Project 1 – Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Figures Bass
For this project I was asked to listen to the first movement of George Friedrich Händel’s (1685-1759) “Dixit Dominus”, which`s composition was finished in 1707 but only published for the first time in 1867. The piece is written for a choir (two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass), strings and a continuo. A continuo is a form of musical notation, with numbers and/or symbols above the notes, which indicate which chord has to be played, the continuo is mainly played by a piano, harpsichord, organ or lute. 1
Using a score, I should highlight the following aspects of the piece;
Händel sets psalm 110 to music, which reads: “The Lord says to my Lord:” Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” in Latin: Dixit Dominus Domino meo, sede a dextris meis, donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum. 2
Even though the piece is polyphonic, Händel arranged the words sung by the four voices in a way that they’re often sung at the same time or close to one another. Thus, the following arrangement of the first phrase of the text above is created:
“Dixit, dixit Dominus Dimino meo, dixit, dixit dixit, dixit. Dominus dixit Domino meo dixit, dixit Dominus Domino meo dixit Dominus dixit Domino meo, dixit, dixit,dixit Domino meo dixit Domino meo, dixit dixit;”
The following part “sede, a dextris meis” is sung twice, the first time by a solo soprano and the second time by a solo alto- voice. For both solos there’s mainly one violin playing a contrasting theme, often resting on a note when the voice sings in a fast pace and vice versa. Furthermore, one can notice, that for both voices the first word “sede” is sung melismatically.
The tenor voice leads the music back to a part of the first phrase where Soprano I, Soprano II and the Alto-voices repeat the word 7 times. Tenor and Bass are singing the whole phrase in the meantime, but come together with the rest of the voices for the last four “Dixit(s)”. Coming back to the second phrase of the psalm, the whole choir sings “sede, sede de a dextris meis” , whereas the first word is sung melismatic again.
The sopranos start the third phrase “donec ponam inimicos tuos, scabellum pedum tuorum” with long minims or whole notes, contrasting the quavers and semiquavers sung by the other voices. The strings and harpsichord adapt rhythmically to the choir. Interestingly, the sopranos stay ahead with the text, due to the repetitions by alto, tenor and bass. Those three voices, mainly stay rhythmically together.
From bar 64 to 73, the voices mainly stay rhythmically individual, even though one can notice a canonic character for the separate entries. Händel arranged them to follow the rules of the counterpoint. One can notice again, that the strings and harpsichord adapt rhythmically and harmonically to the pitch.
Still focusing on the previous phrase all of the voices (apart from Soprano I) come back to the same rhythm. This rhythmical equality is kept the same up to bar 85, where Händel starts with the first phrase again “Dixit, dixit, dixit, dixit Dominus Domino meo.
A solo tenor voice continues with the second phrase, a melisma on the first word “sede”. Similar to the same phrase mentioned above, the solo violin plays alongside the tenor in a contrasting way, being accompanies by the harpsichord.
The alteration of the separate parts seems to be happening more often towards the end, right after two repetitions of “sede dextris meis” the third phrase is started again by the basses, which take over the minim notes of the sopranos. The other voices continue again in a canonic form, all rhythmically individual but woven together to create a contrapuntal theme. In bar 104 they all come rhythmically together again (apart from the altos, which take over the long notes). The choir ends with the word “Dixit” repeated another three times by all the voices.
The violoncello, bass and “continuo” (in this case a harpsichord) all share the same melody. This melody consists mainly of a continuing line of quaver notes. One (of a few) exceptions to that can be seen from bars 94 to 103, where The numbers below the bass line indicate which chord the harpsichord has to play in relation to the note seen.
The melody of both violins are sometimes completing one another, which can be noticed at the beginning of the piece:
One can see (and hear), that especially the first violin almost continuously plays rising and falling arpeggios. A few exceptions occur at the mentioned contrapuntal and solo parts. After the choirs entry, the strings echo the first “Dixit” several times whilst the choir continues singing. The two violins come back to their arpeggio-movement, whilst the two violas adapt to the voice of the bass.
As well as the whole instrumental part works in different ways with the choir (as mentioned above, sometimes contrary, sometimes supporting) the voice of the bass seems to communicate with the violas and violins in a similar way.
In the following score I highlighted the following occurrences once again:
- When the first two violins play altered arpeggios: orange
- When the first violin plays an arpeggio by itself: light blue
- Melisma on the word “sede”: red
- When either all voices, all voices but one or most of the instruments (in a supportive way) have the same rhythm: light green
- The mentioned often used bass-line: purple
- Beginning of the mentioned contrapuntal entrances from the choir, supported by at least one of the instruments: pink
- When the instrumental part “interjects” with the choir, or plays in a contrasting/contrapuntal way: light brown
As one can also see below: Most of the notes for the violins and violas are often runs of quavers and semiquavers. The longer, in pink highlighted parts are the mentioned contrapuntal ones, where every instrument, including the bass line, seems to play along with one of the voices. (First and second violin with soprano I and soprano II; Alto and tenor with Viola I and Viola II and the bass voice with the bass line. The rest of the not-highlighted score (mainly focusing on the instruments) is either supporting the choir, or echoing their phrases.
This exercise included a task to space chords of the first eight bars from “Dixit –Dominus” differently, to see how spacings can affect the “flow of chords and the tension between them”.
Fitting to the previous exercise, I was asked to work out what the numbers of the following figurative bass are:
The numbers and symbols marked in red were the ones I didn’t find initially.
I always tried to find the chord, by staging all the notes on top of one another until they were all a major or minor third apart.
The third last sign (6 with a line going through it) was the only sign I hadn’t seen before; I also was unable to find it anywhere online. By looking at the chord above it, it seems to indicate, that the sign refers to a diminished triad with the third in the bass.
Even though I was already confronted with the figured bass in my former musical education, which I remember to have worked confidently with, I found it difficult to make a start for this exercise. After looking through some notes I made on the subject a few years ago and practicing on a few other examples before starting with the ones above, I began to understand the concept again.
The most important thing to know about the figured bass for me, is that it basically only affects to bass note and not the spacings in the melody part. For example:“B” in the bass with a 6 under it indicates that the bass note is the third note of the chord, which therefore is G –major, but the “melody”, paying the chord can be arranged in several ways :
I personally see the figured bass as a prestage of chords, which are often used for guitars or modern pop-music. When I started to work with the figured bass for the first time, I found it difficult to imagine, how a performer would be able to play the chords so quickly, only by using numbers below the bass. Nevertheless, I myself don’t find it difficult to play any given chord on the piano and therefore assume that this type of notation just needs to be practiced.
Project 2- A Bach Sonata
For this project I was asked to listen to Bach’s Sonata for violin and harpsichord No. 4 in C minor.
After having had a closer look at the accompaniment of the piano, I wrote a small piece for piano and violin myself, with the aim to include a few ornaments (written out). I had the following chords to work with:
G-minor, E-Major, Cm6, D which is the dominant leading back to G-minor.
I generally enjoyed working on this piece. One thing I found slightly difficult is to write out the ornaments for the violin in the right pace. I normally start with only writing the main notes and only do the details once I’ve got a good idea of how the piece sounds. This time though, I already included them whilst writing the piece. I mainly used the signs I learned more about in this chapter, listened to them and added the missing notes to the score. At the beginning and end I included a few accucciaturas, in the second bar two inverted turns, followed by a trill in the third bar.
For the piano part I tried to stick to Bach’s form of accompaniment as I was able to see it in his Violin Sonata No. 4. Apart from the very last bar I only used semiquaver notes for the right hand. I also tried to stick to the notes of the given chords, but made some alterations every now and then too keep it more interesting. For the left hand I kept it rather simple by only letting it play crotchet notes.
To come back to Bach’s piece: For the structure of the piece in the first movement Bach modulated from C minor to G-major (the dominant) and came back to the original key at the end again. This A-B-A’ structure like this is used quite often in this period. Nevertheless, I personally prefer it when composers don’t modulate to the dominant but to the minor or major relative. I’ve often used this structure as well to compose my pieces and find it very helpful as a “framework-plan” when I start writing.
For this exercise, I had to listen to one of Bach’s Cantatas, BWV 140, with the title Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme , which’s most applicable translation that I found is “Wake up, cries the watchmen’s voice”. It is based on a song by Philipp Nicolai, was composed by Bach in Leipzig in the year 1731 and had its first performance on the 25th of November in the same year. The piece is written for 3 soloists: Soprano, Tenor, Bass; a four-part chorus and includes the following instruments: 2 oboes, taille, horn, violin piccolo, strings and a continuo. Furthermore, the piece is separated into 7 parts, which have the following title, structure and arrangements: 3,4
- Chorus: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, cries the watchmen’s voice)
The first movement starts with an instrumental intro, where I noticed, that Bach especially focused on the dotted rhythm. The chorus’ melody is sung with very long notes by the soprano as Cantus Firmus, which is imitated by the other voices. The orchestra seems play rather independently from the chorus. One can also notice that the orchestral part includes deep-pitched oboes which reflect the night of the first movement really well.
The text can be translated to the following:
Awake, calls the voice to us
of the watchmen high up in the tower;
awake, you city of Jerusalem.
Midnight the hour is named;
they call to us with bright voices;
where are you, wise virgins?
Indeed, the Bridegroom comes;
rise up and take your lamps,
Make yourselves ready
for the wedding,
you must go to meet Him.
- Recitative (tenor): Er kommt, er kommt (He comes, he comes)
This recitative describes the arrival of the groom. It has a minor key, and only two male soloists (tenor and bass) as well as a soprano soloist are performing. The soloists are singing in a mixture of correlation and contrary movements with the orchestra. Especially distinctive is the violin, which sometimes imitates the soprano.
He comes, He comes,
the Bridegroom comes,
O Zion’s daughters, come out,
his course runs from the heights
into your mother’s house.
The Bridegroom comes, who like a roe
and young stag
leaps upon the hills;
to you He brings the wedding feast.3
Rise up, take heart,
to embrace the bridegroom;
there, look, He comes this way.
- Duet Aria (soprano, bass): Wann kommst du, mein Heil? (When will you come, my Saviour?)
This movement starts with a warm intro by the orchestra, emphasising the solo violin, which can be heard throughout the whole piece, playing a constant, individual melody. The duet describes how the soul, represented by the soprano is waiting for the arrival of Jesus, represented by the bass.
When will You come, my Savior?
– I come, as Your portion. –
I wait with burning oil.
Now open the hall
– I open the hall –
for the heavenly meal.
– I come, come, lovely soul! –
- Chorale (tenor): Zion hört die Wächter singen (Zion hears the watchmen sing)
The theme the orchestra starts with, includes several grace notes played unison by the strings. For the fourth movement, the tenor takes the role of the Cantus Firmus.
Zion hears the watchmen sing,
her heart leaps for joy within her,
she wakens and hastily arises.
Her glorious Friend comes from heaven,
strong in mercy, powerful in truth,
her light becomes bright, her star rises.
Now come, precious crown,
Lord Jesus, the Son of God!
We all follow
to the hall of joy
and hold the evening meal together.
- Recitative (bass): So geh herein zu mir (So come to Me)
In this movement the strings are very dominant, playing alongside the recitative of the bass. Jesus calls the soul and promises her comfort.
So come in to Me,
you My chosen bride!
I have to you
eternally betrothed Myself.
I will set you upon My heart,
upon My arm as a seal,
and delight your troubled eye.
Forget, O soul, now
the fear, the pain
which you have had to suffer;
upon My left hand you shall rest,
and My right hand shall kiss you.
- Duetto Aria (soprano, bass): Mein Freund ist mein (My friend is mine)
The fifth and sixth movement both describe the joy from both sides, which can be unmistakably heard by the playful sounding melody in form of melismatas and a joyful sounding theme for the oboe.
My Friend is mine,
– and I am yours, –
love will never part us.
I will with You
– you will with Me –
graze among heaven’s roses,
where complete pleasure and delight will be.
- Chorale: Gloria sei dir gesungen (Let Gloria be sung to you)
Bach finishes the cantata with a four-voiced movement of the last stanza.
Let Gloria be sung to You
with mortal and angelic tongues,
with harps and even with cymbals.
Of twelve pearls the portals are made,
In Your city we are companions
Of the angels high around Your throne.
No eye has ever perceived,
no ear has ever heard
as our happiness,
eternally in dulci jubilo!
The chorale harmonisation of the piece can be divided into 9 short phrases, which will be described more detailed in the following paragraphs.
The numbers after the following three stanzas indicate which musical phrase is used for which line.
1 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us)
2 Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne, (of the watchmen high up in the tower;)
3 Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem! (awake, you city of Jerusalem.)
1 Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde; (Midnight the hour is named;)
2 Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde: (they call to us with bright voices;)
3 Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen? (where are you, wise virgins?)
4 Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt; (Indeed, the Bridegroom comes;)
5 Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt! (rise up and take your lamps,)
6 Alleluja! (Alleluia!)
7 Macht euch bereit (Make yourselves ready)
8 Zu der Hochzeit, (for the wedding,)
9 Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn! (you must go to meet Him)
1 Zion hört die Wächter singen, (Zion hears the watchmen sing,)
2 Das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen, (her heart leaps for joy within her,)
3 Sie wachet und steht eilend auf. (she wakens and hastily arises.)
1 Ihr Freund kommt vom Himmel prächtig, (Her glorious Friend comes from heaven,)
2 Von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig,(strong in mercy, powerful in truth,)
3 Ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf. (her light becomes bright, her star rises. )
4 Nun komm, du werte Kron, (Now come, precious crown,)
5 Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn! (Lord Jesus, the Son of God!)
6 Hosianna! (Hosannah!)
7 Wir folgen all (We all follow)
8 Zum Freudensaal (to the hall of joy)
9 Und halten mit das Abendmahl. (and hold the evening meal together)
1 Gloria sei dir gesungen (Let Gloria be sung to You)
2 Mit Menschen- und englischen Zungen, (with mortal and angelic tongues,)
3 Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schon. (with harps and even with cymbals.)
1 Von zwölf Perlen sind die Pforten, (Of twelve pearls the portals are made,)
2 An deiner Stadt sind wir Konsorten (In Your city we are companions)
3 Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron. (Of the angels high around Your throne.)
4 Kein Aug hat je gespürt, (No eye has ever perceived,)
5 Kein Ohr hat je gehört (no ear has ever heard)
6 Solche Freude. (such joy)
7 Des sind wir froh, (as our happiness,)
8 Io, io! (Io,io !)
9 Ewig in dulci jubilo. (eternally in dulci jubilo!)
- For the first three phrases the slightly faster flowing bass seems to be responsible for most of the movement. All the other voices are moving mostly harmonically but much slower.
- The alto always stays either an interval of a third or a fourth underneath the soprano, although rhythm wise it is slightly more independent; the tenor adapts to the alto’s rhythm. Furthermore, one can notice, that the first three notes from the bass echo the soprano voice.
- The natural A towards the end of the phrase leads to the following Bb-chord (soprano Bb; alto F; tenor D and bass Bb).
- For cadence at the end of the phrase, Bach decided to not completely stick to the rules of finishing a cadence: Instead of moving up in the alto part from A to Bb, he lets the voice go down to F, whereas the soprano gets to sing the Bb above. With this, Bach also creates another Bb-chord
- One can find two welcome sounding clashes of major seconds between the soprano and the alto: The first time whilst the soprano stays on a Bb and the alto move to an Ab and the second time when the soprano and alto play D and C at the same time.
- Bach creates an interesting chord, with a passing note from the third beat of the fourth bar from this phrase.
- The soprano has a wide range within the first three phrases- from Eb’ to G’’
- Also often to be found within the first three phrases are shared notes:
- It is mentioned in my study folder, that sometimes “shared notes” occur, in this point I looked over the whole chorale to find the same notes, sung at the same time. I found several being an octave apart, but only three notes, which were exactly the same; one in bar 14, on the third beat, for tenor and bass (creating C-minor in a closed position) ; a second one in bar 24, on the third beat for tenor and bass; and a third one in bar 33 on the third beat for alto and tenor. Those and all the others are marked in the following score:
Apart from the note sharing, the voices are well spread out and don’t cross.
- The tenor takes over the crotched movement from the bass, imitating the previous bass part from bar 12 (3rd phrase)
- The phrase closes with an interrupted cadence from V(Bb) to VI (Cm)
- The soprano melody repeats the previous phrase but the end chord is Eb major ( I ) this time.
- All the other voices move slightly differently than I phrase 4.
- The bass line imitated the descending movement from phrases 5 and 4 with the same notes (an octave lower) but a different rhythm. (marked in yellow)
- Even though many phrases are imitating one another throughout all the phrases, the individual parts are still independent enough to keep the piece entertaining.
- Bach modulates to C major by including a drop of the bass from Eb to a natural A. (marked in yellow)
- The chord of C-minor can generally be spottet quite often throughout the second half of the harmonisation, which may be caused by the notes thes chord Bb (key chord) and Cm share: Eb
-(same as phrase 7)
- The melody from phrase 3 is repeated, with a different harmonisation
- The phrase finishes with the tonic-chord Eb.
Exercise 3.6. Bach chorale harmonisation
I was given an extract from Bach’S chorale harmonisation “Nun danket alle Gott (Now Thank We All our God, which’s harmonisation I should finish.
Having worked with the figured bass before, I didn’t find it difficult to work through this exercise. I initially had a look at the bass and tried to build it up in a similar way as Bach had done it, by mainly using quavers, which often function as leading notes between the given chords. Apart from finding the fitting chords, I also tried to include rhythmical features, such as the dotted quaver followed by the semi-quaver note. I furthermore tried to avoid big intervals between the notes, two exceptions make the bass in bar 2 and the tenor in bar 4, both dropping down a 5th.
1 Kennedy, M; Kennedy, J and Rutherford-Johnson, T. (2013). Basso Continuo. In: Oxford-Dictionary of Music, 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.61.
2 Brough, J. (2008) Dixit Dominus- the Text. [Blog]. Podium Speak. Available at: http://podiumspeak.blogspot.com/2008/01/dixit-dominus-text.html [Accessed: 03.08.2019]
3 Bach Cantatas Website. (2019). Cantata BWV 140-Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme. [online]. Available at: https://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV140.htm [Accessed: 03.08.2019]
4 IMSLP- Petrucci Music Library. Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 (Bach, Johann Sebastian) [online] Available at: https://imslp.org/wiki/Wachet_auf,_ruft_uns_die_Stimme,_BWV_140_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian) [Accessed 03.08.2019]