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Encore: The Baroque Era

Musica universalis: Johann Sebastian Bach

J.S. Bach (German, 1685-1750) is, for good reason, among the most famous names in classical music. His music is complex but approachable, technical but human. He wrote mountains of music in his lifetime, a treasury of riches beyond compare. He took the fashions of the Baroque and created from them something timeless, a body of work elevated beyond anything seen before or since. It’s easy to sound hyperbolic when talking about Bach, yet it’s hard to argue that the praise isn’t deserved.

Yet Bach was a humble man. He never sought the spotlight, and the greatest achievement of his career was his time as Cantor of Liepzig, a position which made him responsible for the music in four major churches. It was a prestigious job but a very demanding one. In addition to writing original music for every church service, he was expected to train and conduct the churches’ musicians as well. He was often forced to enlist the help of his family to get the music copied out in time for performance. Despite this workload, he also spent a good deal of his free time performing on the organ, composing secular works and exercises, and organizing music schools. He also fathered no less than twenty children (only ten of whom lived to adulthood, sadly), several of whom were named either Johann or Johanna. Not surprisingly, he was completely addicted to coffee, even going so far as to write music singing its praises.

While Bach is now among the most famous of all composers, his contemporaries saw him as stuffy and old-fashioned, and his work quickly sank into obscurity after his death in 1750. In the 1800s his work was rediscovered and championed by Felix Mendelssohn, a prominent composer in his own right. Mendelssohn was instrumental in many of the first printings of Bach’s music, and if not for him Bach might never have become as familiar as he is today.

Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565

The Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 was among the pieces Mendelssohn uncovered, and was first published in 1833. While the oldest known copy of the work attributes it to Bach, the manuscript is not his original, and the presence of Italian-style musical notation has caused some historians to question whether Bach was the author at all. Still, this hasn’t prevented the piece from becoming one of his best-known compositions.

I. Toccatta

II. Fugue

The Toccata and Fugue is made up of two parts. A toccata is a virtuoso showpiece, something a skilled musician can use to demonstrate her skills, and this one is no exception. The piece begins with three dramatic notes followed by a rapidly-declining scale, a motif which is then repeated twice, with subtle variations. After this introduction, the piece takes on the form of a conversation: rapid and relatively high-pitched melodies are interrupted by drawn-out and assertive chords from the lower registers. Pay close attention to the contrasts here, and the multiple layers of music. Some notes seem to hang in the “foreground” while others sink back and become more subtle, yet they are still an important part of the whole. It’s an excellent example of the organ’s expansive range and flexibility.

The fugue is the most prestigious form of the Baroque’s obsession with imitative counterpoint. While the round simply uses a single melody overlapped with itself, the melody of a fugue overlaps itself while simultaneously transforming through a series of variations. A fugue melody elaborates on itself, changes tempo, changes pitch, varies from the barely-recognizable to the familiar. Bach’s fugue begins, as most fugues do, by introducing the source melody. Once the melody is introduced, a second part is added which echoes it, even as the first part has begun to transform. As you listen to the piece, be aware of when the source melody reoccurs, and the different forms it takes along the way. Notice also the ways that its different guises fit into each other as they play simultaneously–something Bach is particularly famous for. (For clear examples of how a fugue works, check out the “Nokia fugue” and “Lady Gaga fugue”, two current-day fugues whose source melodies should be instantly familiar to most residents of the 21st century.)

“Double” Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra, BWV 1043

I. Vivace

II. Largo ma non tanto

III. Allegro

Similar principles of counterpoint are demonstrated in the Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra, BWV 1043, also known as the “Double Concerto.” This concerto is unusual in that it features not a soloist but a duet, two violins whose interactions form the central focus of the work. The work is introduced by the orchestra, but when the violins are heard the rest of the ensemble mostly falls silent, the violins accompanied primarily by a single harpsichord in a manner reminiscent of the basso continuo.

Bach’s artistry, whether it was in service of the church or his own experimentations, represent the apex of the Baroque style. He accomplished what other Baroque composers only aspired to. As his career ended, so too did the Baroque. How could it not? Bach was the final word.