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!


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

And again–happy Bach birthday!

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:’


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:


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:


(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:

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:


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