When Bach Dissolves Tonality

 Ricercar from Bach's Musical Offering—note the many instances of chromaticism (sharps, flats, and naturals)

Ricercar from Bach's Musical Offering—note the many instances of chromaticism (sharps, flats, and naturals)

The more you study J.S. Bach, the more you are struck by just how aware he was of the full ramifications of the tonal system. His music expands the system to its fullest ramifications. He took the Baroque system of Vivaldi and Corelli to a higher level by exploring all 12 tones and various different keys within a single musical piece.  

But he also brings the tonal system to near destruction with his strong inclination for dissonance. Bach's music is chock-full of dissonance. Just look at his music and count the many accidentals in front of the notes—sharps, flats, naturals (symbols that indicate notes outside the key) Sometimes he goes right to the edge, maybe even over for a bit, losing all sense of a tonal center, or key.

Two of my favorite examples are from the Well Tempered Clavier. The famous C minor fugue from Book I has this dissonant ascending sequence:

Here I exaggerate the dissonances so you can hear how they destroy the sense of key:

Even more radical is this ending of the last fugue in WTC II:

And again here I exaggerate the dissonances so you can appreciate just far Bach can push the edge of tonality.

Incredible bleeding-edge, yes? These moments in his music—and they are many— anticipate all the harmonic innovations of Beethoven, Wagner, and even Schoenberg.  Those dissonant moments confounded many of his contemporaries, but today we marvel at their beauty and prophecy.

 Do you have a favorite moment or piece that features Bach dissonance? Reply to this blog and let me know!


Bach C minor Fugure WTCI performed by Glenn Gould

Bach B minor Fugue WTCII performed by Wilhelm  Kempff

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