranky, vaguely insane pronouncements are sequenced as ringtones.

That last paragraph is a cliche of music writing, and you'd think that we'd all be so weary of it that nobody would bother serving it up anymore. And yet- there it is, over and over, in almost every media in which music gets serious written consideration. I think this is because we're constantly hearing some piece we love blooping out of an idiot's cellphone- we wince, and the sense of insult is fresh.* Part of that, I think, is the self-important thought that you, alone, in that subway car or doctor's waiting room, knows something about that piece and its proper context. It's like returning to restaurant you liked years ago, only to discover that it's been turned into a Bare Escentuals or something. The architectural outlines are all there, but it's been transformed into something tawdry.

Most people know the story theorized for these minuets, which is that they're part of a 'notebook' of little pieces presented to Anna Magdalena, Bach's new wife, as a wedding present. They are very simple, making them popular pieces for beginning piano students. I'm not sure how Bach and family would have approached them in their daily lives- were these bare little contrapuntal dances meant for embellishment and elaboration, or were they intended as masterpieces of simplicity, to be played straight? I read somewhere that Bach acquired a hammered dulcimer, and pieces this simple might lend themselves well to an instrument capable of only two tones at a time.

The first of these minuets is in G Major, and doesn't offer anything particularly exotic for analysis. It is, rather, just a well-done, simple piece. The two voices engage in solid counterpoint that outlines strong, functional harmony. It is about as basic as tonal music can come: the only chords in the opening section are I, IV, and V aside from a couple passing harmonies that imply ii and diminished vii (since there are only two voices at once, there's some ambiguity). The B section is similarly harmonically simple, but not without some little charms. Namely, Bach has saved the high notes for this half of the pieces and also uses a vi chord as a touch of bittersweet. The B section modulates from G to D for a few bars and then comes back (and, for once, a sentence that banal really does convey something about what it's like to listen to the piece). That's pretty much all there is to say, except perhaps for Bach's consistent use of a mordent over 'C' tones throughout the opening of the minuet, which has a unifying effect. This little ornament disappears in the second half, only to return on a 'B' right before the final bar. Presumably, Bach and family would have been improvising other ornaments.

The second of the minuets is in G minor, so the two could be played as a set - Major, Minor, Major again. This minuet is, paradoxically, more complicated harmonically due to its simplicity. Bach plays with the two-voice texture in an interesting way, omitting the thirds from some chords which often serve as important structural features (i.e. V). This creates a curiously diaphonous texture, very airy and passive. In the overall scheme, it moves from G Minor to the relative major, B-flat Major. The first modulation is accomplished by means of the sudden intrusion of accidentals to create a diminshed vii/iv which leads to the a iv, the ii of the relative major. This pivot chord leads to a dominant V of B-flat, and the relative major clicks neatly into place. The modulation in the other direction is similar: an accidental creates a V/iv of G (the same iv we used to pivot the first time) which leads into a progression of i6 diminished vii i V, putting us pretty solidly back in the tonic (but not too solidly, a job which falls to the final cadential progression a few bars later).

And that wraps it up for these nice little minuets, touchstones of the growing cellphone repetoire.

Next post: the penultimate Bach entry! A movement from a cello suite.

*I sort of wonder who the 'we' in this sentence are.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Let's Look For Sonata Form in Bach, the Way People Look for Jesus in the Old Testament

This is, mercifully, the last of the entries from the Well-Tempered Clavier in "Mostly Short Pieces" (although not quite the end of Bach, unfortunately). It's hard to put my finger on the exact reason, but analyzing Bach is a real grind for me. I think it's his heavy reliance on diminished sonorities as a means of making quick and dirty tonicizations and modulations- those are a pain when you're working from chord to chord with a pencil. You progress nicely until you hit a thicket of chormaticism, at which point you have to skip ahead until you find the next cadence point and then work backwards to see how the music winds up there. And, of course, this isn't a very accurate reflection of how the harmony functions, since when you hear these weird sonorities your ear has no idea where they're going to go. It's not like, when you first hear that diminished chord, you know that it's a diminished vii/IV. But, let's get on with it:

J. S. BACH "Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II (1748): PRELUDE in F Minor"

DeVoto's preface notes make out that the rounded binary form of this prelude should be appreciated as a prefiguring of sonata form: "One can sense that a distinct and mature sonata form was not far down the historical road, even though Bach himself did not live to see it." That sentence seems pretty loaded to me, implying that a mature sonata form is a thing to be greatly desired. Poor Bach, having to content himself with all those innovative preludes and concerti and arias and fugues when he could have been writing mature sonatas, right? He's like John the Baptist or something.

It really is an interesting prelude though, mainly because at first it seems so abstract. It starts with a stately little theme - very simple - based on a bass that moves by quarter notes and a melody (if it can be called that) based on a simple appogiatura-type suspension figure. The rhythm is like this- BUM dut dut dut BUM dut dut dut. It's in 2/4, so the second 'dut' of the 'dut dut dut' is the first eighth of a measure (we started on an upbeat). This second 'dut' is always a suspension from the harmony of the last measure, which then resolves on the last 'dut.' After four bars of this, we get the second 'theme' (even more simple) which is essentially Alberti-type arpeggiation, but without any melody. This is, then, just moving sixteenth notes- it contrasts well with the first theme for this reason.

The piece starts in F Minor (four flats) and plays through a section of Theme 1 and Theme 2. Theme 1 starts again, but now modulates to A-flat Major (the relative major), in whcih key it continues through the rest of this second iteration of Theme 1 and then another batch of Theme 2. So, 1 2 1 2 so far. Then - and here comes the interesting part - we get a sort of third texture which is like a composite of the first two. In this new texture, the bass has two voices, and moves in offset (by which I mean they syncopate with each other) quarter notes while the soprano arpeggiates chords in sixteenth notes. These arpeggios are, at first, conventional upwards-or-downwards but then break up into the Alberti-style figures. All this leads to a cadence in A-flat major. This whole opening section (which I'll call, creatively, the A section) repeats.

Have I glossed over anything of pecuiliar interest in this opening? Not too much. The progressions are pretty straight for most of it - i V7 i ii6 vii/V iv ii7/V V i sort of stuff (which is to say that there are a lot of diminished, secondary-whatever and dominant sonorities, but that's not a real surprise coming from Bach). The only moment I marked with an exclamation point (as is my habit when I encounter something that's unexpected and unprepared) is a sudden shift from A-flat major to A-flat (parallel) minor in measure 26. For just that one bar, we get: iv i. Bach almost immediately returns to A-flat major, but it's a strange thing to happen. I guess he felt there needed to be something surprising and uncertain right before the end of the section so that it wouldn't feel too settled. The other odd thing is the presence of what sound like 9th chords- a ii9, IV9, and I9. Now, the way the counterpoint works out, the 9ths of these chords could be written off theoretically as passing tones or other ornamental non-chord tones. Melodically, though, they sound like 9th chords. These make the overall harmony feel a little unstable and jazzy at times.

The B section is going to be hard to describe for the reasons I outlined at the top of this post- lots of diminished sonorities and fast modulations. Theory language is still poor for describing intensely chromatic music, especially in the case of Bach, whose harmonies are supposed to be so orthodox.

It starts with an iteration of Theme 1, in A-flat major, which rapidly undergoes a certain of chromatic alterations by means of accidentals. This leads to a (partially) syncopated two-voiced melody in the right hand (like the earlier two-voiced syncopated bass line) while the bass plays a figure derived from the Alberti stuff. There are lots of secondary dominants and secondary leading-tone diminished chords which bring us to E-flat minor, then B-flat minor, then A-flat major again, then D-flat major and then - with an alarming barely-prepared V7 dominant - to F minor. I could go through these 13 or so bars in excruciating detail, noting which vii/V7 has a non-chord-tone-6th or whatever, but it would be missing most of the point, which is that this is a highly chromatic section based on recombining the material from Theme 1 and Theme 2 into new figurations and then using those new figures in sequences which, in turn, mutate and break apart and so forth.

In fact, writing this, I note what a lot of bullshit most theory writing is (this is my barely-concealed hobby-horse for this post). Paragraphs like the last one are mind-numbing, even though I'm struggling to talk about the piece in as plain a language as possible. There's so much inherent ambiguity in some of these chords, particular with their dissonant 'non-chord tones', that naming a lot of them comes down to personal interpretation. I wonder if someone could write a computer program that would go through these sonorities and assign a probability to them - "%60 likely to be perceived as a predominant, %20 as tonicization of a surprising passing chord heard two measures ago, %20 as anachronistic Debussy-type chromaticism". And, really, that's the problem- all those are theoretically equally valid and language is ill-suited to spell out every possible ambiguity in a way that can even hope to convey the sensation to the reader. But back to this piece...

Bach then returns to a variation on the fused Theme 1/Theme 2 texture at the end of the A section, although the bass is now just a single voice moving in eighth notes instead of the offset two-voice line from before. He moves through progressions in F minor, momentarily tonicizing A-flat major in measure 63-64, and lets the piece draw to a close. There are a couple of unusual 9th chords once again- a III9 (which really amounts to a I9 in A-flat, in context) and a i9 (measure 66), but nothing too alarming.

And that wraps it up for the WTC, thank god.

Next post: More Bach, but easy. Think notebooks for young wives.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Swing of a Heavy Bag Carried in the Hand

Right on the heels of Prelude No. 2 in C Minor, we get:

J. S. BACH "Prelude No. 11 in F Major" from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier

This probably won't be a particularly long post on the subject, since I've already gone over a lot of my thoughts about this kind of two-voiced Bach keyboard piece. Still, it did bring to mind some ideas that you, Reader, might find interesting.

First, I was struck by what a great difference in feel this prelude has just because it's in a meter based on 3 rather than 4. In the last prelude we looked at (No. 2 in C Minor), I struggled to find an appropriate mimetic action from Bach's world that would find a reflection in the mechanical rhythm of the music. By contrast, this prelude feels like it could be compared to any number of natural phenomena- a galloping horse, a churning river, a boat on the waves (pick whatever tired music cliche you want).

I think this is because tertiary rhythm feels implicit in the swing of a pendulum. Imagine a dense brass ball on a chain. Now, give it a push- beat 1 is the swing, and for beats 2 and 3 the sphere hangs arrested in the air before coming back toward you on beat 1 of the next measure. This sort of pendular motion, I think, pops up in our everyday lives in unexpected places- the rocking of a baby (or a boat), the swing of a heavy bag carried in the hand, maybe even with our steps as we swing our leg forward while rocking on the planted foot. This isn't a perfect idea, of course, but I thought it was worth putting forward.

As for the piece: the Prelude No. 11 in F Major is in two voices (only one bar asks for the topmost voice to be doubled at the fifth). It is a little like the Prelude No. 2 in C Minor, but less strict in its repetition of figures. It breaks down like this, motivically- there is a constant stream of apreggiating 16th notes in one voice or the other. A voice which is not, for that moment, maintaining the 16th note momentum is either arpeggiating 8th notes in counterpoint or playing a trilled dotted-half note (since the piece is 12/8, the trill lasts half a measure). There are tiny exceptions to this, for the sake of variety and interest, but that's a pretty good general description.

It fits in with the harmony like this: the 16th note arpeggios outline one chord for each beat, and usually include a passing or neighbor tone (often modified by an accidental) which often faintly tonicizes the chord in question (e.g. an F-sharp leading tone accidental for the key of G minor for the G chord in measure 7). The trills generate what you might call the 'conflict'- they're almost always modified by an accidental which brings them into sharp conflict with the prevailing harmony. So, you get these trills as sudden rude interruptions- they sort of 'drown out the melody' with their surprise accidentals and usually they're part of a diminished sonority which then resolves into a dominant sonority in a modulation to a new key. Although the piece stays mainly within the realms of F Major and its relative D Minor, there are surprising quasi-sequential modulations through A and G and B-flat (in measures 9-11). I am wary of calling these modulations, though, since the keys aren't every really established- in a short piece like this, it's all about the fireworks of unexpected chord arrivals. The most surprising of these is the transition from a dominant of D (an A dominant 7 chord) in measure 9 to a dimished vii of G (an F-sharp dimished chord) in measure ten. There are notes common to both chords, of course, but in context it feels like Bach has modulated from A to G (pretty far) quite suddenly without any niceties of progression.

And that's all that seems especially interesting about this prelude. The harmony of the first measure, I should point out, goes I V/IV IV vi6; which in a sense outlines most of the key areas that will be explored in the prelude. I was a little surprise to see that V/IV so early, since you'd expect (based on constant droning theory lectures) that Bach would carefully avoid the subdominant until the end of the piece (he does touch on the subdominant at the end, too). I guess general tendencies like that have their exceptions.

Next post: another prelude from the frickin' WTC.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Juggler

DeVoto narrows our focus in his next entry, zooming in from massive forces - the chorus, tenor soloist, and orchestra - and the difficulties of blending text, drama, music, and religion - which it to say, from the complex interaction of text and music in Bach's reinvention of the Passion tradition - to one person, alone at a keyboard. For his fourteenth entry, we get

J. S. BACH "The Well-Tempered Clavier", Book I (1722); Prelude No. 2 in C minor

This is famous music, a mainstay of piano lessons for the last couple centuries. It is striking, though, how we have come to think of it today. There's a popular conception now that Bach (particularly his keyboard music) is music for mathematicians (e.g. "Gödel, Escher, Bach")- as though what we're supposed to hear in this music is some perfected expression of numerical abstraction, very cool and empyrean.

This has become an easy cliche. Soundtracks frequently employ a two-part invention or fugue to convey the idea of superb German engineering (men in white lab coats designing cars while listening to the Goldberg Variations) or superhuman powers of calculation (the mathematician filling chalkboards with equations, spurred on by the Art of Fugue).

It's also, in a similar vein, the music of the Machine. The tick-tick of the square sixteenth note rhythms are likened to pistons, clocks, or sewing machines- inhuman, tireless. Also, Bach's keyboard music is durable enough that it could survive transcription to early electronic reproduction- it doesn't require extensive dynamics or rubato to get its message across. This made it a popular choice for programmers who wanted to show of the musical possibilities of early computers. Walter Carlos paved the way for this using analog synths (a fairly 'warm' sound), followed by the first generation of home-programmed computer music (on, for instance, C64s) beeping out toccatas and fugues.* For a whole generation of people, in fact, this was perceived as the natural way to enjoy Bach- stripped down to its skeleton. I knew a guy in high school who said (proudly, thinking this was quite elegant of him) that he listened to a certain Bach MIDI file every day.

But how was it in Bach's era? He lived, after all, before the widespread tyrrany of the metronome, before the satanic mills and railroads. There were, of course, clocks -- imperfect, expensive clocks and pocket-watches -- but Bach's lifetime was still largely a time without engines, an age of horses and boats and candles and windmills.

So what do we make of the Prelude No. 2 in C minor, which consists of nothing but sixteenth-note figures in 4/4 time, perpetual motion? Was there a mimetic sense for Bach's audience- a galloping horse? I think the answer, if there is one, has been hidden by the keyboard music's gradual shift from personal entertainment to public. Today, we know these pieces best from the recordings of Igor Kipnises and Glenn Goulds- listening to it them a passive experience. In Bach's day, though, these keyboard pieces would have been the music of active personal amusement.

I found, in doing my analysis of this prelude, that I didn't really come to an understanding of the piece until I'd actually bothered to sit down and play through it six or seven times in a row. Listening to recordings and doing pencil analysis (I did these first, thinking I'd make short work of the harmony) missed the point- these are pieces for fingers. Actively participating in music of this textural complexity invites you inside it in a way that listening can't- when we hear it, we marvel at its rigidity, when we play it, it feels like a game. We 'get the jokes' so to speak, and the unexpected chromatic dissonances and changes in figuration give a tactile pleasure that completes the mental one. The sixteenth notes, then, are not a galloping horse or a spinning waterwheel- they're a juggler, keeping a lot of balls in the air at once.

So, what is there to say about the piece, harmonically? Nothing that would really convey what makes it enjoyable. The conceit works like this: every measure consists of a complicated two-voice figuration - played twice per measure - that implies a certain chord and a subsidiary, reaffirming chord made up from the internal passing tones of the figuration. So, in the first measure we get C G and E-flat in the main sonority, and passing-tone D and F which could imply either dimishised vii or ii. As the piece goes on, we realize that the first sonority of every figure is the 'tune'- a very simple tune that moves in whole notes (the rest of the busy figuration being the real interest).

The piece stays in C-minor for the most part, momentarily moving to the relative major for about five bars halfway through. But -- as any beginning composer who has tried to cut corners by repeating a figuration over and over knows -- this texture would get monotonous quicklyl without variation. So - and this is the 'clever' part that makes the analysis interesting - Bach starts to sort of mutate the figuration as he goes along. Starting around measure twelve, due to the presence of a minor second in the chord's construction (in this case a IV7 chord in inversion), it gets more ambiguous which notes are passing tones and which are part of the 'main' harmony for the measure. This ambiguity only increases as Bach employs increasingly dissonant chords. He also starts to make greater alterations to the structure of the figuration- suddenly we get opening pitches that are very low in the soprano voice (measure 19) which had previously always been the highest pitch in the figure. There's even a moment (you only really notice it while playing the piece) where the figuration isn't repeated literally within the measure.

And then, just when all this churning sixteenth note counterpoint has arrived at a very ambiguous G C E-flat A-flat chord (in this case it's like an altered i chord), Bach abandons the figuration and embarks on 3 bars of monophonic melodic arpeggios- bounding arcs that call to mind a violin cadenza. A second voice joins these arpeggios and we get some fancy sequence-heavy passagework that takes us through lots of dominant and diminished sonorities. All this makes the second half of the piece feel unbound and chaotic, like it's unravelling all the tension created in the opening 24 bars of strict two-voice sixteenth note perpetual motion. It continues in this cadenza idiom, finally ending the piece on a major I chord, having highlighted the dominant in the previous measures (he said, boringly). It's like - if I can stretch an analogy - the juggler has throw all the balls hard up into the air, but they've somehow landed to form a perfect circle on the ground.

Next post: more from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

*Bach keyboard music, of course, wasn't the only 'theme music' for computers -- especially as the genre developed during the '80s -- but its square rhythms and busy figurations certainly influenced the new music. Only in the last ten years has techno-derived music replaced Bach as shorthand for technology.