Thinking in bach's language, teaching in his shoes: How the thomaskantor structured my syllabus as a modern-day notenbüchlein or zibaldone

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Abstract

Over the past decade or so, historically informed theory, pedagogy, and (more recently) composition have emerged fully as outgrowths of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement, for which Bach's music has been instrumental. In this light, "Bach in the music theory classroom" is a metaphor for a broader HI initiative, one where, in my own teaching, historically informed theory (HIT) becomes the basis for structuring a curriculum centered on period composition. In this article, I discuss the materials, process, rationale, and philosophical implications for a mini-curriculum that constitutes the first of a three-course HIT sequence. My aim with this first leg is to change students' thinking from the "know-what" types of knowledge characteristic of present-day music theory curricula to a "know-how" mind-set consistent with eighteenth-century pedagogy. The goals of music theory today approximate the reading knowledge of a language acquired in graduate school. Enough about its syntax, grammar, and vocabulary is learned to supply a translation, but without ever acquiring the knowledge and experience to speak, think, or write in the language itself. Score annotations and analyses, as ends in themselves, are like metalinguistic translations. In Bach's day, on the other hand, music theory was the business of training musicians to speak the language, on the performance-improvisation-composition continuum that defined their daily activities. To implement a "know-how" curriculum in an environment designed for "know-what, " however, is not without its challenges, not least because of limited time and often resources. I narrate how Bach himself offered me a solution through his own music and pedagogical materials. Rather than throwing students into the proverbial deep end, my mini-curriculum engages them actively and continuously in creative work. The goal is not to compose a self-standing composition, but to get students thinking in Bach's language in terms of musical schemata, the everyday patterns and conventions of Bach's day. I do so through a series of creative problem-solving activities that impart knowledge of schemata, particularly as they are used in Bach's hands. Students are placed in Bach's shoes as both a teacher and composer, by exploring the connections and differences among Bach's figured basses from the Vorschriften und Grundsätze zum vierstimmigen spielen des General-Bass, the partimento-preludes of the Langloz manuscript, and certain preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier as well as selected fantasias. Through realization, analysis, and (class) composition exercises, students encounter a number of recurring schemata as a familiar cast of characters in these materials, all fashioned together into a modern-day Notenbüchlein or zibaldone (musical notebook), which tells a story about Bach's schema usage-his compositional strategies employing schema development, elision, nesting, extension, and expansion. The story culminates with Bach's unique canonic treatment of a particular sequence, the ?7-86-5. After ten weeks, students are able to realize a complex Bach partimento (BWV 908) and compose a continuo part for the Sanctus of the Mass in B Minor, for which no figures survive. These advanced creative problem-solving activities fill the last pages of the students' Notenbüchlein, which is organized nearly single-handedly by Leipzig's beloved Thomaskantor himself.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-204
Number of pages30
JournalBach
Volume49
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music

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