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Music and Transfiguration

A Thought While Reading C.P.E. Bach's Essay

The past week I have finally found the time to really get into C.P.E. Bach’s Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time now. However, knowing ahead of time the historical significance of the book, I made up my mind to not get into it until I knew I had plenty of time to really get the most out of it. I’ve skipped over the first part of the book dealing with keyboard performance because I am mainly concerned with the portion on music theory. Prior to this, J.G. Albrechtsberger’s is the only other theoretical treatise I’ve read from the same time period. So, I have some familiarity with the figured bass concept of harmony, but my mind set was primarily still Roman numeral oriented at the start of reading C.P.E. Bach’s Essay.

Every time I pick up the book and I make my way through a new part of it, one thought keeps coming to mind, “This isn’t the way I learned it.” One thing I have always been good at is picking up an underlying thought pattern—reading between the lines, so to speak. To me, the differences between C.P.E. Bach’s Essay and everything I learned in my music theory courses is like night and day. Whenever I am confronted with something new, I always check it against everything else I know. I try not to blindly accept anything and, even more, I try not to get dogmatic either. If possible, I try to reconcile any differences, but if I have to completely throw out something I thought was right before, or completely reject a new idea, that’s what I do. So far, I am having a difficult time reconciling anything in C.P.E Bach’s Essay to what I was thought in my music theory courses. Furthermore, a lot of things I learned about harmony are not holding up very well against what I’m reading by Emmanuel Bach. This isn’t to say that Bach is 100% right, but his ideas on harmony seem to have a much sturdier foundation than just about anything else I’ve seen. For example, Bach presents a much broader concept of the term passing, particularly in regards to passing chords. This helps to explain some chords that would be somewhat awkward with Roman numerals, like a third inversion leading tone chord moving to a root position tonic. Furthermore, figured bass in general is capable of explaining for more harmonies than Roman numerals.

I am fascinated by what I’m reading in Bach’s Essay and working it out and comparing to what I already know is proving to be quite a challenge. My goal here, though, is not to advocate one method over another, or to bash any theoretical systems. To put it simply, “’tis truth along I seek, and that will always be welcome to me, when or from whencesoever it comes.”