Why that note?!? — Bach French Suite No.1 Sarabande

“Why that note??” is a new series featuring musical pieces or passages in which a single note (or other musical detail) seems unjustified, out of place, or just simply wrong, within a given context. I suspect that in most cases, if not all cases, no answer will be provided to the main “why” question, which is not to say that there is no answer.


First, a confession. From my youth, I developed a habit of skipping over sarabandes of Bach suites. Please get me past those trudgingly slow triple meter dances to the much more exciting gavotte or gigue that follows! I prefer to lay the blame for this at the foot of Glenn Gould whose sarabande renditions I generally find to be as lethargic as his faster dances are thrilling and ebullient. (This is certainly unfair to Gould, but can you think of anyone else to blame? Neither can I.)

Then one day, I fell into love with is the sarabande from the C minor keyboard partita after learning that there is such a thing as a stirring, inspired performance of a sarabande.

French Suite No.1 Sarabande


More recently, I’ve been taken in by the sarabande from the first French Suite in D minor, BWV 812 (above) after spending time in class analyzing it. Together, we discovered how brilliantly the piece is constructed with its bass melody in measures 9-13 being a nearly exact duplication of the soprano melody in measures 1-5 but with completely different harmonies, with its descending chromatic voice-leading (mm. 1-5 and mm. 17-20 in the bass, mm.10-11 in all voices) giving it a spirit of lamentation, with its Neapolitan chord in an unusual second inversion (m.7), with its strategically placed accented dissonances (particularly in m.8, m.18 and mm. 23-24) adding angst to lament. We also spent time trying to figure out why the arrival of the low m.13 E-flat is so striking, especially since E-flats were already present in the immediate context.

And not only is the sarabande brilliantly constructed, it’s stunning in its beauty. Just listen.

Why that F?!?

However, I can make no sense whatsoever of the measure 21 F4 in the tenor voice. Not only can I not make sense of the note, I’ll go further and say that it’s simply a wrong note! Bach has it wrong. (Did I just say that?) It should be a D4 rather than an F4.

Listen again to this passage and pay attention to the effect of the F.



So why is the F wrong?

The primary reason has to do with chord structure. The chord implied here is a first inversion D minor chord, a tonic triad in the key of D minor, the immediate resolution of a V42 chord that preceded it. In first semester music theory, we learn that the strongest and much preferred chord structure for first inversion triads is to avoid doubling the bass. So why has Bach doubled the bass here? (F in tenor doubles the F in the bass.)

Of course, weak though it may be, doubling the bass in a first inversion chord is not in itself a part-writing “error” and is, in fact, commonly seen. However, such weaker doublings should only be used when voice-leading considerations dictate that they be used, and Bach follows this approach consistently in his music. But here, the most logical resolution of the V42 chord that preceded it is to the strongest doubling, with the C# resolving to D (doubling the soprano’s implied D that is never actually realized). This means that Bach has gone out of his way to achieve a chord structure that is weaker than it could be. And the fact that the D actually does appear on beats 2 and 3 of the measure adds to the confusion.

Possible reasons for the F

Perhaps Bach has inserted the F to create some kind of motivic gesture (F-D-D) that features prominently earlier in the piece. But this descending third gesture is found nowhere else in the piece. Or perhaps Bach is intentionally delaying the arrival of the D to beat two to match similar delayed arrivals in the G—F—E—D descending line beginning in m.17. The F is delayed to the second part of beat 1 in m.18, the E is delayed to beat 2 in m.19, and here the D is delayed to beat 2 in m.21.


Relatedly, perhaps Bach is intent on never keeping three separate voices on the same note through an entire measure. See measures 1, 5, 6, 9, and 13 – even when two accompanimental voices are stationary, the third is moving.

Alternatives Explored

But do these reasons really explain or warrant Bach’s decision to put an F on the downbeat? He easily could have created movement in ways that do not result in obviously weakened chord structures.

For example, he could have created motion in the tenor by putting a C# on beat 1 creating a retardation figure like the F#—G in measure 5, like the implied F#—G retardation figure in m.13, and like the C#—D soprano figure in the final cadence. In short, the C# on beat 1 of measure 21 would fit the musical features of the piece with its accented dissonance and delayed resolutions, and it would result in a much improved chord structure.


Or, Bach could have created motion by inserting a neighboring E on beat 3. This would increase harmonic tension on beat 3 (creating sevenths against both the soprano and bass), and would once again restore the ideal chord structure on beat 1.


Perhaps the best of these alternative solutions would be to move to F on beat 3 thereby creating a voice-exchange with the soprano. Voice-exchanges feature prominently throughout the sarabande, including another soprano-tenor voice-exchange in the immediate context (m.20).


Far be it from me to suggest improving Bach (though apparently not too far), but I simply cannot understand Bach chose the F for the downbeat. It goes against his usual practice of preferring stronger chord structures, it goes against the most logical voice-leading in the immediate context, and furthermore, plenty of alternatives are achievable. I was so flummoxed that I considered the possibility of a scribe error. But after checking three early manuscripts (here, here, and here), two of which were completed during Bach’s lifetime, I found the F present in all three. (The image below is from document P 418 dated from 1720-1739 and copied by the hand of Bernhard Christian Kayser.) This doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility of a scribe error, but it provides no reason to suspect it.

So I’m left scratching my head about that F. Why that note??




About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae. http://www.lukedahn.net.
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2 Responses to Why that note?!? — Bach French Suite No.1 Sarabande

  1. Martin Valeri says:

    I stumbled on you post here. I also love this piece, it’s been a favorite for years. I’m not a professional musician so I never really questioned that one F very much, it just didn’t stick out to my ear; but with examination it is as odd as you say. However, I always thought the F# in measure 5 was a bit jarring and not really referenced elsewhere in the piece. Your alternative of a C# in measure 21 fixes all that! It would mimic the voicing and resolution of m.5 chord exactly. I hope I’m not skewered for this, but I think I’ll play the piece with that C# from now on. Thanks.

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