Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Molecular Bach

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Portrait of Bach inside the ring of a caffeine molecule

In my last post, I gave you a quick glance at a problem I was having with a Bach piece–a furry problem.

After the cat stopped “helping” me* with Bach’s Invention No. 1, I decided to examine the work in closer (and less fuzzy) detail.  I decided to go molecular.

Let’s look at some of the printed music.

If you’re very good at reading music, you can see which notes sound with which other ones, and how they interact with each other.  You can see patterns in the music.

But for some reason I was having a hard time.  And I suspected that closer inspection would yield more information that I was picking up trying to play it as written.  So I decided to take an extreme close-up approach.

I took each measure, and expanded it to an entire line of music paper.  I then broke up each line into sixteen segments, to accommodate the sixteenth notes in the music.  Each little segment contained a single note (except where there are ornaments, like trills and mordents).  Then I transcribed the invention (thankfully, it’s only 22 measures).

When you get down to that molecular level, and you’re transcribing each note, patterns appear much more clearly.  It feels a little like examining a picture at the pixel level (and kind of looks like it), but it reveals so much.  It turns out that nearly every measure of the invention, in both the bass and treble clefs, uses one of three patterns: (1) four or more notes in an ascending or descending scale (blue); (2) movement by thirds in a scale-like way, up or down (for example, C-E-D-F, two steps forward, one step back, repeat; red); (3) eighth notes in intervals greater than a third (green).  And the patterns repeat, over and over.  First, he goes up (1), then down (2); or down (1) and then up (2).  The simplicity of the movement was shocking.  When you think Bach, you think complicated.  You think of this flurry of intricate notes.  You don’t think of individual snowflakes.

But no.  It goes up as a scale; it goes down by thirds.  Again. And again.  Look, and enjoy the many smiley faces formed by linking the segments to indicate eighth notes.

Bach's Invention 1 with patterns indicated

Now, Bach might be looking down at me and saying, “Well of course it’s simple.  I wrote it for my son Wilhelm Friedemann to learn how to play.  And it’s only a a two-part invention, not three, or a four-part fugue.”

But that’s the genius of Bach.  With the utmost simplicity, he builds beauty.  He takes bricks and makes cathedrals.  He does the same kind of thing in the Magnificat, in Omnes Generationes, making the simple spectacular.  Bach’s music can be enjoyed without understanding the details involved in the composition, but once you see the patterns, once you can say, “I see what you did there”, you can appreciate it even more.

Here is Invention No. 1.

Here is Invention No 1 played by five different pianists:  Walter Gieseking, Rosalyn Tureck, James Friskin, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Glenn Gould.

_____

*the cat is also very helpful with conference calls and intricate computer machinations.  Thankfully, she is not as helpful as Borodin’s cats.

References

  1. Here’s the sheet music:  http://www.mutopiaproject.org/ftp/BachJS/BWV772/bach-invention-01/bach-invention-01-a4.pdf

Image attribution:  Caffeine molecule by Mstroeck at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caffeine_Molecule.png.

Bach portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Sebastian_Bach.jpg.

Seems appropriate to use the caffeine molecule for the guy who wrote the Coffee Cantata.

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