Johann Sebastian Bach's contributions to the music of the Baroque era are undoubtedly among the most important in history. His unparalleled ability to combine eclectic techniques, styles, and traditions are perhaps the most important aspect of his compositional virtuosity. Having composed music of sacred and secular purposes, as well as within the many genres of Baroque music (opera excluded), J.S. Bach's role as a composer can ironically be described as that of a "Renaissance man."
|A portrait which may show Bach in 1750 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
A study of Bach's influence on this historically profound era in musical composition and expression may appropriately begin at the analysis of his music for keyboard instruments (e.g. organ, harpsichord). Influenced by the monumental, highly ornamented style of Dieterich Buxtehude, Bach's music for the keyboard is exemplified by his Preludes and Fugues. In his toccata-style compositions, Bach explored the juxtaposition of highly-contrasting sections to the point that these sections became distinct movements within a piece. The quasi-improvisatory nature of the prelude drew on the compositions of preceding composers of the French Clavecin School - namely Louis Couperin's 'prelude non mesure' - in its adoption of a non-imitative style. However, this style was improved upon by keeping the music within a structured metric scheme.
By doing so, Bach ensured that his preludes were less esoteric than his contemporaries' in terms of performance and emotional expression; anyone could play and interpret his works, for their meaning and expression was not specific to the composer. The metric structure of these movements also meant that they could be easily reproduced through print. As an example, the first movement of "Prelude and Fugue in C Minor," titled "Das Wohltempiert Klavier" (English: "Well-Tempered Keyboard"), portrays the repetition of a single melodic figure (in the form of an arpeggio) applied to a repeated rhythm. This technique is known as 'motoric rhythm,' and functions as a textural contrast in which tempi were also varied.
Aside from many of his dance suites, Bach usually composed his preludes as a non-imitative introduction to a Fugue. These imitative expressions of subject-and-exposition often contrasted, in unsurprising monumental fashion, the nature of preceding preludes, and in more than one case expanded on the imitative structure of canon. An example of this expansion is seen in his organ piece, "'Little Fugue' in G Minor." In this piece, the concept of canon-style expositional imitation is altered so that subjects and expositions take on new meanings as musical context is retrospectively apparent.
As if this extremely advanced application of compositional technique was not enough to reflect J.S. Bach's virtuosity, his "Art of Fugue" (German: "Die Kunst der Fuge") actively archived all possible imitative techniques of fugue-style music. Upon establishing a remarkably simple introductory subject melody, he subsequently applied a variety of imitative devices, such as inversion, retrograde, retrograde-inversion, and even much more specific techniques such as 'stretto.' While shortly after his death (he did not complete this volume) Bach's "Art of Fugue" was considered obsolete in the presence of the 'stile galant,' this collection of fugue pieces is regarded today as the greatest compositional work of imitative techniques, and serves as a testament to J.S. Bach's importance in Western musical history.
The French Clavecin School, including influential composers such as Chambonnieres, Couperin, Lully, and D'Anglebert, was responsible for the standardization of the Dance Suite during the Baroque era. Bach composed both solo instrumental and orchestral works based on these standardizations. However, his talent for perfecting and infusing compositional techniques from many sources and styles is once again apparent in these works. For solo instrumental dance suites - which Bach prepared for a variety of instruments ranging from the harpsichord to the transverse flute - both French and Italian techniques were adopted. While Bach made an effort to remain within the constructs of the French Clavecin School in these instrumental pieces, he often abstracted this model. For one, his preludes were not strictly 'non mesure,' but reflected a quasi-improvisatory nature and occasionally resembled 'recitativo' expression.
Furthermore, Bach followed the (accidental) ordering of a suite's movements as established by Froeberger's publisher by ending each suite with a 'gigue' movement. Otherwise, the style of the suites were relatively conservative in that they followed the structure of late French composers and focused on the nuclear movements of a dance suite, rather than reflecting later trends such as the dissolution of movements as typified by Couperin's ('le grand') 'ordres.' Further evidence of his adherence to the French style is seen in his omission of the fast-tempo 'sarabande' in favor of the 'sarabande grave.' These suites were not solely reflective of French influences, however. The inclusion of 'doubles' - repeated movements with the addition of even-note 'passaggi' - was purposefully designed to mimic the compositional techniques of Italian composers. Cumulatively, Bach's solo instrumental suites represent dance music's transition from purely entertainment-focused to the realm of serious listening and interpretation; even the most simple styles and techniques of the French School dances were elaborated into intellectual challenges for the listener.
J.S. Bach did compose dance music that starkly contrasted the conservative nature of the French model in his orchestral suites. While he only composed four of these pieces, all of them begin with 'ouvertures' (a testament to the influence Lully in contrast to the style of toccata-based preludes). Also, unlike his adherence to the traditional French model as seen in the solo instrumental suites, the orchestral suites often omitted, renamed, or rearranged many of the 'nuclear' movements (exemplified by the fact that these pieces never included an 'allemande' as their second movement); this decision shows how Bach was in fact influenced by Couperin's ('le grand') 'ordres.' By contrasting the styles and titles of their movements, this discrepancy can be shown through his work for solo instrument, "Lute Suite No. 1 in E Minor," and the orchestral work, "Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major."
Ritornello concerti were also works that Bach adopted, mastered, and altered by combining many techniques and styles. In these pieces, Bach only loosely followed general models of concerto composition: many of his concerti fit with the three movement model of the ritornello, while others only apply the tempi of ritornello to the first movement of the piece, and some movements were even composed in the style of dance music. As an example of this, let us consider the first three movements of the piece, "Brandenburg Concerto No. 2." The first movement reflects the style of an Italian ritornello concerto, but it varies in that it is not imitative. Instead, the melody is fragmented and scattered in a way so that the piece does not play for too long without referencing the thematic element. The following movements vary greatly from the Italian model: the second movement is through-composed, and mimics the slow tempo and triple meter effect of a 'sarabande grave.'
This movement's texture includes entrances of short melodic themes in many instrumental timbres, and even juxtaposes these themes with counter-melodies. The third movement is reminiscent of a 'gigue,' which is cheerful-sounding and imitative, but the comparison ends there due to its use of double-meter and its likeness to the subject-exposition structure of a fugue. However, it is not strictly a fugue, either, due to the fact that at one point the subject stands alone and is countered by another polyphonic melody. This piece once again showcases Bach's tendency to borrow compositional techniques from contrasting sources; Bach's mastery of these techniques resulted in truly innovative treatment of traditional styles, despite the fact that no novel material was introduced.
Finally, Bach's treatment of cantata music shows further evidence of his influence on music of the Baroque. While they were usually based on the melody of a Lutheran chorale, Bach often incorporated characteristics of a 'chorale prelude' in his treatment of the chorale melody. Bach would use the melody in the style of cantus firmus; its first appearance was remarkably simple (to aid in teaching anyone who was not familiar), while subsequent presentations kept the melody in the foreground through textural context (in the form of organ stops). Furthermore, the polyphonic texture built around the chorale melody was highly complex and artistically expressive (e.g. fourth movement of the cantata, "Sleepers Awake Calls the Voice"). Regarding the text of the chorale, Bach would use 'madrigalism' as a way to enhance the expression of the sacred libretto, even if no text was sung at that moment in the piece. This is apparent in his chorale prelude, "We Should Now Praise Christ." For the vocal accompaniment of these pieces, Bach still relied on instrumental composition techniques, such as 'sequence' and 'passaggi.'
he collective works of Johann Sebastian Bach are extraordinary in their mastery of past techniques and styles combined with Bach's ability to impersonally attribute innovative combinations of these techniques across otherwise disparate musical genres. His recognition as the greatest composer of this era is well-earned and clearly evidenced, as is his influence on later composers and novel compositional styles.
Brian Sullivan received a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, in the field of communication, with a special interest in mass communication and media studies. As part of this program, Brian also studied musical theory, history, performance, and the impact of music on contemporary popular culture.