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CPE Bach’s alternative to Rameau’s theory of the Fundamental Bass

December 19, 2007

An extract from: William Mitchell, Introduction to Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments by CPE Bach.

The German title of CPE Bach’s book is Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen and it was first published in two parts in 1753 and 1762. This work is often referred to as the Versuch.

My comments are in square brackets.

To many it must seem strange that Philipp Emanuel [Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, referred to here as Bach], modernist and eclectic of the eighteenth century, did not employ the theories of Rameau, in writing the chapters on intervals and thorough bass. He was not ignorant of the writings of the Clermont organist whose Traité had appeared forty years before Part Two of the Essay. Indeed, the Essay was written after the publication of all of Rameau’s theoretical works.

Bach and his father [JS Bach] were acquainted with Rameau’s theory, which has become the basis of most of the modern writings on harmony, but they disagreed with it. This was made known in a letter to Kirnberger, cited in his Kunst des reinen Satzes (Pt. II Sect. 3, p.188): “You may proclaim that my and my deceased father’s basic principles are contrary to Rameau’s.” Extended consideration had been given by members of the Bach school to the new theories of the fundamental bass, the suppositional root, the triad as the mother of all chords, and seventh as the origin of all dissonances. This is apparent from the analyses in the Rameau manner which can be found, according to Spitta [a biographer of JS Bach], in the definitive autographs of the Sarabande and two Menuets from Johann Sebastian Bach’s D minor French Suite, and in Fischoff’s autograph of the C minor Fugue and D minor Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Later, Kirnberger analyzed the B minor Fugue of Book One and part of the A minor Prelude of Book Two with the avowed purpose of proving the superiority of his own analytic procedure over Rameau’s. In only one respect can it be said that Philipp Emanuel made use of any of the new principles. He speaks several times of chord inversion. But this principle was know before the Traité was published, have made its appearance in Andreas Werckmeister’s Hodgus curiosus (1687) and Godfre Keller’s Rules….(before 1700).

Bach’s rejection of Rameau can be traced largely to the fact that the latter had pronounced a theory, whereas thorough bass was essentially a practice. Certainly, as Bach presents his material, it is apparent that the pervasive problems were first tactile and then artistic, never speculative. Thus in organizing the chords of thorough bass, Bach follows an older principle. Chords, regardless of their origin, are grouped according to the definitive interval that they contain. For example, all chords that contain sevenths are treated successively. They are the chord of the seventh, the seven-six, the seven-four, and the seven-four-two chords. Although only the first of these is a chord in the Rameau sense, all are chords in Bach’s sense. Each of them must be recognised from its signature and played instantaneously. The student’s task was to locate at the keyboard the definitive interval and then to bring under his fingers the various accompanying intervals. Identification of the root, real or supposed, did not aid him in his direct gauging of intervals above a given bass tone. Morever, in thorough bass some chords were closely associated, even though their roots were not identical. For example, above certain bass tones the six-three and six-four-three chords were regarded as interchangeable. Knowledge of the fact that these chords had different roots would have deterred rather than aided the student.

The greatest difficulty with the older system was caused by the great increase in the number and variety of chords that made their appearance in the course of the eighteenth century…..Bach has twenty, but includes many others as subtypes, chromatic variants, and alternates. It was this unwieldy bulk of chords that aided the spread of Rameau’s system, but it is not pointless to note that the theory gained unquestioned acceptance only after the period of the basso continuo had passed. Bach’s method, the one he inherited from his father, was the only effective introduction to the musical practices of his time.

The crucial difference between Rameau and Bach is most evident in those places where Philipp Emanuel explains the nature of chords. Bach’s rests on it s behaviour. Repeatedly he cites context, voice-leading, rhythmic and melodic manipulation as the critical chord-shaping factors. Thus there are two kinds of six-four chords, those that retard a following five-three, and those that retard a following six-three. Where Rameau calls the two identical because their roots are identical, Bach differentiates between them because their behavior is different.

Mitchell, William J., Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, trans. & ed. WJ Mitchell, Cassell And Company, Ltd., London, 1951, pp. 17-19.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 4:20 am

    Now that’s amazing! thanks a lot for your post. I appreciate your work.

  2. January 14, 2016 5:36 am

    Very nice article, but brief music notation examples would make your points a lot clearer.

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