Chromatic Fantasia on the Name of Bach

Pursuit is a good word to describe what composers often do. It often starts with an innocent question: “Hey! I wonder if I could do that?”  and then, before you know it, countless hours have been gobbled up in the pursuit. When I was commissioned to write an organ solo for Douglas Haas, I thought it would be a challenge to base the work on the BACH motif.

The BACH motif is a succession of notes: B flat, A, C, B natural. In German musical nomenclature, the note B natural is written as H and the B flat as B. This allows a series of four notes to spell Johann Sebastian Bach’s family name. Hundreds of composers have paid homage to Johann Sebastian Bach by incorporating this motif in their music. I knew about Schumann’s work in this pursuit: Six Fugues on the Name of B-A-C-H and Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on the Theme of B-A-C-H.

The first three letters were no problem for me. The B flat and A form a major seventh, an interval I love, and throw in a C natural and it adds a major 9th or 2nd to the harmony. But what to do with the H – or you could say “What the H to do with the H?” When I tried to write a theme and a counter melody, I disliked everything I came up with.

It is second nature to me to use octatonic scales, also known as ‘diminished scales’. There are three possible octatonic scales and this chart lists them:

Bb C Db Eb E F# G A
B C D Eb F F# G# A
Bb B Db D E F G A

As you can see, if Bb is your starting note, your centre of gravity, there is no dominant, no F. In terms of the BACH motif, there also is no H (B). Then I had an insight. I realized that, if I ‘modulated’ from one octatonic scale to another when the B natural (the H) occurred, I had a meaningful language, that sounded ‘right’. Since I write by ear, it is more important that it sounds right to me; it can’t just make a logical harmonic sense.

I created a piece is one continuous movement, but in two sections. The first is Largo, very slow, and certainly owes a debt to Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste. The second is quite fast and since Italian is used for musical instructions, I marked this “come un pipistrello fuori dal inferno”. This translates: “like a bat out of Hell.”

What you hear in this piece is the subtle shifting of scales in a harmonic sea where there is no home key. There are the 4 notes of the BACH motif however which provide an anchor.

The Chromatic Fantasia on the Name of Bach is quite a dense piece. Traditional fugal techniques are employed, such as stretto, where the voices enter earlier and play overlapping versions of the theme. The musical palette is quite chromatic and the four voices enter at the four point of a chromatic scale marked by a diminished seventh chord.

At the ending of the piece, the harmony results from stacking the 4 notes of the motif. I started with a low A natural in the cello and added the other 3 notes, stacked a minor 9th apart. This is the sonority at quite an abrasive climax. Then the notes are inverted and the dynamics change from triple forte to pianissimo. The lowest note now is a Bb and the other 3 notes form major 7th or major 9th ‘s intervals. Emotionally, it is like going from anguish to acceptance.

The work was premiered on June 28, 2017, by the Sycamore String Quartet at a concert in Kamloops, BC, entitled Made in Canada. At the premiere, I introduced it with some insights on how the material was structured. Here is a recording of this introduction, followed by links to the two movements of the work from the premiere performance:

Introduction by Doug Jamieson

Chromatic Fantasia on the Name of BACH part one

Chromatic Fantasia on the Name of BACH part two

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