If we talk about the best and the most influential composers of all the times, Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the first names that have to be mentioned. This German composer and organist created plenty of unbelievable works, which presented the Baroque period in all its glory.
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In comparison to many other composers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th, Bach’s life and career has quite limited boundaries from Eisenach to Leipzig. However, his works and ideas are known to the whole world and arouse interest of many people with different cultures and preferences.
His The Well-Tempered Clavier and Three Collections of Dance Suites are probably the greatest intellectual treasures all over the world. These keyboard works have their own peculiarities and captivate both the listeners and the performers.
Without any doubts, lots of pianists prefer to use the works by Bach during their performances, but they do not completely comprehend their style and background. Such lack of understanding turns out to be the major reason of why the same works may be presented and comprehended in many different ways.
This is why it is crucially important to know the background of each musical work and be able to analyze its style. This time, two above-mentioned Bach’s works will be under our consideration.
In Bach’s life, there are three major periods: Weimar, Cöthen, and Leipzig. During each of these periods, Bach created more and more captivating works and amazed people with his abilities to choose the best things in the world and represent them by means of music.
“It was in Weimar that this remarkable process of self-education culminated in consummate mastery and the crystallization of Bach’s personal style which be then had evolved as the synthesis of the international musical legacies.” 1 The Well-Tempered Clavier is considered to be one of the brightest works during this period.
This is “much more than a compendium of contrapuntal devices, a role belonging more properly to the Art of Fugue.”2
In order to comprehend this work and be ready to read it, taking into consideration every detail, it is very important to analyze certain theoretical background and be aware of meaning of such notions like ‘equal temperament’, ‘just intonation’, ‘prelude’, and ‘fugue’.
There are two volumes, which present a prelude and a fugue in every key, major and minor. A prelude is a quite short piece of music that may change its form depending on the whole masterpiece. Preludes usually serve as introductory parts to succeeding movements of the rest of the work or as separate pieces of works.
The prelude consists of several repeating rhythmic motifs, so that it may considerably influence the general perception of the work. At the beginning of the 17th century, German composers started uniting preludes with another type of contrapuntal technique of a work, a fugue.
The combination of preludes and fugues gained its recognition in numerous Bach’s works. Bach liked to participate in different events, where composers had to create and introduce fugues on organs or harpsichords in a short period of time.
German composers wanted to move toward expression by means of huge harmonic changes and had a need of wider tonality realm. Without any doubts, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier serves as a good example of this musical tuning, known to lots of people as “just intonation”.
It is a kind of system, “in which all the intervals are derived from the natural (pure) firth and the natural (pure) third.” 3 Nowadays, well temperaments are replaced by another system of tuning that is called “equal temperaments”, where only octaves considered to be pure intervals. Sebastian Bach could not agree that equal treatment should take such an important place.
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“The more mathematically minded writers on equal temperament have given the impression that extreme accuracy in figures is the all-important thing in equal temperaments, even if it is patent that such accuracy cannot be obtained upon the longest feasible monochord.” 4 Of course, the results of Bach’s own tuning deserve people’s recognition and analysis.
In 1722, Bach started the creation of the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the first cycle of different compositions in this very conception. The prelude in C Major that is followed by the fugue in C Major starts Book I. Then, the prelude and fugue in C Minor follow.
Each pair of prelude and fugue is presented in the chromatic scale till the last key. Book II was completed in 1744. More experienced and more educative Bach made a wonderful attempt to continue his work and add more interesting details to it.
He wanted to achieve one of his cherished goals during the creation of this Well-Tempered Clavier – to prove the feasibility of well temperament for each composition in every key. However, it was not the only purpose of Bach.
He was also eager to clear up how progressive work might contain some conservative ideas. This is why The Well-Tempered Clavier may be analyzed as a great source of information about various historical styles and idioms.
It is necessary to admit that ornamentation played a very important role in the sphere of music during the 17th and 18th centuries. Lots of Bach’s written-out notes may be regarded as ornamentation examples. Ornamentation in Bach’s compositions helps to comprehend better different melodic events and make them more beautiful.
People, who cannot notice any pieces of ornamentation, may see only a kind of surface layer of all the notes presented by the composer. The table of ornaments, offered by Bach in 1720 describes almost all commonly used ornaments: turn, appoggiatura and trill, ascending trill, etc. 5
Without any doubts, The Well-Tempered Clavier created by Bach is considered to be the greatest work of the Weimar period. In spite of the fact that this composition was created during the Baroque period, it had a considerable impact on Western classical music.
For lots of people, who deal with music, both theorists and composers, this masterpiece remains a good sources of various musical techniques, which were so inherent to the Baroque style. Bach tried to unite unbelievable things or just the things, the combination of which was still unknown to the composers of the 17th century.
When people listen to The Well-Tempered Clavier, they get a wonderful opportunity to enjoy unbelievable sounds and ideas.
However, without proper awareness of such issues as equal temperament, just intonation, prelude, fugue, and different types of ornamentation, a professional musician will hardly evaluate this piece of work and find out what exactly the creator wants to represent to his listeners.
Another Bach’s work that deserves our attention and requires deep consideration is Three Collections of Dance Suites: The English Suites (BWV 806-811), the French Suites (BWV 812-817) and the Partitas for Keyboard (BWV 825-830).
In order to comprehend why Bach chose a certain style for his work, it is better to analyze the backgrounds of each of dance suite and clear up their tempos. There are so many kinds of dance suites like the allemande, the sarabande, the gavotte, or the bourree, and each of them has its own peculiarities and influences the further development of the masterpiece.
“The suite is usually denotes a cycle (or series) of dance pieces changing in tempo and meter yet preserving key unity throughout.” 6 The dance suite appeared in the 17th century and was one of the most famous discoveries of the Baroque Era.
The Baroque dance suite’s major components, which are performed in one and the same key, are a prelude (it has already been discussed), the allemande, courante, sarabande, intermezzi (consisting of minuet, gavotte, or some other dance), and gigue. Usually, al these components turn out to be dependant on the composer’s wish.
If he/she wants to make the work really captivating, it is crucially important to think about the possible combinations and represent them in the composition. To make the right decision, it is necessary to be aware about the background of each dance suite and its tempo. First of all, it is better to remember that:
- Allemande has German origins and is represented within quadruple meter. The tempo of this movement is quite moderate and starts with an upbeat.
- Courante has more French origins and is characterized by quicker tempo in comparison to allemande, and presented in triple meter. If we look at the French dictionary, we will see that courante means run. According to such a simple translation, it is easier to guess a nature of this very movement.
- Sarabande is probably one of the slowest types of dance suite. It has Spanish origins and is performed in triple meter.
- Gigue attracts people attention by its fast tempo and lively atmosphere. This dance suite came from England, and its peculiar features are numerous triplets and a certain number of wide leaps. This very dance suite starts with eight meter.
These four movements were the major components of the suites during the times of Bach. It was also possible to add several optional movements, which may be placed between the sarabande and gigue. In Three Collections of Dance Suites, Bach preferred to use bourree, gavotte, minuet, and prelude, of course.
“His music speaks of initial hesitancy followed by confidence”7, this is why his unbelievably right choice of components for the suites always amazes the listener.
Almost all additional movements have French origins: bourree is characterized as lively dance, gavotte is a kind of moderately fast dance, and minuet is elegant French dance with three even beats performed in triple time. The minuet is the dance suite, which was the most preferable one by Sebastian Bach.
In his Collection of Dance Suites, each collection consists of six suites. The model to each collection is quite standard: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, optional movement, and gigue.
However, it is necessary to admit that Bach did not like to follow the rules precisely, but still could not create absolutely different pieces of music, this is why each collection has something in common that corresponds to the general model, and something different that underline the uniqueness of each collection.
The English Suites are one of those, which closely follow the ordinary model. All six suites have the prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.
Between the gigue and sarabande, each suite presents own optional movement: bourree (1st and 2nd suites in A major and minor), gavotte (3rd suite in G minor), minuet (4th suite in F major), passepied (5th suite in E Minor), and again gavotte (for 6th suite in D Minor).
The French Suite does not have the prelude, but presents more movements between the gigue and the sarabande. This is why some of the French Suites have 5 movements (the 1st suite), 7 movements (2nd, 3rd, and 5th suites), and even 8 movements (4th and 6th suites).
The Partitas for Keyboard is interesting due to its introductory movements and the variety of movements between basic elements of the whole model. The first suite has the standard model with the prelude and minuet.
The 2nd suite has sinfonia as the introductory movement, and rondeau and capriccio as the final movements. The following four suites have quite different structures represented in the same key.
After we look at the structures of each Bach’s suites, we can easily find out the differences and the peculiarities of each of them. It is impossible to say that some suite is better or worse than the other is.
It is rather understandable that the beginning of the composition is a bit simple in order to provide the listener with a chance to feel the melody and create the general picture of the events. With each suite, Bach adds more and more movements. Such addition may be compared with the development of a person.
With time, a human learns something new and enlarge his/her knowledge, he/she meets new people, and tries to make this life better than it is. Almost the same happens in Bach’s compositions. With time, each suite is enlarged with one or more movements. They influence the suite in its peculiar way and make the listener feel something that has not been inherent before.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s contribution into music during the Baroque Era remains to be rather considerable. People all over the world get a wonderful chance to enjoy his magnificent compositions. “His personal stamp on” 8the old forms of suites added something really new to the further development of classical music.
Even if Bach was a bright representative of the Baroque Era, his impact on Classical music is also great. It is impossible to analyze his works after listening them for one or two times. To grasp all the ideas, which Bach wanted to reproduce, it is better to learn their backgrounds and pay attention to each detail in the composition.
Each suite in Bach’s compositions has different components. These movements make the work sweeter, and the addition more and more different movements to each suite is a wining decision of the composer to attract the attention of many theorists and practical composers.
His works serve as good educative examples to learn more and more about the world of classical and Baroque music. His Dance Suite and The Well-Tempered Clavier are real treasures, which have to be kept, analyzed, and used in order to improve our modern music.
Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, 1969.
Barbour, James, M. Tuning and Temperament: A Historical Survey, Courier Dover Publications, 2004.
Gillespie, John. Five Centuries of Keyboard Music: An Historical Survey of Music for Harpsichord and Piano, Courier Dover Publications, 1972.
Lloyd-Watts, Valery Bigler, Carole L., and Palmer, Willard A. Ornamentation: A Question & Answer Manual, Alfred Publishing, 1995.
Melamed, Daniel, R. J. S. Bach and the German Motet, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Neumann, Frederick. Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music: With Special Emphasis on J. S. Bach, Princeton University Press, 1983.
Schulenberg, David. The Key Board Music of J. S. Bach, CRC Press, 2006
Sharpe, R. A. Music and Humanism: An Essay in the Aesthetics of Music, Oxford University Press, 2000.
1 Neumann, Frederick. Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music: With Special Emphasis on J.S. Bach (Princeton University Press, 1983), 7
2 Schulenberg, David. The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach (CRS Press, 2006), 199
3 Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music. (Harvard University Press, 1969), 448
4 Barbour, James, M. Tuning and Temperament: A Historical Survey, (Courier Dover Publication, 2004), 87
5 Lloyd-Watts, Valery Bigler, Carole L., and Palmer, Willard A. Ornamentation: A Question & Answer Manual. (Alfred Publishing, 1995), 39
6 Gillespie, John. Five Centuries of Keyboard Music: An Historical Survey of Music for Harpsichord and Piano (Courier Dover Publications, 1972), 40
7Sharpe, R. A. Music and Humanism: An Essay in the Aesthetics of Music (Courier Dover Publications, 1972), 81
8 Melamed, Daniel, R. J. S. Bach and the German Motet, (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 54.