Teachers say, "In Bach's music everything is counterpoint, yak, yak, yak...."
We ask, "Nothing but counterpoint?"
Teachers reply, "Yes, counterpoint pure and simple -- the greatest example, yak, yak, yak...."
We ask, "What mean then all the incredible number of chord changes one hears therein?"
Teachers reply, "Just Bach's fantasy and exuberance, ignore them. Everything is counterpoint, yak, yak, yak.... Harmony means nothing in Bach's music."
But my wise and laconic brother says, "Everything is harmony."
Which I translate into humanspeak as, "Counterpoint is what you notice first, but understanding comes only by paying close attention also to the harmony as well."
The above conversation, aside from my brother's insight, actually took place in 1964, in Germany, between me and a German friend who was studying theology (my brother's remark is from 1955). It is representative of the superficiality of the views about Bach held by supposedly educated people who are not themselves experts on the subject. The words of the "Teachers" came out of the mouth of my friend, and he was no doubt parroting those of his Gymnasium teachers.
A neat summary statement on the question of Counterpoint vs Harmony, which I agree with 100 percent, is that of Vicky Little, which follows:
Bach lived at a time when composers had largely turned away from polyphony -- that is to say, weaving their music from many lines of independent melody -- and were interested more in working with a single melodic line (the "tune") and a supporting harmony underneath it. His greatness lay in his ability to combine the best of both worlds. And so, although his melodies are superb, the harmonies underneath are themselves woven from independent parts that are also very melodious. Thus, when you listen to Bach's music, you find that there are several layers of interest going on at one and the same time -- the texture is very rich and exciting.
In certain works Bach deliberately exploits his great skill in writing intricate counterpoint. The two books of Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys (known as "The 48") contain wonderful examples of this skill. Bach was that rare composer whose genius cannot be summed up, even approximated, by any known means. He was the supreme master of counterpoint, fugue, vocal writing, melody, chamber composition, solo instrument repertoire... the list is endless. His passions are arguably the greatest compositions ever created for choral ensemble and orchestra. His solo works (for violin and for cello) are of such beauty and perfection of form that their secrets have never been divulged fully, not even by the greatest virtuosi on those instruments. His writing for keyboard -- the Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier, among others -- reveal an unsurpassed ability to combine intricate musical structure with pure spiritual force; in fact, most leading musicians point to the mastery of these pieces as their ultimate goal.
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