I am hoping this will be the start of some sort of mini-series of J.S. Bach analyses. I started a new exercise this year that involved harmonizing the same melodies that Bach did, and then comparing my results with his. I have found that the more I have done these exercises, the more I appreciate the lessons in them and the more I appreciate the way that Bach worked. The melodies and harmonizations that I have been using are all found in Bach's 371 Harmonized Chorales and 69 Chorale Melodies.
I believe I have a few valid reasons for why it is good to do exercises like this:
- It helps you to understand how to handle oddities in a melody. What does Bach do when the melody becomes static and a note repeats 5 times in a row? What does he do when a melody has simultaneous leaps? When, why and how does he break the rules?
- As a performer, how can you look at an analysis to aid you in performance? (phrasing, dynamics, when to call attention to formal and harmonic elements)
- As a composer, how can you handle your own melodies appropriately? You may not want to apply roman numerals to harmonize your melody, but perhaps you can use the lessons of this exercise in your own way. For example, Bach might introduce complex harmonies to keep the listener interested during an uninteresting moment of a melody. Maybe a contemporary composer will introduce some other element to keep interest (timbre, rhythm, etc.). Maybe the lesson is to study what Bach does, when he does it, in order to simply be aware of a broader principle.
- Finally, I think these exercises are enjoyable in the same ways that a puzzle or a board game is enjoyable. It really becomes a game.
Feel free to ask me questions or submit your own thoughts. I am sure that mistakes will be made during the course of my analyses or that you will have different interpretations. I think the main thing to get out of these articles is to understand how a short chorale can exemplify many of the obstacles that one may face with larger works.
Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu dir
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Next week I will be posting chorale no. 4 with my own harmonization of the melody.