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  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

A Complete History of Music: Lesson 4

Hello music lovers and welcome to Lesson 4 of this whirlwind tour of Western Music. I am beginning to think it is notable for all that I haven't managed to cram in (have been fantasising about A Complete History of Music Mark 2!) In any case I left those of you who read Lesson 3 savouring, I hope, the D sharp minor Fugue of the the 1st book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. 

Bach spent the last 27 years of his life as the Cantor of Thomaskirke in Leipzig where his remit was to provide music for Sunday services. He churned these out week by week and ended by having produced more than 200 cantatas, (orchestral and vocal narrative pieces based on the Lutheran liturgy), as well as the magisterial Mass in B minor and St John and St Matthew Passions.  Thomaskirke was a Gothic Church which in Bach's lifetime had been lavishly decorated in the Baroque style. And as I mentioned in Lesson 3,  Bach was a Baroque composer.  

What do we mean by the Baroque?

What you might not know is that the word Baroque originated in 17th c France and was used to mean an irregularly shaped pearl. But it came to mean the extravagant and exaggerated in art, architecture and music that we associate with those overblown, dripping-with-gold-leaf decorations in European Churches of the period.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610

Baroque art and music emphasised the emotional and the dramatic. It is interesting and perhaps surprising to think of Bach's music as dramatic and emotional although it often has me in tears.  Listen for instance to this famous aria from the Saint Matthew Passion, Erbarme Dich, here performed by a French ensemble using original instruments.

However once you've listened to Chopin or Wagner, (or Metallica for that matter!) much of Bach's music can seem extremely contained and rational.  But sometimes to understand history we need to leapfrog to the vantage point of those who came before.

At the pinnacle of Bach's powers, he found his older 3 sons (Bach was notable for producing 20 children between his two wives!) each a respected composer in his own right, experimenting with a very different way of writing music.  While Bach and his contemporaries had honed the art of polyphonic or contrapuntal music to a formidable intricacy, the new generation was beginning to abandon it for a treatment of sound in which melody -  supported by appropriate accompaniment -  reigned. 

James Gaines' wonderful book 'An Evening in the Palace of Reason' 

describes the occasion on which the elderly (by 18th c standards) and nearly blind Papa Bach is invited to the court of Frederick the Great where his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE) Bach, was a member of the Royal Orchestra.  CPE Bach was a hugely respected clavier (keyboard) player and wrote almost 200 sonatas for that instrument.  As  James Gaines would have it, Papa Bach's time was over and Frederick King of Prussia set out to humiliate him by suggesting an almost impossible subject as a theme for a three part fugue and subsequently a six part fugue! (do you remember in Lesson 3's discussion of canon how a stepwise canon theme produces a dissonance when it is imitated if the imitator comes in at the wrong place?) But Bach's ingenuity won the day and the result is an achievement of genius: The Musical Offering.

Here is a lovely little video evoking the meeting between Bach and the monarch who was an accomplished flautist:

In it Bach plays a 3 part Ricercar (fugue or canon) from the Musical Offering.

And here is the Ricercar in its entirety:

So what was this new style that CPE Bach was experimenting with and that began to emerge in the music of his contemporaries?

I mentioned earlier that polyphony was giving way to a new order.  Polyphony is of course a working together of several voices, with each of those voices, whether sung or played on a instrument, having its own power and integrity. It is music that is created and best heard by focusing on horizontal movement. In other words in writing and reading the musical score, the composer and performers concentrated on the lines of music that were all happening concurrently. But during this time in France, a musical giant emerged who began to notice the vertical in musical scores.  His name was Jean-Philippe Rameau and his seminal treatise on harmony defined a conception of music that remains valid today.  Rameau worked out, using a physics akin to that of Pythagoras (this was the beginning of the Enlightenment after all and rationality reigned) whit was that when three specific notes were sounded at the same time (and therefore appear in the same vertical line in a musical score), a beautiful and pleasing harmony was produced .  These 3 notes had to be each a 3rd apart. All three together formed a triad. Think Do, Mi, Sol.  In other words begin to sing the Julie Andrew's scale but leave out every second note and you will have 3 notes that make a triad or chord. Rameau also identified 3 chords that could be made out of any scale that formed a foundation for all music in that scale (these are the very chords used in Twelve Bar Blues!) We call these the chords of the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant. But don't worry too much about that.

Thinking vertically in music was seminal in the new style that was evolving.

Of equal significance was the emergence of a new musical form.

What is musical form and what is Sonata Form?

Remember the discussion about repetition and variety in Lesson 3?  Musical form is a description of how blocks of music can be put together to satisfy our need for pattern, for recognising the familiar but not being bored to tears by it! The form that began to emerge in the music of CPE Bach and his contemporaries is called Sonata Form and it differs hugely from the fugue and other Baroque methods of organising musical sound.  Think of it as a novel.  There is a hero (an initial musical theme in the given or tonic key), and then a heroine in a key 5 notes away (the dominant). The introducing of the hero and heroine and some extra summing up of their characters comprises the Exposition.  Next, the hero and heroine go through a whole lot of bother.  Their themes get chopped up and intertwined and they change key (i.e. we hear their themes in a different scale) a lot.  This is called the Development.  Finally, in the Recapitulation, having resolved all that bother, the hero and heroine reappear again but, changed by their travails in the Development, they now both appear in the key of the tonic.

This ordering of music was part of a style that had begun to emerge which we now call Classical.  In fact it was, in part inspired by Ancient Greek thought and there has been some research into the connection between sonata form with its logical ordering of material and the art of rhetoric as outlined by Aristotle and the Romans Cicero and Quintillian!

Who was Mozart and why does he matter?

Enter Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  He was born in 1756, just 6 years after Papa Bach had died, to a nurturing mother and a driven father who was a sought after violinist, violin teacher and composer.  But as talented and well-regarded as Leopold was, he himself was dumbfounded by the apparently preternatural talents of his small son.  At the age of 5 Wolfgang performed in public and at the age of 7 he, with his talented older sister Nannerl and parents, toured Europe, performing to the wonder of audiences in the big capitals. In London he had lessons with Bach's son Johann Christian who had established himself as a composer of opera there.  Mozart was a wondrous improviser who could take any theme even at an early age and create an extraordinary web of original musical ideas. His musical ear, memory and invention was at the heart of the story that circulated in which, asked in a panic by the conductor of the première of his opera Don Giovanni, when on earth he was going produce the orchestral score of the Overture, his reply was, ''Oh, it's already done. It's all in my head.  I just haven't written it down yet"!!

Some of you may have seen the play or film Amadeus about the bitter struggle between Mozart and the composer Antoni Salieri.  In this little vignette from the film we see Mozart humiliating Salieri with his sense of invention and mastery:

A composer of opera, keyboard music and the new form developed by his older contemporary Haydn, the string quartet, as well as countless other compositions produced in a life that spanned only 35 years, Mozart was perhaps the first real musical prodigy and one of the great musical geniuses of all time. In the next lesson we will discuss more of his work, look at how it fit into and was influenced by the trends in the world around him and see how it prepared the path for another great genius, Ludwig van Beethoven.

But first, here is the first movement of a keyboard sonata Mozart wrote in 1784 in his late 20's, the Sonata in B flat K333 (you may have come across that strange code of K with numbers following it before.  The K stands for Ludwig von Köchel who originally chronologically catalogued all of Mozart's work).

Listen for the first theme (clue: it's repeated twice, the second time with decoration), the very melodious second theme and the conclusion of the Exposition (clue 2: it is the common practice to play the Exposition twice), the mishmash of the Development and finally the return of the first material, the Recapitulation. But most importantly, enjoy!

Some musical terms in this lesson:


Contrapuntal music (or counterpoint)

Sonata (a piece of music for a solo instrument sometimes with accompaniment - Baroque sonatas had a different format than those that began to appear at the end of Bach's life)



Sonata form - Exposition, Development, Recapitulation

Köchel numbers

The two composer that this lesson focussed on were:

CPE Bach

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Look forward to seeing you for Lesson 5!

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