Did Bach experiment with tone rows?

Posted on: September 8, 2009

“A modern composition technique championed by 20th century composers may have been presaged two centuries earlier by Johann Sebastian Bach,” states a report Sunday (9/6) on NPR’s website. “Host Liane Hansen speaks with Eric Altschuler, who writes in the current issue of Musical Times about discovering a 12-tone row in a Bach prelude.” The work in question is Bach’s Prelude in A minor from the “Well-Tempered Clavier Book II.” Says Altschuler, “In the Western music scale there are 12 tones or pitches: C, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, et cetera. A tone row is a when the theme or motive of a piece uses exactly all 12 notes in some order, before any of these pitches are repeated. What it means that it’s found in Bach 200 years before, is it shows how much Bach thought about the possibilities inherent in the tonal system. … This is the motive or theme of the piece. And Bach repeated this 14 or more times in the piece. So he keeps coming back to it.”

Posted September 8, 2000