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“The immortal god of harmony.” - Beethoven on Bach
GLOSSARY OF MUSICAL TERMS
I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed... equally well. - J.S. Bach
Affekt (Affection)—Term used in German Baroque music for the expressive character of a piece—joyful, fearful, sorrowful, and so forth. The eighteenth-century Doctrine of the Affections (Affektenlehre in German) maintained that music has the power to move the affections (emotions) of the listener through the use of specific musical devices, for instance, choice of key or instrumental color—as in Bach’s choice of D major and high D trumpets for the exuberant “Gloria” of the B Minor Mass—or a downward marching bass line, employed with tragic effect in the “Crucifixus”.
Aria—A song for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment, usually found in the context of larger works such as operas, oratorios, and cantatas. A da capo aria, in wide use in Bach’s time, has three sections—an opening “A” section, a contrasting “B” section, and a repeat of the “A” section. The instruction da capo (“from the beginning”) at the end of the “B” section told the performers to go back and repeat the A section. The first section didn’t sound the same as it did the first time, however. The singer was expected to add vocal “ornaments”—additional notes that weren’t in the written score—to astonish the audience with his or her vocal agility.
Baroque—Designation for a period in the cultural history of the West lasting from roughly 1600 to 1750. (Bach’s death in 1750 offers a convenient date for the close of the era.) The term comes from the Portuguese word, barroco, referring to an irregularly shaped pearl prized in the making of fine jewelry. Critics of the later eighteenth century used the term to mean “strange,” “bizarre,” “unnatural” and “unrefined” when discussing the arts of the previous generation. Music of the Baroque era typically emphasized bold contrasts, ongoing rhythmic momentum and strong bass lines to support the harmony.
Basso continuo—A continuous bass line found in ensemble music of the Baroque period. The word “continuo” used alone may also refer to the musicians who perform this part. At least two musicians were required in most cases—one to play the bass line on a melody instrument—cello, bass viol, double bass or bassoon—the other playing an instrument capable of producing chords—an organ, harpsichord, or theorbo (bass lute). This performer filled in the harmonies indicated by numbers written above or below the bass line.
BWV—Abbreviation for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, the catalogue of Bach’s works published by Wolfgang Schmieder in 1950 and updated several times since then. Haydn’s works are identified by Hob. (Hoboken) numbers assigned by Anthony van Hoboken in his 1957 Haydn catalogue. K. (Köchel) numbers identify Mozart compositions. Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s 1862 Mozart catalogue was the first attempt to identify all the works of a composer and arrange them in chronological order.
Canon—A piece involving two or more voices that share an identical melody but begin at different times. A round is the simplest type of canon. In more complex canons, succeeding voices might enter two, three or more notes above or below the first. They can replicate the pitches of the original melody in reverse order, upside-down, or even upside-down and backwards. They may also proceed at a faster or slower pace than the original melody. The ethereal beauty of Bach’s canons in the Goldberg Variations, The Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue and elsewhere belies the technical ingenuity involved in their creation.
Cantata—A piece of vocal chamber music consisting of several recitatives and arias, sometimes an opening and closing chorus or chorale. Bach composed more than 300 cantatas, of which around 200 survive today. Most were sacred cantatas created for use in Lutheran service. The typical Bach cantata contained texts related to the Gospel read on a specific day in the church year and performed just before that day’s homily. He also wrote secular cantatas for occasions like weddings, birthdays, name days, academic ceremonies and accessions to office.
Chaconne—A Latin-American dance that became popular in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. It is based on the constant repetition of a four-bar chord pattern and variations on that pattern. An inventive composer could achieve an infinite variety of effects with such limited material, as Bach did in the celebrated conclusion to his Partita for Solo Violin, BWV 2004.
Chorale—A Lutheran hymn for congregational singing, such as those created by Martin Luther and his followers at the outset of the Protestant Reformation. Chorale melodies adapted from plainchant were given decisive rhythms so untrained singers could sing them more easily. The texts, in German instead of Latin for the instruction of the faithful, consisted of many stanzas, which Bach and his contemporaries knew by heart. A simple, four-part chorale brings a number of Bach’s sacred cantatas to a satisfying close.
Concerto—A multi-movement work based on the contrast between a soloist or group of soloists and a larger ensemble. The Concerto grosso of the later Baroque period features several soloists pitted against a larger group of musicians, as in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, where solo violin, flute and harpsichord engage in spirited competition with a larger string ensemble. Solo concertos require a single virtuoso soloist, who at some points merges back into the ensemble.
Folia—A harmonic pattern and associated tune popular with musicians of the Baroque period. It served as a framework for creating songs, dances, and sets of variations both improvised and composed. It was originally associated with wild singing and dancing, thus the name, “folia,” from the Portuguese and Italian word for “insanity.
Fugue—A composition (or part of a composition) in which a single, easily recognized theme, called the “fugue subject,” is announced by one voice then echoed by others, entering one at a time. Once all voices are in play, they proceed without interruption into an episode of free counterpoint, punctuated from time to time by restatements of the original subject. Many fugues come to an exhilarating close with a series of overlapping entries called a “stretto.” The term “fugue” comes from the Latin word fuga meaning “flight.”
Libretto—The text or script of an opera, cantata, oratorio, or other work for voices and orchestra. Composers and librettists often collaborated in shaping the libretto. Also, a printed version of the script sold to members of the audience. The term libretto means a “small book,” like the ones early opera audiences purchased at the opening of a new opera. Printed librettos typically contain a listing of the cast of characters and the text and/or translation. They may also provide a synopsis of the plot, description of scenes and stage directions.
Mass—The most important service of the Roman Catholic Church, dating back to the early Middle Ages. Since the fourteenth century composers have created musical settings of the Latin texts said at nearly every Mass—the “Kyrie,” a plea for God’s mercy, the “Gloria,” a jubilant song of praise, the “Credo,” a statement of Christian belief, the “Sanctus,” a hymn of adoration, and the “Agnus Dei,” a three-fold petition ending with the words “Dona nobis pacem”—“Grant us thy peace.”
Movement—A self-contained portion of a larger musical work, like a chapter in a book. Individual movements of sonatas, concertos, symphonies and other large-scale works usually differ in character (cheerful vs. pensive), key (C Major vs. A Minor), meter (4 vs. 3 beats per bar), tempo (fast vs. slow), and thematic material. Movements are often identified in modern concert programs by their tempo markings, for instance, Allegro, Andante or Presto.
Opus numbers—Assigned to works published by a composer during his or her lifetime, for instance, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 125, which will be performed on the Friday night concerts. WoO designations (for Werk ohne Opuszahl, a “work without opus number”) are used for works published posthumously, such as Beethoven’s Musik zu einem Ritterballett (Music for a Knight’s Ballet), WoO 1.
Oratorio—A musical drama based on sacred subject matter and performed without scenery, costumes or action. Many oratorios of the Baroque period were retellings of biblical stories, presented as a series of recitatives, arias and choruses. The stylistic parallels between oratorios and the wildly popular operas of the period were the cause of much tongue wagging in certain quarters. When theatres and opera houses were closed during Lent, opera-starved audiences flocked to oratorio performances instead.
Partita—A suite of movements representing dances popular during the Baroque era. The typical order of movements—Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue, each with its own musical personality—resulted in vivid contrasts from one movement to the next. When Bach published six partitas for solo keyboard, he indicated on the title page that they were “composed for music lovers, to delight their spirits.” His partitas for solo violin, likewise, are a delight for listeners and a tour de force for the performer.
Recitative—Music for solo voice that increases the intelligibility of the words by imitating the rhythmic patterns, inflections, and natural rise and fall of human speech. Lightly accompanied by a few instruments and continuo or by continuo alone, recitative served a narrative function in seventeenth-century opera—setting the scene, advancing the story line, and presenting sung dialogue the audience could easily follow. By the beginning of the eighteenth century recitative appeared in cantatas, passions and oratorios, as well as in opera.
Sonata—Originally, a piece that is sounded (from Latin sonare, “to sound”) by an instrument, as opposed to a piece that is sung (from cantare, “to sing”). In the Baroque period, the word was applied to compositions consisting of several short, contrasting movements performed by from one to six musicians. In the Classical period, it designated a multi-movement piece for a solo instrument, such as the piano, or a solo instrument accompanied by piano.
Tempo markings—Indications of the speed and character of a composition, an individual movement, or a portion thereof. Usually expressed in Italian, since music printing began in Venice, tempo indications may be specified by the composer or assigned by a later editor. Some of the most frequently encountered terms are Largo—slow and stately; Lento—slow; Adagio—slow and leisurely; Andante—at a moderately slow walking pace; Moderato—moderate; Allegro—fast; Vivace—brisk and lively; Presto—very fast; and Prestissimo—as fast as possible.
Theorbo—A large bass lute used as a solo instrument, to accompany a singer, or as part of the continuo group in a larger ensemble. In addition to six courses (pairs) of gut strings, the theorbo has seven or eight courses of extremely long, low-sounding strings and produces a bright, clear sound, valuable for projecting low bass tones. Bach called for theorbo in some of his cantatas, in the St. John Passion, and in an early version of the St. Matthew Passion.
Toccata—A virtuoso piece for solo keyboard performed with apparent abandon, giving the impression that it is being improvised on the spot. The term, derived from the Italian word toccare, meaning “to touch,” suggests a performer approaching an unfamiliar instrument and sitting down to “touch” the keys in a free, improvisatory manner, simultaneously loosening up his fingers, exploring the capabilities of the instrument, and demonstrating his keyboard prowess to anyone listening. In some of Bach’s toccatas for harpsichord and organ, brilliant virtuoso display gives way to a fugue, either as part of the toccata or as a separate movement following it.
Trio sonata—The most popular form of Baroque chamber music, written in three parts but performed by four players. Two treble instruments, such as violin, flute or oboe, play the upper two lines while two low-sounding instruments—a melody instrument and one that can play chords—perform the bass line (basso continuo). The most common combination of instruments is two violins, cello and harpsichord. Another possibility is two oboes and bassoon. Bach even composed trio sonatas for organ— the organist’s hands play the two upper melodies on separate keyboards while his feet play the continuo line on the pedals.
Viola da gamba—A member of the viol family of instruments popular during the sixteenth century and gradually supplanted by the violin family during the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Like the cello, the viola da gamba is held between the player’s knees, thus its name, meaning “leg viol.” (The viola da braccia, or “arm viol,” is held against the arm.) It has sloping shoulders, six or seven strings and a fretted fingerboard, like a guitar. It was often adorned with a beautifully carved head instead of a scroll, as are many modern reproductions. Bach called for a viola da gamba where he wanted its distinctive tone color, as in the alto aria “Es ist vollbracht”) from the St. John Passion and the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, where he juxtaposes three members of the violin family and three representatives of the older viol family.