Listening Contrapuntally; or What Happened When I Went Bach to the Archives

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2016





Publication Title

AJS Perspectives - Association for Jewish Studies


I remember the first time I heard a Bach fugue—the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543—in a Music History class at Middlebury College. It was a time in my life when I identified as a singer, one whose ears were predominantly tuned towards the lyricism and phraseology of melodies. In this context, the figuration of this Bach fugue presented a challenge for me. Its angular sequencing and instrumental counterpoint were difficult to sing, and I promptly dismissed it as mathematical and mechanical (as the young are wont to do). Later, a listening exam forced me to return to the score (as exams are wont to do), and I set about memorizing it by my standard method: singing along. As I did, I discovered the depth of associations within the work, how its Hauptstimmen (main voices) and Nebenstimmen (secondary voices) ultimately create textures that generate new resultant melodies that were not written in the score but were apparent to my ears. In short, by ignoring certain notes in the score, I found not only a version for my own voice but also a more holistic understanding of the artwork. And maybe that is why I have always chosen to begin my music survey course with this Bach fugue, where it begins an intellectual journey that will ultimately conclude with John Cage's silent postmodern masterpiece 4'33". It represents a piece that has gone from silence to sound and back again in the arenas of my own life.


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