Magazine article Musical Times

Letter

Magazine article Musical Times

Letter

Article excerpt

Enharmonies in Back

Eric Lewin Altschuler's letter 'Enharmonies in Bach' (Summer 2008, pp.2-4) raises the interesting hypothesis that enharmonic notes and transpositions somehow 'shed light on Bach's acceptance of equal temperament over nonequal temperament'. Whilst we would all like to know precisely which temperament JS Bach preferred and how he tuned it (NB two assumptions here: (a) was there only one temperament?; and (b) did his ideas change over rime and according to musical situation?), I think that there have been no incontrovertible proofs so far, despite some recent overpositivistic theories (e.g. Bradley Lehman).

Unfortunately, the problem cannot be solved either by enharmonies, or by the known transpositions that Bach made, for example, in compiling vol.2 of the Well-tempered clavier. At a time when the diatonic key system was new (NB Bach's emphasis on the tertia majorem and the tertia minorem in the preface to the Well-tempered clavier vol.1 in 1722), one of Bach's agendas must have been to write music that was grammatically correct according to the new tonal system. Hence it is perfectly logical for the E# to be followed by an F[musical flat] that Mr Altschuler quotes from BWV 542/1 (bar 38) as part of a dramatic modulation from E major to C minor via a diminished seventh chord. But this aspect of musica theoria has nothing to do with temperament, which is musica. prattica in the most fundamental sense. Yes, this particular modulation works well in equal temperament (what modulation doesn't? …

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