Bach's Chorales And Making Choices In The Modern World

One Example of a Bach Chorale (YouTube)—Jesu Meine Freude:

          Music theory can reveal the secrets of the universe. Look no further than Bach’s four-part harmonized chorales. Within each of these jewels is the secret that brilliant solutions hinge less on a right-wrong dichotomy, and more on intuitions that veer toward hundreds of fortunate choices and away from millions of less fortunate paths.  At a time when our economic, political, and cultural values insist on a simple dichotomy, one side or the other, a right choice and a wrong choice, this kind of secret might provide valuable perspective! Such thoughts arise from teaching Bach chorales in a music theory class. Let me provide some context.

          Bach’s four-part chorales are the models, the epitome, the Torah, what have you, of Western harmony. In composing an alto, tenor, and bass voice to the well known Lutheran hymns of his day, Bach’s expression and thirst for variety led him to create examples of virtually every type of chord and harmonic progression possible in tonal music. I kid you not. There are brief moments in these chorales that portend Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and even Stravinsky and Schoenberg!

          Every music theory student and serious composer analyzes these chorales and then writes their own. Alas, herein lies a problem and a key irony: Bach makes for a lousy model. Virtually none of his chorales match the prescribed textbook rules for proper chorale writing. The books say to avoid doubling the third of the chord. Bach doubles thirds constantly. The books say not to cross voices. Bach frequently crosses voices. The books outlaw parallel fifths and octaves. Albeit on very rare occasions, Bach even breaks these sacrosanct laws and composes parallel fifths.  

          But that is nothing compared to the more general difficulty that Bach’s chorales are so intensely chromatic. Bach uses chromaticism (think extra sharps and flats) to such an extent that powerful dissonance threatens to obliterate the clarity of the simple chorale tunes. There’s humor in that. Lutheran hymns strive for plainness and simplicity. They are a reaction to the excesses of Catholic contrapuntal music. But here was Bach, a devout Lutheran, making even the simple chorale tunes more complex than most of the Catholic composers that preceded him.

          Teachers take pains to justify Bach’s excesses. In other words, one discovers reasons and purpose for all of Bach’s extreme actions. But that misses the point. Bach seems to go out of his way to break rules.  His contemporaries complained about the complexity of his music. Even today we find it challenging, with many moments difficult to play and to hear. 

What gives?

          Bach probably viewed principles of voice leading more as tendencies than rules. The purpose of these tendencies was to ensure that four voices maintain their independence as four separate melodies, while at the same time creating a clear progression of harmony as they proceed together through musical space. That procession is polyphony, the miracle invention of Western music, a special coding and coordination of two different auditory orders: the horizontal order of multiple melodies, and the vertical order of the notes of those multiple melodies sounding together to create chords. The progression of chords produces yet a third order of structure and intention that we call harmony. In Western music, harmony is what determines musical structure and intention.

          Composing a chorale is a bit like four-dimensional checkers. The tendencies that ensure independence of the voices —that is, ensure a chorale sounds like four separate parts instead of three or two or one with accompaniment—provide interesting limitations on how individual voices may move. For instance, a choice to have the bass voice leap to a particular note might sound good for the bass itself, but in doing so, it might threaten the independence or clarity of the tenor, alto, or soprano voices. or even the integrity of the harmony itself when all voices are sounded together. So instead, the bass may have to move to another note to satisfy all of these concerns. But of course, changing one thing might have a negative impact on something else. Perhaps the previous note or a note in one of the other voices will need to be changed. Composing chorales involves working both forward and backward in time, constantly checking the interactions between all four voices for structural integrity. That is the craft and task part of chorale writing.

          In composing chorales, one discovers there are safe choices and risky choices. Most of the textbook “rules” guide students to the safe choices, choices that ensure clarity and independence without having to discover unusual solutions, such as unexpected leaps, less stable doublings of notes of the chord, dissonances, or harmonic alterations. Even the safer paths, though, demand skill, because for every correct choice (that strengthens the chorale), there are hundreds of paths that lead to destruction (of the integrity of the chorale). Developing intuitions away from the plethora of choices that weaken the chorale and toward the dozens of choices that strengthen the music requires considerable practice. 

          The risky choices require much more imagination. They introduce elements of chaos and instability into the chorale that require other extreme choices to balance the whole. Not surprisingly, Bach does not choose to play it safe. Instead, he careens around the fringes of tonal coherence. His riskier choices require ever more imaginative responses in an intricate balancing act that erupts in surprise and a hypersensitive awareness of connections between the voices. Bach’s chorales expose possibilities within tonality that are not immediately obvious, all by pushing the system to its breaking point. If the conventional voice leading the textbooks advocate produces a dozen solutions, Bach’s unconventional tendencies expose hundreds of new choices. These choices bend the system and astonish the ear, but still work within the tonal framework, and ultimately support and strengthen its foundations. They revitalize the chorales with the excitement of discovering new possibilities and new beauty in tonality.

          Today’s media headlines often boil down real difficult problems to a debate between only two choices or camps. Bach’s chorales teach that these might be false dichotomies. Most problems may not really be between two choices, but between numerous poor directions and fewer good ones. But the possible good choices are more numerous than we at first imagine. Some of the best are hidden. Like Bach, we might want to careen around the fringes to expose some of these hidden possibilities and see if we might find a way to balance what we’ve bent without breaking a system most people seem to agree is still filled with great beauty and potential.