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  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

A Complete History of Music: Lesson 3

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Welcome to Lesson 3 of our whirlwind tour of music history! If you have come back, I'm very pleased. If you are just starting here, you may wish to read the two previous lessons to help you understand some of the ideas in this one.

 In the last two lessons I have referred a few times to musical phrases that repeat themselves,  both in Plainchant and in Isorhythmic Motets. 

(just to clarify - a musical phrase is akin to a sentence. In the song Happy Birthday to You, there are 4 phrases)

Equally at the very beginning of Lesson 1, I defined music as 'organised sound'.  But how do you organise sound?  Pattern and repetition are at the heart of what draws us to music, what we find appealing.  However, repetition can become... repetitive. (Remember the scene with Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost when he sings her the same song the whole night through?)  Without variety, repetition has no appeal.  Composers over the centuries have sought ways to use repetition and yet create variety.  In Lesson 3 we'll look at some ways that composers in the 16th - early 18th century solved the problem of repetition and variety. Listen to this short motet of Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1337): You can find the text and its translation here: Perhaps you could hear the second voice enter with the same melody with which the first singer began.  And you may have heard a third singer enter with that same melody.  If you were able to follow the shape of the first melody you may have heard it repeated by singer 2 and 3.  You have probably all sung rounds such as Row Row Row Your Boat.  In a round, the same melody is repeated but not at the same time.  I am fancifully imagining that our Medieval vocalist joined his partner a little late and thought, 'That sounds good!'  Or maybe not.  Be in any case it just wouldn't sound very good if the intervals created between the two singers were dissonant (see Lesson 2).  Imagine singing a major scale at one note delay from a partner who is singing the same scale.  Every harmony produced would be one step apart -  a whole tone or semitone - and therefore dissonant.  But if you began singing at a 2 note delay, every interval would be a third, a consonant interval beloved of harmonisers.  So in a canon - or round -  it's very important how the original melody is constructed and at what point the second and third singer enters.  (If that's confusing, please get in touch!) The canon is one example of a whole genre of what is referred to as  imitation. And imitation implies a larger category of music referred to as polyphony.  We encounter monophonic music in Lesson 1 and 2.  Polyphonic music, as you can imagine uses more than one, or in some cases, several voices.  But in the 13th and 14th centuries composers began to use instruments to double vocal lines.  (It is interesting to note that throughout history the composition of music, and the development of instruments with which to play it, has been in continual dialogue; sometimes the composer demanded more than the current equipment could produce and sometimes advances in an instrument inspired compositional innovations.  Mozart saw within his lifetime the fortepiano with its sustaining capability and dynamic range, overtake the harpsichord). By the late 15th century, to the further disgust of the Church, composers began to write for instruments alone.

Another devise that combined repetition with variation was the ground bass, a repeating bass phrase over which another part (or parts) played varied material. It had already appeared in 13th c French motets and, in fact, is related to the repeating colors of the isorhythmic motets. This technique continued into the Baroque or intricately ornate polyphonic music of the 17th and early 18th c.

Listen to this well-known aria from the late 17th c by the Baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-95), a virtual King of the ground bass. (The ground bass itself starts at 59 seconds): Perhaps you already know this stunning aria from the opera Dido and Aeneas which Purcell wrote for a girls' boarding school in Chelsea! (you might like to read this fascinating article about the opera: Are you able to hear the repeating bass line which descends step-wise with gravity and a sense of doom so appropriate to the lyrics? Are you also able to hear that the different shapes of the melody work equally well with the repeating bass line? And can you hear echoes of both in the third part which is instrumental? The structure is simple but profoundly moving. But the musical mind was on the move.  In the 17th century, composers such as Pachelbel (1553-1706) and Buxtehude (1637-1707) were extending and experimenting with canons to create what came to be called Fugue (from the Latin 'fugere' to flee). And the greatest master of the Baroque and of this form, Johann Sebastian Bach at the age of 20 travelled 400 km on foot to hear Buxtehude play the organ.  In the hands of JS Bach (1685-1750), the fugue became both a phenomenon of technical mastery and of the most profound musical thought. So what is a fugue? Listen to this fugue from the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.  (Interruption alert!  I think it's important to tell you why Bach's famous collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues is called Well-Tempered.  It's not because Bach's Clavier was always in a good mood!  It's because until Bach came to write the 'Great 48', the method of tuning a keyboard, based on Pythagorean physics in fact, only allowed composers to use a few keys (i.e. scales) without the keyboard having to be retuned to accommodate a set of different scales.  With 'well-tempered tuning' Pythagorean physics the 12 semitones of the scale (count all the white and black keys from C-C for instance) were tuned in such a way that it was possible to play all scales without retuning. Because Bach could write for any key or scale, he did! He wrote a book of Preludes and Fugues for the both the major and minor scales of all 12 semitones and then did it again in a second book - the Great 48).  But back to the D sharp minor Fugue... You may be less familiar with Bach's secular music than his sacred music. Many of you will have heard at least parts of his St Matthew Passion or one of his Cantatas. Perhaps you found this fugue rather austere. Or maybe your first reaction was simply to notice its trajectory from the forlorn first entry to a more intricate and challenging play of keyboard 'voices'. (in polyphonic music, instrumental parts are called voices). Or you may have been struck by the abstract quality of the music (I always find Bach is the composer I want to listen to when I am anxious or troubled). You may have also been aware of that first phrase, which in a fugue is called the subject, returning many times.  Some of you might have pricked up your ears on hearing a phrase that was subject-like but seemed to be upside down.

The fugue is an intricate and initially quite formulaic method of producing music. A short subject is introduced in Voice 1. Voice 2 then plays an answer (21 sec. in the above video) which sounds exactly like the subject but starts at the distance of a 5th (eg if the subject starts on C then the answer will start on G).  While Voice 2 plays the answer, Voice 1 accompanies it with the countersubject. This countersubject will always be present when a subject or answer is sounded. A fugue can have as many as 5 voices and each of  the 5 voices must enter as a subject or answer before the poor composer can try a little light relief by introducing an episode.  Episodes take bits of the subject or countersubject and combine them in interesting ways. They employ sequences which use the same material on different steps of the scale ascending or descending. (Think of singing the beginning of Twinkle Twinkle repeatedly but starting one note higher each time) If the rules of fugue writing only allowed the composer to keep repeating the subject, answer, countersubject and episodes, he might go stark raving mad. Fortunately the fugue (which is a fairly fascist form is some ways) allows him other avenues.  He can change key. And more interestingly he can take the subject and mess around with it - invert ( 1 min 39 sec in the video) it or turn it upside down, augment (3 min 30 sec) it or slow it up, diminish it or quicken its pace... and, are you ready, play it retrograde or backwards and even play it in its retrograde inversion or BACKWARDS UPSIDE DOWN!! So if you thought the D sharp minor fugue sounded abstract or intellectual, you were absolutely right.  And yet, it is a haunting and compelling piece of music.  That was Bach's genius.  With all those rules he still managed to create some of the most inventive and moving compositions ever written. Whew! That was a lot of information.  But we've just covered three centuries of musical innovations.  Hope you have been able to keep track of everything but if not please message me. Here are the musical terms in today's lesson:

Phrase Imitation Polyphony Canon Baroque Ground Bass Key meaning Scale Equal Temperament Voices meaning Parts Fugue - Subject, Answer, Episode, Inversion, Augmentation, Diminution, Retrograde, Retrograde Inversion

Sequence And some composers mentioned:  

(If your appetite is whetted to know more, this book might be useful:

Guillaume de Machaut Henry Purcell Johann Pachelbel Dieterich Buxtehude Johann Sebastian Bach Next lesson we will see how the Baroque style of composition gave birth to Classicism and, in particular, the music of Mozart.  Look forward to seeing you then! 

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