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Arnold Schoenberg & Bach

Bach's 12-tone composition? Not really.
Bach/Schoenberg

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 25, 2004):
< the B minor fugue from book 1 of the WTK (...) I remember reading in some liner notes that Arnold Schoenberg once declared (to Tureck) that the former represented the first 12-tone composition (!) Not sure that they quite justify such a statement (my music knowledge is inadequate to know), but you can see where Arnie is coming from (and he should know...)... >
"It would be an error to forget that composers before Wagner occasionally composed passages of high chromatic content, music in which tonal equilibrium was thrown, momentarily at least, to the winds. For instance, Mozart's development sections often include patches of tonal ambivalence, tonal orientations steered decidedly in the direction of harmonic flux. Brief but striking instances of similar flights of tonal fancy occur in the music of J. S. Bach as well, and the claim has been made (perhaps a bit exaggerated) that Bach's most illustrious German predecessor, Heinrich Schütz, composed music that at times was veritably twelve-tone. Let us not forget as well that some of the brooding creations of late Renaissance masters, Marenzio, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Rore, and Banchieri--the musical expressionists of their day--bear unmistakable signs of radical tonal ambiguity recruited in the service of greater emotional expression."

- William Thompson, Schoenberg's Error, page 6.

As for "you can see where Arnie is coming from (and he should know)", that too is all debatable. That's the point of this book: to show that Schoenberg's harmonic theories were based on a remarkably short-sighted and flawed set of assumptions. [Not to discredit Schoenberg's compositions, but examining his writings about harmonic theory, and "The Compounded Error and its Legacy".]

And that B minor fugue as a 12-tone composition? Not really, in the sense that 20th century composers did it. They took a 12-tone set of pitch classes as a substitution for tonal organization, and built pieces by taking transpositions and retrogrades and inversions of it. Furthermore, they most typically did not repeat any pitches until all 12 had been used. Such a composition is a workout of the permutations of those 12-note sets, all those variants. That method is just substituting a new set of rules for an old set of rules; it's the same principle that a tightly formulated set of rules is a good way to generate something creative...sort of the way that rabbi was saying in that article cited today. Bach's subject in that fugue just coincidentally uses 12 different pitches in its 21 notes. He repeats some along the way, and the whole piece is of course still tonal...it's just a highly chromatic piece, so what?

Peter Bright wrote (February 25, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] Just to round off my contribution of Bach/Schoenberg odd links, this from the New Grove:

"In 1930 Berg drew attention to the close parallel between Schoenberg’s historical position and that of Bach (‘Credo’, Die Musik, xxii, 1929–30, pp.264–5). He showed that a few small changes could make the assessment of the latter in Riemann’s encyclopedia apply equally well to Schoenberg, who, like Bach, lived at a time of transition between two musical styles and succeeded in reconciling their opposing characteristics through his genius. Berg did not live to see his comparison further borne out by changes in taste after his teacher’s death. Just as Bach’s music held no interest for a generation preoccupied with the simpler language of early symphonic music, so the greater part of Schoenberg’s work has had limited appeal for ears attuned to the broader effects of new sound resources and aleatory procedures or, more recently, to minimalism and postmodernist eclecticism. Its Bach-like density, proliferation and order run counter to the spirit of the age, making exceptional demands on the interpretative discipline of the performer and the sensibility of the listener. In the long run, however, these very qualities are likely to tell no less powerfully in its favour. Perhaps no other composer of the time has so much to offer."

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 25, 2004):
< And that B minor fugue as a 12-tone composition? Not really, in the sense that 20th century composers did it. (...) Bach's subject in that fugue just coincidentally uses 12 different pitches in its 21 notes. He repeats some along the way, and the whole piece is of course still tonal...it's just a highly chromatic piece, so what? >
Actually, on closer count (while still excluding duplications and octave transpositions), Bach uses 13 different notes in that subject. F#, D, B, G, A#, E, D#, C, E#, C#, B#, A, G#. C natural and B sharp are different notes, with distinct pitch, on anything but a 12-keyed keyboard. And even if the pitch difference isn't audible on a keyboard, those two notes have different harmonic and melodic function anyway.

It wouldn't surprise me if Bach originally drafted this fugue in A minor instead of B minor. Why do I suspect that? Because the two highest rises in the melody, in the second bar, spell out B-A ... C-H (if the piece is transposed to A minor). Here it's C-B ... D-C#. Also, in A minor it works perfectly well on a keyboard that goes to low BB (a quite normal place for harpsichords to end): bar 23 being the only spot that uses any low notes at all. It's easy to imagine that this fugue was brought up from A minor to B minor, both to get a B minor piece and to respect the limit of this entire book to the compass C-c'''...the only really universal compass for organs, clavichords, and harpsichords.

The same "BACH" observation holds true in the F minor Sinfonia, BWV 795, if it was originally in G minor. B-A ... C-H in the first bar. Quite possible: the piece never goes above c''' and works fine in G minor (both for tuning and for keyboard compass: harpsichord ends at d''', the normal upper limit in almost all of Bach's keyboard music).

None of the inventions or sinfonias as they stand now go above c''', but a few of them have the low BB. It's quite easy to imagine that some of them may have been composed for or at a keyboard that goes from C to c''' or d''' (maybe even with an incompletely chromatic bass octave, as many organs and harpsichords have), instead of BB to c''', and then transposed later to the present keys. I especially suspect the E-flat, E major, F minor, and B-flat of the inventions, and at least the E major, A major, and B-flat of the sinfonias, as being originally in higher and simpler keys....

Chromatically incomplete bass octave? All of the toccatas BWV 911-916 do not have the low C#, and BWV 912/BWV 913/BWV 916 also do not have the low E-flat, while they all use all the naturals down to C.

Only the toccata BWV 910 uses all the chromatic bass notes; and (for other reasons as well) I suspect it was originally in F minor instead of F# minor, for an instrument that has low BB as the end. Transposed up to F# minor, which is a ludicrous key in many temperament systems while F minor works fine [and so does G minor], this toccata can be played on an instrument whose lowest note is C. Indeed, this toccata BWV 910 completely explores the harmonic resources of F minor, to all the edges of its meantone universe (and parts of this piece do exist in other sources in F minor!); but it comes across like an antimatter universe (or something) in F# as it currently stands. All the normal points of harmonic tension and resolution are reversed: passages resolving into more tensely out-of-tune chords instead of repose. If Bach ever wanted to present an apocalyptic vision of some screwy universe where good is evil, and evil is good, this BWV 910 as it stands in F# minor could be its greatest hit.

Bradley Lehman wrote (25, 2004):
Bach/Schoenberg

[To Peter Bright] That's a nice parallel there.

And, to be clear: I think Schoenberg's compositions are terrific, both to listen to directly and for the ideas they bring out. Currently my favorites are the Chamber Symphony #1, the first quartet, the piano Suite Op 25, and that gorgeous Op 11.

And the String Trio, written after its composer's own clinical death and resuscitation. A glimpse of afterlife?

Transfigured Night is always pleasant to listen to. And that D major quartet, unnumbered, the best Dvorak quartet that Dvorak didn't write. And some of that stuff for mixed chamber ensembles, both original and arranged from other composers: delightful.

A couple years ago somebody tipped me off to a full feature article in The New Yorker about Schoenberg, and I went right out to buy that issue. Still have it here somewhere.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 25, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Bach's subject in that fugue just coincidentally uses 12 different pitches in its 21 notes. He repeats some along the way, and the whole piece is of course still tonal...it's just a highly chromatic piece, so what? >
Like Mozart's famous bridge in the 40th Symphony, it is not hard to find passages where all 12 tones are used, probably self-consciously, but always within a diatonic framework. Bach's harmonization of "Es Ist Genug", which Berg used as the basis of his Violin Concerto, is somewhat different in that Bach is really flirting with non-diatonic harmonies that really can't be explained as "chromatic".

 

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