Timeline: Bach's Counterpoint And Chopin's Melody

Mar 25, 2019

Chopin’s birthday is celebrated on the 1st of March and J.S. Bach’s on either the 21st or the 31st, depending on which calendar you use. That’s a long story for another episode. We’ve spent this entire month exploring the music and lives of these two composers. All of this has come together around a concert that VPR Classical hosted last month called “The Alchemy of Genius.” This concert featured…


Paul: ...Paul Orgel and I’m a pianist living here in Vermont for quite some time now.

James: Paul paired selected Chopin Nocturnes with preludes and fugues from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book II. All of those recordings are available on our website, for free, here. After the performance, I had a chance to sit down with Paul. I asked him to compare and contrast the music of Bach and Chopin for us, to give us some insight from the perspective of a pianist. He began with a wonderful metaphor for Bach’s works…

Paul: I think it was the famous composer/pianist Busoni who said that Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier was the Old Testament and Beethoven’s sonatas were the New. In other words, Bach’s preludes and fugues are kind of a bible for pianist and musicians.

Bach is the master of counterpoint which is a setting of different melodic lines against each other. He does it very rigorously, especially in the fugues, of course; pieces where the different lines imitate each other. But, in the preludes he does the same thing. They can be rather dense. They can be repetitive.

One of the challenges of Bach is that the music almost never stops. In other words, there are not nice places to stop and rest as there are in almost every other composer. So what you’re hearing in Bach is a more on-going kind of motoric sense, always, whether it’s slow and fast. And, you’re hearing what we call voices, several voices matched together.

And then Chopin, of course, is maybe our main composer as pianists. He’s the composer who wrote everything for the piano and every work is an enduring masterpiece, really. The nocturnes maybe the most vocally conceived of his works, in some ways, although there’s great variety in the pieces. I gravitate toward them. One of my teachers in Boston always used the word “consoling” when he talked about music. They’re very consoling.

Chopin’s famous advice to a pianist asking how to become a good pianist was to listen to great singers. So the obvious difference in Bach and Chopin would be that Chopin writes more in textures that we call melody and accompaniment. There’s beautiful melody that you’re going to remember, usually in the right hand, set against something in the left hand.

On some level though, Chopin absorbed what Bach did and really understood counterpoint extremely well; except that he was writing in time where the fashion and interest in music was simpler, in a way. Over time, I think people have come to appreciate Chopin’s absorbing of Bach and that he is actually aware of the contrapuntal things that I’m talking about. They’ve just been modified and internalized and so on.

But Chopin was terribly refined and he understood that Mozart was the most sublime, in a sense, and Bach was the most accomplished.

Check out Paul’s performances from “The Alchemy of Genius” here.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.