Discovery Reveals Bach's Postmodern Side

A modern composition technique championed by 20th century composers may have been presaged two centuries earlier by Johann Sebastian Bach. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Eric Altschuler, who writes in the current issue of Musical Times about discovering a 12-tone row in a Bach prelude.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Now, news of a musical discovery. An interesting connection between the modern music of Arnold Schoenberg…

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: …and a composition written 200 years earlier by Johann Sebastian Bach.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: In the current issue of "Musical Times," Professors Eric Altschuler and Noam Elkies write about finding a tone row in Bach's music that may predate Schoenber's famous compositional technique by two centuries.

Professor Altschuler is author of "Bachanalia: The Essential Listener's Guide to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier." And he joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome, Eric.

Professor ERIC ALTSCHULER (Author, "Bachanalia: The Essential Listener's Guide to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier"): Thank you.

HANSEN: So, what is a tone row and what does it mean that you found one in Bach's music?

Prof. ALTSCHULER: In the Western music scale there are 12 tones or pitches: C, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, et cetera. A tone row is a when the theme or motive of a piece uses exactly all 12 notes in some order, before any of these pitches are repeated. What it means that it's found in Bach 200 years before, is it shows how much Bach thought about the possibilities inherent in the tonal system.

HANSEN: Let's listen again to the Bach "Prelude in A minor" from the "Well-Tempered Clavier Book II." You tell us when we hit the tone row.

Prof. ALTSCHULER: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Prelude in A minor")

Prof. ALTSCHULER: Here it is: faster notes at the top, slower notes on the bottom. Now it switches: faster notes on the bottom and slower notes on the top.

HANSEN: Okay. We're going to play it again, but on its own.

Prof. ALTSCHULER: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Prelude in A minor")

HANSEN: Man, that goes by fast. Don't you think maybe that this might be sheer coincidence that he included these 12 notes together?

Prof. ALTSCHULER: Certainly that's a possibility. But this is the motive or theme of the piece. And Bach repeated this 14 or more times in the piece. So he keeps coming back to it. He'll have the slow notes sometimes on the bottom.

(Soundbite of song, "Prelude in A minor")

Prof. ALTSCHULER: Other times on the top.

(Soundbite of song, "Prelude in A minor")

Prof. ALTSCHULER: These are exactly the same kind of permutations of a theme or a tone row that Schoenberg does in the 20th century.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You've been searching for this for quite a while. Was it like finding a four-leaf clover?

Prof. ALTSCHULER: Well, yeah. I always thought it was there. One of the fugues from the first book of the "Well-Tempered Clavier," the B minor fugue, uses all 12 notes in the subject or theme of the fugue. But it's not a row because certain notes are repeated before all 12 are used. And, in fact, that piece was probably Schoenberg's inspiration to think of 12-tone music.

HANSEN: Eric Altschuler is author of "Bachanalia: The Essential Listener's Guide to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks very much.

Prof. ALTSCHULER: Thank you.

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