F COURSE IT’S POSSIBLE I may change my mind tomorrow, but I would like to propose three “rules for good music” as follows: (1) Mysterious Balance; (2) Following Rules; (3) Melodic & Contrapuntal Contours. The first rule (“mysterious essence”) is the most difficult, because it deals with the magical essence of what makes music sound good: knowing just how frequently to repeat a theme, how much the ear desires certain textures, how quickly the harmonic rhythm should change, how much chromaticism to use, and so forth. Even the greatest musicologists struggle with this one! As Franz Liszt declared: “It is easy to say that you like a piece of music, but very difficult to explain why a piece of music is great.”
The second rule (“following the rules”) is simple and straightforward. Music must follow the rules of the genre: if it be 18th-century counterpoint, a whole bunch of rules must be followed; the same for 16th-century counterpoint; the same for modal chant harmonies; the same for the classical period (such as Haydn, Mozart, and early Schubert); and so forth.
The third rule is what I will speak of today. There are accepted rules for how to write a good melody. We talk about those rules each year during the Sacred Music Symposium. Furthermore, we have often talked about how “mathematical” is music by Renaissance masters such as Father Guerrero, Father Morales, Father Victoria, Marenzio, Palestrina, Lassus, and all the rest. But we have not spoken too much about Baroque music, so let’s do that today.
Example from the Baroque
A few days ago, I posted a recording by Daniel Chorzempa of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 582), which many musicians consider to be the most powerful and magnificent organ composition of all time. That piece falls into two sections: The PASSACAGLIA itself, and the FUGUE. (A “passacaglia” is a type of composition similar to a “chaconne”—basically the bass line repeats as an ostinato.)
Look at the counter-subject Bach uses at the beginning of the piece:
Now look at the counter-subject Bach uses for the Fugue:
Do you see how it’s a “mirror image” of the way Bach introduced the piece? That is to say, “upside down” he begins the second half of the piece. Relationships such as these add depth and interest to great masterpieces.
Please let me know if you think I’m correct in the Facebook combox. Thanks!