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Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750

( Originally Published 1935 )



Bach's small orchestra, which would be called today not a "symphony" but a "chamber" orchestra, was not nearly equal in sonority or variety of tone-tint to our modern body of instruments, but it was more than sufficient for his expressive purposes in the concert-room. This orchestra consisted predominantly of "strings"—instruments, large and small, of the violin family; with flutes, oboes and sometimes a bassoon, for the "woodwind" choir; high trumpets and some-times a horn or two for the "brass" of the fuller scores; sometimes kettledrums, and in most cases harpsichord to fill out the harmony.

In those days the art of the modern conductor was unknown. The leader of the orchestra, who was often the composer himself, sat at the harpsichord (a keyed instrument, and one of the precursors of the piano) , or in the seat of the first violinist, established the tempo, and occasionally by a gesture indicated a change of pace of some other salient feature of the interpretation. But the fine shadings, the blazing rhetoric and tremendous climaxes of which the modern orchestra is capable, and which form so much of the stock in trade of the conductor of today, were absent. Nor had the Bach orchestra great flexbility. It afforded planes, rather than shadings of instrumental tone. One passage would be played softly "piano" and the next loudly—"forte"; perhaps only relatively soft or loud, but without modern mezzo-tints. Contrasts rather than gradations of "piano" and "forte" were the style. The beauty and significance of the music lay in its melody, rhythm and structure. It was a less nervous age than ours. The composition, without, as it were, raising its voice to a dramatic pitch, spoke for itself and with no ulterior meaning. Thus Bach's chamber orchestra was not intended for dramatic effect. It was intended to weave wonderful patterns of pure music.

Bach had a strong sense of the fitness of things. Frequently in pages of his Cantatas and Passions he uses his orchestra for purposes of tone-painting, in accordance with situations suggested by the text. But when he sits down to write for a few instruments ordered! music in which purely melodic and rhythmical ideas bud and foliate, as a tree grows from the ground and puts out branches and leaves; when the plenteousness of his invention, the exuberance of his workmanship and his own abounding vitality seize you and make your blood dance in your veins as his motives dance in the orchestra, he communicates an incomparable feeling of health, logic and beauty. You listen and are musically complete. In Bach's music is something profoundly nourishing and lifegiving—something which seems to be in league with basically simple rhythms of the universe, and the pulse and growths of nature.


When Bach wrote in the orchestral forms of his time he was content to use accepted forms and fill the old bottles with the new wine of his genius. The forms in which he wrought so masterfully were principally the suite, or overture—the terms being at the time synonymous—and the concerto. The symphony as we know it today had not yet appeared. The suite was a collection of dance forms based on rhythms which had in previous ages accompanied the actual performances of dancers, or other festivities. The elementary dance forms were then taken by composers of learning and genius as a basis for richer and more varied designs, carried far beyond the point of their origin.

The various dances that made the suite came from different parts of the world and different ranks of society. Nationalism was not yet the influence in music that it became in a later century, and the forms of the suite were of international derivation. Thus the Allemande, a flowing movement in a duple rhythm, purported to come from Southern Germany. The lively Courantes were of two sorts, the one of the French, the other of the Italian persuasion. The grave Sarabande was an old Spanish dance; the Gigue was supposed to be of British origin.

The suite was often preceded by a free preluding movement, and the composer, if he chose, could write in other dance measures than those already mentioned —the Gavotte, Bourée, Passepied, Menuet, Polacca or Polonaise—this last a Polish title, though the Polonaise of Bach's B minor suite for flute and strings is far from the form as conceived by Chopin. And there were movements of less exact identification, such as the Air (originally a dance movement in spite of its title and melodic character) , and fanciful titles such as "Badinerie," or "Rejouissance"—movements in lighter vein, possibly suggested by the grace and play-fulness of certain French compositions of the period. There were different variation-forms. Some were called "doubles." A Sarabande or other dance would be played first in simple outline; the "double" which followed would be the same melody elaborately varied. Grander variation-forms were the Chaconne, or its close relative, the Passacaglia. Of these Bach has left the world two incomparable examples :the Chaconne from the D minor suite, or "partita," for violin alone, and the colossal C minor organ Passacaglia, of which more in a later page. It can be seen from the foregoing that if the amazing effects of the modern orchestra were not yet possible; if Bach reserved his greatest instrumental conceptions for the organ, nevertheless a very considerable variety of musical expression was attainable with a few instruments and in the forms of the old suite particularly as these forms were developed and sublimated at the hands of the master.

Lastly, to conclude this phase of the subject, we come to those forms of larger dimensions and fewer divisions than the suite, which were ancestors of both the concerto and the symphony of the later period: the concerto for a solo instrument or instruments with orchestra, and—the biggest orchestral form of the day—the concerto grosso. A characteristic of this noble form was the division of the orchestra in two principal parts: a small group of solo players called the "concertino," and the larger ensemble group known variously as the "ripieno" or "tutti" (or, in earlier days—the very title later bestowed upon the forms as a whole—the "concerto grosso"). The splendid possibilities of the concerto grosso lay in the opportunities not only for the development of melodic motives, but the play of both solo and ensemble elements, the march and counter-march of division against division, part against part.

Now all this music was written in the contrapuntal or polyphonic manner. These two terms are similar in their meaning. Counterpoint means literally "point against point," or, in the musical application, note against note, or melody against melody. Similarly, music that is polyphonic is "many-voiced." It is made from two or more melodic parts, each o individuality and importance. It is a tonal fabric, its strands harmoniously woven together. Such music is made of "melodic lines" rather than single melodies supported by chords or some equivalent musical background.

The kind of music which gives us a principal melody (usually, though not invariably, in the upper part) supported by chords, arpeggios, or other species of harmonic filling-in, is known technically as "homophonic," or "one-voiced." It may be said that the richest style of composition—that practiced, for example, by Wagner and by other great composers of the nineteenth century—is the one which combines virile polyphony, and harmony, and instrumental color. But fashions change. Some composers today are looking back towards the more strict and linear methods of earlier centuries. Homophonic manifestations were already clear in Bach's time; they were even incipient in certain of his compositions, but they had not yet become general tendencies. Bach stands four-square to eternity, understanding and assimilating all styles of music, but essentially the incomparable master of centuries of polyphonic development. When he died it was as if humanity were instinctively aware that nothing beyond what he had achieved could possibly be accomplished by his methods. There ensued, swift upon his heels, the virtual abandonment of the polyphonic for the homophonic style, with the result of a revolution in music.



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