[Smt-talk] Readings

Olli Väisälä ovaisala at siba.fi
Thu Dec 8 05:36:40 PST 2011

Mark Anson-Cartwright wrote

> I'd like to recommend a publication that would most readily be   
> called a work of historical musicology, one that engages with   
> theory in a compelling way, namely, Laurence Dreyfus's _Bach and   
> the Patterns of Invention_ (Harvard University Press, 1996). The   
> first chapter, in particular--"What Is an Invention?"--should be   
> essential reading for any student doing analytical work on Bach.

I would like to add that, apart from its merits, Dreyfus's book  
offers an illustrative negative example of a kind of one-sidedness  
that often mars musical discussion. I am referring to authors who,  
arguing for the musical aspect they are concerned with, combine such  
arguments with the unjustified dismissal of  complementary  aspects,  
which may lie outside their expertise. Such arguments seem to  
manifest excessive confidence that their limited purview matches the  
multidimensional richness of music such as Bach's.

Dreyfus's book is characterized by the strong antagonism he sees  
between his  "mechanist" approach and the "organicist" Schenkerian  
approach and by  the concomitant attempts to downplay the  
significance of harmony and voice-leading. While this tendency is  
most clearly evident in his explicit anti-Schenkerian essay in  
chapter 6, its symptoms are already evident in chapter 1.

In ch. 6, Dreyfus argues against the Urlinie concept on the basis   
that it "seems counterintuitive to imagine that the work that went  
into the invertible permutations was not *the primary* motor behind  
the deepest structure of the  piece [C-minor Fugue from WTC I]" (p.  
178, my emphasis). This is one of several passages in which Dreyfus  
seems to fail to consider the possibility that  "mechanist" and  
"organicist" viewpoints might offer complementary  illumination for  
Bach's art (a consideration I think is extremely pertinent for its  
nature). Dreyfus's argument is a bit similar as if we tried to  
dismiss the significance of syntactic construction in a poem by  
arguing that the work that went into the rhyme scheme is *primary*.

Chapter 1 includes similar more or less unfruitful attempts to  
determine whether "mechanist" or voice-leading considerations are  
*primary* for each compositional decision. Discussing C-major  
Invention, Dreyfus explains (p. 14) that "the adjustments in the  
treble in m. 8 therefore resulted neither from artistic whimsy nor  
from a desire for variation but from a need to replace the result of  
a faulty transformation." Leaving aside that his preceding discussion  
about this "mechanist" explanation is itself hard to make sense of, I  
would question whether we should, in general, assume that each of  
Bach's compositional solutions "results from" from a single factor.  
Rather, they tend to fulfill several functions at once, and this is  
essential to his contrapuntal genius. While the adjustment in  
question – the transpositional level of the thematic figure at the  
latter half of m. 8 – may improve local verticalities (Dreyfus's  
explanation), it also enabled Bach to build a stepwise ascending  
voice-leading progression (G–A–B–C–D) towards the ^2 (albeit, not the  
Urlinie ^2), in parallel with the opening C–D–E ascent towards the ^3.

There are also several details in Dreyfus's book that suggest that  
his attempts to downplay the significance harmony and voice leading  
may partially stem from his defective command of these aspects. For  
example, his Example 1.3 (p. 16) includes a reduction in which the  
beginning D of the left-hand statement of the theme figure in m. 5 is  
reduced out and the passing E shown instead, despite the significance  
of the D as the root of the V7/V and despite the lucid parallelism  
and registral connection between this statement and the one that  
establishes the tonic in m. 1.

Olli Väisälä
Sibelius Academy
ovaisala at siba.fi

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