Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint

By Tilley, Janette | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint


Tilley, Janette, Canadian University Music Review


David Yearsley, Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint. New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism, ed. Jeffrey Kallberg, Anthony Newcomb and Ruth Solie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xvi. 257 pp. Plates, musical examples, notes, bibliography, and index. ISBN 0-521-80346-2 (hardcover).

Until recently, counterpoint has typically been the purview of music theorists. Regarded as a self-contained musical system, counterpoint and particularly Bach's strict counterpoint, was long held to be an arcane intellectual pursuit with little or no extra-musical reference. Recent investigations into tonal allegory and symbolism have begun to explore the possibility of meaning in Bach's learned compositions (Chafe, 1984; Marissen, 1995). Continuing this line of inquiry, David Yearsley asks what counterpoint might have meant to the musical intelligentsia of the early eighteenth century. Inspired by the belief "that Bach's most complex music might be better understood by trying to grapple with it as one of his contemporaries might have done, that is, as someone for whom Bach's contrapuntal insights retained a very real currency and vivid significance" (p. 237), Yearsley unravels a complex web of "highly malleable meanings from which it [counterpoint] has derived so much of its cultural potency" (p. 210). Counterpoint, Yearsley reveals, was anything but an abstract and recondite technique. As his six diverse chapters ably demonstrate, Bach's counterpoint may be understood as religious, hermetic, political, and aesthetic discourse.

Yearsley presents a multi-faceted picture of Bach, revealing the composer's humour, wit, and political acumen. Hardly a contribution to Bach's hagiography, the volume rather exposes Bach to be a man of his times-a participant in his social, religious, and intellectual culture of which counterpoint is shown also to play a part. In fact, five out of the six chapters have as much to do with seventeenth-and eighteenth-century codes and practices as they do with Bach's music. The first chapter, in particular, is an important consideration of music and seventeenth-century Lutheran eschatology. Counterpoint, with its appeals to higher intellectual faculties and by extension higher metaphysical planes, could serve as a reminder of the music of heaven and as a contemplation on death and dying-a musical extension of Lutheran ars moriendi. Although the practice of steadfastly contemplating death began to recede in the eighteenth century, Yearsley demonstrates how the contrapuntal chorale Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (BWV 668) served as a potent eschatological contemplation for the dying Bach. In the second chapter, Yearsley explores counterpoint as veiled alchemical discourse. The chapter is largely devoted to the prose writings of musicians such as Johann Mattheson, Heinrich Bokemeyer, and Lorenz Mizler, and the canonic pieces of Johann Theile. Bach's personal engagement with counterpoint as a hermetic metaphor is in no way assured; canonic procedures similar to Theile' s and membership in Mizler' s "Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences" suggest that secret alchemical understandings of Bach's counterpoint may well have co-existed with the Enlightenment's rationalistic views.

The central three chapters (Chapters 3, 4, and 5) all deal with aspects of musical taste. Chapter 3 contemplates the intersections between artifice and nature in canonic procedures with particular attention to Bach's Canonic Variations (BWV 769) and F major Duetto (BWV 803). Yearsley reveals how contrapuntal complexity could be employed in the pursuit of a refined galant goût. Chapter 4 presents a new picture of Bach's famous encounter with Frederick the Great and the origins of the Musical Offering (BWV 1079). Far from "an unknowing group of decadent moderns who treated counterpoint with condescension and near contempt" (p. 157), the Prussian King and his entourage consisted of "appreciative connoisseurs", well versed in the intricacies of the contrapuntal art. …

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