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 k├Ânnen 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.


Blogger rgable said...

I happen to be reading David Thomson's The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, and your comment about why start learning music in 1690 or whenever seems apt. For popular culture of course, it works in the opposite direction -- start with the contemporary and then visit history only if you are a specialist/obsessive or have nothing better to do.

Robert Gable

3:50 PM  

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