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Demystifying the Chromatic Fantasia BWV 903 by J. S. Bach

A piece like this is often regarded as a collection of random notes, so unfathomable is its structure. How far from the truth that is.

Have a listen, if you are not familiar with the music already:

Now, this piece gets its structure from the 15 scale choices that Bach employs. The scales in the fantasia are as follows:

Major (1 2 3 4 5 6 7)

Melodic (1 2 b3 4 5 6 7)

Harmonic minor (1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7)

Neapolitan minor (1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 7)

Hungarian minor (1 2 b3 #4 5 b6 7)

Harmonic Major (1 2 3 4 5 b6 7)

Harmonic minor b5 (1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 7)

Melodic b5 (1 2 b3 4 b5 6 7)

Neapolitan Major b5 (1 b2 b3 4 b5 6 7)

Persian (1 b2 3 4 b5 b6 7)

Harmonic Major #4 (1 2 3 #4 5 b6 7)

Persian natural 6 (1 b2 3 4 b5 6 7)

Locrian natural 7 (1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 7)

Ionian b5 (1 2 3 4 b5 6 7)

Harmonic Major b5 (1 2 3 4 b5 b6 7)

Phlegmatic (1 b2 bb3 b4 b5 b6 7)

Neapolitan Major (1 b2 b3 4 5 6 7)

The fugue 'only' uses 8 scales in its modulations: Major, Melodic, Harmonic minor, Neapolitan minor, Harmonic Major, Hungarian minor, Neapolitan Major and Neapolitan Major b5.

There are exactly 250 modulations in the whole piece. These single modulations often form part of a chain of modulations, or sequence.

Notable Sequences contained with BWV 903

When analysing the score to such a degree, it is easy to not notice the wood for the trees. Taking one step back and focusing on a series of modulations that make up a sequence instead of the individual alterations themselves, helps in following the flow that the composer intended. It also highlights sequences that are repeated throughout the piece in various keys, while modifications to sequences to create alternative resolutions can be understood once the original sequence is noted.

With a piece such as this, the complexity can at first be so overwhelming, that an impression of randomness comes into one’s mind. However, every change of note is deliberate and when multiple modulations are grouped together, recognizable sequencies start to appear.

A sequence always begins and ends on one of the two stable scales, Major and Harmonic minor. All other scales need to undergo alteration to resolve to one of these scales, for the dissonance of the music to become consonant and the movement in the music to rest for a designated period.

For issues of space I shall include just a few examples here:

1)Bars 6 – 8: D Harmonic minor – D Hungarian minor – A

Harmonic Major – A Harmonic minor – A Harmonic minor b5 -

A Melodic b5 – A Neapolitan Major b5 – G Harmonic minor

2)Bars 11 – 13: A Persian – D Hungarian minor – D Harmonic

Major #4 – A Persian natural 6 – A Neapolitan Major b5 – A Melodic b5 – G Harmonic Major – G Major – D Major – D Harmonic

Major – D Harmonic minor – D Melodic – D Melodic b5 –

C Harmonic Major – C Harmonic minor – Eb Major –

D Locrian natural 7 – D Harmonic minor b5 – D Harmonic minor

3)Bars 43 – 47: D Harmonic minor – D Hungarian minor –

D Harmonic Major #4 – E Ionian b5 – E Harmonic Major b5 –

E Harmonic Major – A Melodic – A Harmonic minor

For a more in depth study, including an analysis of all 250 modulations, see my book.


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