Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Indispensable Book

There is one book that has been on every composer's shelf (and desk) longer than any other. This one:

I just scanned the cover of my copy. I haven't owned it for my whole career, but I have certainly been aware of it and worked with selections from it in other texts for a very long time. Some version of this book has been in print since 1764, which probably makes it the longest-lasting music publication ever. It is currently available from Amazon for $8.54. F. W. Marpurg began collecting the chorales and the job was carried on by J. S. Bach's son C. P. E. Bach. A major revision was made for the third edition in 1831 when the upper clef was changed from the soprano C-clef to the more familiar G-clef. There were a number of further editions and revisions. The currently-available edition, pictured above and available through Amazon, was edited by Albert Riemenschneider and published in 1941.

The stimulus to mention this book was a couple of comments left on an old post of mine talking about Bach chorales. Go and read the post and the comments. Not long ago composer Farcry C. Zuke left a link to his fascinating discussion of the same chorale I talked about. Please go and read Farcry's analysis. He says "The harmonic oddities of Bach often involve stepwise motion." I have put this in a slightly different way, saying to a friend of mine once that you can get away with almost anything harmonically if you lead into it by step. Farcry goes through the whole chorale pointing out a number of interesting aspects, concluding that the chorale "is actually a melody in E Phrygian and Bach has harmonized it in A minor." Yes, and ended many of the phrases, including the final one, with a half-cadence!

Just for fun, and, I guess, to show how hard it is to set out to harmonize a chorale like this, I took the melody to Aus tiefer Not and did my own harmonization. Sure, it's clumsy and not in the same league as Bach. But I didn't spend too much time on it. I like a couple of the ideas and stumbled across at least one interesting cadence. I was just trying to see how much I could get away with, sticking to stepwise voice-leading. Let this be a lesson to all of us! And hey, when you, inevitably, diss my harmonization, be kind.



Marc Puckett said...

Heard the Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (BWV 150) last night with Brahms's 4th Symphony-- Brahms used the theme from Bach's final chaconne in his final allegro, evidently. It was one of the highlights of the OBF thus far (although I must admit that the evening's high point for me personally was Bruckner's Te Deum, which I'd never heard in a live performance). Your harmonisation sounded pleasant enough to me! (how's that for inexpert praise, ha)-- I continue to not quite grasp what you and Farcry Zuke are going on about much of the time but, eh, I'm not as clueless as I was a few months ago; thanks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, the Bruckner Te Deum. I sang in the choir for that when I was an undergraduate many years ago. Thanks for reminding me! I just started listening to it on YouTube. But until just now I had ONLY heard it live--when we sang it. Good piece.

After I put that harmonization up, I realized that I hated the cadence at the repeat sign. So I rewrote it. I might put the improved one up too.

One of my songs, I rewrote the final cadence five times before I was satisfied.