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SUBDOMINANT RETURNS IN THE VOCAL MUSIC OF J. S. BACH

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2013

Abstract

Bach's vocal oeuvre contains a significant number of movements (about thirty-five), including but not limited to those in modified da capo form, with a concluding reprise of opening thematic material in the subdominant key. Some of these ‘subdominant returns’ involve strict parallelism, whereby the entire A section returns at the new pitch, thus transforming the original ‘departing’ modulation from I to V into a ‘returning’ modulation from IV to I. Many subdominant returns, however, occur in a range of contexts, which resist straightforward formal categorization. One example is the opening chorus from the St Matthew Passion. While the unusual da capo in this movement has elicited provocative commentary by Karol Berger and others in recent years, the significance of the subdominant return (here and elsewhere) has not been examined in depth. This study begins with a comprehensive survey of subdominant returns in Bach's vocal oeuvre, and then examines cyclic and linear aspects of form through detailed analysis of six movements that exhibit this procedure.

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Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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References

1 Schulenberg, David, ‘Modifying the Da Capo? Through-Composed Arias in Vocal Works by Bach and Other Composers’, Eighteenth-Century Music 8/1 (2011), 2122 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This valuable article came to my attention after most of the research for the present study had been completed. In view of the overlap in topic between our articles, I have tried to avoid duplicating Schulenberg's argument, though some coincidental resemblances to his study remain.

2 Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 22.

3 Boyd, Malcolm, Bach, third edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; originally published 1983), 143144 Google Scholar.

4 Boyd, Bach, 144.

5 See Whaples, Miriam, ‘Bach's Recapitulation Forms’, The Journal of Musicology 14/4 (1996), 492493 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and David Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 37–38.

6 Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 37.

7 For a list of instrumental examples see the Appendix at the end of this article.

8 In a similar vein (though without reference to subdominant returns), Whaples, ‘Bach's Recapitulation Forms’, 488–489, points out Bach's occasional practice of setting a non-repeating text to a musical form involving ‘recapitulation’ (such as ABA′ and ABCA′), her examples being arias in the Gloria of the Mass. Analogous settings of non-repeating German texts will be discussed below.

9 Compare Schulenberg's concluding observation, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 49, that ‘simple formulations’ (such as ABA, ABA′, AB, ABC and AA′, shown in his Table 1) ‘accurately represent only a few actual arias’.

10 Dreyfus, Laurence, Bach and the Patterns of Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 94101 Google Scholar, and Berger, Karol, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 4559 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Interested readers will find additional background information relating to the analysis of early eighteenth-century arias in Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 21–25.

12 A claim for Bach's uniqueness in this regard – at least in the period 1714–1740 – appears in Whaples, ‘Bach's Recapitulation Forms’, 507–508, and is implicitly corroborated in Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 25–29. In Whaples's view, Telemann – the most obvious point of comparison with Bach as a contemporary composer of vocal music – had no interest in modified da capo form. My own survey of a large sample of Telemann's sacred vocal music revealed no subdominant returns. Schulenberg cites operatic examples of ‘short through-composed da capo arias’ in a period ranging from 1666 (that is, Pallavicino's Demetrio) to 1709 (Handel's Agrippina) – examples that, for all their suggestive similarity to what one finds in some of Bach's early cantatas, cannot be said to have influenced Bach. Schulenberg none the less believes ‘it would be surprising if he had not run across comparable arias in other works’ from the early eighteenth century. An interesting subdominant return occurs in ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ from Handel's Messiah (1741), a through-composed form in which the opening line is set four times, the last being in the subdominant (see bars 112–115) just prior to the concluding section.

13 Whaples, ‘Bach's Recapitulation Forms’, 476 and throughout. The term freies Dacapo (‘free da capo’) first appeared in Neumann, Werner, Handbuch der Kantaten J. S. Bachs (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1947)Google Scholar and later in Dürr, Alfred, Studien über die frühen Kantaten J. S. Bachs (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1951) and other publicationsGoogle Scholar. The English term ‘free da capo’ appears in the writings of Stephen Crist, most notably his ‘Aria Forms in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach, 1714–1724’ (PhD dissertation, Brandeis University, 1988). An alternative English term, ‘modified da capo aria’, first appeared in Boyd, Bach, 142, and has gained currency among English-speaking scholars.

14 Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 22. Interestingly, Whaples, ‘Bach's Recapitulation Forms’, 477, note 8, advocates the term ‘through-composed’ as an alternative to Crist's catch-all term ‘non-repeating form’ for those forms (AB, ABC and ABCD) that do not involve a reprise of text and music; see his ‘Aria Forms’, chapter 7.

15 Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 37.

16 On ‘parallel’ (German hälftig) forms see Crist, ‘Aria Forms’, 235ff, and Whaples, ‘Bach's Recapitulation Forms’, 490–493. Whaples uses the term ‘cavatina’ (anachronistically) to refer to those forms in which a single strophe is set twice (AA′), while Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 23, prefers the term ‘binary’, by analogy to instrumental binary forms (including dance movements).

17 In addition to these two choruses, Whaples, ‘Bach's Recapitulation Arias’, 492, note 27, names three other choruses in AA′ form (bwv67/1, 198/7 and 214/9). Of these, only bwv67/1 involves recapitulation of material down a fifth, albeit not as strictly parallel as the examples in Table 1.

18 Lester, Joel, ‘Heightening Levels of Activity and J. S. Bach's Parallel-Section Constructions’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 54/1 (2001), 4996 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Lester, ‘Heightening Levels’, 52–53.

20 English translation in Dürr, Alfred, The Cantatas of J. S. Bach: With Their Librettos in German-English Parallel Text, revised and trans. Jones, Richard D. P. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 240241 Google Scholar.

21 A celebrated example of a canon symbolizing God's Law appears in the opening chorus of bwv77, in which the chorale ‘Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot’ is presented in an augmentation canon between the highest and lowest parts. See Herz, Gerhard, ‘Thoughts on the First Movement of Bach's Cantata No. 77, “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben”’, in his Essays on J. S. Bach (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1985), 205217 Google Scholar.

22 Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 31, writes: ‘In their formal construction, these [Weimar] arias, no less than his instrumental compositions, have some of the ad hoc freedom characteristic of the previous century, as opposed to the geometric symmetry favoured by eighteenth-century rationalism.’

23 Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 37, notes 49–51, identifies subdominant returns in four of these five movements; he omits any reference to ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’ (bwv244/60), perhaps owing to the brevity of the return.

24 Two other commentators also locate the start of the return at bar 70; see Dürr, Alfred, Johann Sebastian Bach's ‘St John Passion’: Genesis, Transmission and Meaning, trans. Clayton, Alfred (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000; first edition 1988), 83 Google Scholar, and Crist, ‘Aria Forms’, 229.

25 For a different interpretation of this passage see Butt, John, Bach's Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 278279 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Butt argues that bars 85–96 are a remodelling of bars 55–66 (from the B section). Yet the similarities between these passages are limited to the bass. Close study of the alto and oboe parts reveals that all the material in A′ is modelled after A. For a similar interpretation to mine see Dürr, Johann Sebastian Bach's ‘St John Passion’, 83.

26 Lester, ‘Heightening Levels’, 73, characterizes bars 1–2 as an antecedent–consequent structure, and comments on the solo violin's interactions with the singers as ‘heightening levels of activity’ at subsequent points in the A section. (His observations apply with even greater force to the da capo, to which he does not refer.)

27 Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention, 94–101.

28 Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention, 99 and 101.

29 For a re-evaluation of the tendency, in studies by Dreyfus and others, to overstate the importance of ritornello structures in Bach's music see Schulenberg, David, ‘The Sonate auf Concertenart: A Postmodern Invention?’, in Bach Perspectives 7, ed. Butler, Gregory (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 8293 Google Scholar. An exception is Dreyfus's astute observation that the soloist never sings the Epilog of the ritornello in answer to the chorus's repeated question (‘Wohin?’), but instead substitutes an episodic cadential phrase; see Bach and the Patterns of Invention, 100. More recently, Dreyfus has analysed two other arias from this work (bwv245/13 and 30), again in terms of ritornello procedures; see his The Triumph of “Instrumental Melody”: Aspects of Musical Poetics in Bach's St. John Passion ’, in Bach Perspectives 8, ed. Melamed, Daniel R. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 96121 Google Scholar.

30 Butt, Bach's Dialogue with Modernity, 276–277, acknowledges this precise formal correspondence, yet – perhaps in deference to Dreyfus, whom he cites – refers to the aria as a ‘non-da-capo piece’. Crist, ‘Bach's Aria Forms’, 225, points out the correspondence, and correctly identifies it with the subdominant da capo described by Boyd.

31 Schulenberg, ‘Modifying the Da Capo?’, 39.

32 Compare the da capo of bwv89/3 (listed in Table 2, Group 1), which starts in bar 32 in C minor (iv/iv) and quickly moves to G minor (iv) before returning to D minor. It should be noted that this aria is tight-knit and compact, in contrast to the expansive sweep of bwv245/24.

33 Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention, 101.

34 For a useful critique of the analytical practice of treating various formal dimensions as separable entities, and of the notion that Bach worked with ‘preconceived formal templates’, with specific reference to the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, see Varwig, Bettina, ‘One More Time: J. S. Bach and Seventeenth-Century Traditions of Rhetoric’, Eighteenth-Century Music 5/2 (2008), 200201 Google Scholar.

35 Butt, Bach's Dialogue with Modernity, 89–90.

36 A related example is the large-scale progression straddling the formal boundary between couplet and refrain in bars 60–66 of the Gavotte en Rondeaux from Bach's Partita in E major for Violin, bwv1006. See the analysis of this passage in Schachter, Carl, Unfoldings: Essays in Schenkerian Theory and Analysis, ed. Straus, Joseph N. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 127128 Google Scholar.

37 Jones, Richard D. P., The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach, volume 1: 1695–1717 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 288296 Google Scholar.

38 See Dürr, Studien, 173.

39 For ‘rondeau’ see Dürr, Cantatas, 443; for ‘compound reprise form’ see Jones, Creative Development, 292. The terms, as understood by these authors, are synonymous.

40 See, for example, the opening chorus from the cantata Alles nur nach Gottes Willen, bwv72. In this modified da capo movement the entire A′ (bars 76–114) recapitulates bars 17–55 up a fifth, yielding a retrograde of the tonal plan of pieces in Table 1.

41 Jones, Creative Development, 293–294.

42 Dürr, Cantatas, 674, describes the form as AA′A; Jones, Creative Development, 293–294, interprets it as a hybrid of ABA′ and ritornello forms.

43 For a perceptive discussion of ‘relaxation’ and other connotations of the subdominant in two Bach arias (bwv70/10 and 159/4) see Carter, Chandler, ‘Spiritual Descents and Ascents: Religious Implications in Pronounced Motion to the Subdominant and Beyond’, in Voicing the Ineffable: Musical Representations of Religious Experience, ed. Bruhn, Siglind (Hillsdale: Pendragon, 2002), 238244 Google Scholar.

44 For later examples of symmetrically balanced fugal expositions in choruses see bwv80/1, bars 60–114 (according to the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, in 4/2 metre; older editions in 2/2 have twice as many bars), and bwv245/27b (compare bars 33–38 with bars 47–52).

45 Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, 59.

46 Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, 59.

47 Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, 59.

48 For a trenchant critique of Berger's thesis see Robert D. Levin, review of Berger, Karol, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, Journal of the American Musicological Society 63/3 (2010), 658684 Google Scholar. Levin offers his own detailed analysis of bwv244/1 in which he stresses (contra Berger) its ‘continuity’ and ‘drama of relentless forward motion’; see 663–665. While I agree with most of his analysis, I disagree with his bald assertion that this movement is ‘not in da capo form’, 662; such a view ignores Bach's flexible handling of modified da capo form throughout his oeuvre. For a balanced critique of Berger's thesis, with particular attention to his reading of the chorus, see Varwig, Bettina, ‘Metaphors of Time and Modernity in Bach’, The Journal of Musicology 29/2 (2012), 178182 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Based on the close reading of a range of documentary evidence attesting to early eighteenth-century notions of time, as well as analysis of the score (though without touching on the matter of the subdominant return), Varwig argues that, for Bach's listeners no less than for us today, the temporal effect of this chorus was (and remains) much more directional than Berger allows. Yet another critique of Berger's ideas (to which I shall refer again later) appears in Butt, Bach's Dialogue with Modernity, 100.

49 Swack, Jeanne, ‘Modular Structure and the Recognition of Ritornello in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos’, in Bach Perspectives 4, ed. Schulenberg, David (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 3353 Google Scholar. My Table 4 follows the spirit, but not the letter, of Swack's analytical approach.

50 These functions are defined in Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention, 19 and 99.

51 Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, 55, describes bars 52–57 as ‘an appendix’ that ‘should not be mistaken for an independent ritornello’ because it lacks the cadential articulation that a ritornello would require.

52 Butt, Bach's Dialogue with Modernity, 102.

53 Levin, review of Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, 663, points out the role of ‘cadential elisions’ as crucial factors contributing to the sense of ‘forward motion’ in the chorus.

54 Wolff, Christoph, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (London: Norton, 2000), 302 Google Scholar, writes of Bach's integration of the ‘celestial’ key of G major and the ‘terrestrial’ key of E minor in this chorus.

55 My claim of an association between the subdominant return and the use of A minor harmony in the chorale passages noted here is not meant as a verifiable statement about how everyone should perceive this music, but rather as one possible response to this rich, multilayered musical fabric.

56 Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, 59.

57 Levin, review of Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, 666, points out Berger's failure to mention Bach's use of choral insertion (Choreinbau), which Levin (incorrectly) refers to as ‘Chor-Aufbau’.

58 Butt, Bach's Dialogue with Modernity, 101.

59 Butt, Bach's Dialogue with Modernity, 100.