Bach Modal Chorales

One of the fascinating aspects of Bach's art is to observe his harmonization of centuries old melodies which were originally based on the older Church modes. This beautiful melody, one Bach's favorites, was composed by Leo Hassler in 1601, at the very beginning of the Baroque era, but clearly rooted in modal thought. If you go to the Burkhart anthology, you will see the original version, paired measure by measure with Bach's realization below.

If you look at just the melody, you will notice something striking: it begins and ends on an E, and thus is in fact a Phrygian melody, full of F naturals. Bach, while setting the melody in A minor, allows the piece to cadence on an E major triad, obstensibly the V chord, but also perhaps the tonic if one thinks of it as in E. This is a wonderful example of the cross-fertilization of tonal and modal thinking.

The translation of the text that Bach used for this particular harmonization—there are many others—shows the deep emotion behind the music. It speaks about the universal mystery (and fear) of death and is a supplication based on much anquish. The music, especially the poignant harmony, supports the text beautifully.

Notice in this analysis that there are two passages that are probably best analyzed in the key of C, since there is a clear feeling of Cness (with C as tonic) in these. This is quite normal, that harmony can shift easily between relative major and minor. When you listen to this while watching the score and the analysis, try very hard to hear this shift between the two modes. There is a lot about tonal music you will understand if you are clear about the way major and minor interact with each other in this chorale.

O Sacred Head Now Wounded (O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden).

Next: 4C Melody Harmonization

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