Dimension: 23.4 x 16.0 x 2.0 cm
||Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint
by David Yearsley
||Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2002); 112 pp; £45.00
University Press, The Edinburgh Building, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge
CB2 2RU, UK. Phone +44 (0)1223 312393; Fax +44 (0)1223 315052
||A monograph exploring the significance of Bach's counterpoint
in a wide range of historical context.
||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.
||Scholars and informed readers interested in Bach's canons.
||Significant contribution to our understanding of canon as a
genre in the first half of 18th century Germany.
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)
that Bach’s canons were not only rich in meaning but also expressive.
||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.
||Vor deinen Thron tret ich and the art of dying
||The alchemy of Bach's canons
||Bach's taste for pork or canary
||The autocratic regimes of A Musical Offering.
||Bach the machine
||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
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
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