Maniera: the “aesthetic basis of music”
& Bach's Canzona

To appreciate what Bach and most classic composers are up to let’s explore the concept of ‘maniera’.


Maniera is a 16th century Italian term, referring to the “aesthetic basis of music”. It’s based upon ‘concetta’ – the concept that there is an innate connection between Art and Nature. In the “evolutionary process of human culture” Art begins by imitating Nature, whether attempting to represent the forms of nature visibly or the sounds of nature musically. In this way the artist achieves the ‘opus supranaturale’ – a supernatural creation, which can be either natural, a replication, or anti-natural, asymmetric or abstract.

While the painter has many external examples to inspire his art, the composer has birds. To move beyond this stage Music must first establish Nature by employing that which is inherent - ‘numero sonoro’ – the sounding number, i.e. the harmonic relations between notes. Towards this end composers establish ‘soggetto’ = ‘objects’ – musical subjects or themes, which are founded in ‘modi’ – modes, manifestations. These modes are of an infinite variety, as they are based on everything from the ‘numero in musica’ = the numbers of the music = the harmonics, to the ‘soggetto delle parole’= the object (point) of the text and the ‘soggetto della cantilena’ = cantus firmus = the melody line of the composition.

After fixing the soggetto (the musical theme) the composer attempts to reveal the ‘verita del soggetto’ – the truth of the subject – the inner capacities of this series of notes.

Applying this concept to the past the Italian theorists became aware of style, which led to a revival of ancient forms – an example of theory interacting with composition to synthesize past and present to create the future.

Maniera applied to Bach’s Canzona

Let’s apply the concept of maniera to Bach’s Canzona to reveal the complexity and integration of his underlying structure. He immediately creates Nature by establishing his ‘soggetto’ - his theme – a 7 measure melody line (‘cantus firmus’) played by the feet in the pedals - the bass line. Note that this theme has a specific rhythmic and harmonic basis, his ‘modi’.

To explore the ‘verita del soggetto’ - the truth of the subject (its capabilities, its innate nature), the left hand repeats the same theme a fifth (five notes) higher – introducing a tension that is inevitably resolved. As a complement the bass line morphs into a chromatic counter theme – a descending 6 step, which nuances the primary theme in grays. He plays around with this complex soggetto (the intimate interaction of theme and counter theme) – for a page and a half – revealing its truths by adding and subtracting complimentary voices – up to four at a time, taking these voices up a fifth and modulating into related minor keys. He completes the first half with a relatively free form flourish which ends on all four voices, but a fifth higher to maintain the tension – a surprise ending that stills exists in the realm of possibility.

Bach begins the second half of the composition with a brand new rhythm indicated by a brand new time signature. While his initial ‘soggetto’ (the interaction of theme and counter theme) was in 4/4 time, this section is in 3/2 (the difference between rock’n’roll and the waltz.) Accordingly he introduces a seemingly new ‘soggetto’. However upon closer inspection, while changed rhythmically, the ‘numero in musica’= the numbers of the music (= the harmonics of the soggetto – the mixture of theme and chromatic counter theme) of the first and second half are nearly identical.

Incredibly enough Bach strips his original soggetto (theme/counter theme) of its rhythmic foundation to reveal some even deeper ‘verita del soggetto’ - more fundamental truths behind the music. Even more amazing is the fact that the listener is able to sense the integration without really understanding what is going on.

By first establishing Nature and then duplicating and transforming it in myriad ways to reveal the ‘verita del soggetto’ Bach creates his ‘opus supranaturale’ – his supernatural creation. Music - the transcendent feature of the interaction of intentional sound with the human mind. Another example of the Divine Miracle.

Maniera and Pop Music

As a contrast most popular music sticks with a fixed rhythm and theme – no exploration of these ‘modi’, no counter theme, and no exploring the underlying truths of the raw numbers of the music (‘verita del soggetto’). Of course this is why pop music is more accessible. It doesn’t demand as much of the listener.

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