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Harmonic Progression in Baroque Music

Q:

I must admit, Im having a tough time fully understanding harmonic progression in Barque
music. It feel that I have a reasonable understand of tonal harmony in post Baroque styles, but
the polyphonic nature of this music (or much of it) seems to make the identification of
progressions very difficult.
Indeed, given that it is directly descended from Renaissance styles, it seems unlikely that
harmonic progression in the modern sense is even present! Authentic cadences seem to be used
regularly, but along with I, V opening statements. But how to judge the harmonic progression
during more the rest of the music? I find this problem no more apparent than in 2 part works like
Bach's Inventions, but have similar level of difficult with more immitive counterpoint such as his
Fugues.
Obviously, the mistake I am making is to attempt to analyse this music by modern homophonic
standards. It seems clear that this kind of music features functional harmony, but Im unsure as to
how best this can be understood. From what Iv studied of Bach's Inventions - it would appear
that a sort of balance exsists between melodic and harmonic emphasis. Sometimes the emphasis
will swing towards the contrapunctal progression towards an authentic cadence, while other
times focusing on melodic inventions and transformations.
But I do still often find myself lost. Without the guidence of identifiable triad progressions, I find
myself unsure of where to take voices. I mean, I studied Fux for quite some time, and it was
great in as much as it helped me with voiceleading and whatnot. But I remain lost with giving
music a sense of forward motion.
This may be an impossible question to ask, and perhaps this is even the ultimate million dollar
question, but how is it that composers like Bach can achieve this forward motion in works like
his Fugues which seem to deal primarily with melodic invention and development? Indeed,
everything I have read on Bach seems to focus on this rather than on the harmonic aspects.
If no such guidence exsists, then would you agree that music of this style is significantly more
challenging to compose that the later homophonic styles (which can be based of set forms and
progressions to a much great extent)?

A:

Pre-20th century melodies written in the Western classical tradition have a strong harmonic basis.
Even when unaccompanied, these melodies have an implied harmonic structure that can be 'heard' given
sufficient experience. It is this lack of a solid, implied harmonic structure that makes so many students'
attempt at melody writing lack coherence and shape.
Counterpoint also depends on this harmonic structure. Most harmony until the 20th century was
'functional' i.e. each chord had a particular purpose. For example:
I, IV, V are the primary chords that are used most.
V is the 'tension' chord
I is the 'resting' chord that resolves the tension of V
VI is an occasional alternative to I, to provide colour
II(b(7)) preceeds V at a cadence
and so on
One aspect of Baroque harmony that confuses the inexperienced is the speed of harmonic change. Within
the same piece, there can be passages where the harmony moves once a bar; others where the harmony
moves twice a beat. This create difficulties for a student trying to work out the underlying harmony to a
piece of counterpoint.
You have looked at the Inventions, Steve, so try this exercise with the one in C - begins semiquaver rest
then 7 more semins C D E F D E C in the right hand.
Imagine you wanted to write and orchestral accompaniment to the keyboard part. This harmonic structure
would work well:
- Bar 1: I for 3 beats, then V7d - Ib on last 2 quavers. Alternatively keep I for the whole bar.
- Bar 2: V for 3 beats, then IVb - Vb on last 2 quavers. Alternatively keep V for the whole bar.
- Bar 3: Chord changes on each quaver, so VIb, Vb, I, II(b), III or Ib, IIIb, VI, V7b
Maybe this simple example will help you look at more complex contrapuntal structures. Did it help?

Q:

Thanks for the advice, very helpful.

When I looked first at the C Major Invention, it was clear that certain parts did imply harmony.
For example, you mentioned the main subject - rest, C, D, E, F, D, E, C
I was able to I, IV, I, V under the first statement quite nicely, followed by the same on the
dominant. Indeed, where chords are implied, for instance at cadential points, I was able to
identify them. Other times, I found it more difficult! Maybe I just need to stick at this a little

longer and they will become apparent. For instance, I found it difficult to fit chord into b3-4.
Here the counterpoint in the lower voice seems to make a series of ascending tenths when
coupled with the transformed motif in the treble.
Btw, I know what you mean about the swift harmonic rhythm. I did some choral analysis before
beginning the inventions and they were changing chord every beat.

A:

You have the idea Steve. Your choice of (what sounds to me like) I-IV-I for the first 3 beats
of bar 1 show how melody that seems free of a harmonic basis is actually not so independent
after all.
I arrived at my harmonic structure by aurally assessing the notes in bar 1. Altogether, there are 11
notes that belong to chord 1, out of 18 in the bar. Added to that, composers using functional
harmony would establish a strong sense of tonality from the outset.
So, why did I not choose IV for the second beat? Because only one of the four notes actually
belongs in chord IV. I am not criticising your response here, you understand, but trying to
explain my thought processes. In fact, contrary to my assessment that there is a slow harmonic
movement in the first two bars, it is entirely possible to come up with much quicker movement
through more frequent chord changes.
Students (are usually forced against their natural will to ) to study the harmonies Bach used in his
Chorales because they are the best grounding in functional harmony it is possible to gain. From
this, they gain an understanding of the harmonic basis of Western classical music until the 20th
century. Once you know this harmony, you can apply that knowledge in all sorts of analytical
circumstances.
You have the knowledge and just now need the confidence to explore and come to your own
conclusions.

Q:

Indeed, I have studied a few of the Bach harmonized chorals, but more form a voiceleading
perspective. My knowledge of functional harmony comes more from the Classical and early
Romantic composers. For instance, Iv learnt boat loads from Chopin on chromatic harmony!
But back to the Invention...
I wonder if Bach himself had a clear idea of the underlying harmonies in his imitative

counterpoint works? Im sure he did, but sometimes it appears quite ambigious.


For opening statement of the Invention in C clearly states I, V, with the subject in C and then in
G. I guess when he 'invented' this subject, he had this very function in mind for the prime
version.
But its in his 16th note scale runs that I get confused most (such as in Invention in F No .
When both voices descend together by step in semiquavers, who is one to judge the underlying
harmony? By the interval that seperates the voices maybe?
I tend to pick consider these runs as diminuations, and see them as arpeggio's on the strong beats.
So - C, D, E, F, G would be C, E, G = C Major.
Im not sure if this is a safe way to play ball or not to be honest! But if there is no other indication
of the underlying harmony, then I guess it is as good a guide as any.
With the respect to the second beat of the Invention in C, I have pondered this myself. The IV
sounds right to be, although the later notes dont fit. I tried C , F, C allowing the F and C quaver
durations, then on the next beat using G (V) which almost fits.
One thing that I love about this initial statement is who on the dominant the treble finishes with
G, F, G, implying the dominant 7. Very subtle, but its there! Im beginning to see why the great
composers valued these pieces so highly.

A:
Quote
Indeed, I have studied a few of the Bach harmonized chorals, but more form a voiceleading
perspective. My knowledge of functional harmony comes more from the Classical and early
Romantic composers. For instance, Iv learnt boat loads from Chopin on chromatic harmony!
-This is far more interesting than studying the harmony of the Chorales, but is in effect 'putting
the cart before the horse'.
Classical period harmony was Baroque harmony slowed down. Romantic chromatic harmony
extended this basic language - I can still trace the functional chord structure easily through all of
the Chopin I play.

Quote
But back to the Invention...
I wonder if Bach himself had a clear idea of the underlying harmonies in his imitative
counterpoint works? Im sure he did, but sometimes it appears quite ambigious.
It is ambiguous because there are so many different possibilities. What students do is come to
their own conclusions - they learn so much from doing this.
Quote
For opening statement of the Invention in C clearly states I, V, with the subject in C and then in
G. I guess when he 'invented' this subject, he had this very function in mind for the prime
version.
-I doubt whether either melody or harmony came first. Good melody had a good harmonic basis,
so they would both have come into existence together.
Quote
But its in his 16th note scale runs that I get confused most (such as in Invention in F. When both
voices descend together by step in semiquavers, who is one to judge the underlying harmony? By
the interval that seperates the voices maybe?
I tend to pick consider these runs as diminuations, and see them as arpeggio's on the strong beats.
So - C, D, E, F, G would be C, E, G = C Major.
Im not sure if this is a safe way to play ball or not to be honest! But if there is no other indication
of the underlying harmony, then I guess it is as good a guide as any.
-That's it. Sometimes the 'harmony notes' come off the main beat, say when there are
apoggiaturas and accented passing notes - that is where knowledge and instinct come in handy.
In the case of the F major, the harmony is obvious and clear. 5 bars (!) or chord I followed by
VIb in bar 6. VIb is a 'pivot' chord, becoming IIb on the way to eventually establishing C major
at bar 12.
Quote
With the respect to the second beat of the Invention in C, I have pondered this myself. The IV
sounds right to be, although the later notes dont fit. I tried C , F, C allowing the F and C quaver
durations, then on the next beat using G (V) which almost fits.
One thing that I love about this initial statement is who on the dominant the treble finishes with

G, F, G, implying the dominant 7. Very subtle, but its there! Im beginning to see why the great
composers valued these pieces so highly.
-What really matters here is that you are opening your mind to fresh ideas, not whether you are
'correct' or not. Put 15 different analyists in a room and get them to analyze a piece, and you will
get 15 different answers.
Have fun.