|by Luke Dahn|
When considering the great contrapuntal masterpieces of Bach, those intricately designed works that cause one to marvel at Bach’s genius for fusing the linear and the vertical, works such as the Art of the Fugue or the Saint Matthew Passion or perhaps the Well-Tempered Clavier fugues come to mind. Rarely, though, would any of his four-part chorales be considered (though, perhaps, his chorale preludes may). The chorales are often considered, rather, for their didactic potential, serving as models for proper part-writing and voice-leading (though models in which "rules" are often shirked). However, in working on my Bach Chorale pedagogical index, I came across Chorale Number 29, which is an absolute gem. I began noticing symmetries and motivic connections at every phrase and involving every voice. With its tightly-woven musical fabric, this chorale stands alongside every other masterpiece attesting to the genius of the Great Contrapuntalist.
Chorale 29 (Riemenscheider edition numbering) is one of four Bach settings of the Louis Bourgeois tune, "Freu’ dich sehr, o meine Seele." This particular setting comes from the cantata, Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV32. (The English translation in the example below is by Z. Philip Ambrose. http://www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/)
An initial read through of this chorale may not yield much by way of intricate contrapuntal devices, but a closer look reveals that symmetries and canonic devices abound. There are six phrases in total, the first two of which are repeated as a phrase period. These first two phrases serve as a kind of exposition, presenting us with the motives and materials that will be intricately woven into the fabric of the entire chorale. The single most important motive of the chorale is given at the tune’s very opening: G-A-B-A-G. (Example 1) This will henceforth be referred to as “motive X” or simply “X.” The palindromic structure of motive X informs other parts of the chorale, as palindromic structures appear frequently.
The melody of phrase 2 (Example 2) is an elaboration of phrase 1. It is simply an expanded version of motive X, encompassing four notes instead of three: G-A-B-C-B-A-G. Naturally, this version of X is also palindromic. This expanded form of X is then transferred to the bass in measures 5-6 (Example 3), where it appears in inversion. The bass here is the exact mirror of the soprano’s phrase in measures 3-4, with an pitch axis, and common starting point, of G. Bach then continues his method of expansion in measures 7-8 in the bass part, presenting a further expansion of motive X, now encompassing five notes. Example 3 also shows three other manifestations of X in measures 1-8: a quick appearance via passing tones in the tenor in measure 3, a third consecutive appearance in the hymn tune in measures 5-6 (made possible by a slight alteration of Bourgeois’s tune), and a rhythmically askew appearance in the alto leading to the half cadence in measure 8.
Almost every note in every part of phrase 5 (mm.9-11) figures in a presentation of motive X (Example 4). The melody in the soprano has three overlapping presentations of motive X, with the two outer occurrences being partial. The first instance is missing its second note (C), while the third instance is missing its fourth note (A), thus revealing another palindromic arrangement. A similar thing happens in the tenor part, with an inverted form of motive X overlapping an uninverted form. (Notice the palindromic rhythmic nature of the two forms when taken as a unit.) The alto and bass lines are also related to each other. The alto part has two inverted presentations of X, with the final note of the first serving as a link starting the second. (One could also say than an uninverted form of X binds these two linked presentations together: E-F#-G-F#-E.) The result is an undulating wave. The bass likewise has an undulating wave, but a wave created by overlapping two expanded four-note versions of X.
In the final phrase of the chorale, motive X is found mirroring itself in the soprano and bass parts in measures 11-12. The bass presents an inverted form of the soprano retaining the exact intervallic structure (m2, M2, M2, m2), while its rhythm is retrograded. The result, of course, is that the bass is a retrograde inversion of the soprano. Finally, the alto and tenor parts end the chorale with closing instances of motive X: the expanded four-note version in the alto (with a missing penultimate note), and the three-note version in the tenor. The rearticulation of the motive’s peak note in the tenor (D) increases the satisfaction of its downward resolution.
CANONS AND PALINDROMES
The way in which the tenor and bass "develop" ideas presented previously in the soprano and alto might cause one to envision (anachronistically, to be sure) a kind of proto-sonata form. Phrases 1 and 2 serve "expositional" purposes; phrases 3 and 4 and perhaps 5 (though 5 is melodically connected with 6) demonstrate imaginative and thorough "developmental" devices; and phrase 6 provides closure.
A few palindromic structures in Chorale 29 have already been demonstrated: in the various forms of motive X itself, in the structure of the soprano’s tune in phrase 5 (Example 4), and in the tenor’s rhythm in the same phrase. With the liberal use of various palindromic forms of the chorale’s primary motive X, palindromic structures naturally emerge. However, it is measures 5-6 that truly confirm the palindrome as a guiding principle, for not only does Bach alter the original tune to produce a palindromic phrase (substituting the original second note (B) for a C), and not only does he alter the tenor’s mirrored version of the alto’s previous line (Example 7), he also gives every part a palindromic phrase, producing a progression that clearly and quite audibly doubles back on itself (Example 8). The palindromic generative motive X is now clothed with its own palindromic harmonic attire. This is hardly coincidence.
Example 11 shows a symmetry of an entirely different kind. Bach uses twice in this chorale a particular device in the lower parts, once in measure 8 to close phrase four, and once in measure 12 of the final phrase. The device consists of three ascending parallel thirds between the bass and tenor, followed by three more ascending thirds between the tenor and alto. The tenor, thus, serves as a link between the two sets of parallel thirds. Turning now to the phrase under discussion (mm.9-11), Bach flips the device upside down and places it in the middle of the phrase. The first part of Example 11 shows the inverted device. Three parallel thirds between the soprano and alto are now descending, and are followed by three more descending thirds between the tenor and bass. Bach here involves all four parts, with the alto voice linking up with the tenor at the device’s midway point (on E).
Looking again at the same passage (mm.9-10) shows yet other canonic and palindromic structures. Notice the connection between the soprano and the two lower parts demonstrated in Example 12A. First, the tenor eighth notes that begin the phrase (D-C-B) anticipate the same notes in the soprano on beats 2-4, the soprano’s version being rhythmically augmented. The following measure reveals a reversal of roles. The soprano takes on the anticipatory role with its G-A-B quarter notes being followed by the same notes in the bass, though now in rhythmic diminution. The pitch B serves as an axis here, with the measure 9 phrase descending to B, and measure 10 phrase ascending to B (reminiscent of the soprano/bass relationship in Example 7). Readily apparent is the palindromic nature of the composite rhythm.
Example 12B illustrates other cross-staff connections. The descending parallel thirds have already been discussed and shown in Example 11. What was not shown there are the ascending thirds (or tenths) in that very same passage. While the soprano and alto parts have descending thirds in eighths, the tenor and bass have ascending tenths in quarters. Measure 10, the moment of transference of the descending thirds, is also the moment of transference of the ascending thirds. The two sets of parallel thirds simply trade staves, so to speak. Furthermore, the ascending quarter-note thirds can be viewed as an augmented version of the device illustrated in Example 11.
Example 13 (rather confusingly) shows all of the canonic connections in this wonderful, intricately-woven passage.
Bach’s Chorale 29 is a marvelous demonstration of the composer’s unmatched facility with contrapuntal devices. It is also a demonstration that the 371(!) chorales should not be neglected as analytically insignificant or marginalized as didactic models. The chorales are beautiful expressions that move both heart and thrill the mind.