Other Matters: For Harmony Fans Only

Bach.jpgNews flash: Johann Sebastian Bach may have been ahead of his time.
Eric Altschuler, a Bach researcher for more than a decade, was a guest today on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition Sunday. He discussed with host Liane Hansen his proposition that Bach used a twelve-tone row a couple of centuries before Arnold Schoenberg revolutionized 20th century music with the device and, I might add, about 250 years before Ornette Coleman employed the atonal row in jazz. To hear the Altschuler interview, complete with musical examples, click on the single arrow in the player below.

There are countless recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier. For years, I’ve been fascinated with the interpretations by the young Andras Schiff of Book 1 and Book 2.
If you’re interested in going into Bach beyond listening, a recent book by the Canadian musicologist Marjorie Wornell Engells examines the musical language and emotional dimension of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
I suppose you could go through life without learning to love Bach, but I wouldn’t advise it.

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  1. says

    That was fascinating, but I found Altschuler’s premise a bit of a stretch. To me it sounded more like an ingenious use of chromaticism in the bass than 12-tone writing as we know it. Though Schoenberg may well have been influenced by it or Bach in general.
    For an ingenious jazz use of this technique, check out Brookmeyer’s “ABC Blues” for Thad and Mel*, where he uses an 11-tone row and wide intervals to set up a feeling of atonality. This is a much more pronounced use of said technique than anything I know of in Ornette’s work, BTW. Ornette was/is an untrained natural talent who writes what he hears, but there’s really no elaborate theoretical underpinning for his music, the so-called “harmolodic theory” notwithstanding. As Duke Ellington said, if it sounds good, it is good.
    *(Absurdly, the album that contains Brookmeyer’s masterpiece, “Presenting Thad Jones, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra,” is long out of print. My Google search turned up one vinyl copy on e-Bay. – DR)

  2. Larry Kart says

    I agree with Bill — a stretch. And other instances of extreme chromaticism are abundant in music of that era and the era prior to it — try Gesualdo for some hair-raising examples. Yes, the at times laboratory-like orderliness of Bach’s musical thought is probably what led him to create this “proto-row,” but despite the intensity/quality/shapeliness of the resulting music, I don’t think it’s some sort of forgotten signpost. A great deal of Bach is like this; that this time we have twelve different pitches sounded here in a row probably only means, to quote pianist Edward Aldwell, that “This piece is by far the most chromatic of the Book II preludes — in fact, the only piece where chromaticism seems to be THE POINT.” Given that highly chromatic material and Bach’s compositional habits, it’s almost inevitable that this “row” would be present in some form throughout the prelude; that often was Bach’s way.
    Also, I believe that “atonal row” is a misnomer. The presence and use of a twelve-tone row does not mean that a piece of music is atonal, i.e. that diatonic tonal functions have been so severely weakened or even suppressed as to be non-existent. Berg and Schoenberg himself, among others, at times used twelve-tone techniques with elements specifically suggesting tonality; Berg’s Violin Concerto is a sterling example. (Also, Schoenberg hated the term “atonal” FWIW; he felt that it was commonly used as a disparaging synonym for “chaotic” and “unmusical.”)
    Finally, someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d be surprised of Ornette ever made use of twelve-note techniques.
    (My invention of the term “atonal row” in connection with Ornette Coleman was intended to be ironic. If that was unclear, mea culpa. I know that there is no such thing. I do not hear his work or Schoenberg’s as chaotic or unmusical. — DR)

  3. says

    Thanks to Larry Kart for his enlightening comments. For a further example of a piece that uses a 12-tone row but sounds tonal, check out Aaron Copland’s “Quartet for Piano and Strings” (aka “Piano Quartet”).

  4. Herb Levy says

    Ornette Coleman played within a piece that was, I think, serial by Gunther Schuller on the Third Stream LP. It’s included in the box set of all the Atlantic sessions, but other than that I agree that it’s unlikely that he used the formal technique in his own music.
    Add Lou Harrison’s Symphony on G to the list of row-based works with a tonal sound. Depending on your ears, some works by Luigi Dallapiccola, Stefan Wolpe, Morton Feldman and/or George Perle might also fit.