Even though he died long, long, long ago, nothing in music would be anything like it is without Johann Sebastian Bach. Like the return to the melody in your favorite pop song? Thank Bach. Think that awesome quotation of an old Beatles melody in a Britney Spears song is cool? Bach did the same thing. Here are some of Bach’s best works for a Bach beginner:
Bach: Praeludium et Fuga in a
A fugue is basically the same melody turned upside and then right side up side again, turned from back to front and transposed from one key to another. Bach’s fugue subject has an alternating upper and lower note, so it sounds as though it is being played on violin. The episodes, or the fugue subject quotations, differ from the restatements of the subject because nearly every episode modulates to a new key that is restated in the repeating subject. Each episode reworks the fugue subject in a new way. For example, in the first episode puts the fugue subject in the right hand and adds new material to the left hand and to the pedal. The climatic episode is the most dramatic of any of the episodes before. In the right hand, the tension keeps building and building with more triadic sixteenth note patterns and then triplets building with a restatement of the subject in the left hand. It has turns in the right hand and it goes out of the key chromatically in both hands. This is the climax because it is near the middle of the piece and it builds the piece back to its tonic key.
Bach: Partita no. 2 for solo violin
Bach begins with a short phrase and then he varies it—by ornamenting it, modulating the key—to continue the phrase. The violinist is allowed to be very virtuostic in his or her playing—especially when he or she plays sixteenth note runs. In the middle of the first section, it almost sounds as though the violin is playing a duet with itself, with the leaps from a lower note to a higher and note and back again. In the second section, the music changes and it sounds more rustic than the earlier section at the beginning. This could be because of the origin of the chaconne, which was a 16th century Spanish dance in a slow triple meter. Again, Bach takes short phrases and ornaments it to complete the section.
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 5
Awesome!! With ducks!!
Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
This movement sounds older than it is. Bach doesn’t seem to follow the modern styles in this piece. In the beginning of the movement, which is in a minor key like Luther’s chorale, the oboes are moving in sixteenth notes and the strings in eighth notes, but as the opening moves on, the strings and continuo begin to play sixteenth notes in imitative counterpoint of each other and the oboes. This style is an older style which wasn’t commonly used when Bach was writing. When the singers come in, they also participate in the imitative lines, both with each other and with the instruments. For example, the tenor line sings the same rhythmic motive of an eighth followed by two sixteenth notes as is in the oboe part continuously. The original chorale melody doesn’t come into the piece it comes in as a cantus firmus, or a solid voice, which is an ancient device at this point. The text works with this feeling of ancientness because it was written by Luther nearly two-hundred years before. Specific examples of effective text painting, or the music sounding like the words on which it is sung, include the text painting on the phrase “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” because the rhythm is much slower, and therefore much more insistent and pleading in contrast with the moving notes around it. Another example of cool text painting is at all parts singing the word “Welt” which means “marveled.” Before this word, all of the parts had been singing mostly eighth notes, but on this note they begin to sing only in sixteenth runs. These runs evoke a sense that the singer is in awe. This piece is like a concerto grosso, or BIG WORK, in that in the beginning, the strings and oboe, in their style and the way it is contrapuntally arranged, sound like a small ensemble and when the voices and the string and wind ensemble join together it sounds like a large ensemble.
Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, Bass aria: “Streite, siege, starker Held!”
This aria has a lot of coloratura passages—the bass’s lines mostly consist of moving sixteenth notes. It would be much more common at this period for the tenor or the castrato to sing lines like this. Virtuosic lines in opera, which cantata was similar to, would have likely been sung by the hero, who most often was the tenor or castrato, or a young boy singer, not the bass. The bass, who often played the villain, was more likely to have slowly moving lines with longer notes.