Classical Music Analysis: Bach Partita №3, Movement 3

In this post I’ll discuss my interpretation of the first Menuet from Bach’s Partita №3. Nestled into the middle of the Partita, at first glance it is cute and simple to listen. But a deeper look adds a layer of complexity! In my opinion, highlighting this additional layer enhances the performance and listening experience. Notably (and especially true for Bach), I think it is possible to enjoy either/both of the simple melodies and the deep thoughtfulness.

Performed by Arthur Grumiaux. Menuet 1 is from 0:00–1:09.

Introduction: For this piece, we’ll focus on the way Bach presents a simple melody and then cuts and splices it with exploratory elements. I love it when Bach does this — it demonstrates the potential for permutation, development, and exploration that exists beneath the surface of the simplest melody.

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Menuet 1 — Opening phrase

Opening phrase: This menuet is built around a simple phrase presented at the start of the piece. This phrase (made of two smaller 4-measure phrases) introduces the main rhythmic motif (1) as well as an eighth-note motif (2) that will be developed later. The first presentation is quite simple, though I particularly enjoy the second voice accompaniment that dances in and out each two bars.

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Menuet, second half pt. 1

Second half, pt 1: In the second half, Bach begins to break apart the simple motif to open room for exploration. The first phrase, for example, is 10 bars instead of the usual 8 — these extra bars throw off the regularity. The phrase is creating by (1b) mimicking the opening of the first section [measures 9–10], (2) fiddling around with a minor key [measures 11–15], and then (3b) mimicking the closing of the first section [measures 16–17]. This is the first example of splicing and exploration.

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Menuet, second half pts. 2–3

Second half, pt 2+3: Measures 18–26 offer an interlude of harmonic progression using the eighth note measure from the original motif (2a). Here we are seeing developmental possibilities from that simple 1-measure excerpt. Then, measures 27–34 perform the same cut and splice technique from the pt 1 of the second half: (1b) measures 27/28 drawn verbatim from the original theme, then (2b) spliced with a few measures harkening back to the eighth note interlude, and then (3b) measures 33/34 again drawn from the original theme.

Menuet 1, summary: Though simple at first listen, the second half of this Menuet has a subtle complexity based on breaking apart and enhancing the content presented in the first half. This technique is two-fold: first, the overall structure of the second half is [Melodic Phrase— Exploration — Melodic Phrase]; secondly, the structure of each phrase within the second half is [Melodic Opening — Exploration — Melodic Closing]. Performing the piece, I like to imagine these explorations as little moments of adventuring outwards before returning back home to comfort.

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(About this post: After a few years away from serious practice, I’ve picked back up my violin and am making my way through the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I am planning to write up thoughts whenever I come across fascinating aspects of the work.)

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