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Bach’s counterpoint – who’s on “top”?

June 20, 2018

The amazing thing about Bach’s counterpoint is that the musical meaning of a piece does not change if you transpose one or more voices to different octaves or simply rearrange the order of the voices from highest to lowest.  The voice that is originally on top does not have to be on top for the counterpoint to have the same effect.   It is as if each voice in a Bach fugue is transparent to all the others.  No voice, regardless of its pitch range, is opaque in that it blocks or occludes any other voice.   The voices shine through each other.  Figuratively speaking, every voice is on top.

Being the top voice loses its automatic prominence to the ear.  All of them, in effect, are on top, or none of them are.*  You can think of it either way.

It is a mistake to concentrate our attention when playing on the top voice, or to whichever voice currently “has the theme.”

Of almost no other composer is this true.  In a Beethoven sonata, for instance, only rarely can you move the right hand notes into the bass and the left hand notes into the treble and have a result that ‘works’ as well musically, that aesthetically resembles the un-switched version.   In Beethoven, depending on which octave a note sounds in, it creates an impression of sound that is different than the same note sounding in a different octave.  Each octave range has its own sound-personality.

One of the ways of determining the unique properties of the musical space of a great composer is to experiment subjecting the piece to certain specific types of distortions and then noting the results sound-wise.  One such attempt at distortion is the rearrangement of the voices described above.  Here are some others:

– how much can you change the tempo of the piece without distorting the meaning of the piece or its character?

– how much can you change the rhythm of the melody without changing the essence of a melody?

– how much of the essence of the music is changed by changing the instrument or instruments playing it?

– to what extent will the integrity of the piece be ruined by starting to switch around parts (what comes first, what comes second, etc.)?

The answers to these questions will be obvious to the ear, and will vary from one composer to another.  They reveal to us what some of the basic, “geometric” properties of that composer’s “musical space” are.

These experiments are similar to those in the mathematical subject of topology, where a common question is to ask how much one can distort a shape and still have it retain certain basic properties.

*This is why Bach’s fugues for organ work as fugues even though it is often the case that each voice sounds in several octaves at once because of linking an eight foot stop with a four foot stop and/or a sixteen foot stop.  The same applies to Bach on a harpsichord when ‘couplers’ are used to cause a note to sound in more than one octave at once though we are only pushing down one key.

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