Monday, December 8, 2014

Apparently there's more to this sheep herding thing than I thought

If you are the type of careful listener I like to have at pianonoise, you probably went away from Friday's listening example a little puzzled. Sure, everything was fine for a while, nice bucolic tune over a pleasant drone, but as the piece unfolded things got away from all of that undisturbed bliss, and the piece actually came to an end on a minor chord. Which might lead to two thoughts:

1) that didn't end well


2) it's not really over, is it?

No, it isn't. Bach's Pastorale in F actually has four movements, which means we still have three to go. And the strange ending is probably the strongest case for concluding that Bach intended the piece to keep going, because instead of returning us to where we started, he's left off in what feels like the middle of musical nowhere, besides leaving us kind of depressed.

 I feel like making a case for it because there seems to have been some musicological disagreement on that point. I don't know the details, because it is December and I am too busy to bother trying to find out, but I do remember once acquiring a score that only contained the first movement. Maybe the publisher simply made a mistake. Or the last three movements have some doubt about authorship.

Some hasty internet research buttresses this last point. But it seems likely to me that Bach wrote this multipart work. We don't know why, and we don't know how it was used during church services, but I have an idea about why it unfolds as it does. Bach is telling a story.

It's not that much of a stretch which story he has in mind. It's the same story Bach has been telling and retelling all his life, most of which was spent writing sacred music for the church. And it's a pastorale, after all. Begin in the same place, with the shepherds on the hillside tending their sheep. Only because this is a Christian story, the Christmas story, those shepherds are about to get a very special announcement from some angels. They've been invited to go see the babe born in Bethlehem, lying in a manger. So they do.

On to part two. It leaves off where part one ends. In fact, the first part of this piece does something Bach never does. Instead of finishing in the same key in which it started, to give balance and finality to each individual movement of a large scale work, this piece ends in a way that doesn't finish, and thus it absolutely depends on the piece's continuation. I don't know Bach's entire catalogue like the back of my hand, but as far as I know, this is the only time Bach has ever used this technique. A piece that begins in F major concludes on an A minor chord, which acts as a pivot to pave the way for the tonality of the next piece, in C major.

Immediately, in just a verse, Bach has those shepherds down off the hillside and in the stable, gazing in rapturous wonder at the baby born that night. Us too.

(here's the first part again as well, so you can listen to them continuously)

Bach: Pastorale in F, movement one
Bach: Pastorale in F, movement two

onward to the fifth article in this series of ten on Shepherds and Pastorales

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