My Favorite Passages in Western Music

I listen to music a lot. Sometimes I find that the pieces that stick with me stick with me because of their large-scale structure or their overall general feel. However, usually what happens is that there are one or two specific passages, typically just a few seconds long, that define the whole piece in my mind. They are the parts of the piece that become firmly lodged in my memory, the parts that I find running through my mind at random times, and the parts for which I wind up waiting when I actually listen to a recording of the piece, with everything before and after just there to set up the one critical passage and then wind down afterward. I don't necessarily advocate this as the correct or right way to listen to music, and there is probably a lot that I miss this way, but it's the way my ear just naturally seems to work.

Of course this is all correlated with the fact that I seem to appreciate the music of Bach to all other, and Bach wrote mostly shortish pieces in which the most remarkable achievements are the solutions to problems of local syntax (how do I move from the subdominant back to the tonic while simultaneously reintroducing the fugue subject in the lower voice in the next three bars?) as compared, say, to Beethoven, in which the solutions to large-scale structural problems (how do I lay the groundwork for the opening horn call of this piece -- which I introduced, tentatively, in the strings in bar 3 and then immediately proceeded to undermine -- to make a triumphant reappearance, in the horns, in the final bars of the piece, twenty minutes from now?) are the more noteworthy achievements. This is not, of course, to suggest that Bach did not assemble some stunning structural edifices, or that Beethoven never had a particularly inspired couple of bars, but in general I would recognize this distinction in the nature of the two composers' accomplishments.

Anyway, I thought I would gather here a couple of snippets that have struck me as particularly cool. I guess the hope is that if I transcribe enough masterworks like these then some of the technique will rub off? Perhaps more likely is that I will be kidnapped by space aliens and transmogrified into Elvis, but in the meantime maybe someone will share my love for some of these moments and will suggest other similarly beautiful passages.

Before proceeding let's of course give a shout-out to the lovely freeware tools that have made this project possible:


My Favorite Moments in Bach

There are so many of these that I feel the need to put them into categories. I hope it goes without saying that Bach's oeuvre is so incredibly vast as doubtless to contain many more examples of each of these phenomena, and I make no claim whatsoever of exhaustiveness.
  1. Passages In Which Little Melodies Come From Out Of Nowhere To Go Soaring Over a Contrapuntal Trope Before Vanishing Back Into The Woodwork

  2. Beautiful Chromatic Passages That Seem Out Of Place In Otherwise Perfectly Tonal Pieces

  3. Large-Interval Skips In Otherwise Stepwise Sixteenth-Note Runs

  4. Short-Lived Cadences On Major Keys Within Minor-Key Pieces

  5. Bass Lines That Don't Take No Guff From Nobody

  6. Passages That Achieve Heartrending Beauty Through The Use Of Non-Triad Tones in Suspended Harmonies

6. Passages That Achieve Heartrending Beauty Through The Use Of Non-Triad Tones in Suspended Harmonies

English Suite IV In F Major, Prelude, Bars 15-18

This passage comes at the end of the opening tutti section of the Prelude to English Suite IV, which, like the Preludes to English Suites II and III, takes the form of a concerto with alternating solo and tutti sections. (As usual, the entire tutti is repeated at the end of the piece, so the passage in question repeats at bars 103-106). As usual, this opening tutti section begins and ends in the tonic with an intervening excursion to the dominant. Roughly speaking, we might map the harmonic progression to bar 15 as follows:

So we started in the tonic, moved up to the dominant, moved back down to the tonic, and then moved down again to the subdominant. (I love when Bach does this. It's as though he gets so carried away by the process of modulating down a fifth from dominant to tonic that he just can't restrain himself and has to modulate down another fifth to the subdominant, although he inevitably winds up coming to his senses and cadencing in the tonic.) So now we're on the third beat of bar 15 and we just cadenced in the subdominant, B flat. Now what happens?

The first thing we hear, on the fourth beat of bar 15, is a G minor chord, vi in B flat, and to me this immediately suggests that we will now have a I-vi-ii7-V sequence to establish B flat as the new tonic, as happens so ubiquitously in Mozart and Haydn. If Mozart were writing this piece, it might proceed as follows:

winding up in bar 16 with B flat now established as the new tonic.

But Bach has other plans. Here's what he does:

Whoa! What happened? I think the reason the C dominant seventh chord at the beginning of bar 16 is so arresting is that, per the Mozartesque example above, we have been expecting a C minor triad, i.e. a triad containing an E flat. Instead Bach gives us an E natural, thwarting the interpretation of this passage as a tonic-establishing sequence in B flat, pointing us back toward F, and, in a sense, correcting the overindulgence of modulating down all the way from dominant to tonic to subdominant in bars 14 and 15 when really all Bach had wanted to do was to modulate down from dominant to tonic and stay there.

The harmonic sequence that starts with the V7 chord at the beginning of bar 16 can be thought of as a series of steps, each up a fourth or down a fifth, winding up on another V7 chord at the end of bar 17, which, instead of resolving to a tonic triad, resolves to a vi chord -- a so-called "deceptive" cadence. What's really cool about this passage is that every chord contains a seventh somewhere in its voicing (blue notes). In particular, the V7 at the beginning of 16 resolves to a I chord, but the E natural -- the leading tone, the tone in the dominant seventh that most desperately wants to resolve upward to the tonic, is left unresolved, staying right where it is on beat 2 of bar 16, turning the I chord into a stunning major seventh chord! What's more, when this tone eventually does resolve it resolves downward, onto the root of the d minor triad on beat 3! We don't get the satisfaction of hearing the E natural resolve upward to F until bar 18, and even there it's not a full-blown resolution, being instead part of the aforementioned deceptive cadence.

A few small notes, to be sure, in a short little passage, but enough to make the difference between the ho-hum perfunctory and the absolutely timeless.

Recordings. I think Gould misses the boat on this one. He takes the chords in the right hand as a kind of light staccato figure, when they really need to be played legato, with plenty of opportunity for the dissonances to resound. The best recording is Schiff, who understands perfectly. On his second pass through, at the end the movement, he even injects a pregnant little pause into the dotted eighth-notes at the end of bar 15, as if he is acknowledging wistfully that something more profound and beautiful than one could ever fathom is about to wash over him, and he wants to pause and steel himself beforehand.

Partita II In C Minor, Capriccio, Bars 81-86

This passages comes three-fourths of the way through the closing movement of the Second Partita. As is often true of the closing movement of Bach's keyboard suites (cf. Partitas III and VI), this dance is a fugal AB form with the fugue subject in the B section being an inverted version of the subject of the A section. A further nice symmetry is that the passage I love, which is in the B section, has a dual passage in the A section (bars 11-15) with all the same intricacies; it doesn't quite knock me out as much as the passage below, though, maybe because it comes too early in the piece to be properly set up.

The context of this passage is again one of transition: in bar 76 we have cadenced on the dominant (G), bringing to a close the excursions in G in the first half of the B section and necessitating a transition back to the tonic to close out the piece. To make it happen, Bach states the fugue subject twice, once in G (bar 77) and then, immediately afterward, in c (bar 79). This creates downward momentum and makes us expect a third fugue statement, in F, in bar 81. Again one feels as though Bach so much enjoyed moving down a fifth from G to c that he just had to keep going with another downward motion of a fifth! And we wonder if, again, Bach will come to his senses and jump back up from F to c to round out the piece.

But Bach has something else in mind. He will, of course, make it back to c from f, but this time he's going to go the long way! The harmonic sequence that begins at bar 81 (red notes above) can be thought of as cycle of secondary dominants, proceeding through a sequence of V-I cadences from F in bar 81 downward to c in bar 87, and might, in the hands of another composer, be a perfectly acceptable and unextraordinary solution to the problem. What make this a Bach moment are the non-red notes below, which push and pull on the harmonic progression and cause it to leave an absolutely indelible imprint on the ear. Consider the first green note, the B flat in bar 81. The harmony of this bar is F minor, so the notes should be F--A flat--C. What is that B flat doing there? Well, maybe it's just a neighbor to the Cs in the upper voice. But it's more -- it's an anticipation of the B flat in the next bar, and when it reappears, in the same rhythmic figure but now in the alternate positions, at the end of bar 82, it is now the root of the chord, which is V in the V-I cadence onto E flat in bar 83. So when it showed up in bar 81 it wasn't just a neighbor -- it knew that some B flat major harmony was coming, and it insisted on casting the portent, giving just a taste, of that harmony on top of the otherwise unadorned F minor triad in bar 81. On the other hand, consider the first blue note, the F in bar 83. This note was with us, in the same rhythmic figures, in both bars 81 and 82. We are used to it. And, indeed, it was not out of place in either of those bars -- it was the root of the chord in 81 and the fifth of the chord in 82. But the important role it played in those two bars seems to have given it an inflated sense of self-importance, because it is now hanging around well into bar 83, where the harmony is E flat major and the F doesn't belong at all, turning the otherwise prim, proper, 17th century E flat major triad into a jazzy, modern, suspended second chord, one that gets forever burned into your memory when you listen to this piece. The rest of the progression is similar -- in each bar, non-triad tones eagerly anticipate the harmony of what is to come (green notes), while other non-triad tones yearn wistfully for what has passed (blue notes), and the net effect is just simply breathtaking.

I have saved this piece for last, because, among a field of superlatives, it stands out in my ear as simply the most astonishing passage in all of Bach's music. The movie version of this piece -- the music video -- I think would have to be some kind of hiking expedition, the ascent of some magical, fog-enshrouded mountain in a faraway, mystical land. A group of intrepid fantasy explorers clamber up an impossibly steep and rocky slope, the travails of ascending which are the subject of the A section and the first half of the B section of the piece. Finally, in bar 77, they complete the last serious challenge to their climb and traipse the final steps to their goal. They scythe through dense vegetation and dig through walls of ice. They stagger over a windy, twisty path and feel their last ounces of strength waning. Finally they step up to the pinnacle of the cliff (bar 81) and suddenly all of creation lies before them. A circular hole in the fog opens to reveal the vast expanse of civilization miles below. Wisps of cloud drift serenely through the all-encompassing glow of the majestic sun. The adventurers instantly are one with the cosmos and comprehend the universe in its full intractable complexity. And then suddenly (bar 87) the hole in the fog closes up, the mountaintop is suddenly bitterly cold, and the climbers must return their attention to the step-by-step mechanical process of retracing their steps down the mountain (the rest of the piece). The experience was but a brief, fleeting, ethereal glimpse into the eternal heart of things -- but a glimpse of sufficient intensity as to induce irrevocable change on all present.

Or something like that. Anyone want to make a music video?

Recordings. Vedernikov; there is no other. He just gets it, mostly in the dynamics: he carries out a crescendo in the bars leading up to the critical moment, but when he gets there his piano is suddenly quiet; it is stunned, it is speechless, its breath is taken away. In bar 87, when the hole in the sky closes up and it's back to business again, he is back at normal volume.
With the Vedernikov recording I have definitely, on multiple occasions, kept my thumb on the 'rewind' button and listened to this 8-second passage twenty times in a row.