Classical music analysis: Bach Partita №3, Movement 5

In this post I’ll discuss the structure of the first half of the Bourree movement from Bach Partita no. 3. When I hear this piece, I feel an off-kilter, playful energy while still maintaining a sense of balance. Here is some analysis of how that mood is produced through pair-wise structuring of phrases.

Performed by Arthur Grumiaux. We focus on the portion from 0:00–0:22 (and then repeated).

Introduction: The first section of the Bourree is 16 bars, divided into 4 separate phrases. As we’ll see, 16 (or 2⁴) is a great number for structure in pairs. The phrases are (1) First statement of the melody, in E Major, (2) First thematic variation, in E Major, (3) Second thematic variation, in B Major, (3) Closing statement, in B Major. The general motif throughout the section will be pair-wise structure, both on a large and small scale. Pair-wise structure provides balance to the piece, and tweaks in the repetition give an off-kilter playful energy.

Bourree, first phrase

First phrase: Opening melody (0:00–0:06). As will be the case in each phrase, the first statement of the melody has 2 halves. The first half is rising, from a low E up to a high E; the second section is falling, from the high E down to a low E. Combined with a few quirky details, like a IV chord on the first downbeat (instead of a more familiar tonic) or the off-beat yet flowing rhythm of the melody, we get a balanced but off-kilter start. This phrase is in E Major, the tonic (home) key.

Bourree, second phrase

Second phrase: Variation 1 (0:06–0:12). Next, we get the first set of thematic variations. Once again, divided into a first half and second half — which can be heard as a “call” and “echo”. This phrase is also in E Major, and is played in the upper register… mirroring the upwards direction of the first half of the opening melodic statement.

Bourree, third phrase

Third phrase: Variation 2 (0:12–0:17). The second set of variations is also divided into a first half and second half — another “call” and “echo”, nested into the pair-wise “call” and “response” between the two variations themselves! This phrase is played in the lower register, mirroring the downwards direction of the second half of the opening melody. This phrase moves into B Major (the dominant key). In fact, the first two phrases of the section are in E Major and the second two are in B Major.

Bourree, fourth phrase

Fourth phrase: Closing statement (0:17–0:22). The final phrase is probably the most complicated of the four. Like the opening, we get two halves — the first moving upwards, the second moving downwards. Though a bit hairier, the two halves also have repetition between them: the first measure of each contains step-wise motion, and the second measure of each contains triad motion. This phrase concludes the entire section in B Major, setting us up to repeat or move on to the next section.

Bourree, all phrases

Conclusion: We noticed pair-wise structure (1) in the two halves of each individual phrase, (2) in the [E E | B B] key organization of the entire section, (3) in the call/response structure between the two middle variations and between the opening and closing phrases. These layers of repetition provide a balanced feel to the piece, while little quirks within each phrase add an off-kilter energy.

Having an awareness of these structures helps me perform the piece — for example, in addition to the call/response within each of the middle variation phrases, I like to make the entire second variation feel like a response to the first variation. When performed well, this gives a satisfying arc to the full group of phrases and nicely ushers in the key change halfway through.

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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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