C.P.E. Bach and others accompany Frederick the Great
“Harmony” is often mentioned as an ideal and sometimes dismissed as outdated and naive. I think Bach understands what makes harmony a mature and worthy aesthetic value for our age. What do you think?
The intellectual character of Bach’s music is something that listeners immediately sense. Consider his idea of harmony. Some people associate the idea of harmony with a tepid peace that suppresses difference, a static unity without struggle. However, for Bach, harmony resulted from interaction between “consonances and dissonances” and “between music reflecting the glory of God (who ordered everything by number, measure, and weight) and music reflecting and serving the nature of man for the renewal of spirit, mind, and soul.” Johann Abraham Birnbaum, one of Bach’s foremost advocates, formulated Bach’s concept of the nature of music in these words.
“The true amenity of music consists in the connection and alternation of consonances and dissonances without hurt to the harmony. The nature of music demands this. The various passions, especially the dark ones, cannot be expressed with fidelity to Nature without this alternation. One would be doing violence to the rules of composition accepted everywhere if one wished to slight it. Indeed, the well-founded opinion of a musical ear that does not follow the vulgar taste values such alternation, and rejects the insipid little ditties that consist of nothing but consonances as something of which one very soon becomes tired.”
Harmony is clearly not a bland notion here, but the integration of essential tension. This concept of harmony has application far beyond classical music.
The tension between nature and the ideal provided the dynamic for a kindred musical goal. Birnbaum explains how to resolve the tension artistically. “The essential aims of true art are to imitate Nature, and, where necessary, to aid it. If art imitates Nature, then indisputably the natural element must everywhere shine through in works of art. . . . . Now, the greater the art is—that is, the more industriously and painstakingly it works at the improvement of Nature—the more brilliantly shines the beauty thus brought into being.” Nature provides much to “imitate” or represent in art, but nature itself is not a panorama of perfection.
Our lives have dissonance, some of it consistent with harmony, some not. Could you give an example from your life of dissonance that works well as part of a larger harmony? (OK: tough question. Comment (as always) as you like (smile)!
1. Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, 310.
2. Wolff, JSB: The Learned Musician, 431.
3. Wolff, 466.