Happy Birthday, Johann!

Happy Bach birthday, everyone!

If I’m going to promulgate “What Would Johann Do?” as a musical parlor game, I can’t very well ignore the significance of March 21st, can I?

(If you’re curious–maybe you might even decide to play, it’s never too late–just check out ‘WWJD’ in the archives in the left sidebar.)

Leipzieg honors JS Bach, by making him look as stern as possible.  Photo courtesy zarafa and wikimedia commons.

Leipzieg honors JS Bach, by making him look as stern as possible. Photo courtesy zarafa and wikimedia commons.

Anyway, I’m celebrating with a favorite and a poll.

First, the favorite:  my favorite Bach composition is the second Brandenburg concerto, BWV 1047, in F major.  (Hey, I’m a trumpet player–I have obligations to keep up here.)

It’s the second in a series of 6 concerti gross which Bach used, essentially, as an (unsuccessful) job application.  On March 24, 1721, Bach wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg:

As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

(The rather fawning tone is characteristic of the time, not of Bach’s personality.)

But the Margrave apparently lacked the requisite instrumentation; at any rate, the indications are that the pieces were never performed at his Court.  In 1734, following the Margrave’s death, the manuscripts were sold for the equivalent of a few dollars.  Thus, these concertos, perhaps the finest of all concerti gross, remained almost completely without contemporary influence. (It is possible that they were heard at Cothen, where Bach was employed; it has been shown that the available forces there did match the scoring.)

The manuscripts were rediscovered in 1849 by musician and Bach scholar Siegried Dehn, and were published the following year–the first known performance with something like the original orchestration came in 1898 with trumpeter Theo Charlier.  Since then ‘the Brandenburgs’ have been recorded very often, with at least 75 recordings listed on the “J.S. Bach home page.”

The Second Brandenburg is a cheerful, even ebullient, work.  It follows the normal 3-movement pattern, in which a central slow movement is flanked by quick outer movements.  Like any normal concerto grosso, the Second Brandenburg features musical forces divided into two groups:  the orchestra (‘ripieno’) and a group of ‘solo’ instruments (‘concertino.’)  The concertino here consists of four contrasting treble instruments:  recorder, oboe, natural trumpet in F, and violin.

The first movement makes much use of lively chordal ‘fanfare’ figuration of the sort eminently suited to the trumpet.  But one of the movement’s pleasures is hearing how this figuration’s character is transformed when played by the more pastoral oboe, or the softer violin.  The movement is relatively long, brilliant, and for the trumpeter, strenuous.  (It is said that various prominent trumpeters have had contractual protection against being forced to perform this work!  Having had a crack at it myself on one occasion, I can sympathize.)

Incidentally, the “piccolo trumpet in F” seems never to have been used previous to this work–and may not have appeared again until the late 19th century, when versions of it were constructed specifically to use in playing Bach trumpet parts, most emphatically including this one!

A modern piccolo trumpet.  Image courtesy Christopher Roberts and Wikimedia Commons.

A modern piccolo trumpet. Image courtesy Christopher Roberts and Wikimedia Commons.

The second movement–again, following the normal pattern–has a very different tone.  Set in the relative minor key, D minor, a gentle rocking rhythm underpins a yearning three-way conversation among the violin, oboe and recorder.  The trumpet remains silent throughout, which was not unexpected–Baroque trumpet concertos usually featured a slow movement in a minor key in which the solo instrument was silent.  (The Baroque trumpet was quite limited when playing music in minor keys–so much so that it is often incorrectly said to have been unable to play in minor keys.  There are numerous counterexamples in the outer movements of the Brandenburg, however.)

This hypnotic movement ends, as abruptly yet gently as falling asleep, on a D major triad–the ‘tierce de Picardy.’

The third movement then breaks in like a flash of sunlight in a dim room with the solo trumpet cavorting in a triumphant, unprepared F major, as if impatient at its enforced silence.  (“As if–,” since in many cases the player will have been cherishing his or her opportunity to rest and regroup.)  The overall tone is somewhat similar to the first movement, but lighter and more relaxed overall, with the quadruple meter of the opening superseded by duple.

It’s a wonderful, substantive and uplifting piece–all in less than a quarter hour.  I must not be the first to think so, either: the first movement is now to be found outside of this solar system.  It is the first musical selection of the famous “golden record” included aboard both Voyager probes.  “Out of this world”–literally.

Check it out, if you don’t know it already!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contents_of_the_Voyager_Golden_Record

What’s your favorite Bach?  And why?  Vote in the poll below, or make a comment.

And again–happy Bach birthday!

Great Beginnings 2

“Great Beginnings” is one of the musical parlor games here at snowonmusic.  In this game, the challenge is to identify a well-known piece or movement in the ‘classical’ repertory–given only the first note or chord!

If you’d like to play, do not wait, do not pass go, click on the link below to navigate back to Great Beginnings 1.

Great Beginnings

OK–are we alone?  Good…

GB #1

Here’s the clue:

Great Beginnings 1-1

It’s the first chord of Beethoven’s Symphony #1 in C.  At the time, this beginning was the focus of some critical disapprobation; “My dear, it begins with a perfect cadence upon the subdominant!” complained one aristocratic musical amateur.  (Or so, at least, I seem to recall reading sometime in the distant personal past.)  Famously, one critic–no-one ever seems to say who, and perhaps the name has been lost over the years–called the symphony “a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity.”  It’s easy to laugh at that now, but in fact the comment is not without insight:  Haydn had in fact enjoyed the musical joke of beginning with a cadence–the musical equivalent of starting a sentence with a period.  But it took Beethoven to ‘push’ the joke that bit further by placing that cadence in the ‘wrong key.’

Here’s how the whole phrase makes its way to the dominant–and in the correct key:

GB II-1

GB #2

This ‘great beginning’:

Great Beginnings 1-2

How many symphonic works begin with an unaccompanied flute solo?  (That could be a parlor game of its own, but perhaps one better suited to a blog where flutists hang out.)

I don’t know the answer to that–off-hand, I can’t think of another example, though I’m reasonably sure that there must be some others–but I am sure that this is the most famous example.  Despite the popularity of many of Debussy’s other orchestral works (most notably La Mer), historians have called the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune “Debussy’s most celebrated orchestral work”  (1894.)  Though not uncontroversial, it was a popular success from its premiere.

Here’s how the flute solo continues:

GB II-2

Blogger James Roe comments:  “The melody begins on a sustained c-sharp, a note played on the flute with all the fingers raised, no keys depressed. Debussy, the musical colorist, knew the gauzy diffuseness the flute could produce on this note and used it to great effect, subtly blending the beginning of the piece with the silence preceding it.”

http://urbanmodern.blogspot.com

GB #3

Here’s the clue:

Great Beginnings 1-3This is another famous chord:  one of the first prominent examples of the use of a dominant ninth chord.  It comes from the Violin Sonata in A by Franck (1884.)

It’s quietly ironic:  the chordal sonority is a dissonance, quite unusual in its time, yet the musical idea is serenely simple.  Here’s a little bit more of the introductory piano ‘vamp’:

GB II-3

GB #4

And the clue:

Great Beginnings 1-4

This is the beginning of one of the great music dramas of Richard Wagner–Tristan und Isolde.

GB II-4

The first chord has become known as the ‘Tristan chord’, though from a technical point of view it is really an unusually prolonged appoggiatura to a French augmented sixth.  (And if memory serves, enterprising historians have found a very similar precedent somewhere in the work of Spohr.)

Even that first cello note–it is to be played on the open ‘A’ string–attracted admiration.  Lalo–again I write from memory here–said that it was a sound he had been awaiting for years.  Years later the famous conductor Bruno Walter would write about his first hearing of this work in 1889:

So there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera House, and from the first sound of the cellos my heart contracted spasmodically…

GB #5

Clue #5:

Great Beginnings 1-5This is perhaps the least ‘famous’ of the great beginnings, though it’s drawn from a very-well known, well-loved and respected work by a major composer–Johannes Brahms.  Like the Beethoven (and for that matter, the Franck) it’s an example of a non-tonic opening sonority–here, the subdominant chord.  The continuation:

GB II-5It’s the passacaglia theme which forms the basis of the fourth movement of the Symphony 4 in E minor.  (This would be Brahms’ final symphony, which I suppose that makes it a fitting bookend to the Beethoven, which opens his very first symphonic movement.)

The Symphony is nicknamed “the Tragic” for its extremely passionate and serious character.

Great Beginnings

There’s a literary parlor game: can you name a famous novel from just its first word? It sounds impossible, perhaps, but some novels have opening lines famous enough to make this a potentially amusing pastime. For example, for those who know their classic American novels, the challenge word “Call” might elicit the opening sentence of Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” Or–staying with English, but not America–“It” might well evoke Dicken’s famous “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from A Tale of Two Cities.

You can see that there are a few conditions needed for this to work as a game. The novel must be well-known, it must have a distinctive opening line, and it must not give away too much (by, say, beginning with a prominent character’s name.) Ideally, there should be only one solution–though that is perhaps not necessary. Jane Austen fans, presented with “It,” would surely recall not Dickens, but the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

It–there’s that word again–occurred to me that the same thing would work with music. Indeed, it might work better, as the first sonority of a piece, notated, actually contains a great deal more information than just a single word, and is more distinctive. In addition to the actual sonority, there’s the relation to the key signature, there’s the language(s) of the tempo direction and expression marks, and there’s the instrumental designation–all can furnish helpful hints. Hence, “Great Beginnings.”

Below, I’ve quoted five beginnings–either of a whole multi-movement work, or (in one case) of a movement of one. Each is a celebrated opening, noteworthy or at least memorable in some fashion. How many can you name?

GB #1
Great Beginnings 1-1
GB #2
Great Beginnings 1-2
GB #3
Great Beginnings 1-3
GB #4
Great Beginnings 1-4
GB #5
Great Beginnings 1-5

I’ll reveal answers in a subsequent post–say, in a week or two. An additional challenge: can you propose any “Great Beginnings” of your own?

WWJD 1.3

For readers who missed the first two parts of this musical parlor game, “WWJD” stands for “What Would Johann Do?”—Johann, of course, being the incomparable J.S. Bach.

The idea is this:  in Part One, I present an actual Bach chorale melody, stripped of its harmonization.  Any ‘players’ there may be send in their harmonization—emailed Finale files will work, PDFs or JPEGs are fine, too, including cell phone pictures.  You can also do as reader ‘thrig’ did:  submit via soundcloud (or some similar service) or on your own blog, by simply writing a WWJD comment giving the link.

In Part Two, I give my harmonization.  (The ‘house’ always plays!  But in this game, the house never wins—although players can win free sheet music downloads.)

Then, in Part Three, we take a look at what Bach did.  (Call it an exercise in humility!)

For navigational ease, I’ve made “WWJD” a category so you don’t have to pick through the front page or through archives.  Just look for “WWJD” under the “Categories” heading on the left sidebar.  Clicking there will bring up all WWJD posts, so you can follow them in sequence.  (Though they appear in reverse order; if there’s a way to change the sorting, I haven’t found it yet.)

Submissions to WWJD 1 came from thrig and, of course, the ‘house:’

harmonics-satb

WWJD I 1.2

The melody, as thrig noted in a previous comment, is not hard to find in the Riemenschneider edition of Bach’s 371 harmonized chorales; it’s the very first one.  Or part of it, at least—and that’s worth a side-note.

Many Lutheran chorals have been considered to be in ‘bar form.’  The term comes from the German Meistersinger guilds, and has come to refer to a formal pattern consisting of two parts, of which the first (usually shorter) is repeated while the second is not—AAB.  There’s a succinct explanation of this at Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_form

WWJD 1.1 gave the “A” section of the chorale melody—the aufgesang.  You can see (and hear) the complete chorale online at this site:

http://www.jsbchorales.net/index.shtml

(You can also read a wealth of material about the chorales, about Bach and prominent Bach interpreter Glenn Gould, and various other interests of the proprietor.)

Without more ado, the ‘reveal’ of WWJD 1:

WWJD I 1.3

Let’s walk through the leading features of this.  Bach opens with a five-chord prolongation of the tonic:  the melody arpeggiates the G major triad, supported by a subdominant-dominant progression in first inversion.

I followed suit, by luck, inspiration, or just possibly by subconscious recollection.  But Bach gets extra points for the artful passing tone figure in the tenor.  Note that it’s a ‘consonant passing tone,’ in which a different triad—a root position vi—results from the tenor motion.  This never would have occurred to me, because as a modern, academically-trained musician, I naturally doubled the root, not the third, of the IV chord.  Bach was more flexible about doublings.

The second complete bar is interesting.  I’ve arpeggiated the IV triad, creating a 7-6 suspension in the process.  Not bad—but Bach’s version is, unsurprisingly, stronger.  The V-vi ‘deceptive cadence’ progression is livelier and more colorful.  It also sets up the subdominant on the next downbeat, since in Bach’s version the subdominant has not yet been heard in root position, making it a ‘fresh’ sonority.

There’s another noteworthy feature in the second bar: note how his tenor ‘overlaps’ the bass part on beat two, descending below the preceding bass tone.  Modern theory students are usually discouraged from writing any voice overlaps, but this stepwise overlap is not an isolated example within the ‘371.’

(Of course, modern ‘rules’ for part-writing aren’t meant primarily to reflect the historical practice of Bach (or anyone else), though they may be founded upon that practice; they are meant to provide a relatively simple model that students can use to internalize ‘normalized’ common-practice voice-leading patterns.)

But—returning to the point—it is the second phrase where Bach’s version shines the brightest.  My version is OK—the bass-line’s design is essentially a descent from tonic to dominant, with the dominant function prolonged by a cadential six-four chord in the penultimate measure.

(By the way, readers wanting to brush up on cadential six-fours can do so at the link below.)

Part-writing Inverted Chords: Second-Inversion Patterns II–Passing & Cadential

Bach’s version, though, is really and truly magnificent in its elegance.  In his version, the motion from tonic to dominant is an ascent from the lower tonic.  Its upward sweep generates great momentum leading into the final cadence.  The simplicity and (paradoxically) the imagination of the voice-leading are also wonderful:  the lower three voices move in parallel first-inversion triads, while the soprano follows a contrary scalar pattern.  (Streaming parallel six-three chords had been a popular technique of the early Renaissance, under the name fauxbourdon.)

Again, a couple of doublings result which are not so academically ‘correct’:  the doubled fifth in the viio6 (last beat, fifth complete measure) ‘should’ be a doubled third, and the doubled third in the following I6 is generally viewed as doubling option 3 these days.  No-body would call them ‘wrong’ (I think!)—but they aren’t the first options we’d teach theory students.

But when you have such strong lines, working so powerfully, you don’t complain about the details of doubling—that is not the priority!  Doubling rules are like the “Pirate’s Code” of movie fame, anyway—“more of a guideline.”

But having descended from the sublime to the ridiculous, let me ascend once again, by closing with a realization of Bach’s harmonization for you to hear:

I’ll Take The Fifth

Beethoven’s Fifth, of course—this is a music blog.

But not the first movement.  It gets all the love already, what with that famous “fate knocks at the door/V for victory” head motive, and its very own P.D.Q. Bach spoof, “New Horizons In Music Appreciation.”  (If you like, you can check it out at the link below.  I’ll wait!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0vHpeUO5mw

But the third movement has lots to admire, too.  There a just a couple of things to keep in mind as we take a look (and listen) to it.

First, its form:  symphonic third movements during the Classical period were generally examples of either of the “minuet-and-trio” or of its derivative form, the “scherzo and trio.”  This specimen is no exception, falling into the latter category.  The minuet and trio set the formal pattern, though, so let’s look at that for a moment.

A Minuet is in moderate triple meter, and usually in rounded binary form, consisting of a first section—symbolized by the letter A—and a second section.  This second section begins with differing material—‘B’—usually in a different but related key, such as the dominant, or (in the case of a minor key minuet) the relative major.  This ‘B’ section then concludes with a return to the ‘A’ material, so that the overall form of the Minuet becomes A|BA.

The trio—which may or may not be an actual trio by texture, though it often features lighter scoring—is usually likewise in rounded binary form.  It is followed by a restatement of the minuet, making an overall form that is ternary—ABA.

The scherzo follows this general pattern for the most part, but with significant alterations.  First, the tempo is usually faster, and the character is different.  As Wikipedia puts it, “Beethoven in particular [turns] the polite rhythm of the minuet into a much more intense—and sometimes even savage—dance.”

Second, the form usually possesses ‘irregular’ features, accounting perhaps for the term “scherzo” (Italian for “joke.”)  The irregular is the unexpected, and the unexpected is frequently humorous.

Having discussed the form of the scherzo, let’s turn to the second of our points to keep in mind:  tonal language.

Classical harmony tends to operate between two polarized tonal functions:  the tonic and dominant.  The tonic is stability and repose; the dominant, suspense and motion.  Other chords, when they are present, are arrayed around this crucial polarity, mediating between tonic and dominant.  But they frequently fade tactfully away altogether when not required—and they may not be required for surprisingly long periods of time.  This polarization sets up expectations which can become the occasion for ‘play’—for ‘scherzi.’

(By the way, readers wanting to sharpen up on tonic and dominant harmonies in various keys can do so at either of these two articles linked below.  Both feature interactive practice exercises.)

http://doc-snow.hubpages.com/hub/Part-writing-Chords-Tonic-And-Dominant-I

http://doc-snow.hubpages.com/hub/Part-Writing-Chords-Tonic-And-Dominant-I-Exercises

But let’s return to the ‘pre-requisites’ of our discussion.  The final point I must highlight is the technique of ‘modal mutation.’  As I’m using the term here, it means altering the third of a chord to change it from minor to major (as in the most well-known ‘modal mutation’ idiom, the Picardy third)—or, less frequently, the reverse.

Here’s a tiny (synthetic) example of the “Picardy third:”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_ZEImxvNc0

ITTF VEx1

For the first three measures, the harmonies are clearly those of C minor; but the E natural in the final tonic triad effects the ‘modal mutation’ of the “Picardy third,” creating a C major triad.

So what does Beethoven do with these conventions and norms we’ve been laying out?  Let’s ‘walk through’ the movement and see.

He begins with what sounds rather like an introduction, rather than a theme proper:  a double rising ‘misterioso’ idea that basically forms an 8-bar long i-V progression in C minor.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uW3tcIC3kU

ITTF VEx2

This figure is repeated and made more emphatic by a two measure extension, and concluding again with a fermata.

We then hear a new theme that certainly merits the term “savage”:  horns pound out a variant of the first movement’s famous “fate” motive.  It begins like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWud4oaPIr0

IITF VEx3

Note that although this theme starts out in as clear a C minor as you could ever wish to see, it quickly veers away toward the relative major, Eb.  (The Bb triad ending the cited bit would be the dominant in Eb.)  But the idea doesn’t stabilize; it careers wildly, seemingly toward ever-more-distant flat keys, settling with another half-cadence—that is, a cadence to the ‘suspense chord’ of the dominant—this time, in Eb minor.  (Yes, that would be the modal ‘mutant’ of Eb major, which it initially appeared the passage might make its tonal destination.)

The extended cadential chord is worth quoting—Beethoven embellishes a structural dominant with a tonic:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdQm1kY9lqU

IITF VEx4This Bb major triad becomes the setup for ‘uno scherzo’—quite literally, a musical pun:  the dominant of Eb is modally mutated to a Bb minor—as expressed by the ‘misterioso’ rising theme, where it functions as a tonic triad.  A dominant is thus ‘turned into’ a tonic, linked by the common Bb root, just as the contrasting meanings of the words in a verbal pun are linked by a similar sound (assonance.)

As it turns out, this section is the contrasting section of the scherzo, articulated not by thematic differences, but by the contrasting key.  The ‘misterioso’ theme—via further extensions and a new transition passage—leads back into the ‘pounding’ theme, once again in C minor; this settles again onto an extended half cadence, this time on F minor.

A similar tonal pun ushers in the ‘misterioso’ theme in C minor, and with it the rounding ‘A1’ section of the scherzo.  Beethoven extends the scherzo with a codetta combining the ‘misterioso’ theme, the ‘pounding’ motive, now—significantly, as it will turn out—soft; and a new ‘scurrying’ theme.  This developmental music crescendos to a last tutti utterance of the pounding motive, concluding in an abrupt, soft, perfect authentic cadence.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GimIdiuwfxY

IITF VEx5

Having traced the scherzo in some detail, we can now move a bit faster, simply summarizing the trio.  Though it begins as a fugue—”What would Johann have done?”—it plays out rather closer to the normal rounded binary form than does the scherzo.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s set in the parallel major key of C, in yet another example of modal mutation.  Its main idea is a somewhat syncopated unison theme—the fugal ‘subject’—stated by ‘cellos and basses.  (This theme has become one of the standard ‘audition exerpts’ for bass, and may be one of the challenging bits that Carl Maria von Weber had in mind when he opined that Beethoven was now “ready for the mad-house.”)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0rbRteMwAA

IITF VEx6

The trio also features some play with extended dominant harmonies, rather as the scherzo does.  But it is much more diatonic, rarely straying far from the main key.  Self-deprived of piquant tonal contrasts, Beethoven animates the music with syncopation and contrapuntal play.

The real masterstroke is the handling of the recapitulation of the scherzo.  The ‘misterioso’ theme returns verbatim, and convention would have us expect the ‘pounding’ theme to do likewise.

But what we get—though at first literal enough, in terms of the pitch and rhythmic structure—is in important ways the polar opposite.  The repeated notes are now heard pianissmo, cheeping bird-like on a pair of clarinets, and again in a dry tip-toeing pizzicato, accompanied by short, thin-sounding chords, shot through with silence.  Where are our savage horns now?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULqqp0hUtmI

IITF VEx7

We get the extended half-cadence, and still there are no horns.  We get the codetta, more or less, and there is a tiny bit of horn, but it’s piano too—not at all the same thing we were expecting.  The movement proper closes with a solo bassoon whispering those repeated notes hoarsely to yet more pizzicato strings.  No horns, nothing above a whisper at all.

A listener could feel a bit cheated…

But then the theme comes to rest on a deceptive cadence, and we know that there is more.

Appropriately, for a movement in which functions are subverted—dominant becoming tonic, the prefatory becoming thematic, and the thematic becoming developmental—and in which the emphasis has often been upon the second structural unit, not the first—we get, unexpectedly, a sustained transition that in effect turns the entire movement into a prologue.  At the end of it, we are going to get our brass:  and not just the horns, not just the trumpets, but an entire 7-piece brass section, including, for the first time in symphonic history, three trombones.

And their mood is not savage, but festive, as they announce, fortissimo, the definitive triumph of C major.  But that would be another story, technically; for the transition leads directly into the fourth movement.  (This may be the first time this was done in a symphony; it’s the first really prominent example of which I’m aware.)

But the finale is another story—today, it’s enough to praise the imagination and skill with which this remarkable scherzo serves the larger structure of the most famous symphony of them all.

WWJD 1.2

It is, I suppose, time to ‘put up or shut up.’

Reader thrig, of the blog Anthropocene Daze—and what a delicious title that is, by the way—is the sole respondent so far to the challenge of “What Would Johann Do?”  I need to emulate him, and ‘show my work.’

Thrig posted the following harmonization of the melody given in the first post in this series:

harmonics-satb

It’s got a few modern features—notably the way the bass and alto step away from the dominant at the final cadence, creating what ‘looks like’ a vii half-diminished four-three.  But as the realization posted at AD serves to document, it’s musically quite serviceable, and the ‘modernisms’ come across as relatively subtle alterations of, or departures from, a predominantly 18th-century style.

There are one or two things a little out of the ordinary in my stab at this, too.  Probably the most notable is the use of a ‘retardation’—an inverted (that is, upward-resolving) suspension—in the 3rd complete measure.  While this is an idiom that’s taught in theory class, I don’t personally recall noticing it in an actual Bach chorale.

WWJD I 1.2

The musical strategy is relatively simple to describe:  the first five beats prolong tonic, using a IV-V progression in first inversion.  This is followed by a bass arpeggiation of the subdominant, leading to the structural dominant at the fermata in measure 4.  The bass then recapitulates the descent from tonic to dominant, the dominant being prolonged by a textbook cadential six-four chord in measure 6.

I’ll admit to having been a bit proud of this, as I contemplated it when ‘freshly pressed.’  The bass seemed to me well-designed and coherent, with the arrival of the dominant caesura effective, and the following descent logical, even compelling.

And actually, I still think it’s pretty good.  If you’d like to check out a musical realization, you can hear a faux organ version here:

But–you should see what Johann did!

And you will, with the final post in this installment of WWJD I.  (That’ll be coming your way in a week or so, right here in this space.)

In the mean time, would anyone care to join thrig and I in the “WWJD challenge?”  If so, just post your harmonization in a comment or an email.  You could even email me a cell phone shot of a napkin jotting, if you really want to go all Schoenberg on me.  Just go to my website, ispeakmusic.com.

WWJD 1.1

“WWJD” has become a Christian catchphrase summarizing an ethical test:  faced with a difficult decision, one is to ask “What would Jesus do?”

But in the present case–and with all respect to the original case–what I’m proposing is a bit of a musical parlor game:  “What would Johann do?”

Bach, that is–Johann Sebastian Bach.

What I’ll do in these “WWJD” posts (for I’m imagining a series of them) is this:  in part 1, I’ll present the melody of a Bach chorale.

Readers–should I actually have any–can then submit their harmonizations if they choose, the best of which I’ll present in part 2.  (Heck, I’ll even throw in a prize of some sort.)  I’ll give my harmonization, just to show I’m not a chicken.

Finally, of course, part 3 will give the original harmonization by the Master.  (Hey, if Sherlockians can use that terminology, then so can Bach enthusiasts.  JSB was at least historical!)

So, without further ado, here’s ‘WWJD I’:WWJD I 1.1