Academic journal article Journal of Singing

J. S. Bach, Allegory, and the "Kreuz" Motif, Part 2

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

J. S. Bach, Allegory, and the "Kreuz" Motif, Part 2

Article excerpt

IN PART 1 OF THIS ARTICLE (Journal of Singing 71, no. 1 [September/October 2014]: 63-78), Bach's employment of allegorical techniques in the choral works was addressed, with particular emphasis on his use of accidentals, chromatic melody, and harmony, in his portrayal of the Crucifixion. Accordingly, a survey of the sacred cantatas (BWV 1-199) was undertaken, in order to appreciate more precisely the nature and extent of such musical gestures. In Part 2, particular attention will be paid to an important keyboard fugue that connects in a particular way to this discussion, and suggests the essential oneness of Bach's compositional technique and aims, independent of medium, genre, and the presence/absence of text. Comparisons with vocal works related to the Crucifixion will conclude the discussion.


Those possessing a wide acquaintance with both Bach's keyboard writing and his vocal music will be well aware of the commonalities of musical gesture that inhere in each. Naturally, much can be attributed to the consistency of compositional language that transcends medium in much Baroque repertoire, and particularly in Bach. In a few cases, however, such commonalities seem to invite comparison and speculation regarding possible allegorical cross-pollination across the vocal/instrumental boundary. Wanda Landowska implied as much when she referred to the 25th variation of the Goldberg Variations as the "crown of thorns" variation. This is a seldom explored aspect of Bach's musical language, perhaps because of the inherently speculative nature of the study.

Anyone who has listened to, or played through, the concluding B-minor fugue of the first book of Bach's Das wohltemperierte Clavier cannot help but be struck by the singular attributes of this contrapuntal Leistung. One is immediately aware that this is a special creation, if only in terms of its length, majesty, and uncompromising chromaticism. Few other instrumental works of Bach reach as deeply and sublimely into the harmonic and contrapuntal palette of Bach's sound world (Example 1).

Closer inspection reveals several unique or unusual features of this fugue, viewed in relation to the other ones in this work:

1. It is the longest fugue in performance, consisting of 76 slowly unfolding measures in common time.

2. It is the only piece in the set with an authentic tempo marking, Largo. The prelude to which it is paired is also marked, Andante.

3. It is the only time that Bach indicates slurs in the collection-a rare occurrence for Bach generally, but especially in the keyboard works.

4. It is the longest fugue subject, both in number of notes and in performance duration.

5. It is the only fugue to employ all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.

6. Apart from the final half note, the subject has no rhythmic variety, being an unfolding of steady eighth notes.2

7. It is the only fugue subject to modulate from the home key to the dominant for the entrance of the second voice.3

8. The countersubject bears a remarkable reciprocal relationship to the subject, unlike other fugues.

Bach evidently granted particular care to this fugue, perhaps because of its position as the culminating fugue of the entire set-the "grand finale," as it were. Bach must have been very aware of the landmark nature of the first book of Das wohltemperierte Clavier, and of its musical significance both intrinsically and historically. Nothing so thorough and extensive had been attempted before. The employment of all 24 major and minor tonalities in a single work was historically the first complete cycle through the tonal system of the eighteenth century. But it was more than just practical proof that a single instrument, tempered appropriately, was capable of playing tolerably well in tune throughout the entire circle of fifths. It was also a musical metaphor for the magnificence and completeness of God's creation. …

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