Recordings/Discussions
Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Motifs in Bach's Vocal Works

Serpent motif

Jill Gunsell wrote (May 8, 2001):
Re the serpent motif (Devil, temptation etc.) I hear this loud and clear in Antonio Caldara's Maddalena ai Piedi di Cristo (1700) when Maddalena is wrestling for the last time before deciding in favour of Amor Celeste (over against Amor Terreno).

I though JSB invented it. Can anyone say when or with whom this serpentine-bass idea originated?

 

Unknown motive

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (June 18, 2003):
The motive (mi-fa-mi-re-mi-la) appears in cantatas BWV 23 (opening duet), BWV 38 (trio), BWV 187 (second dictum), and probably elsewhere. Does Chafe give a name for this?

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 18, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] Chafe only discusses BWV 38 and that mainly in terms of church modes and the descent by 5ths in the 1st 5 mvts. He speaks of the ‘increasing stages of the believer’s sinking into the depths of tribulation.’ He also points out the interval drop that initiates the chorale, but I do not see that he connects it with the preceding notes that you mention, nor does he mention any of the other two cantata mvts. which you gave.

To me this motif appears to be a ‘circulatio’ or Greek “kyklosis,” a musical-rhetorical figure, followed by or combined with an interval drop (descent of mankind or of an individual) which connects with the text in each of these instances. “Trübsal, Unglück, sorgen, mein Herzeleid

Check out: http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~tas3/pubs/circ/circulatio.html for the connection with “Kreuz” = cross etc.

Hope this helps

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 18, 2003):
[To Alex Riedlmayer] Ah, an easy one! That's Gregorian chant, the most famous "Kyrie" there is (see the Liber Usualis).

Ky- ri- e ...
mi-fa mi-re mi-la

e- lei- son.
ut-re-mi-fa-me-re-ut te-ut ut.

In notes, that is:

Ky- ri- e ...
A-Bb A-G A-D

e- lei- son.
F-G-A-Bb-A-G-F-E-D C-D D.

 

Use of motives

Continue of discussion from: Cantata BWV 45 - Discussions

Julian Mincham wrote (November 22, 2007):
Use of terminology

Julian Mincham wrote:
<< It is a moot point as to what significance, if any, Bach attributed to this motive, the characteristics of which are two-fold i.e. it employs the three notes of a rising triad AND the rhythm of three equal notes (crotchets). It's important to note this, I think because the triad in itself is the primary building block of much tonal music (not all--in many C20 jazz styles the 7th is the primary building block as outlined in John Mehegan's classifications)
> and is consequently used all the time. explicitly or by implication? e.g. in > one and two part writing. But the combination of a triadic shape with a > particular rhythmic inflection particularises the motive. >>
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< I suspect that there are many instances of themes being used for symbolic purposes but they are not restricted to those meanings. A good example is the repeated note arpeggio which opens the D major Brandenburg. This figure appears in the middle of "Es Ist Vollbracht" of the SJP (BWV 245) and in "Ja , Ja Ich Kann die Feinde Schlagen" in Cantata, "Selig ist der Mann", where in both cases it is a kind of "triumph motif". I'm suspicious of calling these figures "motifs" because it plugs into the Wagnerian system of motivic development which many Romantic critics, Schweitzer in particular, imposed on Bach's music. Bach frequently uses elaborate symbolic schemes (as Peter suggests), but I don't think we can postulate a consistent system across all his works. More frequently,the "doctrine of affections" allows for broad general connections (as Julian suggests) >
Re Doug's suspicion of using the term 'motive'? (or motif) I don't see the problem. I am using the term according to Schoenberg's definition i.e. a musical idea?comprising at least one rhythmic characteristic and at least one interval of pitch. it's a good working definition for students and it carries, or should carry no implications of anything outside of itself, its own existance and musical potential--it may or may not return, be developed etc.

The term 'leitmotiv' is the?term I find more problematic. Strictly speaking i suppose it ought to suggest a 'returning' idea but it has got very much mixed up with Wagnerian representations of character and situation as to makes its use?often inexplicit.?

Douglas Cowling wrote (November 22, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Re Doug's suspicion of using the term 'motive'? (or motif) I don't see the problem. I am using the term according to Schoenberg's definition i.e. a musical idea?comprising at least one rhythmic characteristic and at least one interval of pitch. it's a good working definition for students and it carries, or should carry no implications of anything outside of itself, its own existance and musical potential--it may or may not return, be developed etc. >
You're right. I should have used "leitmotif" rather than "motif" My reaction was to be very cautious about the systemization of Bach's thematic material championed by Schweitzer which was over-influenced by Wagnerian symphonic development which does not occur in Bach's compositional technique.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (November 22, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Re Doug's suspicion of using the term 'motive'? (or motif) I don't see the problem. I am using the term according to Schoenberg's definition i.e. a musical idea?comprising at least one rhythmic characteristic and at least one interval of pitch. it's a good working definition for students and it carries, or should carry no implications of anything outside of itself, its own existance and musical potential--it may or may not return, be developed etc. >
AUIAWJ (*)

It seems to me that the notion of 'motif', and of meaning associated with a motif, can become more acceptable to a rational mind if viewed from a certain perspective.

If we say 'this motif means that', somehow we suggest that there is a dictionary where each motif, musical idea or what not, corresponds to a certain concept in a 1-1 correspondence. We are prone to such mode of thinking as we live in a time when concepts must be well defined, terms must be unambiguous, translations must be faithful, rules must suffer no exceptions. I'm not a great specialist of Wagner but I gather that his 'leitmotifs' are explicitly associated with certain ideas.

However I believe that such a conception is totally alien to Bach's manner of thinking. I would suggest that a 'motif', in the Schoenberg sense, is an element which, when it occurs several times in a piece, attracts attention. The listener will listen for it, and each occurrence of it will carry musical significance. Now I would also suggest that in a musical piece, you have several such motifs (or possibly other musical elements) which carry musical significance and form certain patterns. If the piece is associated with a certain set of ideas (such is the case with Bach cantatas, the ideas being provided by the text), those ideas form patterns, too. It becomes interesting for the composer to exploit those two different levels of patterns and suggest links between them, those links giving rise to new patterns on a higher level.

Nothing of all this is completely explicit, nothing systematic. The fact that it is neither completely explicit nor systematic makes it impossible to prove that those patterns are intentional on the part of the composer, rather than the consequence of too many years of racking one's brain on the part of the musicologist in search of esoteric meaning where no such thing is intended.

Of course there is no dictionary. Having said this, I must add that I am entirely convinced that Bach did play such 'games' and I have no doubt that in certain pieces, certain motifs are intentionally (perhaps unconsciously, but no matter) associated with certain ideas. And that the desire to establish such relationships accounts for certain musical characteristics of piece.

Of course I'm no musicologist so this is merely a personal impression!

(*) Not meaning 'I've just hit my own thumb with a hammer', but, rather "As usual I agree with Julian."

Julian Mincham wrote (November 23, 2007):
Use of motives

[To Alain Bruguières] I have copied Alain's comments in full as a way into taking us further into this fascinating area. I agree that the repitition of a motive within the music may create a situation where the listener imbues it with a significance which the composer never intended, especially when words are attached. However, i'd also like to make the point that a motive (defined in the sense outlined below) exisits in its own right i.e. it does not require repetition in order to acquire the status of 'motiveness'. However, as motives are usually the bricks and building blocks for melodic and contrapuntal structures, they can acquire additional 'meaning' when used in diferent ways in the course of the movement's development. In fact I would go so far as to so that this is one of the essential points of a development section of a 'classical' symphonic movement. The composer is setting out to demonstrate, in kaliedoscope fashion, how motives can be viewed from all sorts of different perspectives, before reminding us of their 'states of original innocence'.

Again I agree with Alain that on occasions Bach almost certainly intended an idea to have significance beyond its musical 'meaning' [sorry about the continual quotation marks---I use them here to indicate that the term musical 'meaning' itself is ambiguous and open to all sorts of interpretations]. This can usually be inferred with a degree of certainty a) when a musical idea is used just the once or twice within a movement and b) when it occurs in different movements with similar texts. Examples abound but here are two---1) the chromatic scale in E minor at the beginning of BWV 4/6 in the continuo 2) a similar descending chromatic scale which concludes each of the main vocal blocks in BWV 55/1. These ideas only occur twice in each movement (how often does Bach so little use or develop a strong motive of this sort?) and there is a connection of text--the cross and its blood allowing for the salvation which comes according to divine judgement.

My studies of the cantatas have, however led me along a different line. Given that Bach had to compose very quickly and come up with very wide range of characterful ideas at speed, how did he do this? My own view, which has been strengthended rather than weakened through a study of the canon, is that he looked at the text and took from it actions, ideas, images, metaphors, suggestions etc that would suggest types of musical ideas. Furthermore those ideas may be more than melodic motives:- they may just as well be formal or textual structures. I have isolated a number of examples where the ritornello of an aria or chorus has, embedded within various aspects of its musical structure, ideas from the text itself.

e.g. BWV 52/3

This first aria retains the minor mode which, however, will be dispensed with for the remainder of the cantata ----nevertheless, nevertheless even though, in this alien world I may be isolated from You, yet God remains my true friend. First and second violins provide the obligato lines, at first in unison but very soon divided so as to form a three part texture with the continuo.

The symbolism of separation and union from God may be clearly detected within the structure of the ritornello theme. The three groups of string nstruments follow each other, come together and move apart, manipulating the musical motives so that they can be perceived from a variety of different perspectives. The allegoric representations of togetherness and apartness (from God) are both complex and intense and are embedded within the textural layout of the music. Of course, this is also an example of superbly skilled compositional technique, making the most economic and imaginative use of a couple of basic musical shapes. The point is simply that Bach’s consummate technical skill is inextricably combined with the representations of the textual imagery so as to provide us with a metaphor of great, almost subliminal, force. The text came first so it is reasonable to assume that Bach took this rather abstruse image as a basis for the textual layout.

When the soprano enters the violins oscillate between unison and two part writing. Thus the texture of the movement alternates between 2, 3, 4 and 5 part writing, a further example of the allegorical symbolism---apart and together.

This cantata also provides an example of the traps the unwary might fall into. it begins with the early version of the Brandenburg 1/1. Could this contrapuntal 'busy-ness' represent the surging around of the devils and scorpions (some translations) referred to later? Nonesense of course because we know that the Brandenburg was written years before the cantata. Nevertheless, Bach may well have chosen to use it here because some characteristics of it related to certain aspects of the cantata's text.

In a way i am turning Schweitzer's approach around. It may be that Bach did not intend the majority of his ideas to have symbolic meaning although, as I indicated above, there are particular circumstances where think he did. But on the other hand it seems safe to predicate that he took events from the text which he employed to stimulate his fertile brain in the search for newand appropriate ideas------ which he then developed according to his great powers of musical logic.

The final point (apologies for the length of this posting--it seems, like Topsy, to have just grown) is hat Bach's relationships with his texts is one of great complexities. Probably he never intended people to pour over his scores centuries later and try to understand what he was doing. Perhaps his relationship with text was a purely private one, simply used in order to stimulate his own inventions.

 

Introduction | Cantatas | Other Vocal | Instrumental | Performers | General Topics | Articles | Books | Movies | New
Biographies | Texts & Translations | Scores | References | Commentaries | Music | Concerts | Festivals | Tour | Art & Memorabilia
Chorale Texts | Chorale Melodies | Lutheran Church Year | Readings | Poets & Composers | Arrangements & Transcriptions
Search Website | Search Works/Movements | Terms & Abbreviations | Copyright | How to contribute | Sitemap | Links



 

Back to the Top


Last update: ýNovember 24, 2007 ý00:55:20