Tag Archives: J. S. Bach

Counterpoint rhythms

I’m thinking of how a regular Bach fugue (for example, listen to this fantastic one for organ) goes. There are usually notes, subdivisions of that note, and then subdivisions of that note, and maybe one more subdivision. The rhythm is pretty straightforward, but the variety makes it so that each part can come out rhythmically at different times. This subdivision is at the heart of the art of counterpoint.

I think you’ll hear that I’ve listened to Bach when you hear my string quartet. I am not trying to write exactly like him, but he was a master of the craft, so if some of it bleeds through, I think it’s ok.

I’m doing nearly exactly the equivalent of what I did in my most recent composing session. A new line for each of the four string instruments, each extending a little further than the last. Except this time, I hear inside myself this viola line that has to come right as the cello line ends its line. And the viola ushers in the next section, and I’ve gotten to two minutes. I’m going to quit working on this for today.

It’s Jeremiah’s birthday, and I’m trying to figure out how to best honor him. We visited his grave, and sang a song. We had some cake, and some of us looked at pictures from the day he was born. I guess the main thing is I want to remember him, even though we didn’t get to keep him very long.

I’m listening to Requiem again, the piece I wrote to commemorate the dead babies I didn’t get to know. It has five movements – Eternal Rest, Day of Wrath, And the trumpet will call me, This tearful day, and Lamb of God.

When I read the scriptures, it really seems like trumpets will play an important role in the resurrection. In fact, trumpets have historically played an important role for many aspects of religious service and worship. For those interested, I wrote an article some years ago about brass instruments and religious worship.

More work on the string quartet

I’m opening up the score for the string quartet, and it’s really fun! I’m seeing where the melody left off, where the parts left off, and try to write a little on each part, one or two phrases at a time, so that they all feel like they are part of the improvisation that isn’t really an improvisation. But I keep in mind that all the players want to play something that is meaningful. It has to fit with the rest, and they have to alternate having the carrying line.

I’m thinking that the studying of counterpoint proves pretty helpful at this point. J.S. Bach wrote so much contrapuntal work that his work is probably some of the most inspiring – but there are others too. Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern, just to name a few great ones.

It’s the idea that you have a theme that is short and concise, that you vary. You let each instrument say something, sometimes as the main melody, and other times as more of an accompaniment, but each new phrase will usually change the constellation of who leads and who supports. It’s very much like a dance.

So I find myself writing a few measures for the viola, and some for the second violin, etc, each time ending a little after the other line, so that it’s kind of like a puzzle, where each new idea has to fit into the framework I’m creating, and as I’m fitting the new idea into the framework, I also extend the framework for the next line to fit into.

At one point, the two violins and the viola all come to an end of their phrase at the same time, so that prepares the way for the cello to take the lead. Next, I write in a contrapuntal line in the first violin, and it ends about five beats after the cello line. The second violin comes in with the first violin, but then it diverges, and the phrase ends five beats after the first’s. Next comes the viola. I decide to give it a measure of rest before coming in, and then I write a contrapuntal line for this instrument. This time I keep going for twelve beats after the second violin before I feel like the line is ended.

That maneuver means that I have twenty-two beats where the cello has nothing, but at least one other instrument has something. So that will be the next place where I put my attention. And I write a line for the cello, and I write until the end of the viola line, and then I see that I have an opening for a transition to something different. It’s a minute into the piece, and I feel content with having given an exposition to the first theme in that minute. There is enough repetition, and enough variation that I feel pretty content with the balance.

Next time, I’ll finish up the end of the exposition in all the instrument, and allow the upper three to join in the new part. Ha! That will be fun.