Saturday, July 18, 2015

Polyphony of Baroque Music

Johann Sebastian Bach
One of the many characteristics of music in the Baroque era [think Johann Sebastian Bach] is the use of polyphony, literally meaning many voices.  In Baroque music, many times you will hear two or more melodic lines played at the same time.  That is why first time listeners of Baroque music sometimes find it hard to listen to, as it seems like a lot is going on at the same time.  Once you understand the many voices technique, which are in a lot of Baroque compositions, your ear will be able to detect the different melodic lines playing at the same time and you will love the beauty of it.

I remember my daughter's Suzuki piano lessons began with music from the Baroque Era, which was the foundation out of which came the classical, romantic and modern eras of music.  Her great teacher, Mrs. Kurinets, would have her practice the melodic lines of the right and left hand separately before putting them together.  I would think to myself...that is a nice melody when she would practice the left hand.  I would think the exact same thing when she played the right hand.  When she put her hands together I marveled at the genius of how the different melodic lines could sound so good played together in one piece.  Even though the hands and different melodic lines were played at the same time, because of her practice with separate hands, I could actually hear both lines at the same time.  That really gave me a new perspective and love of Baroque music that I hadn't had previously.

The many voices technique used in Baroque music wasn't necessarily different melodic voices [lines].  They were sometimes the same melodic line but played at different times. This technique, where one line is played, then that same melodic line comes in again but in a different voice is called point/counter point.  An example, familiar with all, would be "Row, Row, Row Your Boat..."   I think you can remember in  "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" how the exact same melodic line is sung, but it [the separate voice] enters at different points.  This type of counterpoint is called a canon [which modernly sometimes is called a round].

Probably the most famous use of the canon technique is displayed in Pachelbel's Canon in D-Major.  When you hear this amazing piece, you will hear the voice that is played over and over again, first as the dominant voice, than it becomes the secondary voice you hear in the background for the rest of the piece as other dominant themes are also used in the point/counter point manner throughout the piece.  In my unprofessional opinion, this is pure genius. 

Another type of counterpoint is a fugue, which is just like a canon but the melodic line coming in at different points will not be the exact line as the first.  Probably the most famous fugues come from the quintessential Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach.  Most of his fugues were in his set of compositions for the keyboard entitled  "The Well Tempered Clavier". 

Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many the greatest composer of all because his introduction of various techniques [like polyphony] in his plethora of wonderful compositions which laid the foundation for all music up to today.  That is why Johann Sebastian Bach is one of my favorite composers.

Here are two great examples of the polyphony in Baroque music with a cannon and a fugue.  Pachelbel's Canon in D Major and Johann Sebastian Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in d minor [for organ].

In the Bach fugue, start listening for the multiple voices starting at the 2:56 mark...it starts with two voices then later on with three and maybe even four voices being played at the same time. I hate to throw this term around so much, but dare I say, this unbelievable piece by Bach is also genius.  Yes, I do dare say it.  :-)

Please turn up the volume and enjoy these great iconic polyphonic pieces from the Baroque era of  music.

Johann Pachelbel: Canon in D Major:




J.S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in d minor for organ:



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