By Geoffrey Burgess, musicologist, researcher and Baroque oboist, member of Kleine Kammermusik
Ahead of the Bach@7 series program on May 16, 2018: Counterpoint from Bach to Zelenka
What does cross stitch and embroidery have to do with Baroque music?
During the breaks in our rehearsal schedule, the ladies of Kleine Kammermusik —Stephanie, Meg, and Becca — all enjoy taking out their crafts: knitting, embroidery, hand-made satchels for instruments, and scarves for the winter.
What they create is not dissimilar to the web of intricate counterpoint woven by Bach and other masters of counterpoint. In his fugues, Bach created a rich tapestry of lines, each with its distinctive color that harmonizes with the overall texture. At the beginning you hear a single thread that acts as a casting-off of an idea, and soon a second line interweaves, creating an imitative dialogue. The musical fabric becomes richer and denser as more and more voices are added, and so the garment of sound grows.
Once each instrument has had its turn playing the main idea, it invents a counter idea that complements the other parts.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to Bach’s fugues is how the subject and countersubjects fuse into an organic whole. It is not just that each of the distinct lines has its own integrity, but each skillfully echoes and enhances the others; each a thread of harmonious hew that mutates in the developing course of the music. These effects are nascent in Bach’s organ music, where each line can be given a different color through distinctive registration, but it remains a uniform color of limited dynamic shading.
In our transcriptions we have aimed to not only bring out the clean, mathematical lines of Bach’s music, but to provide each voice with vivid coloration that mutates subtly as it weaves in and out of the music, so allowing listeners to follow the contrapuntal interlacing more sympathetically.
ABOUT THE Author
Geoffrey Burgess combines musicological research with a career as Baroque oboist. His research focuses on the history of the oboe and French Baroque opera for which he developed a particular affinity through a twenty-year association with Les Arts Florissants. His recent publications include Well-Tempered Woodwinds: Friedrich von Huene and the Making of Early Music in a New World (Indiana Univ. Press, 2015), and a critical edition of Bruce Haynes’ Nachlass, The Pathetick Musician: Moving an Audience in the Age of Eloquence (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016). Dr Burgess lives in Philadelphia and teaches at the Eastman School of Music.
About Kleine Kammermusik
Kleine Kammermusik is dedicated to bringing to life the wealth of chamber music for winds and continuo. With paired treble instruments (oboes and recorders) and a supportive continuo group of bassoon, cello, viola da gamba, and keyboard, the group comprises a versatile blend of instruments suited to music from a wide range of contexts, from vivid outdoor celebrations and military fanfares to intimate chamber works. Learn more at www.kleinekammermusik.com/about/.