Edexcel GCSE – Bach

J S Bach: 3rd Movement from Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major

Baroque, Baroque, Baroque.

I emphasis that word because this is definitely how you should approach your revision. Not only will this prepare you for the more specific listening questions, but it will also help you with the longer answer questions at the end of the exam.

One way of revising is to simply try and remember stuff. There is some merit in that and I think there are key features that you can “memorise”. But it is important that you also understand the style and that you go into the exam with the piece firmly in your head. I am not going to use this blog to list all of the key terms for this piece, but I suggest you look at the Pearson notes and go through all of the words in bold.

So, if you haven’t already, please do listen to Bach whilst you read this!

It is one thing to know that this piece was composed between 1711 – 1720, but it is quite another to understand why it sounds the way it sounds. Composers at the time would have relied on certain compositional tools and conventions that led to this piece sounding the way it sounds. Understanding this is crucial for the 12 mark question where you will have to compare this piece to another piece. Now that question could be anything in many respects, and I am not going to try and predict the wording of the question. But it could be something like:

Evaluate how effectively Bach and Handel write for the Baroque orchestra and exploit the use of melody & texture.

The scores are provided in the Source Booklet.

You should use your knowledge of musical elements, contexts and language in your response.

 

The unfamiliar listening would then be an extract of Vivaldi that you would compare with Bach. The question is asking you to focus on how they write for the Baroque orchestra and how they use melody & texture. As I say, the question could take a different format, but the examiner is likely to focus on the Baroque features of the piece or focus on the instrumental nature. I guess they could choose a piece that is more towards the classical period and then you would have more to compare, contrast and evaluate.

But whatever the question, you need to make sure that you understand the Baroque style so that you can effectively compare it to the unfamiliar listen. You also need to make sure that for the listening questions that the start of the exam, you know what options are most likely for certain categories. Below are some key features of the Baroque style separated into each element of music:

Melody
Remember that melody is all about the pitches, and intervals. melody is not about how loud it is or about the rhythms. Melody is about the direction of the pitches and the shape of the melody that results from the choice of intervals. It is the horizontal organisation of pitches. 

  • Conjunct & stepwise – Make sure you can hear this but also make sure that you know where it isn’t conjunct and stepwise – does the piece start with a leap in the melody?
  • Use of sequencewhich is a melodic device – often appears in the exam “Name the melodic device”
  • Ornaments – Not as many in this piece as you might normally find, so maybe the unfamiliar listening example will have even more ornaments, typical of the Baroque style.
  • Scalic RunsQuite easy to hear in the melody and very common in Baroque music. 

Harmony
Remember that Harmony is all about the Vertical organisation of pitches. It is about chords & cadences fundamentally and then it encompasses Harmonic Devices.

  • Chords – standard for the time – I, IV, V – Mainly root position & 1st Inversion
  • Pedal note – in the opening of the B-Section – Harmonic Device
  • The B SectionThis modulates to the Dominant and the harmony is functional in that it helps with this modulation. 
  • Perfect Cadences – help to define section – functional harmony

Tonality
Remember that Tonality is all about the key signature & Major/Minor

  • D Major – It is well worth just remembering this, but then remember what that means. It means that the Tonic is D, The Dominant is A and the Relative Minor is B. Going into the exam with a good grasp of this will really help if they ask a question about where a pieces modulates to. 
  • B Section – Modulate to the Dominant and Relative Minor
  • DiatonicWhat a great word, and one that you will definitely write in the exam. If it asks you to describe the tonality then you would be wise to start with this word!

Texture
Texture is all about he layers in the piece and how they relate to each other. You can name the texture as Homophonic, Monophonic etc. But you might be asked to describe the texture for more marks. In this scenario you would be discussing the number of parts, or maybe discussing the use of a tonic pedal, imitation or unison. You might discuss where parts are in octaves or in thirds for example.  

  • Monophonic – the very start is monophonic
  • Fugal approach – Bach then uses a fugal approach for the second entry which copies the opening idea but a 5th higher. The piece is not actually a Fugue, please remember that!
  • Polyphonic/Contrapuntal – Different, independent, melodic ideas. 
  • 2 – part – The opening two bars have a two part texture
  • 4 – part – When the harpsichord enters we have a four part texture – remember that you might be asked to describe the texture, so saying who is playing what will help.
  • Tonic Pedal – This is a textural feature as well, it appears at the start of the B-Section.

Tempo, Metre & Rhythm
It is sometimes helpful to bundle these three elements together. But remember that Rhythm is all about note values and how they are changed. Rhythm is the horizontal organisation of note values.

  • 2/4 Time
  • Triplets & Dotted Rhythms used
  • Semi-quaver runs – Heard in the Harpsichord. If you are talking about Rhythm then you are likely to mention Crotchet, Quaver, Semi-Wauver, Minim etc. 

The features I have listed above are all good starting points for a discussion on the Baroque Period. This piece is typical of the Baroque style and you will need to be aware of that for the exam. You might be given a piece of unfamiliar listen that has even more Baroque features – more ornaments or sequences for example. Or you may be given a piece that is very similar. The unfamiliar piece might have a different texture, time or tonality. Your job in the exam is to compare and contrast.

Wider Listening

My advice would be to listen to some other pieces to ensure that you are ready for the exam. You could listen to “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi or the “Concerto Grossi” by Handel. Just make sure that when you are listening you are taking note of the Baroque features, but also listening out for things that are different to the Bach set work.

Make sure you also go into the exam knowing that this is a Concerto Grosso – Concertino & Ripieno, Basso Continuo etc. These are all terms you will be familiar with, but look them up if not, I won’t do all the work for you here.

 

Hopefully this blog will help you to focus on the Bach set work and obviously it just builds on the notes you have already been given.

Here are 10 questions you could use to help you with your revision, you may like to try them without looking up the answers:

  1. When was this piece composed?
  2. What is the Basso Continuo?
  3. List 3 textures used in this piece.
  4. What feature of the Dynamics makes this clearly a Baroque Piece?
  5. Describe the texture in the opening 5 bars.
  6. What different tonalities are used by Bach & where?
  7. What structure is used by Bach and can you explain how he defines this?
  8. How did the harpsichord affect this piece?
  9. What Harmonic device is used in this piece?
  10. What do the terms concertino & Ripieno refer to?

Now listen to the following pieces for Wider Listening:

  1. Handel, Concerto Grosso No. 1
  2. Vivaldi, The Four Seasons
  3. Bach Orchestral Suite No. 1
  4. Keyboard Sonata in F Minor by Scarlatti – This will focus your listening on the Harpsichord.
  5. Sonata in G Minor by Albinoni

There are loads of Baroque playlists online that you can also turn to. Listening to this music is also said to be good for your brain, so put it on in the background as you revise.

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