The passage is the opening of a Bach chorale...

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I was looking for a passage of the upper tetrachord in major. That seems relatively rare, and this was the best example I could find in the 371 Chorales before stopping about half way through them.

If I truncate it, I get...

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...and to remove the parallel motion...

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I'm I stretching too far (excuse the pun) to identify this as essentially a harmonization of the descending upper tetrachord?

The obvious "problem" is the retrogression V IV.

I don't mean to suggest the part I put in parenthesis is just a mere workaround for the retrogression. But, it's kind of hard to not clearly hear I V at the opening paired with a IV I closing within the space of only two bars as some kind of sequential idea. I'm thinking in terms of schemas, prototypes, and whether my truncated version might be a harmonic prototype for the descending upper tetrachord. Various modifications and insertions might be used to deal with the retrogression, but the basic four chords would possibly be the model.

Is this idea reasonable or contrived?

  • Obviously Bach is something different from the blues, but V IV I happens all the time in 12 bar blues. Maybe the concern about V IV is not whether it can sound appropriate but whether it is reasonable in the context of Baroque music from Bach's time? Caveat: I think it's possible this question is over my head, so if my comment betrays my relative ignorance of prerequisite topics, I apologize. – Todd Wilcox Jan 15 at 20:27
  • It looks to me (following the bass) as though you are taking out the middle instead of truncating it (cutting it off short). With so much happening in between I think it is a stretch to claim a sequence of two 2-chord patterns, especially as the rythmic emphasis is not consistent between the two. – Peter Jan 16 at 2:38

I'm really quite confused by this analysis. Why do you want excise part of the sequence? And yes, V-IV is completely unidiomatic for the style, as harmonization of the upper tetrachord of the scale or most other places.

Harmonically, your example is very clearly a slightly elaborated "descending thirds" sequence, i.e., I-vi-IV elaborates to the "Pachelbel canon"-like I-V-vi-iii-IV-I, which is elaborated here with only a secondary dominant: I-V-vi-iii-(V7/IV)-IV-I.

Melodically, a Schenkerian would likely analyze it as an elaborated 8-7-6-5 descent, as you note.

  • I realize now I didn't mention I was trying to reconcile this harmonization with my question in music.stackexchange.com/questions/99731. "Not a reasonable analysis" is a helpful answer. ^5 in the treble might be harmonized with I in many cases, but with descending line 8-7-6-5 it seems it will be harmonized either iii or V. – Michael Curtis Jan 18 at 16:28

@Athanasius's analysis is reinforced by looking at BWV 340, which is a setting of the same hymn melody (in C) with a near identical harmonic structure.

BWV 340 mm. 1-3

The most instructive moment is m. 1, beat 4, where Bach has chosen a B natural, keeping the harmonization diatonic, rather than the Bb in BWV 245/40 (from the St. John Passion), which intensifies the move to the IV chord.


While seeing a sequence there isn't completely unreasonable, it has the following working against it:

  • A sequence is usually supported melodically in the upper voices through repetition of a motif at various scale degrees. There isn't much of that going on here.
  • A sequence will usually include a pattern in the bass line. In this excerpt, the bass moves with these intervals: 5th, step, 3rd, 3rd. Doesn't come across as a pattern.
  • A sequence will usually start on a strong beat; this one starts on a weak beat

I think in this case Bach is simply harmonizing a scale using progressional harmony.

  • 1
    I didn't specify harmonic sequence. The sequential pattern in the bass is an ascending fifth, sequenced down a fifth. Your point about a sequence starting on a strong beat is just plain wrong. – Michael Curtis Jan 15 at 23:40
  • You tagged harmony in your question so I assumed you meant a harmonic sequence. It would be a stretch to think of a scale as a melodic sequence. I don't see the sequential pattern you describe in the original passage, bearing in mind that the third simultaneity lacks an Ab. I had thought you were attempting to justify the deceptive motion by envisioning this as a descending 5-6 syncope, which will typically start on a strong beat (hence the name "syncope.") I apologize if I have misunderstood. I guess I am still a little lost on what you're getting at. – John Wu Jan 16 at 7:17

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