Bach and Vivaldi

SUNDAY, December 29, 2019

Vivaldi through the eyes of Bach…

To be honest, I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to Vivaldi’s music. I viewed him a guy who wrote a mountain of music, but most of it sort of sounded the same. A+ for production, but maybe B- for originality. This is the problem with ignorance. It makes you come to very wrong conclusions from not understanding the times, the practices and the mindset.

The Bach effect on Vivaldi…

A clue that I was really wrong came recently when I started researching what a huge effect he had on JS Bach, and anyone JS Bach highly esteemed we had better pay careful attention to, because not listening to what he listened to or studying what he transcribed is a kind of willful ignorance coming from pure arrogance.

A transcription is often a homage to a composer…

A transcription is half arrangement and half something much purer, because generally the intent is to preserve the original music but make it as effective as possible on a different instrument or for many different instruments – or even for voice. Making a transcription is like saying, “I really love your music and I’d like to present it with a new twist that might make more people listen to it. I hope you like it.” In other words, you write something new about something older, or a think up a new twist on something contemporary that excites you.

I wonder what organ this is?

I don’t know much about organs. My friend, Louie, gave me the above link to a particular organ builder and said he thinks this is the organ being played. I don’t yet know where he got this information from, but he knows more about the history of organs and their builders than I could probably learn in another lifetime.

Be patient, because there are about 25 seconds of dead space before the music starts.

Just another boring idea, or something amazing…

There is almost nothing between something that is boring, trite and unoriginal – and something that is so brilliant and universal that almost everyone who hears it is instantly captivated. I have listened many times to some of the greatest musical themes ever written and wondered why everyone else didn’t think of the same idea. They seem so simple, and obvious, and easy. But it turns out that when some genius writes them, quite obviously no one else thought of that simple idea.

It’s mostly in the development…

There is a reason why “sonata form” has been around for centuries, and why that form works. First, there are two themes that are presented, and you hear them twice. The human mind can’t deal with endless creation without some repeats to understand what it is hearing or processing. Those themes are also presented in two keys, so there is more variety there. Then those same themes – both of them – are played again before the music stops. But the magic happens in what happens in between, the development section, and in that section the composer wanders, explores, stretches, challenges and basically gets as far as possible out of the box he or she put himself in when starting the music. It’s the contrast between the box and the “not-box” that makes it all work, and how it all hangs together.

It’s not just a section…

In a larger sense, development is about taking an idea, usually a very simple one that anyone in the world can instantly understand and often hum or whistle, then doing something with that idea that is original, exciting and unexpected. This may include changing keys, varying the chords, changing the meter, changing the tempo, changing from major to minor or the other way, and so on. It’s all about taking the listener on a journey without getting so lost that it makes no sense.

It’s just boring scales, or is it?

It starts with a simple D minor chord, arpeggiated. At around the 30 second mark all I hear in this Bach-Vivaldi piece is a D minor scale, natural minor, descending. That could be the most boring student in the world practicing this simple scale over and over. It varies, also ascending in fragments to D melodic minor, raising Bb to B and C to C#.  Then it moves from Dm to Gm to C to F7 to Bb to C7. Then to F, to D7, to G, to A7, then right back to Dm. Obviously Bach did not think it was boring, or “studentish”, or in any way not interesting. But what did he do, or what did they do, since this is a collaboration? It’s not just Bach writing the notes to Vivaldi’s score. He added things, and changed things. To me the result is superior.

So what is happening?

Well, D minor, the key has all white notes except for Bb, so for a complete chromatic scale you have to work in B natural, then C#, D# or Eb, F#, G#. Now you will have 12 notes, not seven.

The big name is chromaticism..

He added these extra five notes to the original seven in the scale and his system is now a fully chromatic system. How many does he use?

  • G uses B natural, so that’s one.
  • A uses C#, so that’s two.
  • F7 uses Eb, so that’s three.
  • D uses F#, so that’s four.
  • E uses G#, so that’s five.

All 12 notes is chromatic, and that’s what makes things really interesting…

No theorist I’ve ever met calls such music chromatic, but it is because when you use all 12 notes, you’ve used all the notes we have in Western music, and that includes most modern popular music and jazz. There is music written outside of this musical system, but you won’t hear much of it on the radio or on you devices that play music. In fact, the complexity of this music, going back several centuries, is what is stunning.

What Bach did, his mastery of polyphony, remains unequaled to this very moment…

The beginning of this piece is patty-cake for Bach, beautiful for sure, but he could write things like this with about 1/10th of his brain. At the two-minute mark a fugue starts, and although I don’t have the original music by Vivaldi, this sounds to my ear as very typical Bach, not Vivaldi, so if Vivaldi wrote this, exactly as we are hearing, I want to learn way more about Vivaldi. The bottom line is that these old masters had a mastery of writing these overlapping lines – and there could be up to five of them – that on one today can touch. It’s mathematical, cerebral and frightening in the sense that if you study it, it makes you feel rather stupid – like reading about string theory and realizing you don’t understand any of it. At the same time, because it makes sense and is brilliant, there is a feeling of awe, because even if you don’t understand how it is done, you feel that that something very special is happening, and it becomes something that unites the intellect and the emotions, and because the “language” is universal, you don’t have to know anything at all about it to have an intense feeling of connecting to the sound.

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5 thoughts on “Bach and Vivaldi

  1. The relationship of Bach to Vivaldi blew me away. I like how you describe the development section of “sonata form”. It’s all sort of like leaving home, finding a fun toy along the way that you bend into different shapes, and then you go home again.

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