Hemiola with a Conscience

If you want to know what I’ve been doing the last few days, I’ve been eating out and playing Bach Partitas. Thanks for asking: no, this is not helping to reduce global warming or global poverty or global hunger (except my own hunger and that of my mealmates).

I’ve been dabbing these familiar pieces with fresh paint, and on occasion taking out their whole foundations, roughly. Move aside, old Denk, the new guy’s comin’ through. When I have to do the latter, the heavy (re-)lifting, I get into a manic-depressive cycle: first joyful–so lovely to rip down the timbers which you thought were immovable, so interesting, invigorating, electric to hear the piece anew–and then grumpy and irritable, so that when my friends call I kind of bark at them. Occasional bites of pumpkin bread and sips of decaf Starbucks are not enough to stem this grumpiness, born of mental effort and Bach’s tremendous demands.

In one oasis of pleasure in this desert of effort, I was trying again, again, again, to imagine convincing “phrase rhythms” for the Sarabande of the G major Partita. I may intellectualize the whole all I wish without getting an inch closer to my pleasure. But: I can’t be satisfied without some intellectual effort … and so I think, and hope that at some point, the “mystery force” (which includes some emotional quantity “x”) takes over and my concept gets animated, like Frankenstein (or hopefully some more graceful golem) and whoops! I am there. This happens reliably enough for me to count on it, and when it doesn’t work, there is always the martini.

My tongue is only partly in my cheek.

So, back to the G major Partita. What I find so UNSATISFYING in the CD I own of this piece is the total absence of the hemiola. Now, I know some of you reading out there couldn’t give a crap about a hemiola, but I, and some of you readers, are probably also obsessed with these delightful rhythmic displacements. [Boring explanation for non-musicians follows: a hemiola is where two bars of 3/4, say, are made to sound like three bars of 2/4 — or in other words, 6 is either two groups of 3, or three groups of 2. The three groups of 2, then, become magically a larger bar of 3, kind of a “double measure” or “super-measure.”] And in my Bach Partitas CD, by an unnamed artist, the fact is you can’t hear very well that this Sarabande is “hemiola crazy.”

I know this sounds like a trivial characterization, but almost every phrase has one! The phrases always begin with a little “pickup thingy” (that is actually the musicological term); then continue with one “normal bar” of 3/4, and then have the HEMIOLA. Here are the first two phrases, labeled for your comfort and convenience.

For those of you wondering, “pickup” in the musical sense has very little (but not nothing) to do with the term “pickup line.” Now, the normal bars of 3/4 tend to have some sort of dissonant intersection–lines in conflict, unusual intervals–but somehow the hemiola seems to wrap things up, because by the end of each one we seem to arrive at a pretty clear cadence.

Normal Bar

Don’t ask me why this is so; it’s just the way Bach wrote it. Heh. It’s as if he wanted the composition to express the following haiku:

At first lines diverge,
But each harmonic puzzle
Hemiola solves.

Now, I associate with each past piano teacher some wisdom-pearl, and John Perry was the first to express to me, so that I really heard it, the very obvious notion: how much poorer Bach would be (nothing, in fact) without the dissonances. (A pianist in master class had forgotten to tie over a crucial dissonant note). This composer, who we imagine so in touch with the cosmic harmony, such a master of musical logic and organization: the logic is built, so to speak, on a sea of contradictions, an uncountable array of types of dissonances. (Ugly, ugly dissonances!) Sometimes you hear Bach performances where these dissonances really “speak,” and also quite often you hear them only by the way… the dissonances become like fresh herbs stirred into a stew too early, losing their flavor in the slow cooking. It is so easy to take them for granted, to forget their edge.

It is hard (paradoxical) to practice freshness. At the beginning of this Sarabande, we have two “accidents” right away: an F-natural on the second beat of the first bar, and a G-sharp on the downbeat of the second bar. Fleshing this out: F-sharp would be the normal, confirming leading tone of the tonic; F-natural (its opposite?) is an odd early contradiction, a step in the “wrong direction” before our sense of the key is really established. And the G-sharp just piles on the unexpected; no more dissonant note to the tonic could be imagined (for your music theory types: an odd leap also in the bass from C to G-sharp, an augmented fifth! calls this note to our attention!) And at the risk of boring everyone to tears, it’s worth pointing out that the F-natural in the left hand measure 1 makes a dissonant tritone (“the devil in music”) with the B in the right hand; but when this “resolves,” i.e. when the B in the right hand moves to C, this C is in turn dissonant with a D that has appeared in the left hand. (A kind of contrapuntal Catch-22.) This is the annoying, detailed way of expressing what I meant, earlier, when I said that in the rhythmically “normal” bars there is “dissonant intersection.”

For me, the conception of the piece has to be based on these premises (as Hannibal Lecter lectures, while he listens to the Goldberg Variations: “first principles, Clarice”)… has to answer this question: How is the beauty of this piece somehow derived from these ungainly uglinesses? For it is, above all, so beautiful; graceful and evanescent; kind of an enigmatic little dance, reveling in the asymmetry of its phrase construction (as enumerated above); reveling in its naughty dissonance and always exploiting the hemiola to zip things up; and like a well-constructed play or novel cunningly telling several stories at once, dovetailing them effortlessly. For example, the dotted descending scale, in measure one, outlining a fifth:

and, in the next phrase, now a fifth higher:

and, in the next phrase, replicating itself, between the hands:

and in the last phrase, Bach supplies a kind of “summary,” the scale repeated, sequenced, now deep in the bass, a harmonic fundament, a continuity:

In each phrase, this idea appears and disappears; a character coming on- and off-stage; I feel as though it has a “separate existence” from the Sarabande as a whole, some sort of private life. It brings, contributes, to the dance when it can, and it leaves without overstaying its welcome. But I know how important it is; as a practicer, as a performer, I want to nod to it when it comes in and be polite to it on its way out; to smile at it with recognition, but not to scream its name across the room. A little congregation of themes, motives, as friends, around a table. And once you have established this dotted descending scale as a friend, then you are so touched by its calling into say hello again, in all sorts of ways which don’t become tiresome; its little favors to your harmonic story. Towards the end of the Sarabande, for instance, it comes in rather normally, to assert the dominant:

No accidentals here; a nice friendly reminder. But then the next one ends on a difficult G-sharp (yes, astute reader! the same G-sharp from the second bar!!!!):

This appearance of our friend, then, has posed a problem… notice the bassline “shuts up” for a measure, as if shocked into silence by this impropriety (G-sharp, so late in the game!). The right hand goes on a little unprecedented wandering journey, disrupted, confused; the G-sharp stands, unresolved, uncontradicted; and then, whew, the left hand comes in again (“as if nothing had happened”), A down to D:

Thanks to this intervention, we are close now, on the dominant… And then THE MOST BEAUTIFUL thing happens; this friend says goodbye, with no tears. The left hand plays the scale “upside down,” ascending from G-A-B-C-D; while the right hand, at the same time, descends, D-C-B-A-G. And in this mirroring dialogue the tonic, and closure, is reached; the piece is over. You are too delighted by the ingenuity of the disappearance to be sad.

All this tedious discussion for just one sub-plot; but examples have to be given! In case you forgot, I was on the subject of how the beauty of the piece is partly derived from ungainly things (strange dissonances, asymmetric constructions); I had been discussing both hemiola and dissonance, and I would like to just show the interaction of these two at one of my favorite moments in this piece. Though the hemiola divides two 3/4 measures into three groups of two, sometimes hemiolas, like human beings, have a conscience.

1 2 3 4 5 6

This is the hemiola division of emphasis: on 1, 3, 5. But if there had been NO HEMIOLA, there would have been an emphasis on 4 (the “normal” downbeat). And so often the hemiolas want to tell us, on the sly, in some mysterious expressive way, where that real downbeat is. In this case E in the right hand moves up to G… the G occurs on 3, the hemiola rhythm, but then, wonderfully, the alto voice moves down to A on 4 … creating a fantastic dissonance on the mysterious downbeat:

The dissonance signifies the missing meaning, the rhythmic might-have-been. How, as a pianist, do you play a note like that, a G that is sustained and attains a different meaning on the downbeat, a G that must change mid-course (when the hemiola meets its nemesis, the normal rhythm), when no correction for a keyboardist is possible? A note in two rhythmic layers. Impossible enigmas for pianists to beat themselves silly over. I can say that I have heard this done so that I hear, by sleight-of-hand, the correction, mid-note, but only rarely.

Similar beautiful dissonances haunt each of the hemiolas of the first four phrases of the piece, and each dissonance is somehow different (questions of context, gradations of emphasis, shifts of voicing). Bach’s ingenuity in these matters seems endless; though there are only four “solutions” to this hemiola/dissonance issue in the first half of the Sarabande, they somehow feel like an infinite number, like a prism of possibilities. Recycling certain elements over and over, nonetheless not finding a limit or end. I stomp around my small kitchen, ignoring crusty day-old oatmeal, trying to imagine the inflection for each phrase… I want same, but different. My sense of freedom is tied to the rigidity of the pattern; I have to know how to be free with the phrases, within the cage Bach has built for me. Somehow the CD’s solution of ignoring, or downplaying, the hemiola, seems like a betrayal to me; a body with some bones missing. It is even, too even; a sentence without accents. I go over it again. Pickup; Dissonant Normal Bar; Hemiola (beginning dissonantly, resolving); Cadence. It is like a mantra, fleshed out.

Fleshed out, yes: each phrase of this Sarabande unique (complex, irreducible) like a human being, though “coded” with recurring genes. I think the recurring element of Bach is easier to capture in performance, so often you hear the motoric continuity of Bach, the motivic coherence, but so often this can regress into a kind of monotony, where the “difference” of each phrase blends out… The man has become a machine. We are so well attuned to Bach’s machine element, his logic, his purity. But the other night when I heard the Magnificat I was more inspired to practice Bach than I had been for some time… inspired by humanity, vocality, even: human failing. I stomped around my kitchen and sang horribly; it helped a lot. So many of the phrases were closer to beer and bread than to the sublime, and better for it. These Sarabande phrases smile at me; they do not glower at me from above. And I can practice this Bach, who is ingenious not like a know-it-all but like a friend who somehow, after a lot of time, still manages to make you laugh.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Chris
    Posted December 7, 2005 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Bach’s cage indeed. A wonderful, touching and enlightening commentary. Thank you & good luck with further wrestling.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted December 8, 2005 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    This is so great. Have you ever written about the trio sonata from the Musical Offering?

    Can you come for Christmas?

    Gues who.

  3. Jacque
    Posted December 12, 2005 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    1) sincere praise, but partly in hopes of winning favor for (2): I love your blog, the thoughtfulness of your analyses interspersed with “life in Manhattan” episodes.
    2) the question (partly for which the praise in (1) was given): What program and/or workflow do you use to create your musical examples? I do the same, but the application I use failed to survive to OS X on the Mac . . .
    (answer here, in comments, or in another post, I’ll keep watching . . . )

  4. Anonymous
    Posted January 30, 2006 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    Bach wore a powdered wig and he is dead. You improved on his essential short fall, rhythmically boring. Add to this, he has given trumpeters hemiola hemorages and if you kill people, you are not cool in my book. “At least thats the way it is.” – Sean Paul. Police Sketch.

    Why are you worshiping the rotting gods of the past when there are composers alive for whom your improvements are available to contribute towards the continuum of music. Dude, Bach is dead. Composers are alive today. If you can think and play like you posted your efforts are best put towards the future.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>