Thursday, 12 January 2017

Exploring modulations, secondary dominants and sequences in a J.S. Bach keyboard learning journey

Without doubt, the French Suites and other keyboard works of J.S. Bach require a multi-dimensional learning approach. It's not enough to enter the universe of the great Baroque master with a singular intent to absorb counterpoint, or parcel voices, sing them, juggle them, properly finger each hand, and in some cases divide one voice between two hands. Even with a two-voice Allemande that resembles a two-part Invention, it's of necessity to map harmonic movement, study modulations brought about through the use of secondary dominants, and assimilate sequences, in both melodic and harmonic appearances. Yet the true value of detailed theoretical analysis is its direct application to musical expression and beautiful phrasing.

In my recent journey through the J.S. Bach Allemande of French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817, I was immersed in several tiers of learning:

1) I learned each line separately with attention to fingering, though I knew from past experience, that when parts are combined, or interact, that what might be a practical fingering when hands are played alone, would not necessarily work when they played together. So this preliminary fingering gradually firmed up as layered learning unfolded.

Part and parcel of studying each line, is to actively SING either with the same deeply embedded familiarity. I always test this absorption, by prodding myself to sing either line out loud while playing the other. Such an ability bodes well for fleshing out the contrapuntal dimension of the Allemande. (In this learning phase my tempo is regressed, but it's still framed with a singing pulse and imbued with expressive phrasing.) I don't hesitate to deeply connect into the keys with ample arm weight, and I ply phrases with a supple wrist and relaxed arms.

Once I put the hands together, I refine fingering, make certain adjustments, and insert options in parentheses where they apply.

At this juncture, how I GROUP NOTES in a Baroque framing is a big part of my exploratory process. Such decisions evolve from experimentation with various articulations, as there are numerous possibilities that can preserve the style, mood and affect of Bach's music.

2) When both hands actively interact with a modicum of ease, I carefully map out HARMONIC transit. With two parts running horizontal and vertical at same time, the dimension of underlying Harmony again furthers musical expression.

As melodic segments in the treble appear in sequences, I make note to intensify threads that ascend, and relax those that descend. The same will apply to sequences in the bass. How simultaneous sequences in both hand interact, is still another dimension of exploration and experimentation.

Naturally, an understanding of modulations that are driven by "Secondary Dominants" offers the player an opportunity to respond to the leaning effect on the DOMINANT to the resolving, dissolving Tonic. And then any chain of modulations in close proximity prompts a decision to make a crescendo, or in some instances to do the reverse, especially where a deceptive cadence might intrude. Then again, the undulating nature of phrases in the Allemande doesn't encourage a flat dynamic by any means.


Learning the Allemande comes with a Multi-dimensional understanding of its essence. In fact the journey of discovery is only at its beginning, and a ripening process often brings changes in articulation, voicing, dynamics, and fingering that individually and collectively further the realization of beauty.

Original Content: Exploring modulations, secondary dominants and sequences in a J.S. Bach keyboard learning journey

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