From a horizontal point of view, Bach – Duet 1 in E minor BWV 802

Published by Paul on

“In a play, if more than one person speaks at the same time, it’s just noise, no one can understand a word. But with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at the same time, and it’s not noise. It’s a perfect harmony!”

For those who do not recognize it: this  quote comes from Amadeus, the iconic movie on Salieri and Mozart. Mozart is trying to persuade the Emperor to commission an opera.

Though twenty voices sounds somewhat overambitious, this is what happens in what we call polyphonic music: independent melodies playing simultaneously, thus at the same time creating an overall piece of music. You hear one piece of music but when you look (listen!) closer it consists of all separate melodies.

No accompanying chords, just melodies. Sometimes one voice repeating a previous melody, sometimes one melody attracting  more attention than another but the basic idea is that all voices are equally important.

Listen to this Duet in E minor BWV 802 by J.S. Bach.

Polyphony is a horizontal approach to composing as opposed to the vertical texture where a melody is accompanied, supported, “carried” by chords underneath. This homophonic way of composing is what we nowadays are used to the most: a song or instrumental piece with a (beautiful) melodic line and a chordal constructed background accompaniment.
By the way, you might be surprised: it was polyphonic music that originated first in musical history. In fact it was thé way in western culture music developed out of unisono, single voiced music: One melody against another melody.
The doctrine of how to compose polyphonic music is called Counterpoint, which is quite a complicated and strict system of rules.

So what’s so special about it? Why write this blog about it?

What fascinates me is the fact that as a pianist I play more than one voice simultaneously. I must make these voices sound as separate, independent melodies with their own dynamics and phrasing. Their own start and ending. I must think horizontally! I have to play as if I am two (or more) musicians, a multiple personalty as it were.

I must hear them as separate in my head or I won’t be able to play them as such. Which, in my opinion, is extremely difficult if not impossible. Can one really think two different things at the same time? Can you really follow all the lines? And above that, play it that way?

Or do we in fact approach the piece vertically, studying with both hands the notes that should be played together. Forgetting the horizontal flow or only accentuating the starting point of the themes and motives?
When playing very fast one might fool the public😉.
I must say I sometimes wonder whether even some recordings by famous “pro’s” are really thought and played polyphonic. It may sound a bit presumptuous but being a teacher for some decades now I think I can hear the difference.

Practicing a polyphonic piece playing the hands separately is not a technical but a musical matter: how does that theme, melody sound and develop in the piece? Play it like its your only part in that piece and put your whole heart and soul in playing that one voice.
But then you’ll have to do the same thing with the other voice(s)…..

Let’s try it as a listener, which might be easier: re-listen the recording above and first try to follow just one of the two voices, focus one that one melody as if you were playing it. Then try the same with the other voice. And then, when you are acquainted with the separate voices try to listen to them both, follow the melodic lines of both.
Can you hear whether I succeed in playing the two voices independently?

Not easy, isn’t it? Even though in this Duet the voices use the same melodies and sometimes take turns. Just imagine how your brain might overheat when you have to play a 4 voice fugue. Bach as Braintrainer 🙂 .

I’m convinced that with a lot of (mental) study we can come very close to paying attention to the flow of all the voices. Of course, automating the phrasing and dynamics when studying the voices separately is helpful in playing.

After all this talking about how complicated and difficult polyphonic music is let’s not forget that it’s not only ingeniously constructed music but it can at the same time be exceptionally beautiful and moving. Just listen to the first part of “The Art of the Fugue”, straight to the heart…….

click the picture to go to youtube link

“Die Kunst der Fuge” is Bach’s magnum opus where he demonstrates all the possibilities of polyphonic writing. Striking is the fact that he did not write it for a specific instrument or ensemble: he just wrote down the voices. So you can hear it being performed in different instrumentations or arrangements: on keyboard instruments (piano, harpsichord, organ) but also by strinqquartets or other chambermusic ensembles.

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Arjen Bezemer
2 months ago

At least, you succeeded in paying attention to both voices equally in this Duet, Paul! Nice!

Clemens Hoffman
2 months ago

Interesting topic !