B - A- C- H spells polyphony

Yesterday I played the last piece in one of my piano student's lesson books so she could get a glimpse of good things coming. It was Prelude in C by Johann Sebastian Bach.

You've heard it before, perhaps under the title Ave Maria. After Bach wrote the prelude, the French composer Charles Gounod added a theme and the Latin prayer, and it's been a hit for weddings and other formal occasions. Fortunately for Gounod, Bach had long been in the grave; otherwise the devoted Lutheran might have had some Luther-esque words for imposing a "hail Mary" on his work of art.

Bach fascinates me. He signed his finished compositions with S.D.G. for soli deo gloria. Sometimes so-called believers can throw around religious words like incantations, but we have other evidence that Bach took his faith seriously, such as Bach's own study Bible. His handwritten notes and marks are found throughout the three volumes. Wonderfully, this set is housed not across the ocean but across the river in St. Louis, MO, in the library of Concordia Seminary. You'd better believe I'll stop there if I ever get the chance.

You hear many of Bach's works on pianos today, but the modern piano was not developed in his time. His keyboard music was written for the organ and harpsichord. This was great for his multi-voice way of thinking, but those keyboard instruments did not accommodate the dynamic expression that string instruments and the modern piano are capable of. Have you ever heard the piano called pianoforte? Pianoforte literally means soft-loud, because it was the first keyboard instrument that you could make softer or louder just by how hard you pressed the keys.

I heard mixed opinions in college on how to interpret Bach's keyboard music. My professor added instructions so I would play it expressively; but then another professor commented that Bach wouldn't have played it that way on his instruments, so it's no big deal. My little-researched pet theory is that, had Bach had a modern piano, he would have milked its expression for all its worth. His harmony and texture are so powerful it just begs for volume gradations.

I just used the term "multi-voice." Bach was king in an era of polyphonic music. What's polyphonic music? Well, listen to this.

Now listen to this - it's an example of homophonic music, the opposite of polyphonic.

Polyphonic music has multiple voices - multiple lines of music - that are fairly independent but still go together. It can be played on keyboard instruments and, I suppose, in a more limited way on guitar and harp; otherwise, multiple instruments or singers are required. 

A form of keyboard music that supremely displays polyphony is the fugue. That's what's in the above video example of polyphony.

The fugue was going out of style when Bach visited Frederick the Great. The latter was an avid musician and fan of homophonic music. He created a melodic line that sounded impossible to turn into a fugue and challenged Bach to do it - which he did, right then and there at Frederick's new-fangled piano. It was a three-part fugue. So Frederick then challenged him to turn it into a six-part fugue. Bach sent him the piece a few days later.

Bach lived in a time when methods of tuning instruments were being perfected to enable 12 different, evenly tuned keys. To reinforce modern methods, Bach wrote a fugue for each of the 12 keys. Actually, he wrote two fugues for each key: one for the major form, one for the minor. And, actually, he wrote another piece called a prelude to go with each fugue. And, actually, he did all this twice. Hence, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II. The fugue in the video above is from Book II.

Bach died before he finished another collection called The Art of the Fugue. The last work in that set, unfinished but lengthy, is based on the letters of his name, using the notes Bb-A-C-B, which in Germany were rendered as B-A-C-H.

What is considered his very final, completed work is an organ chorale. Of this chorale Gerhard Herz writes the following:

If we count the tones of the first chorale phrase...we arrive at the number 14 which represents Bach's name: B A C H (2+1+3+8). The remaining three chorale phrases are declaimed in 27 notes. The total of the tones of the hymn tune 14+27+41 stands, in accordance with the number alphabet of Bach's time, for J. S. Bach. (9+18+2+1+3+8). Finally Bach sustains the last note of the hymn tune for three and one half measures or 14 beats which throws additional light on the two times 14 statements of the chorale phrases in the alto, tenor and bass parts. In this organ chorale...Bach uses his name in a most intimate and mysterious way. With the 14 notes of the first chorale phrase Bach puts himself into the merciful hands of God ("I herewith step before thy throne"). With the 27 notes of the three remaining chorale phrases he recommends his soul to the Trinity. He signs the whole composition humbly as J. S. Bach by the 41 notes that comprise the complete hymn tune. This seems to be the hidden personal message of Bach's last chorale, of his finale [sic] creative effort.

If you found these notes interesting, watch this documentary hosted by British conductor John Eliot Gardiner. You might also enjoy this New York Times exploration with audio samples: There's More Religion Than You Think in Bach's 'Brandenburgs'. And more about his meeting with Frederick the Great: Bach's Smackdown of Frederick the Great.

Hat tip for several points of history: Gene Edward Veith

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