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On-line Book Review


Dimension: 23.4 x 16.0 x 2.0 cm
TITLE Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint by David Yearsley
PUBL. DETAILS Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2002); 112 pp; £45.00 (US$60.00)
ISBN 0-521-80346-2
TO ORDER Cambridge University Press, The Edinburgh Building, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK. Phone +44 (0)1223 312393; Fax +44 (0)1223 315052
DESCRIPTION A monograph exploring the significance of Bach's counterpoint in a wide range of historical context.
WORKS COVERED BWV 8, 212, 232, 234, 525-30, 552, 641, 668, 769, 772-801, 803, 864, 988, 1015, 1035, 1067, 1073-5, 1077-80, 1086-7.
READERSHIP Scholars and informed readers interested in Bach's canons.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Significant contribution to our understanding of canon as a genre in the first half of 18th century Germany.

anon is often considered a dry and technical genre of music, very far removed from the expressive qualities that the musicians of the high Baroque strived to discover. Why Bach composed his canons (or even included canonic passages in his non-canonic works) is not always apparent. It is a mystery, for example, why Bach dedicated the work containing enigmatic canons to Frederic the Great, whose musical tastes were known to be progressive.
Remarkably, canon has many extra-musical connotations. It is suited to express various types of symbolism, automatically assuming abstract character. However, the author argues that this is not always the case with Bach’s canons. Starting with the premise that the counterpoint of Bach’s time was saturated with meaning – social, theological and political, he unfolds his original argument in a series of five essays (of which the portions of chapters 1, 2 and 5 were taken from the previously published articles) claiming that Bach’s canons were not only rich in meaning but also expressive.
1. Vor deinen Thron tret ich and the art of dying
2. The alchemy of Bach's canons
3. Bach's taste for pork or canary
4. The autocratic regimes of A Musical Offering.
5. Bach the machine
6. Physiognomies of Bach's counterpoint.


a truly fascinating reading

As for me the most convincing and satisfying is his Chapter 3 where he examines Bach’s canons against the background of the famous Bach-Scheibe controversy, viewing both intellectual and artistic (esp. galant) aspects of Bach’s craft. He supports his discussion with a wealth of historical sources, and writes in an engaging tone. The author’s contribution to this well-known controversy is significant, as he sheds successfully an important light on the meaning of canons that Bach composed in the last decade of his life.

I equally enjoyed reading Chapter 2 where the author explores another uncharted territory of history of Western music, i.e. mysticism. Through the detailed discussion of Bach’s contemporaries such as Walther, Bokemeyer, Mattheson and many others, whose views on alchemy and other hermetic principles are recorded in surviving documents, the author constructs a brilliant piece of detective work by carefully piecing together a possible background of Bach’s enigmatic canons.

The chapter that left some important questions in my mind was the opening chapter where Bach’s ars moriendi (the art of dying) was discussed. Here the author attempts to affirm the traditional belief that the so-called ‘death-bed chorale’ (BWV 668) was Bach’s last creative efforts. I am not convinced, for instance, if Bach’s use of counterpoint in this chorale has such a significant role for the said purpose. He provides little additional facts to unveil this long-standing mysteries that surround this famous chorale. (For example, who copied this chorale at the back of Bach’s autograph of the ‘Great Eighteen’ and when? Why an early version of the chorale was printed in the Art of Fugue?). Since some of these issues have been sought by Kobayashi and Wollny in recent years, it is unfortunate that their works were not incorporated in his discussion to support his argument. Similarly, in discussing ars moriendi, it is strange to find no reference to the work of Renate Steiger, a leading researcher in the field of “Bach and Theology”, who has been focusing on this issue for several decades now; although her research mainly focuses on Bach’s cantata, there is no reason to ignore her work.

Having said some of my small reservations, I must say I am actually greatly impressed by the informativeness of his writing. His discussions of the background of the chorale is excellent, which is helped enormously by his intimate, narrative style of writing. The amount of details he draws from hard-to-access treatises are also very impressive, touching on many fascinating facts that I was not aware of. To me it was a thoroughly satisfying reading experience.

Published online on 23 April 2003

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