Dionysus and Apollo, at first glance, might seem an unlikely pair to share a temple, let alone their collective influence on Baroque music in general and on the great J.S. Bach in particular, since Apollo, god of elegance and grace associated with the virtues of civilization and the polis, is in many ways the exact opposite of the raw, fervid power of the dismembered and thrice-born Dionysus. Yet, legends tell us that each was a god of music and that these two half-siblings took turns presiding over Delphi, with Apollo in residence during the summer months and Dionysus arriving for the winter. Some scholars argue that they were two faces of one god. They were also two faces of music, radically different from one another. Just as Apollo was “the luminous one through and through…god of sun and light who reveals himself in brilliance. Beauty is his element, “so too; his music was marked by moderation, measurement, elegance, a major key mode, order, and logic. Dionysus, the wild, suffering, dismembered god who lived in the nocturnal realm of the woods and the underworld, had music that was full of “excess unveiled as truth” and “intoxication of feeling,” expressing both the tragic and the ecstatic elements of life.
The musical principles of both of these gods were revered in music of the Baroque era, a period of music which began with the birth of opera in the 1600s as composers sought to recapture the power and transformative potential of Greek tragedy. Operas were written honoring both Apollo (Handel’s Apollo) and Dionysus (Marcello’s Ariana, which celebrated the arrival of Dionysus on Naxos). The most popular subject for an opera was Orpheus, that Greek mythic figure who begins as the son of Apollo and yet becomes the priest of Dionysus.
Baroque music maintained a balance between Apollonian order and control (seen in the intellectual intricacies of such strict forms such as fugues, chaconnes, ricercars) and Dionysian intuition and freedom (as a performer was expected to embellish the music with their own individualized ornamentation on repeats, spontaneously create melodies over figured bass patterns, and even improvise entire “preludes” as a tonal introduction to the performance of dance suites).
Major and minor keys were both used extensively, and chamber music featured both the Dionysian-inspired flute and oboe and the Apollonian strings of violin, cello, and viol da gamba. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the last and greatest of the Baroque composers, wrote The Well Tempered Clavier Books I and II, a veritable encyclopedia of Baroque forms, moods, and novel techniques for the keyboard which include a pairing of Prelude (a quasi- improvisational and “free” form) and Fugue (rigorously rule-bound compositions) in every single key, 24 major key pairs and 24 minor key pairs. While some of Bach’s compositions (for example, the Brandenburg Concerti and the Secular Cantatas) are evocations of Apollonian brilliance, light, and balance, other works clearly express the darkest sense of pathos and tragedy befitting Dionysus. For example, the Chaconne in D minor for solo violin was written immediately after the death of Bach’s first wife, and the Passions were performed in Leipzig during Good Friday to commemorate Christ’s suffering on the cross.
Bach’s extensive use of Apollonian and Dionysian-inspired themes and mood throughout his musical works shows clearly the impact and influence these Greek Gods and the traditions that went with them, had on music.
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