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The harmonic reduction of the first four bars of the Prelude goes like this:

B | C | C | B

D | E | F#| G

G | G | G | G

When I hear this and also based on my understanding of tonal harmony, I'd analyse the third chord as a V7 over a pedal G (implied D), or at most a dim vii over pedal G. It's just a very standard I - IV - V7 - I progression over a tonic pedal.

My cello teacher insists that it's a Gmaj7 with 4-3 suspension. I find that analysis very odd in context, since Gmaj7 is not a exactly a cadential chord and does not establish the tonal harmony of the piece.

What do you all think?

  • Found this on costanzabach.stanford.edu/commentary: Next, that opening 2-beat, rocking arpeggio figure is repeated, then altered in measure 2 with the raising of the 2nd and 3rd pitches to create a sense of melodic opening (and, harmonically, giving us a sub-dominant chord), changed again in measure 3 by raising only the 2nd note (<b>creating a V-7 chord, superimposed over a pedal G</b>, giving us these intervals: a major 7th and a tritone) – abelian Jun 17 at 11:35
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    I would say that you are correct (F#C->GB over a pedal tone is how I would read it), though I would be more interested in why your teacher thinks the way that he does. – Andrew Chin Jun 17 at 11:52
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    I agree, definitely a V-I cadence over a I pedal. The tritone to third resolution solidifies that. IF the F# carried over to the next bar maybe but eh, sus chords don’t usually contain tritones, more 2nds, 4ths and 5ths. – John Belzaguy Jun 17 at 15:01
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    Of course it's a V7 - it's Bach, not Debussy. in Bach's time, maj7 chords were used way more sparingly than in later times. – Kilian Foth Jun 17 at 15:04
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    @AndrewChin My teacher says it's because there's a G in the bass, which made me even more confused since my teacher had no problems calling the previous chord a C major chord. I suspect she doesn't understand/know the concept of pedal and so thinks that every chord must be analysed fully in terms of the notes there, hence G E C can be rearranged to C E G, but G F# C cannot be rearranged so must be some sort of non-inverted chord. – abelian Jun 17 at 22:03
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The standard modern textbook answer using basic harmonic theory would be to view it as a I-IV-V7(incomplete)-I sort of progression over a tonic pedal.

The assumption in most treatment of classical theory is that a I7 implies a dissonant seventh that will generally tend to resolve down by step. The seventh above the bass in this case resolves by ascending, so it's not a standard use of the "classical" seventh chord. So no, I wouldn't agree with a teacher who would label this as a major seventh chord, as least according to standard classical theory. (Jazz theory treats sevenths differently and less strictly.)

That said, there is at least something in the idea that the C-B is a kind of suspension: the C does want to resolve down (and ultimately does). Actually, it's not really a suspension, but a neighbor tone, a dissonant fourth above the bass. If you look at your reduction in the question, you can see an overall B-C-B motion in the upper voice, and a rising D-E-F♯-G ascending line in the middle voice.

That latter interpretation is closer to how Bach probably viewed this himself, as Roman numerals didn't exist yet in his time. He would have thought of this contrapuntally, with a static G bass, an ascending middle line, and a top voice with a neighbor tone motion. In effect, the B-C motion creates a dissonant fourth above the bass that needs resolution, then the middle voice rise to F♯ creates an F♯-C tritone that increases the need for resolution, which then moves to G-B in the next bar.

However that gets translated into Roman numerals depends a bit on what assumptions you're making (e.g., are we just speaking functionally and calling it a V7, even without the "root" D?). But yes, most modern theory texts would probably see this as a series of incomplete harmonies implying a I-IV-V7-I over a pedal.

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  • Thank you for this very detailed answer. I agree that understanding it as contrapuntal lines also makes a lot of sense, it's just that doing what my teacher did and trying to intepret it chordally as a maj7 with suspension misses both the standard modern harmony answer and the contrapuntal view. – abelian Jun 20 at 10:36

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