Bach, Baroque and Counterpoint
Counterpoint involves voices that interact in a complex manner. The voices
may be imitative; two or more voices enter at different times and each voice
repeats the same melodic element with variations. The fantasia, ricercar,
canon and fugue all employ imitative counterpoint. A number of patterns may be
used by composers. These patterns include melodic inversions such as a
rising major third interacting with a falling major third. Voice inversions
switch pitches; a higher voice, for example, becomes lower. An imitative
voice may play the melody backwards in relation the leading voice or the
imitative voice plays the melody backwards and upside-down. The duration of
notes may be extended or shortened in duration compared to the rate at which
they were sounded when introduced.
Counterpoint methods were used by Baroque composers and continues to be used
as composing tool. JS Bach was the master of counterpoint and many of his
contemporaries followed his example. The great composers of Europe were full time professionals,
employed by wealthy aristocrats or church leaders who tended to be wealthy
aristocrats. They were often immersed in music from their early childhood. They
followed forms that were fashionable and influenced each other. JS Bach, the
great master, was influenced by Handel and Vivaldi. Mozart expressed musical
ideas from Bach, Handel, Haydn and many other composers at work in Europe.
Beethoven studied with Haydn and was inspired by Mozart. Händel was born in
1685, the same year as JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Bach eventually
complimented Handel and his music saying that Handel was "the only person I
would wish to be, were I not Bach." Mozart admired Bach's genius. Beethoven said
that JS Bach was "the master of us all".
Instruments evolved during the Baroque. Equal tempered
tuning solved the problem of intervals and chords in different keys sounding
wrong. The violin family emerged from older string instruments. Three keyboard
instruments, the clavichord, organ, and harpsichord were popular. The violin
sound became the dominant timbre in late Baroque ensemble music. The wind
instruments were the bassoon, flute, and oboe. Brass instruments such as horns,
trumpets, and trombones were used in large ensembles. The timpani was the only
drum used sparingly.
Counterpoint was the skilled composer’s main strategy.
Fugues were the show pieces of counterpoint. A fugue opens with a theme which
usually moves through four voices. The interaction of the voices is developed
through episodes and variations with key changes. An obvious movement is from a
subject stated in the tonic key to a response in another voice stated in the
dominant key (V).
A well constructed fugue can be approached as a puzzle that
may be easily resolved into obvious parts or one that becomes too complex, even
confusing, so that detailed study maybe required before the composer’s strategy
becomes clear. Ratz suggested a "fugal technique significantly burdens the
shaping of musical ideas, and it was given only to the greatest geniuses, such
as Bach and Beethoven, to breathe life into such an unwieldy form and make it
the bearer of the highest thoughts."
Digital Bach for the 21 Century, Stephen Gislason Arranger & Performer