Bach's Changes

J. S. BachI've made the statement elsewhere that J.S. Bach (1685-1750) often used chord changes that would not be out of place in a hip jazz band. In fact, his works were far more complex harmonically than the composers of succeeding generations. Actually, some of the better composers of the next generation, such as Mozart, used some interesting harmonic constructions. However, the prevailing taste of the time was for simplistic harmony; hence Mozart's music is actually more complex than it sounds.

However, my statement about Bach has sometimes been called into question. Therefore, as supporting evidence, I here provide a harmonic analysis of a favourite piece of many classical guitarists, the Dm lute prelude. As my copy of the music doesn't give the BWV number (the standardized catalog number for Bach's works), I'm indebted to the research of Willem de Werd in the Netherlands for discovering that this piece is BWV 999.

I could at this point have entered the piece into my computer to generate a MIDI file that you could listen to while you look at the analysis. But a little research at indicated that a certain Gabriel Mihai Dragomir had already done all the hard work. Thanks Gabriel! The only thing is that he has entered the piece in the original baroque lute key of Cm rather than Dm, which is the key that all the classical guitarists use. I don't think it will make too much difference to most people. So, to hear the piece, click here.

Dm Dm Gm/D Gm/D A7-9/D A7-9/D Dm Dm7/C
Dm-13/Bb Dm/A G# dim E7-9/G# Am9 Am F maj7 Bm6
E7 E7 Am/E E7-9 Am/E E7 F7/E E7-9
F# dim/E Bm7-5/E E7 Am6/E (B7-9) E7-9 Am/E Bm7-5/E E7
E7-9 A E7-9/A E7-9/A A A7-9 Dm/A E7-9/A
E7-9/A A E7-9 A

Some of the chords are a little odd (like F# dim/E!); that's because Bach makes use of pedal point, i.e. a constant bass note held underneath changing chords. The continuity of the bass note make sense of harmonies that would a bit odd out of context. I've put one passing chord in brackets.

I haven't quite followed my own rules about chord naming because what I'm really trying to describe here are Bach's voicings. Therefore I haven't put in an chord extension unless Bach actually wrote it. If I wanted to play a jazz solo over these changes I might add a few more. (Remember that album Jazz Guitar Bach (Nonesuch H-71069) by André Benichou and his Well-Tempered Three?)

For more information about the life and work of J.S. Bach, check out Bach Central Station.

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