The Archaeologist’s Paradise: Digging Through Solo- Polyphonic Ambiguity in the Counterpoint Classroom

Michael Callahan

J. S. Bach's solo-polyphonic music is richly understated, its fragmentary surface demanding an active and even imaginative approach to listening.  In addition to passages that require a listener to hear non-sounding voices to complete a contrapuntal whole, the music is also full of ambiguities that give remarkable license, permitting a range of listening strategies that give rise to contrapuntal interpretations that differ, sometimes dramatically.  Focusing primarily on Bach’s Partita for Solo Flute, this article explores some aural, analytical, and especially pedagogical implications of several types of these ambiguities that pervade the solo-polyphonic works.  By presenting a sampling of classroom-tested materials from a dedicated unit within a counterpoint curriculum, it demonstrates a method for equipping students to wrestle—as composers, performers, and listeners—with what these widely performed, but often incompletely understood pieces leave up for grabs.