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Thread: Bach vs. Mozart: Counterpoint vs. Harmony

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    Senior Member isorhythm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Not just styles, but different ways of thinking. It would be too tedious to baby-walk you through examples; if you can't already hear what I'm talking about, it's pointless.
    I understand the differences between Bach's and Mozart's treatment of harmony pretty well. I'm trying to understand why you think Mozart's represents an advance.

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    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    Without getting too far into the technical weeds (in which I'd quickly become hopelessly lost), the way I've always tried to describe what I hear between Bach and Mozart is that Bach made drama out of music, while Mozart made music out of drama. The distinction being that just inherent in the nature of harmony and counterpoint are dramatic ideas that depend on nothing but the working out of the music harmonically. Bach seemed to exploit this to the fullest. However, there is also a more music-independent drama that music can be utilized to enhance to express. When Mozart was composing concertos, where you had a lone (or a few) instruments contrasted with an orchestra, or when he had stories/characters/conflict as in his operas, he seemed to utilize music to maximize the drama within these relationships without relying solely on purely musical principles.

    I feel like Handel was a huge influence in this respect. When Mozart said he went to Handel to learn "affect," and that when Handel desires he "strikes like a thunder-bolt," that's what I think he meant. If we think of something like Handel's Hallelujah! Chorus, one reason it "strikes like a thunderbolt" is that Handel has withheld the horns until that climax, and he's been quite judicious in his use of counterpoint; this is so that WHEN he uses them means as much as any fact about HOW he's using them, ie, saving them for dramatic effect.

    To me, Mozart and later composers after Bach seemed to use counterpoint more selectively as a dramatic device as opposed to being a mode of composition in which to explore harmony. I've often likened it to making what was once a main dish into a spice. Personally, I prefer counterpoint as a spice rather than a main dish, and that also perhaps comes with my preferring what I hear as Mozart's (and Handel's, and Beethoven's) more "music out of drama" approach to composition.

    EDIT: FWIW, I wouldn't want to press this distinction too much, or suggest that Bach wasn't capable of similar "music out of drama," or Mozart incapable of "drama out of music." I think of it more as a spectrum in which one generally (even if not always) better suits a composer's temperament and style, but in which most composers will generally spend some time working in both "modes."
    Last edited by Eva Yojimbo; Sep-17-2019 at 19:25.

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    Senior Member tdc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    I can tell the difference between Bach and Mozart when I listen to their keyboard music. So many of the ideas of Mozart would simply not be the same, or as effective, unless they were the result of "harmonic" thinking. I see counterpoint as more limiting in this regard, and more of a spontaneity in Mozart's harmonically-derived ideas. Bach's polyphony was a "sideshow" to the extent that it was a technique with very specific and limited capabilities.
    Mozart and Beethoven were both "harmonic" thinkers, which was the "new way" of thinking. It's well-known that Bach rejected the harmonic theorizing of Rameau, and preferred to use his archaic, limited figured-bass system, which could not adapt to later harmonic developments which were too complex and varied for the old system.

    In his defense, Bach is a "snapshot" of music's harmonic development, but was quickly surpassed by later harmonically more complex music.
    What are your thoughts?
    My thoughts are this doesn't make sense, since harmony is considered Bach's strong point and his music is known for it's complexity and depth. If Bach is just a snapshot and limited why did he use harmonies that didn't resurface again until 20th century music? The classicists did take steps forward in a horizontal sense, but were working within a new structural format and took a step back in terms of vertical harmony.

    I don't think Bach's use of harmony has been surpassed in terms of the vertical aspects, Debussy I think has come closest to equalling his harmonic genius. The classicists I do think deserve credit primarily for their expanded sense of drama (which relates also to their use of rhythm) their horizontal contributions to harmony and form, which certainly are impressive. I think Mozart of all composers probably had the best sense of balanced long range harmony within sonata form. Beethoven of course also excelled in this area.

    As far as the system composers use whether it be Rameau's, Bach's, something else or a combination is not really that important to me. I care more about the quality of the music that results.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tdc View Post
    My thoughts are this doesn't make sense, since harmony is considered Bach's strong point and his music is known for it's complexity and depth. If Bach is just a snapshot and limited why did he use harmonies that didn't resurface again until 20th century music? The classicists did take steps forward in a horizontal sense, but were working within a new structural format and took a step back in terms of vertical harmony.

    I don't think Bach's use of harmony has been surpassed in terms of the vertical aspects, Debussy I think has come closest to equalling his harmonic genius. The classicists I do think deserve credit primarily for their expanded sense of drama (which relates also to their use of rhythm) their horizontal contributions to harmony and form, which certainly are impressive. I think Mozart of all composers probably had the best sense of balanced long range harmony within sonata form. Beethoven of course also excelled in this area.

    As far as the system composers use whether it be Rameau's, Bach's, something else or a combination is not really that important to me. I care more about the quality of the music that results.
    What would you cite as an example of Bach's harmonic excellence? I am astonished that you don't consider his harmony as having been surpassed...though I probably haven't heard as much of his music as yourself.
    Last edited by janxharris; Sep-18-2019 at 08:37.

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    Senior Member hammeredklavier's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo View Post
    To me, Mozart and later composers after Bach seemed to use counterpoint more selectively as a dramatic device as opposed to being a mode of composition in which to explore harmony. I've often likened it to making what was once a main dish into a spice. Personally, I prefer counterpoint as a spice rather than a main dish, and that also perhaps comes with my preferring what I hear as Mozart's (and Handel's, and Beethoven's) more "music out of drama" approach to composition.
    I still feel counterpoint was central to Mozart's study of composition and development throughout his life. As Leopold "admonished his son openly in 1777 that he not forget to make public demonstration of his abilities in "fugue, canon, and contrapunctus."" It seems to me this is how he "learned to do stuff" from childhood essentially and based his technique around as he progressed. Telemann is greater than Bach.
    The genre also overlaps, in many aspects, with his sense for 'classical containment' and 'economy of material' and 'motivic variation':

    I find this movement remarkable (although it's not a fugue) for its similarity to a fugue how it develops. First off, there's balance of voice-leading between both hands. At 0:17, 1:30, 2:56 each time the main theme develops intricately like a subject in a fugue would. And the passage at 1:04 sounds like an episode in a fugue. (kind of like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wko3jKds_Kc&t=2m16s)



    In Contrapuntal Study in B minor K620b, I hear both Der welcher wandert diese strasse from Die Zauberflote and Introitus from his Requiem


    At 2:05, I hear Kyrie from his Requiem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ybTabIfLgY&t=1m20s


    0:30
    Last edited by hammeredklavier; Sep-18-2019 at 17:28.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tdc View Post
    I don't think Bach's use of harmony has been surpassed in terms of the vertical aspects, Debussy I think has come closest to equalling his harmonic genius. The classicists I do think deserve credit primarily for their expanded sense of drama (which relates also to their use of rhythm) their horizontal contributions to harmony and form, which certainly are impressive. I think Mozart of all composers probably had the best sense of balanced long range harmony within sonata form. Beethoven of course also excelled in this area.
    Interesting perspective. I think Beethoven's harmonies (and perhaps Brahms's 60 years later) are the most impressive overall due to this understanding of their implication within the whole form of music, what you call horizontal. Then where classical and romantic finally broke away, it can be argued that harmony hasn't suffered very much since then. Bach has simply given much more intelligence and perfection to it all. Beethoven is the one who truly mastered harmony though in my estimation, which was not necessarily about him being as creative and diverse as Bach, but about him being true to music as a complete form. Perhaps we have different definitions of 'mastering,' as in, the term for you means one composer mastered aspect (A) of music, then another came along and mastered (B). While this holds true in a lesser sense of mastery, we forget that Beethoven is the one who kind of did it all with one stone, much more unequivocally. Obviously my opinion, but one others would argue. It's as though a higher level of musical understanding naturally flows to harmonic mastery, one you can't have with just counterpoint and creativity.
    Last edited by Ethereality; Sep-18-2019 at 10:32.

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    Senior Member tdc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by janxharris View Post
    What would you cite as an example of Bach's harmonic excellence? I am astonished that you don't consider his harmony as having been surpassed...though I probably haven't heard as much of his music as yourself.
    I hear harmonic excellence throughout his oeuvre. It might be helpful to remember when listening to Bach that he is using harmony as his primary vehicle for expressivity, as opposed to dynamic contrasts or rhythmic dramatic gestures. If you look at how much popular music uses dynamics/loudness and rhythm as its major method of expressivity I believe this is related to the fact that using harmony is actually a more advanced, and sophisticated approach to musical expression - it is more difficult to do.

    There are a couple examples of Bach's sophisticated harmony that is ahead of its time in this video by Rick Beato:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_c...&v=kcvUHdhROrk
    Last edited by tdc; Sep-18-2019 at 09:13.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tdc View Post
    I hear harmonic excellence throughout his oeuvre. It might be helpful to remember when listening to Bach that he is using harmony as his primary vehicle for expressivity, as opposed to dynamic contrasts or rhythmic dramatic gestures. If you look at how much popular music uses dynamics/loudness and rhythm as its major method of expressivity I believe this is related to the fact that using harmony is actually a more advanced, and sophisticated approach to musical expression - it is more difficult to do.

    There are a couple examples of Bach's sophisticated harmony that is ahead of its time in this video by Rick Beato:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_c...&v=kcvUHdhROrk
    The chord that Rick highlights at the beginning of Cantata 54 is indeed startling for the time.

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    Interesting video. Based on my familiarity with Bach's work, I'm considering that the complexity of his compositions (ie. more variations, creativity, the higher speeds at which these develop) are getting to people often more than the harmonic mastery or utility sculpted therein, when compared to the composers after him. I think a perfect mastery of harmony involves too mastering the interconnectivity of supporting musical features, as this gives definition to the means by which something is being mastered. I'm certainly familiar with Bach's genius and whole impact to music, but I believe harmony's use has been done much more skillfully and sophisticatedly, as one might say, by the horizontal approach to composition. As noted, this may come down to what our definition of real mastery is.
    Last edited by Ethereality; Sep-18-2019 at 11:15.

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    Senior Member mikeh375's Avatar
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    Pondering this further, MR implies that Mozart's thematic material may have been different if his approach to composing was more contrapuntal. I feel there could be a case made for this, but absolutely not to the detriment of Bach nor even comparison with Bach.

    Generally and superficially speaking, Mozart's approach to material has a freer, broader lyricism to it, the rhetoric often feeling more expansive in scope. Counterpoint on the other hand is less able to roam in terms of intervals, range and Bach's style of counterpoint needs more concise, recognisable rhythm and motifs. Also, one needs to think ahead more so in a contrapuntal environment whilst composing than one does in lyrical mode. Mozart's work will often exploit harmony as a rhythmic arpeggio (eg, the beginning of Eine Kleine Nacht Musick), whereas Bach might generally speaking, prefer stepwise movement to favour the linear interplay to ease complications when merging thematic/motivic material - double and triple counterpoint needing careful attention. So in a way there is a sort of technical restriction, but that depends on your aesthetic point of view. Composers embrace both modes as and when they see fit.

    I'm groping a bit here, going on a gut feeling without any real score consultation other than what I know already, but there might be something in it after all....any takers for this line of thinking?
    Last edited by mikeh375; Sep-18-2019 at 12:59.

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    Quote Originally Posted by isorhythm View Post
    I understand the differences between Bach's and Mozart's treatment of harmony pretty well. I'm trying to understand why you think Mozart's represents an advance.
    Music DID become more harmonically complex after Bach (sevenths, ninths), but Mozart simply represents the newer harmonic way of thinking in a more stylistic way. Bach's figured-bass thinking would have become unwieldy, according to respected authors already mentioned: in the introduction of the book "Essay on the True Art of Keyboard Playing" by C.P.E. Bach, the authors admit that Bach's thorough bass practice would become unwieldy as more chords were added to the harmonic collection. Rameau's 'root system' was far smaller and easier to work with.

    Mozart's harmonic approach sounds more like other music which follows: Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Rachmanninoff, etc. In this way, it sounds like later Western music. If you want to argue that Bach is just as harmonically advanced, that's fine, but it's not really the point I'm making.

    In other words, for what I'm saying to make sense, you are forced to recognize the counterpoint style of Bach for what it is, and how it earned its monicker as "the old style." As I said, this is not a "dis" of Bach; merely a recognition of the differences between contrapuntal and harmonic thinking.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Sep-18-2019 at 12:54.

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    Senior Member isorhythm's Avatar
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    ^I think I accept your broader point here. You might be interested in the introduction to Charles Rosen's The Classical Style where talks about this in detail.

    I think figured bass vs. Rameau's number system is a red herring. I believe Mozart disparaged Rameau's system in a letter to his father, though I can't find the reference now (I think it might be in The Classical Style, actually.) I don't think Mozart "thought in" Roman numeral chords any more than Bach "thought in" figured bass - they thought in music.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by isorhythm View Post
    ^I think I accept your broader point here. You might be interested in the introduction to Charles Rosen's The Classical Style where talks about this in detail.

    I think figured bass vs. Rameau's number system is a red herring. I believe Mozart disparaged Rameau's system in a letter to his father, though I can't find the reference now (I think it might be in The Classical Style, actually.) I don't think Mozart "thought in" Roman numeral chords any more than Bach "thought in" figured bass - they thought in music.
    Hmmm...I've been listening to Mozart's piano sonatas, and I can hear differences with Bach. There are way more "isolated" melodies accompanied by chords in Mozart. The melody is perceived as a separate entity, and the chords seem more separate and "blocked in." You don't hear that? It's called homophony.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    Pondering this further, MR implies that Mozart's thematic material may have been different if his approach to composing was more contrapuntal. I feel there could be a case made for this, but absolutely not to the detriment of Bach nor even comparison with Bach.

    Generally and superficially speaking, Mozart's approach to material has a freer, broader lyricism to it, the rhetoric often feeling more expansive in scope. Counterpoint on the other hand is less able to roam in terms of intervals, range and Bach's style of counterpoint needs more concise, recognisable rhythm and motifs. Also, one needs to think ahead more so in a contrapuntal environment whilst composing than one does in lyrical mode. Mozart's work will often exploit harmony as a rhythmic arpeggio (eg, the beginning of Eine Kleine Nacht Musick), whereas Bach might generally speaking, prefer stepwise movement to favour the linear interplay to ease complications when merging thematic/motivic material - double and triple counterpoint needing careful attention. So in a way there is a sort of technical restriction, but that depends on your aesthetic point of view. Composers embrace both modes as and when they see fit.

    I'm groping a bit here, going on a gut feeling without any real score consultation other than what I know already, but there might be something in it after all....any takers for this line of thinking?
    I think Mozart uses more passing notes like in his scale runs in his piano concertos, more rhythmically varied, and focuses on harmonizing more on the triad or chord (as does Beethoven and Telemann) over longer stretches than Bach, which gives it its lyricism. Bach's counterpoint includes more 2nds and 7ths, and has more emphasis on the shorter term, and more chord changes over a given period of time. That's my gut feel.
    Last edited by Phil loves classical; Sep-18-2019 at 14:31.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Senior Member Bwv 1080's Avatar
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    You all are just hitting on stylistic differences between Baroque and Classical styles that have little or nothing to do with Rameau. Classical has a slower harmonic rhythm, greater use of figurations (like Alberti bass) and more rhythmically varied phrasing. If anything, the harmonies are simpler, not more complex, with late Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as outliers.

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