An Interesting Subject (2)

BWV 542
(Verborgenen Wiederholungen)
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3 Responses to An Interesting Subject (2)

  1. A Reader from Paris says:

    This afternoon I’ve listened twice to BWV 542 (Helmut Walcha’s two recordings, in 1952 and 1962). I’ve tried to focus my attention on the Fugue and its “interesting subject”, but I ought to confess that in this diptych I can’t help being much more receptive to the tragic Fantasy (written as a Lamento after Maria Barbara’s death in 1720?)…
    Unfortunately, I’m unable to understand the compositional subtleties you point out; nevertheless, I’ve got a question. Since these “concealed repetitions” are quite impossible to remark when one listens to the fugue (or so I assume, because of their very name), what are they intended for? Are they here only as a demonstration of musical craftsmanship for other musicians carefully analyzing the score as you do (sometimes it is said that Bach performed BWV 542 when he applied for a post as organist at the Jacobskirche in Hamburg, in 1720; such tricks were undoubtedly appreciated by members of the jury like Reinken); or because they reinforce the organic unity of the whole composition?

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  2. Sean says:

    Thanks for your comments. First, I thought I’d try to represent what’s going on in a manner that more people might be able to grasp.

    The idea of “hidden repetition” in music is a powerful one, as it suggests that patterns found on the surface of the music might also be found at deeper structural levels, which amplifies a piece’s sense of compositional integrity.

    Here is the same passage represented as numbers. The bottom line corresponds to level “a”, and the numbers start at the first bracket in the score (pitches that are immediately repeated are omitted). The blue box represents the extent of a recurring motive in this fugue subject — it’s source of melodic identity. Looking at the particular sequence of numbers representing the motive, you can see this same sequence occurring on a deeper level (level “c” in the score). The same is true for the red box, which is another statement of the motive:

    That may all be well and good but there are things that this graphic can’t convey, such as the importance of where the pitches occur (metrically), and why the intervening pitches are less important. Analysis of this type removes successive layers of pitches that are considered ornamental, so each layer you arrive at has more structural significance. Therefore, it’s not just about picking out a series of pitches: finding the same or similar melodic surface-pattern occurring at a deeper structural level suggests that there is something more to that pattern than “meets the ear” so-to-speak.

    The question you bring up is central to this type of analysis, and it belongs to a larger group of similar questions. I think that they can all be boiled-down to one basic question, and to me at least, it’s the most important question that an analysis must answer: “so what?” (The less benevolent version of this question might be: “who cares?”) Whether or not the composer was aware of, say, hidden repetitions, has never been very important to me for two reasons: 1) we can never know the answer, and 2) it doesn’t matter — the patterns are there regardless. What’s more important is interpreting what role, if any, they play and whether a convincing argument can be made for it.

    It’s true that many of the hidden repetitions you might come across are really just artifacts of tonality, which is to say, if I found them in one place, why wouldn’t I find them in another? But it becomes a little more interesting (and less coincidental) when you come across recurring patterns that have unique and identifiable characteristics. Unfortunately it can go the other way too, where theorists try to make mountains out of motivic mole hills.

    Last, what interests me most about hidden repetitions is that they are indicators of the common threads from which a composition is woven, and what may seem like a knot on the surface is actually part of a larger, governing tapestry. And if you extrapolate this idea, it accounts for a great deal we experience in all of tonal music.

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    • A Reader from Paris says:

      Thank you very, very much for taking the time to write such a detailed answer.
      I know how I will express my gratitude: today, at last, I came across a copy of Monsaingeon’s book on Nadia Boulanger, Mademoiselle (a good copy of the first printing, I hope; but I can’t tell for sure since I auctioned it on ebay). More details when I receive it, in a few days!

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