Bach: Badass of Counterpoint

While I was thinking through the pieces I wanted to share with you, all of the prime examples of this idea of “music in context,” I kept coming back to one thing: we need more context.

Wait!  Don’t go!  I promise I actually have music to share with you today!

The thing with music (as with most arts, really) is that it has been building and changing for literally centuries.  Without some of the older pieces, the newer ones won’t make sense.  I didn’t want to go back to the dawn of man, or plainchant in the middle ages though (not now, at least), so I decided to go back to where many people start when they think of “classical” music: Johann Sebastian Bach.

In the past I had a love/hate relationship with Bach.  For one thing, I never understood the god-like status he was always given in the music world, since at the time, it just seemed like he wrote stodgy old music with lots of parts.  For another, I hated the fact that if you wanted to sound like you knew something about classical music, you needed to talk about how much you loved Bach.  Then there was the music itself.  There was so much of it, and it all sounded the same to me!  Also, it included way too much written for harpsichord, an instrument I still have a great distaste for.

Okay, so that one sort of looks pretty. But ew.
Okay, so that one sort of looks pretty. But ew.

There was some good stuff, for sure.  I had always loved the pieces for solo instruments, like the partitas for solo violin or the suites for solo cello.  Those pieces were easier to listen to, easier to feel passion for, and easier to grasp for me than his other works.

When I started my formal musical studies, I began to grasp that the reason I had trouble with Bach and the reason Bach is so highly praised in the classical music world are the same: Bach’s music is full of counterpoint, and if you don’t know how to listen to it properly, it can sound like a mess of incomprehensible lines.  This is especially true for modern listeners, who are used to the relative clarity of texture in popular music.  We usually listen to one melody at a time, so listening to four or more and appreciating how they all work together can be challenging to our ears.

The solution: baby steps.

Let’s start with two voices.  Luckily, Bach has provided a bunch of helpful examples!  Here’s the first:

The above video is of Glenn Gould playing a Two-Part Invention from a set of fifteen written by Bach.  It’s a great first example because the lines are very clear (helped by the fact that Gould is hands down one of the best interpreters of Bach) and it readily showcases one of the mainstays of Bach’s counterpoint: imitation.

Right off the bat, the right hand plays the melody and a few notes later, the left hand enters playing the exact same phrase, just an octave (eight pitches) lower.  The two parts do exactly the same thing, but because they are displaced by a few beats, they interact in a way that constantly changes what we are hearing.

At :20 we come to a definite stopping point: the section feels concluded.  In musical terms, these landmarks are called cadences.  Right after this, everything seems to begin again, except this time the left hand leads.  But now the melody takes a different turn, and the harmony switches from major to minor mode.  The two voices tumble over each other for a while, usually in strict imitation of each other, but at :37 Bach begins what is called a sequence.  A sequence is the same bit of music repeated starting on different pitches.  In this case the sequence repeats three times in the right hand (upper voice) and twice in the left (lower) before the music moves on.  Finally, the original theme comes back, and the piece finishes decisively back in major mode.

The key to listening to this music well and appreciating it is to listen to both voices as equals.  We’re not used to this.  Many of you probably found it easier to follow the upper voice, because that’s what we’re used to doing and because humans have an easier time hearing high pitches than low ones.  This time, try going back and listening to the bass (low) voice the whole way through.  Then try to listen to both equally!

Okay.  Round II.  Here’s another Two-Part Invention:

First of all, this one is in minor mode.  Again we start with what seems like strict imitative counterpoint, but at :05 seconds in the upper voice takes off and the lower takes a supportive role.  At :09 seconds, the voices flip, and the lower line takes on more importance up to the cadence at :14.  The voices then go on a little journey.  At :17 seconds, Bach does something really cool: he flips the melody so that it’s upside-down.  Instead of a rising line with a jump to a low note, the melody is now a falling line with a jump to a higher note.  This is one of the cool things you can do with counterpoint, and it’s called inversion.  The other operations you can do to a melody are augmentation, where the duration of the notes gets stretched out (i.e., the rhythm gets longer), diminution, where the duration of the notes gets shorter, and retrograde, where the melody goes backwards.  You can also combine all of these.  For instance, you could have a melody that is augmented, retrograde, and inverted.  In other words, your original tune would could be going by twice as slow, upside down, and backwards.

More on that soon.

Back to our Two-Part Invention.  At :34 the original material comes back, this time with the bass voice leading.  At :39-:40 seconds, Bach pulls another neat trick by giving us a deceptive cadence.

Harmony in Western music is the bomb.  It gives music a certain mood, a vocabulary of expression, and it acts to give us a set of expectations.  If a normal cadence is one where what we expect to happen happens, a deceptive cadence is one where it….well, doesn’t.  Let me give you a non-musical example.  If I start this pattern: 1, 2, 3…?, you would probably say “4.”  And you’d probably be right.  However, it could also be “5” if I decided that instead of adding one to each number, we added each number to the one before it.  The pattern still works, but your expectations have been confounded.

This is exactly what Bach does in this little cadence.  He gives us the equivalent of a musical fake-out.  It feels like the piece could end here, but he gives us a different harmony that still works instead.  This lets him extend the piece a little more until the real, definitive cadence at the end.

Whew.  All of that in 46 short seconds!

Okay.  Here’s where things get really cool.

Bach was particularly good at writing a special case of imitative counterpoint: the fugue.  “Fugue” is from the Latin word for “flight,” which describes the motions of the various musical lines going on in this form of music.  Fugues are a more strict kind of counterpoint because they usually follow a specific formula.  They begin with one voice, which gives a complete statement of the theme, or basis of the fugue.  The second voice enters with the same material, but usually a fifth (five notes) away from the first voice in what is called the reply.  So right away things are more complicated.  The Two-Part Inventions above bear some semblance to the round “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” in that the two voices start on the same pitch.  To make “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” a fugue, the next person to start the round would have to do so on a different pitch.  And it would still have to fit with the first voice.

While the second voice states the theme, the first voice usually embellishes the line, creating harmony while at the same time retaining a distinct melody.  This process usually repeats until all of the voices enter (usually up to four: a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voice), which completes the fugal exposition.  For the remainder of the fugue, thematic material alternates with sections of pure counterpoint called episodes.

Here’s one of Bach’s well-known fugues, the “Little” Fugue in G minor.  This video, from the smalin YouTube channel, is perfect (and I’ll use them again, I’m sure), because it allows you to actually see the voices interact, even if you don’t read music:

The first voice states the minor mode theme, and then the second voice enters with the reply on the fifth, just as it should, at :19.  There’s a little transition from :34 to :39, and then the third voice enters.  Notice how the second voice embellishes the third voice with the same counter-melody that the first embellished the second with?  At :53, the bass voice makes its presence known in octaves, and the cadence at 1:07 completes the exposition.

Then the episode begins.  Note that there’s a sequence in this section, and we get another snatch of the melody at 1:18, but not a full statement of the theme.  We hear another string of sequences from 1:35 to 1:42 (sequences in episodes are really common, since they let you get from harmonic point A to harmonic point B), which brings us to a new statement of the theme, but this time in major.  Alternating modes like this is a common device to vary your theme in interesting ways.  It keeps the listener engaged to hear some fresh new harmony.

Another one of Bach’s strengths is his ability to use little sections of the fugue theme to build the episodes and create unity.  At 2:21 he gives the first few notes of the melody, starting in the second voice (orange), and passes it to the third voice (greenish brown), then alters the melody and passes it between the two voices in a sequence.  At 2:33 we get a similar idea between the third and first voice, as they pass around a little scale (linear sequence of notes) that we first saw at the tail end of the theme.

We get one more forte statement of the theme from the bass voice starting at 3:17 before all of the flying lines finally come together for the final cadence.

One more piece.  Ready to have your mind blown?


Okay.  The next piece is the kind that earns Bach his place in the pantheon of composers who may-or-may-not be gods.  Many, many composers could write fugues, but Bach took upon himself a special project and wrote 14 special fugues.  The interesting part?  All of the fugues but the last were based on one subject.  And he varied them in pretty much every way possible.  The result is Die Kunst der Fugue, or The Art of Fugue, a selection of fourteen fugues and four canons Bach called “contrapuncti,” which is a great word to pull out at a party if you want to sound nerdy or pretentious.  Or both.

Here’s the theme Bach used:


It sounds like this.  It’s short, and that is its great power.  The piece we’re going to look at last here is “Contrapunctus VII,” in a performance by Canadian Brass.  Bach gave no indications of intrumentation for the contrapuncti, and they have been transcribed for many different ensembles, but this is my favorite recording because 1) the level of musicianship is excellent, and 2) having different brass instruments makes it easier to hear each of the lines clearly since each has a slightly different and recognizable timbre.

The exposition begins with the horn.  The theme is just like the example above, but the leaps are filled in with stepwise notes, and Bach has added dotted (uneven) rhythms to theme to increase its interest.  Because, you know, he already wrote six whole fugues with it and was bored.  So, the horn gives the theme and-wait a minute, why is the trumpet in already?  The horn didn’t finish the theme yet!  That’s against the rules of fugal exposition, Bach!  Whatever.  Anyway, the trumpet enters with the reply, but upside down and more slowly, so it’s an inverted and augmented statement.  Cool, we can deal with that.  At :07 seconds we get the second trumpet entrance, which is also inverted, but this one is in diminution to the first trumpet’s entrance.

At :11 seconds we get the bass voice from the trombone and tuba.  Oh yeah, now this sounds like a proper entrance.  But it’s super augmented and inverted, so does this count?  Bach did follow the usual order though, since the bass voice usually enters last during a fugal exposition.

:35 seconds would seem like a good place to put an episode, but we keep getting little snippets of the theme in the trumpets, and an augmented version of the theme in the horn which never gets completed.  It isn’t clear until about :42 seconds that we are maybe in an episode, since this section is still so saturated with the theme.

At :58 we get-what is that?  Another really augmented theme?  This time it’s in the horn.  While the other voices move around in fairly quick counterpoint, including a full statement of the theme in diminution in the bass at 1:10, this statement of the theme takes until 1:20 to complete itself.

There’s so much going on it’s impossible to draw attention to all of it.  The second trumpet gets the theme at 1:16, but really it’s being thrown around everywhere.  Try to listen for it popping out as the music moves along.  Alternately, try listening to just one voice and hearing it as a melodic line of its own.  The amazing and beautiful part of counterpoint is that each voice has something interesting and important to say, and yet all of the parts interlock to create an ever-shifting collage of harmonies.

From 1:20 on we finally get a solid episode, with the trumpet doing a little descending line.  Listen closely at 1:29 and you will hear the second trumpet take the inverted theme, in long augmentation like the horn and trombone/tuba before it, but soon the horn and first trumpet also jump in with complete statements of the theme (both in diminution to the second trumpet).  This layering of statements of the theme is called stretto, and it is often used to create more tension as the fugue moves toward its conclusion.

At 1:55 we get another “episode-like” section, but the theme is still being thrown around pell-mell.  What is going on with this fugue?  Why isn’t it following the rules?  Did Bach smoke some of whatever they got high off of in his day before he started writing?

And here at 2:10!  Another super-augmented statement of the theme, and this one’s so important that the trumpet and the horn are doubling it.  We’re building to something here, and finally after lots of activity in all voices the first trumpet breaks out of the group in a passionate line that charges into the final cadence.

Wait.  What just happened?

It’s a confusing fugue, really.  Clearly this piece has a lot of emphasis on inversion, augmentation, and diminution, but it didn’t follow our usual structure of exposition and alternation of theme and episodes.  And what was with those weird, really augmented statements of the theme?

Well, think about it.  How many of those really long statements were there?  There was the tuba/trombone (bass), horn (tenor), second trumpet (alto), and first trumpet/horn (soprano).  That’s four.  How many voices are usually in a fugue? Four.  How many statements do there usually need to be in a fugal exposition?  Four.  So really, we got one really solid statement from each of the four fugal voices before the end of the fugue.

What am I getting at here?  The Art of Fugue is basically a textbook about fugal writing.  It’s brilliant, exciting music, and in this particular fugue, Bach breaks the normal formal rules and makes the entire fugue a fugal exposition.

That’s right.  Bach wrote a fugue about fugue.  A metafugue.

In this light, the weird lack of coherent episode/theme structure makes sense, since all of the other material was just embellishing whichever voice currently had the real theme.  This piece shows just how great Bach’s planning was, and how strong his counterpoint writing ability was to make something this complex not only work, but work successfully and musically.  More importantly, it reveals one of the key threads of music history: often the most incredible and impressive works of music are not those that adhere to tradition, but those that break the rules.

Bach is considered the master of this style for a reason, and that reason was that no one else could do something like this.  But by the end of his life, Bach had become a dated composer.  The Baroque period, with its heavy emphasis on imitation and counterpoint, was coming to an end, and the Classical period was dawning.  While other composers were abandoning the old style, Bach continued to write increasingly complex and elaborate music that typified what he liked to hear.  He continued to perfect his art, and in fact, the last of the contrapuncti went unfinished at the time of his death.  His legacy of counterpoint lived on, however, and many composers at the end of their lives looked to this style as a source of inspiration, and incorporated counterpoint into their own music.

My appreciation for Bach increased dramatically once I understood what the heck was going on.  Music of such power and intricacy does not happen without an incredible mind.  Studying his music got me hooked on counterpoint, because at the end of it all, it’s just plain cool.  To have all this stuff going on at once and work is amazing.  And to break all the rules to show just how good you are at following the rules?  That’s badass.

Badass Bach

7 thoughts on “Bach: Badass of Counterpoint”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s