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Thoughts on Bach’s direction in HARMONY when composing:

For Bach, melody, harmony, and counterpoint were so intricately intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins (if there is any doubt, though, the harmony is explicitly spelled out in the continuo part, which forms the harmonic foundation for most of his works). For the early contrapuntalists such as Palestrina, harmony was simply a by-product of counterpoint. Early German composers such as Schutz clearly did not consider harmonic progression to be a factor in their compositions, except at the beginning and end of phrases. Fux, who laid the foundation for eighteenth-century counterpoint and whose teachings Bach studied, was of the same mind. For Bach, however, harmony was an important consideration in its own right. While he did not always strictly follow a “flow chart” of harmonic progression, he had a gift for creating a stream of chords that led pleasingly from one to another, with tension being created and released progressively until the inevitable goal is reached. In compositions that employed a basso ostinato or repeating theme, such as the Crucifixus from the B minor Mass and the Passacaglia in C minor, he seemed to take delight in experimenting with all the harmonic possibilities a single melody could offer. This is especially evident in the famous “Passion” chorale used prominently in the St. Matthew Passion. The nature of this chorale melody is such that it can be set either in a major or minor key (more accurately, a major key or Phrygian mode). The range of harmonizations Bach was able to create from this single melody is truly astounding, especially when one goes beyond the St. Matthew Passion and looks at its treatment in the Christmas Oratorio.