Author Topic: Bach's polyphony  (Read 17732 times)

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Sean

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Bach's polyphony
« on: May 09, 2007, 11:48:11 AM »
This is from an inchoate file of mine of notes on music- forgive the proofreading situation but you'll get the jist.

Bach’s intellectual approach to counterpoint provides great art through exploration of form, reaching into extraordinary intricate possibilities and opening up that sense of freedom out of selection of notes with space and freedom from congestion etc around them

It shows what greatness formal art can provide, but as with Beethoven’s selection of motifs for their developmental potential rather than beauty or aesthetic merit per se, the interest is not in the music in a moment-to-moment way- and thus is compromised because of its intellectuality- and the renaissance polyphonic tradition it issues from.

The keyboard music has similar density and homogeneity to polyphony and doesn’t admit to the phrasing and symmetries of fully intelligible melodic contrapuntal music, ie one melody raised above the rest etc ie melody surely being primary to music; the rhythm & metre of course is also almost totally regular.

Note hence that polyphony (& eg the late Beethoven quartet slow movs) and Bach is music that is formal but is verging on incomprehensibility because of its lack of melody (ie & tonality in polyphony)- whereas Wagner and Strauss, and the composers interested in repetition and juxtaposition, transcend symmetrical or intellectual formal concerns altogether

Ie form plus melody/ tonality, ie small plus large scale formal design, is fullness of music. Bach & polyphony, like Wagner & minimalists are also thereby hard to turn off, providing magnetism from the lack of symmetrical points and onward movement and fascination.

There’s also the question of the mawkishness of melody though and the purity of the lack of emotions- but no, just need unaffected emotions, not to be rid of them. The absence of emotion, though almost becoming exciting in Bach, ie beginning to emerge but then clobbered over again by the continuing rhythmically monotonous polyphony, isn’t the same situation as eg in Wagner, where emotion is there but controlled from within. With a chip of ice in his heart he can hence give emotion its full reign and power while remaining detached from it: nobody before or since builds climaxes like Wagner.

No matter what this sexy girl does to impose shape, the music remains an aesthetically limited, if profound, abstraction-

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zniPN07Gf-4

Offline Josquin des Prez

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #1 on: May 09, 2007, 02:03:04 PM »
I don't understand how people can have such an hard time with Bach. Really Sean, you disappoint me there.  :-\

Also, that girl might want to try harder then next time. She has a good technique, but she emphasizes certain passages too much, and i heard a few mistakes as well. Too fast perhaps? That prelude is one of Bach's most heartfelt pieces, btw.
« Last Edit: May 09, 2007, 02:17:24 PM by Josquin des Prez »

bwv 1080

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2007, 03:45:57 PM »
Where is Contrapunctus to weigh in here?

Honestly Sean, if you want to dogmatize your personal preferences then go ahead, but do not expect others to take the arguments seriously.  If you like homophonic textures best then more power to ya, but your arguments are vacuous and the standards arbitrary.  Melody is not necessarily primary to music and tonality and "form plus melody/ tonality, ie small plus large scale formal design, is fullness of music" is not the case merely because you say so.  Real art admits a plurality of approaches and for every change in style there is a gain and a loss.  Bach's endlessly spinning melodies are unmatched in many respects by anyone who came after him. 

Larry Rinkel

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #3 on: May 09, 2007, 04:53:08 PM »
I don't understand how people can have such an hard time with Bach. Really Sean, you disappoint me there.  :-\

Also, that girl might want to try harder then next time. She has a good technique, but she emphasizes certain passages too much, and i heard a few mistakes as well. Too fast perhaps? That prelude is one of Bach's most heartfelt pieces, btw.

It's a very mechanical, graceless, one-dimensional performance.

Sean

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #4 on: May 09, 2007, 09:55:51 PM »
Okay, I thought as much: we had a similar thread before.

I like this performance though and she tries to give it what architecture she can, using the piano's added expressivity with intelligent restraint to do so. The character of the music is indeed remains 'one-dimensional'- but it's not so much her fault; try the Gould videos- not so different.

Don

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #5 on: May 10, 2007, 03:00:28 PM »
It's a very mechanical, graceless, one-dimensional performance.

I think better of it.  Not wonderful, but on the right track.  Insufficient variety of touch and dynamics along with some awkward phrasing in the faster pieces (I also listened to additional tracks from Suites 2 and 3).

DavidW

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #6 on: May 10, 2007, 04:23:18 PM »
Sean, I think that you might be interested in Copland's advice on listening to polyphonic music.

Now he said that trying to listen to polyphonic music the same way that you would homophonic music would make it sound ugly and complex.  And you're not following what's happening.

This is what you should do-- listen to one theme, and only follow that (ignore the rest), then relisten paying attention to the next one etc etc until you know each part on it's own, and then you're ready to follow them.  Each theme (at least for Bach) is elegant and melodic, but confusing when heard together unless you can hold them each in your head.  And that's what you need to be able to do to appreciate Bach.

Since you said that Bach and Beethoven are "incomprehensible" I know that your difficulties must lie with not listening to the music right, so I hope this will be of help to you. :)

Sean

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #7 on: May 10, 2007, 07:48:31 PM »
David

Quote
This is what you should do-- listen to one theme, and only follow that (ignore the rest), then relisten paying attention to the next one etc etc until you know each part on it's own, and then you're ready to follow them.  Each theme (at least for Bach) is elegant and melodic, but confusing when heard together unless you can hold them each in your head.  And that's what you need to be able to do to appreciate Bach.

Well that strikes me as a tall order: I don't think the mind really works like that, in music or in anything else. Polyphony was basically just huge big mistake as far as I can see. They began with plainchant and just thought okay, we'll add another line or two of the same sort of thing: all very reasonable, but incomprehensible until 17thc counterpoint straightens the homogeneous mass out for us. Thanks anyway! (& can't remember criticizing Beethoven...)

Offline Daidalos

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #8 on: May 11, 2007, 05:55:02 AM »
How can you say polyphony was a big mistake? On what criteria? Certainly not popularity (consider the eminence of Bach) and certainly not influence. I would say polyphony was a great success (not that that necessarily makes it greater than monophony). So, what's left is personal opinion. I wonder, why do you attempt to objectively justify the superiority of your preferences above those of others? I mean, what's the point? Do you think those who previously liked polyphony would go "Right, now I realise how misguided I was. This Bach fugue really is incomprehensible. Hah! And to think I thought it was beautiful... I'm sure glad Sean set me straight. In the trash can it goes. Now, for some Wagner...."
A legible handwriting is sign of a lack of inspiration.

bwv 1080

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #9 on: May 11, 2007, 05:57:32 AM »
David

Well that strikes me as a tall order: I don't think the mind really works like that, in music or in anything else. Polyphony was basically just huge big mistake as far as I can see. They began with plainchant and just thought okay, we'll add another line or two of the same sort of thing: all very reasonable, but incomprehensible until 17thc counterpoint straightens the homogeneous mass out for us. Thanks anyway! (& can't remember criticizing Beethoven...)

Polyphony is the foundation of the whole bloody Western musical tradition.  That's like saying blues was a big mistake for Jazz music. 

Don

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #10 on: May 11, 2007, 06:00:54 AM »
Polyphony is the foundation of the whole bloody Western musical tradition.  That's like saying blues was a big mistake for Jazz music. 

In Sean's world, all established foundations are up for grabs.  Well, it does keep one's mind occupied.

Don

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #11 on: May 11, 2007, 06:15:37 AM »
Good suggestion! How can one not like or be moved by the harmonically rich tapestry found in the greatest polyphony. Can you imagine music without, so one dimensional, easily digestable and rather well, dull...


Perhaps Sean isn't keen on musical dialogue.

Offline Josquin des Prez

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #12 on: May 11, 2007, 06:25:49 AM »
I don't think the mind really works like that, in music or in anything else. 

It may take some effort if you are no used to it, but after a while it becomes second nature. It's not as unnatural as you think. The forest pygmies are known for their complex polyphonic textures, often improvised in nature, and they have been doing it for thousand of years. Surely, a highly educated and civilized man such as yourself shouldn't have a problem getting the hang of it, right?  ;)

To be frank, after being involved with polyphonic music for so long i can barely stand homophony at all, and i never found harmony that interesting to begin with. For me, counterpoint died with Beethoven, and the number of composers who actually understood the aesthetic principles of polyphony after that point can be counted on ones fingers. 

bwv 1080

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #13 on: May 11, 2007, 07:17:41 AM »
The theory underpinning his use of counterpoint has yet to be understood by music scholars. He was so advanced that people are still having trouble working out how he composed contrapuntally.


Actually Bach's counterpoint is understood as well as anything in the repertoire.  Bach's counterpoint is the now the textbook rule.  From Mozart to Beethoven to Chopin and further, most composers have been weaned on the WTC and other works.  That Bach was a genius is not in dispute, but his technique is pretty much fully understood

bwv 1080

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #14 on: May 11, 2007, 07:31:56 AM »
not so my friend...many composers after tried very hard but couldn't....

Could not what, write music that sounds like Bach could have wrote it? 

bwv 1080

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #15 on: May 11, 2007, 07:48:29 AM »
no, fully grasp how it was conceived and written....go up a few and read what i said earlier again, i dont feel like repeating....thanks.

No, the technique is fully grasped.  The artistic genius behind it is no more understood than that of Mozart or any other composer.

Sean

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #16 on: May 11, 2007, 07:58:40 AM »
Daidalos & bwv

Quote
How can you say polyphony was a big mistake?

I was thinking of the period of renaissance polyphony in particular, and early tonal contrapuntal music in general. The sacred polyphonists are very hard to justify to the listener after the emergence of the rules of counterpoint.

Quote
Do you think those who previously liked polyphony would go "Right, now I realise how misguided I was.

I believe that's exactly what happened: modal polyphony collapsed catastrophically in the early 17th century after holding sway (the brief 14thc ars nova a possible exception) since the 9th: that's 800 years of dullness in part writing, before Monteverdi etc shed some light on things. Schoenberg also saw it was a great cultural error.

Sean

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #17 on: May 11, 2007, 08:04:06 AM »
Good suggestion! How can one not like or be moved by the harmonically rich tapestry found in the greatest polyphony. Can you imagine music without, so one dimensional, easily digestable and rather well, dull...

It's not that it's entirely dull, just that it's unfulfilled- and unfulfiling music: I'd might put it that its content remains in the last analysis unrealized by the underlying underdevelopment of its technical contrapuntal means.

& As you horizontal/ vertical harmony associations is a complex area: horizontal harmony surely became more complex in as far as it became, I believe, more natural in classical and romantic music.
« Last Edit: May 11, 2007, 02:50:26 PM by Sean »

Offline Que

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #18 on: May 11, 2007, 08:07:01 AM »
This whole "Bach's music is intellectual" argumentation is a LOT more boring (amongst other things) than Bach's music supposedly is. 8)

Q
« Last Edit: May 11, 2007, 08:11:52 AM by Que »

Sean

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Re: Bach's polyphony
« Reply #19 on: May 11, 2007, 08:11:17 AM »
Josquin

Quote
It may take some effort if you are no used to it, but after a while it becomes second nature.

I can tell you I'm used to it (Bach and older more severe polyphony) and it doesn't become second nature, unless you mean gaining the expectation of being a bit bored with it.

Quote
It's not as unnatural as you think. The forest pygmies are known for their complex polyphonic textures, often improvised in nature, and they have been doing it for thousand of years. Surely, a highly educated and civilized man such as yourself shouldn't have a problem getting the hang of it, right?  ;)

Well I take a different view, and the ethnomusicology thing is a whole thread in itself, if you don't mind me dodging that.
 
Quote
To be frank, after being involved with polyphonic music for so long i can barely stand homophony at all, and i never found harmony that interesting to begin with. For me, counterpoint died with Beethoven, and the number of composers who actually understood the aesthetic principles of polyphony after that point can be counted on ones fingers.

We may be arguing past each other a bit there- my question is polyphony as equality and homogeneity of melodic lines cf 17thc-onwards counterpoint as one line dominant over the others (related harmonically to a single mode (or two modes, Ionian & Aeolian) being dominant over the rest)...