Concepts of the Composition Style of J.S. Bach

This essay is an attempt to explain my thinking in trying to recreate the lost cantatas of J.S. Bach. Hopefully, it will make clear both my motivation and the techniques I used to approximate the composerís style.

While it may seem to some people an expression of extreme arrogance bordering on heresy to attempt to reconstruct the music of Bach, I disagree. If I am able to create something equal in quality to what Bach had achieved, and in the same style as Bach used, that does not make me as great a composer as Bach. J.S. Bach spent decades perfecting the infrastructure that was his mature style, borrowing techniques and structural concepts from other composers of many different traditions. I merely need to borrow from Bach, and I need not study his music first hand to do so. Many volumes of literature have been written on the music of Bach, and practically every extant composition has been recorded for mass distribution. Unlike Bach, who studied music by painstakingly copying the scores of other composers, I may listen to his works in the comfort of my own home while following the score, and I may read about the conclusions that musicologists have reached after studying his music. Finally, while Bach was attempting to forge his own individual style from the techniques he had learned, I am merely trying to copy an existing style. This is not difficult to do once the composerís music gets "under your skin", which is an appropriate way to describe my relationship with Bachís music after over twenty years of study.

If I were to display false modesty and say, "Of course, there's no way my reconstruction can approach what Bach himself would have done", then this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would remove any great need to attempt a faithful reconstruction, and almost certainly guarantee a mediocre product. If I am being a little arrogant in thinking I can really mimic the incomparable music of Bach, then I believe a little arrogance is called for here, as long as it is tempered with honest realism.

What is it that makes Bachís music what it is? How can it be distinguished from the music of his contemporaries, such as Scarlatti or Handel? His contemporaries would have been quick to tell you that Bachís music was "old fashioned", harkening back to a time that dense polyphony was the rule rather than the exception. Today, it hardly seems possible that anyone would describe it this way. His music has a timeless quality that makes it sound fresh and alive, almost three hundred years after it was written. Of course, terms such as "old fashioned" and "timeless" are highly subjective, and not much use in understanding the nature of Bach's music. Therefore, I will enumerate some of the consistent elements of J.S. Bachís compositional style, as I have come to understand them.


  1. In Bachís time, the concept of "melody" was different from what it had become by the beginning of the Classical period. By then, a composition typically consisted of a melody, a bass line, and harmony. For Bach, however, the distinction between melody, harmony, and bass line was blurred. While the melody was central to harmonic thought in Classical times and later, the bass line was central in the Baroque era. Crafting a good bass line was the key, and in fact, the first step, in writing an effective piece of music. Given the rules of harmony at the time, it was not easy. Use of leading tones and second-inversion chords were greatly restricted, and the structure of the top voice, which we would today think of as the melody, was strongly influenced by what was done in the bass. For these reasons, most composers settled for a fairly tame bass line that formed the foundation for the piece but was overshadowed by anything else that was going on. Bach, however, was particularly gifted in making his bass lines intriguing melodies in their own right, and had no problem making them co-exist with the upper melodies.

    The cornerstone of Bachís music was his melodic construction. His melodies tended to be very dense and very carefully thought out. His ability to craft a memorable melodic line in the face of very tight constraints such as when he was writing a canon or some form of invertable counterpoint was phenomenal. He did not shy away from daring leaps, mind-bending melismas, or audacious chromatics. His melodies thus had a "liberated" quality, unhindered by either stuffy musical tastes or limited technical ability on the part of the performers (although the latter must have seriously hampered the listener, in Bachís own time, from enjoying his music to the fullest).

    Bachís melisma passages differed characteristically from those of Handel in one very important respect: Handel tended to use sequences, making the line more predictable and probably more palatable to the unsophisticated listener. Bach, however, employed a more "free" melisma that snaked up and down the staff in unpredictable, surprising, and often delightful ways. Usually, this type of melisma would be set against a harmonically predictable background, just as Handel used in his sequences. By avoiding the sequence in the melisma passages, however, Bach created a balance between the order in the harmony and the disorder in the melody.

    Bachís mastery of melody is most evident in his unaccompanied sonatas. Here, he is forced to provide not only melody, but the suggestion of harmonic progression in the instrumental part. These compositions, written somewhat early in his career, very likely influenced his melodic writing years later in the Leipzig cantatas.

  2. Harmony: For Bach, melody, harmony, and counterpoint were so intricately intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins (if there is any doubt, though, the harmony is explicitly spelled out in the continuo part, which forms the harmonic foundation for most of his works). For the early contrapuntalists such as Palestrina, harmony was simply a by-product of counterpoint. Early German composers such as Schutz clearly did not consider harmonic progression to be a factor in their compositions, except at the beginning and end of phrases. Fux, who laid the foundation for eighteenth-century counterpoint and whose teachings Bach studied, was of the same mind. For Bach, however, harmony was an important consideration in its own right. While he did not always strictly follow a "flow chart" of harmonic progression, he had a gift for creating a stream of chords that led pleasingly from one to another, with tension being created and released progressively until the inevitable goal is reached. In compositions that employed a basso ostinato or repeating theme, such as the Crucifixus from the B minor Mass and the Passacaglia in C minor, he seemed to take delight in experimenting with all the harmonic possibilities a single melody could offer. This is especially evident in the famous "Passion" chorale used prominently in the St. Matthew Passion. The nature of this chorale melody is such that it can be set either in a major or minor key (more accurately, a major key or Phrygian mode). The range of harmonizations Bach was able to create from this single melody is truly astounding, especially when one goes beyond the St. Matthew Passion and looks at its treatment in the Christmas Oratorio.
  3. Counterpoint: Bach is legendary for his mastery of counterpoint, particularly in late works such as the Musical Offering and the Art of the Fugue. When I try to explain to musical novices the challenge Bach faced in writing some of these works, I use the analogy of writing an essay of 500 words or more, where the entire essay forms a palindrome (reading the same from front to back), where you are not allowed to use the letter "e", where all the syntax is correct, and where, finally, the end result makes perfect sense. Bach performed similar feats in writing fugues that were invertable in their entirety (e.g., could be played upside-down), canons woven around an existing melody in which the answering voice is augmented and transposed to a different key, and canons on an existing melody in which the answer is inverted, and which was also playable with the entire canon inverted. It boggles the mind that such sophisticated thought, rivaling that required of computer scientists, was being done in the early eighteenth century. (Although, to be fair, mathematicians in Bach's time were performing pretty spectacular mental feats as well.)

    One of the central principles Bach held to in writing music was that each voice should have a melody of its own, and not just simply exist to fill a harmonic need. This principle is evident in the simplest of Bachís compositions, the chorale harmonizations. Here, the genius of Bach can be grasped in a nutshell. Although he strove for independence of melody between the four parts, the manner in which the voices come together to form a coherent whole is testament to Bachís greatness as a composer. The voices complement each other in a way that goes far beyond a mere adherence to the traditional rules of counterpoint. If the melody sung by one voice lessens in intensity, another takes up where it left off, only to relinquish its responsibility to another when the time is right. All the while, the harmony formed by the four independent voices creates a tapestry of sound that is unmistakably the music of Bach.

  4. Imagery: Having said all this about Bachís technical skill, one is tempted to think of the composer as a pure musician, writing absolute music that exists simply for its own sake and communicates nothing more than an aesthetic ideal. While this is undoubtedly true of much of Bachís instrumental compositions, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to his vocal music. Bach was heavily into imagery in his vocal music, and appears to have always given the text a lot of thought before setting it to music. Certain words and phrases could always be counted on to produce a certain type of musical setting. Albert Schweitzer, in his treatise of Bachís music, went into great detail to show that the composer had favorite motifs that he used to convey certain concepts. Aside from the more grotesque motifs to signify falling, rising, the rushing of water, the crawling of serpents, and other such tangible concepts, Bach consistently used certain musical ideas to represent joy, suffering, exhaustion, tumult, and other, more abstract ideas. For years I listened to the final quartet in the Coffee Cantata without realizing that the flute part represented a cat chasing a mouse, echoing the first line of the quartet (Cats will always chase mice, and young women will always drink coffee).

    Bach used this technique so consistently that any composition that did not adhere to it could be identified as being derived from an earlier work. An example is the first aria from the Christmas Oratorio, Bereite dich, Zion, which, although it has nothing to do with snakes, has a very snake-like obbligato part. From this it is a fairly simple deduction that a similar aria from a secular cantata, Herkules auf dem Scheidewege, in which Hercules recalled being surrounded by snakes in his cradle, was the source of this music. One need only look at the original text to instantly grasp the relevance of the gently flowing bass line of the middle section, signifying both the rocking of the cradle and the writhing of the snakes. However, ignorance of this connection in no way diminishes enjoyment of the aria as pure, absolute music. That, as they say, is the beauty of Bach.

  5. Instrumentation: Bach lived and worked in an age when there was no such thing as orchestration as we know it today, or even as it evolved thirty or forty years after his death. Nevertheless, he was ahead of his time in many ways in his treatment of instruments. Whereas Baroque composers tended to group instruments into range categories, such as soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, Bach leaned towards the more modern concept of strings, woodwinds, brass, etc. This is especially impressive given the fact that Bachís musical resources, especially at Leipzig, were very limited. It must have been tempting for him to write an obbligato part, for instance, that could be played by either a flute, an oboe, or a violin. A good example of such an obbligato part would be that in the Domine Deus from Vivaldiís Gloria. While it might have been technically possible to do so in Bachís music, his writing style for these different instruments is very characteristic. For the flute, Bach included many little flourishes, staccato leaps, and quick, abbreviated runs. The typical oboe part carried exquisite arabesques with stepwise motion and long, complex phrases. The violin parts took full advantage of the instrumentís technical capabilities, often using alternating strings to create the impression of two separate melodies. Although in the Baroque thinking these are all soprano instruments, Bach clearly viewed them as three very different species.

    Another area in which Bachís thinking was ahead of its time was in his awareness of the different tonal qualities an instrument possessed in different parts of its tessitura. Nowhere is this more evident than in the second movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto, in which Bach uses every possible combination of the three instruments (recorder, oboe, and violin) in both low and high parts of their respective ranges. For instance, he would have the oboe play a figure a parallel tenth above a similar figure in the recorder, which is growling around the low part of its range, then have the two switch so that the oboe is in the lower part of its range and the recorder is high above. Add the violin to this equation, and a wealth of possibilities reveals itself.

    There are, of course, two ways to juxtapose different kinds of sounds, as Bach knew well from playing the organ. A simultaneous juxtaposition means that the two sounds are playing at the same time, and can be heard either as two contrasting sounds or as a third, entirely new sound. This is the type employed by Bach in setting the registers on his organ, and the type that he mainly used in writing for an instrumental ensemble. It is known that Bach experimented with different combinations of sounds on the organ, many of which no other organist dared to try. In Baroque orchestras, doubling of instrumental parts was common, since different instruments with the same range were grouped together. When Bach did this, however, it appears that he was thinking more about the interesting combination of sounds, such as that of the strings and the oboes, than he was about economy of means.

    The second variety, a temporal juxtaposition, means that one sound is played, then another, so that the contrast between the two can be appreciated to its fullest. This type is often used by modern organists in interpreting Bachís music, but not by Bach himself, who did not change registers in the middle of a piece, and apparently did not set different manuals to contrasting registers. The composer did, however, employ this contrast in his orchestral writing to great effect. Two choruses that come to mind are "Ehre sei Gott in der Hoehe", from the Christmas Oratorio, and the cantata "Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft". In the former case, a simple, two-not staccato figure was bandied back and forth between the strings and woodwinds as a harmonic backdrop for the singing of the angel choir. It is very possible that Bach intended this figure to represent the twinkling of the stars in the heavens, which the shepherds would have seen as they looked up at the angels.

    The latter example extends this idea to the brass as well as the strings and woodwinds, this time using a three-note staccato figure. The section in which this is used has the choir singing of God casting down Christís accusers. The accusatory feel of the rapid-fire contrast between strings, woodwinds, and brass is very strong, and reveals Bachís genius in using different sounds to convey abstract ideas.

  6. Expression: The capacity for expression in the musical instruments of Bachís time was very limited by todayís standards. Terraced dynamics, rather than gradual crescendo and decrescendo, were the rule of the day, perhaps influenced by instruments such as the organ and harpsichord that could play either softly or loudly, but could not modulate smoothly between the two. String instruments, strung with catgut, had a more raspy sound than today, and the tone of the oboe, particularly in Germany, was much more harsh. The operatic singing style of later years had not been developed, and vibrato was practically non-existent, not only in the voices but in the instruments such as violins for which vibrato is usually simulated today. For these reasons, Baroque composers in general, and Bach in particular, relied more on pure melody to convey expression than what we would call "expression marks" today. For Bach, however, there was a further incentive not to rely to much on the performerís capacity to be expressive, and that was the fact that many of his musicians were sub-par, especially in the frustrating early years in Leipzig. How does one convey expression through a performer who sings or plays with the expressive equivalent of a monotone? The answer is to craft a melody which, even if rendered dully, but accurately, would have the proper emotional effect on the listener. If the performer is capable of putting expression into it, then so much the better, but it is not required.

Speculating on Bach:

I could continue for pages on the nature of Bachís music, but for now I will continue with the techniques I used to bring it back to life again. When composing any kind of music, especially in modern times, it is important to set boundaries for oneself. I therefore began with a list of things that I was NOT going to do in recreating the cantatas.

  1. I would be daring within the limits of Baroque thought, just as Bach was, but I would NOT do anything unusual that did not have at least one precedent in the canon of Bachís cantatas. Although each of these cantata reconstructions is speculative, this would be pushing speculation beyond acceptable limits. Thus, I constantly asked myself this question as I worked: Would Bach have done this? For instance, in the opening chorus of Der Segen des Herrn machet reich the chorus launches into a fugue without either choral or instrumental introduction.
  2. Would Bach have done this? More specifically, had Bach ever done this? I knew at least one instance when he had: Cantata 50, Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft. This was the precedent I needed.

  3. I would NOT use instrumentation that Bach was not likely to have at the time the lost cantatas were believed to have been written. As I mentioned before, his resources were somewhat meager. He could count on the services of two accomplished oboists, and he himself could play the organ, but in other areas it was very hit-or-miss. He was fortunate if he had two or three voices to a part, and could rarely count on the services of a flautist. Thus, most of his cantatas have only one challenging choral part, and many have none at all, being written for solo voices. For important festival pieces, however, he usually went all out. A large orchestra for Bach would include two trumpets, two flutes, two oboes, timpani, and strings. Players for these instruments appear to have been more available around major feast days such as Christmas, either because there were more of them in town, or St. Thomasís was willing to shell out more money for their services.
  4. I would NOT allow elementary voice-leading errors to creep into the works. Normally, I donít worry too much about avoiding perfect parallel intervals in my more modern styles of writing. My rule of thumb is this: Try to avoid them, but if avoiding them means diminishing the effect of the music, then leave them in. Somehow, Bach was able to move about freely in his contrapuntal world without making such concessions, all the while making it look, or rather sound, easy. I had to strive to do the same thing in recreating his music.

One way in which Bach was able to attain such a sense of freedom in his writing was to find various acceptable "loopholes" in the rules of counterpoint. One of these loopholes is heterophony, an often-overlooked cousin to the more familiar terms of monophony, homophony, and polyphony. Heterophony is a method of placing one melody against another, as in polyphony, but in this case the second melody is in fact derived from the first. It is a more ornamented version of it, creating a situation where the melodies are sometimes playing in unison, or parallel octaves, and sometimes playing against each other in counterpoint. Bach expanded on this concept in the chorale prelude, "Nun Danket Alle Gott", which appeared as a chorale setting in Cantata 80, "Gott der Herr ist Sonní und Schild". This was the type of chorale setting popularized by similar settings such as "Wachet Auf" and "Jesu, Joy of Manís Desiring", each of which consisted of a long, complex melodic line against which sections of the chorale melody were sung or played. The countermelody began long before the chorale melody, and ended long after. In "Nun Danket", Bach used a similar technique, except that the portion of the countermelody that played against the chorale had a heterophonic relationship to it. Therefore, the chorale melody was elaborated upon not only by embellishing the melodic line, but by expanding it until it was far longer than the original. In doing this, Bach was able to include parallel octaves with impunity.

Bach also had hidden parallel octaves in some works that resulted from parts crossing one another. If the alto part rises up above the soprano part for a single note, then goes down to its rightful place, the soprano line might be heard as going from the alto note to the next soprano note, which, in some cases, forms a parallel between the implied soprano line and another line. Bach could get away with this because he was adept at "training" the listener to follow a certain melodic pattern wherever it went, even if it crossed over another voice. Thus, the listener would not perceive this phantom soprano line formed from the composite soprano-alto melodies, but because of Bach's contrapuntal skill would be able to unravel them, and thus not hear it as a voice-leading mistake.