Bach Sonata №1, Adagio: Bittersweet harmonies

Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas, the monument of solo violin music, opens with the fantasty-like Adagio in G minor. In this post, I’ll explore one of the aspects that makes this piece so heartbreakingly beautiful. As we go, I’ll reference labeled points from a screenshot of the manuscript and corresponding timestamps from one of the most famous recordings.

Szeryng performs the Adagio from Bach Sonata №1

Before reading, spend 5 minutes listening to this piece. It is less formally structured than much of Bach’s work, so let yourself drift with the mood of the piece. In this analysis / listening guide, I’ll encourage you to follow Bach from his stable opening, into a dream-like state, and then finally back home to that starting point. See what you experience upon first listen!

Then, we will dive into the mechanics of the piece. I will focus on one particular aspect: the use of the VI chord to create a bittersweet mood throughout the piece. I find that many of the most “bittersweet” moments in this piece come from use of this single harmonic motif. In my analysis, we’ll pick out the moments they occur and notice how the use of the VI chord shapes the overall harmonic structure.

How to read/listen: Each of the embedded videos below is linked to the starting time referenced in its section. So, you can press play while you read a given section, pause the video when the closing time is reached, then pick up from the video embedded in the next section.

* * * * *

Section 1: Opening statements, 0:00–1:32

Section 1: 0:00–1:32

In Section 1, I will point you to three key moments. First, the piece opens up with a straightforward statement in G minor, (a) 0:00–0:20. The chord progression is standard: i-vii°-V7-i. But then, immediately, the first example of “bittersweet” emotional content at (b) 0:21— a moment in E-flat Major, the VI degree of G minor. This leap by a minor sixth to introduce the VI is one of the main motivic elements of the piece, and its bittersweet quality will set the tone throughout. We hear it again in the next phrase (c) 0:52. In summary, this sections opens with a strong statement in the home key of G minor, before introducing the main “bittersweet” harmonic element (the VI chord). Chromatic layering across those chords adds a heartwrenching quality and sets the emotional tone for the piece.

Section 1, three key moments.

* * * * *

Section 2: Slipping into dream, 1:32–2:20

Section 2, 1:32–2:20.

Now, Bach builds the harmonic and emotional tension. In this next section of the piece, Bach slips away from the home key of G minor and with it I feel as if I am entering into a dream-like state. But instead of moving into a more common related key like the dominant (D) or the relative major (B-flat), Bach returns to that bittersweet E-Flat VI from the first section. This middle section alternates between E-flat (bittersweet happy) and its relative C minor (bittersweet sad). The exact point that we leave home is at (a) 1:51 (a chromatic vii° for C minor), but the most heartbreaking moment has to be at (b) 1:59. It is an A-flat Major chord… the VI-chord of c minor, exactly that same bittersweet motif but now from the perspective of a new key. Tension at the end of this section is maintained by a shocking chord (vii°7 / B-flat) at the very end, (c) 2:17.

Section 2a, Slipping into dream

* * * * *

Section 3: Dream and conclusion, 2:21–end

Section 3, 2:21-end.

After this transition, the final section is a long dreamy sequence in c-minor before a return and conclusion in the original home key of G minor. I will point out a few key moments. Firstly, this section starts off with a repetition of the original opening phrase at (a) 2:32–2:51. It’s almost a word-for-word repetition, but in my opinion it sounds so far away from the opening statement. Take this moment to think about how far we’ve traveled emotionally… the feeling is so different than the strong, stable opening. Next, as before, we have a few key bittersweet moments that travel to the VI of C minor (in this case, A-flat Major). You will probably notice them when you get shivers in your spine at (b) 2:52 and (c) 3:24.

Finally, we return to G minor to conclude the piece. It happens very quickly… we are in harmonic tension only until the few final measures. I’ll point out one more intense moment at (d) 3:50 where Bach presents a final statement of A-Flat (the “bittersweet” VI of c minor from Section 2) before slipping into D7 (the V of G minor), and finally home to G minor.

Section 3, Dream and conclusion

* * * * *

Here’s a summary of this particular approach to thinking about the piece:

Bach starts us off with a strong, no-nonsense statement in the home key of G minor. But he quickly introduces a key harmonic element — the major VI chord — which feels like bittersweet stabbing every time it shows up. Partway through, Bach shifts the harmonic center of the piece into this key, and we then spend the main central section exploring that “bittersweet” mood in a dream-like state. Then, in the final moments, Bach pulls us back awake into the home key of G minor.

(In fact, this sets us up neatly for the next movement of the Sonata… a fugue that I’ll discuss in my next post!)

Listen again, and enjoy :)

Szeryng performs the Adagio from Bach Sonata №1.

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