BWV 38.6: Functional Harmonization of a Modal Melody

I’ve been writing little analytical posts or random theoretical musings on Twitter on and off and have been thinking it might be a good use of this space to put some of these thoughts here.

I was just working on the Bach chorale BWV 38.6 with a student on the weekend:

It’s probably the most dramatic example I’ve seen of a chorale where Bach has tried to graft a functional harmonization onto a modal hymn melody. The melody is very obviously in E Phrygian but Bach has harmonized it in A minor despite the fact that only the third phrase of the melody lends itself at all to a tonal centre on A. The hymn melody begins on a B and ends on an E. Gs are always natural in the melody but often raised to G# in the harmony parts to make the harmonization function in A minor. The first, second, and final (!) phrases all end with half cadences on E (V in A minor). The third is the only one that ends with an authentic cadence. The fourth modulates to G, which is obviously the relative major of E minor but is an unusual key change for a piece that is otherwise in A minor. I’m not sure it even works completely but it is interesting that we get the only authentic cadence in the home key on (trans) “He alone is the good shepherd”; we also get an authentic cadence in G on “who can free Israel” but are denied resolution on “although there is much sin among us” and “from all his sins”.

My top 30 albums of 2020 (in alphabetical order)

Sarah Albu and Vergil Sharkya – Intoxidation

Alien Radio (François Houle, James Meger, Joe Sorbara) – Clichés, Vol. 1

Aziz Balouch – Sufi Hispano-Pakistani

William Beauvais – Faces in the Stone

Blue Öyster Cult – The Symbol Remains

Deep Purple – Whoosh!

Alabaster dePlume – To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1

Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger – Force Majeure

Benjamin Dwyer – what is the word

Marta Forsberg – New Love Music

Horse Lords – The Common Task

Internet Celebrities – celebs

Kaatarya – Toda Historiá pela Frente

Okkyung Lee – Yeo-Neun

Liza Lim – Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus

Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling

Christian Mason/ensemble recherche – Zwischen den Sternen

The Nels Cline Singers – Share the Wealth

Michael Olatuja – Lagos Pepper Soup

Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi

Owen Pallett – Island

Steve Palmer – Useful Histories

Tony Price – Interview/Discount

Linda Catlin Smith/Mia Cooper/Joachim Roewer/William Butt – Meadow

Nick Storring – My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell

SUMAC – May You Be Held

Victory Over the Sun – A Tessitura of Transfiguration

Dan Weiss – Natural Selection

Young Jesus – Welcome to Conceptual Beach

John Zorn/Julian Lage/Bill Frisell/Gyan Riley – Virtue