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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.