Suite No. 2 in D minor

Commentary by Christopher Costanza

D minor: a key of seriousness, sadness, tragedy, loss, and strength. From the first 3 notes of this intensely emotional prelude we feel immersed in a dramatically dark d minor world. These notes, D-F-A (rhythmically, eighth-eighth-quarter, with an emphasis on the third note, which is beat 2), constitute a d minor triad, asserting the tonal center and immediately setting the tone for things to come. The 2nd beat “A” is tied into the 3rd beat, effectively elongating the 2nd beat by a sixteenth note, and the measure concludes with a descending three-sixteenth note grouping, leading directly into the 2nd measure. Then, in measure 2, beat one consists of four 16th notes, C#-E-G-A (a V7 chord in the 1st inversion) leading to a B-flat on beat 2, which, as in measure 1, is a quarter note tied into the 3rd beat, again emphasizing the 2nd beat of the measure. And then in measure 3, that 2nd beat, now only a dotted 8th but still the longest note of the bar, is an E, a tritone higher than the previous measure’s 2nd beat and creating a sort of arch shape through those measures, finishing, in the 4th bar, 2nd beat, on a D, which then flows downward toward the 5th measure and the beginning of the Prelude proper. In effect, those 1st four measures are an introduction, foreshadowing the overall mood of the movement.

In measure five the movement continues on its journey with a clearer sense of flow and direction. We’re still experiencing the 2nd beat emphasis effect, but less often: very soon we’re hearing passages consisting solely of flowing 16th notes. Harmonically, measure 5 is a B-flat Major 7th chord, a very rich, open sounding sequence of notes that leads to a circle of fifths progression over the next several measures. We feel a fullness and richness of harmony through very directional music, and after an 8 measure phrase we cadence in F Major, landing on the low C-string F followed by an A and a C (spelling a closed position F Major triad), set in the exact rhythm of the 1st measure of the movement – our biggest cadence point yet, and in our home key’s relative major.

As we listen, we need to focus not only on the harmonic progression and rhythmic flow of the music, but also on Bach’s incredibly ingenious use of multiple melodic and accompanimental voices. It’s particularly interesting to listen very closely to the bass line and its direction, often scale-wise in motion. As we monitor our bass line in this incredibly rich music, we find it leading, gradually but consistently, to the all-important pitch “A,” the dominant of d minor. Sure enough, as in Suite #1, Bach implies a dominant pedal tone (the pitch A) beginning in measure 30, providing grandness, richness, and intensity. We only occasionally hear the actual pedal note, but Bach constantly hints at it; we sense it profoundly as the music swirls and flows in continuous sixteenth note motion, and the harmonic progressions remain deep and continually filled with dissonances and resolutions. This remarkably emotional section culminates in a series of high points: measures 40 through 42, where he suddenly brings back the rhythm of the 1st measure; measure 44, where we reach a high G, the highest pitch of the movement; and finally, measure 48, where he writes a quarter note with a fermata on a 2nd inversion V7 chord (spelled G-E-C#, with the A conspicuously absent, but heard in our heads nonetheless, since A is our dominant pedal pitch so firmly ingrained in our perception of the music) - a wildly dramatic stopping point after a remarkably emotional buildup. Then, 2 quarter rests (to give performer and listener a chance to breathe), followed by a sublime, subdued, and very poignant closing section, ending with five simply stated dotted half note chords - a profound and simple ending to an exciting and intense movement.

The d minor Allemande begins with an opening upbeat 16th note followed by a solidly stated 4-note d minor chord. We feel our key very strongly through this gesture: the definitive, deep, rich quality of this four-voiced downbeat gives the movement a clearly assertive start. Following this strong opening, the movement proceeds in a direct fashion with flowing sixteenths alternating with eighths, 3- and 4-note chords strategically placed at important cadence points. Even though this entire allemande contains only two 4-note chords (five other chords consist of 3 notes), the establishment of the 4-voice idea at the start makes us sense that all four voices are with us throughout the movement.

One unexpected bit of free-form, improvisatory writing in this Allemande occurs on beats 3 and 4 in measure 9; here he takes a D#-A tritone and ties it directly into a beautiful and virtuosic scale-wise run of 32nd notes – a very exciting and unexpected display.

An interesting technique Bach employs in this movement is the use of a four-note descending scale motive as a cadence point, as in measure 4 (beat 3; this one leads to the 2-note chord on beat 4), measure 6 (beat 3; we hear the mordent on the G eighth note to feel the sense of A-G-F#-E), measure 14 (beat 3), measure 20 (beat 1), and measure 22, (beat 1). This technique appears at other strategic places in Bach’s music, but it’s very clearly stated in this movement.

The Courante of the d minor suite is a wild ride of fast sixteenth notes – here the performer’s virtuosity is on full display. From the 3-note chord on beat 1 of measure 2 we sense a 3-voice structure; musical arrival points throughout the movement are marked by 2- or 3-note chordal writing (measures 6, 18, 21 – just a sixteenth note double stop here! –and 22). The motion, both rhythmic and harmonic, feels fast throughout, and so we’re left with an exciting and often breathless musical statement. Of note are the rollicking passages of bariolage bowing (a back and forth alternating of strings for coloristic effect) in measures 7, 9, 13, 14, 15, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31. Listeners and performers alike must catch their breath after this movement before continuing with the poignant Sarabande!

This Sarabande is the emotional centerpiece of the entire suite, bringing us back to the deep, dark, rich, and personal feeling of the Prelude. The tone of the movement is somber, and the emotional content is as meaningful as we experience anywhere in the suites. Typical of so many sarabandes, at the start we feel a rhythmic emphasis on beat 2 of the 3/4 meter, a rhythmic feature that returns in measure 5 (at the start of the 2nd phrase). The first half of this movement consists of three 4-measure phrases; the 1st two of these phrases are rhythmically nearly identical. Phrase one establishes the tone and character of our d minor key center and brings us to a V chord, flowing back to d minor at the start of measure 5. The 2nd phrase begins much like measure one (the only difference is that the 2nd phrase begins with a rich 3-note chord - a first inversion d minor, with a deep low F in the bass), and in the course of its 4 measures takes us to F Major, the relative major of d minor. The 3rd phrase stays in F Major and ends with a perfect cadence in that key (measure 12 consists solely of a simple quarter note high F, followed by a half note low F).

The 2nd half of the movement returns to the 2nd beat emphasis idea we experienced at the start of the movement; we’re now in F Major, but already on the 2nd half of beat one we get a sense of modulation, with hints at g minor. In fact, we do experience g minor in a very full, clear way when we arrive at the downbeat of measure 16. Measures 17- 20, through mostly 8th note melodic writing (no chords, but a clear sense of multi-voiced conversation prevails), take us to an A-7 chord, the dominant 7th of d minor. Then, a beautiful and dramatic surprise: we experience a deceptive cadence on measure 21 (the A-7 chord in measure 20 brings us not to d minor but to B-flat Major). Then we’re on our way home, through a very rich, chordal phrase that lands on a single D in measure 24. This lone and simple but deeply emotional D drops to a low D and then continues with an ascending scale figure to the final phrase, a coda of sorts, starting in F Major and very emphatically based on an ascending F-F#-G-A-D bass line. What an outwardly deep and emotional centerpiece for a very personal and tonally rich suite.

The menuet movement of this suite begins very confidently with a solid d minor triad, firmly establishing a strong, bold, and intense character based on 3-voice construction. Three-note chords occur throughout the 1st menuet, making the multi-voice writing very clear and the harmonic progressions immediately recognizable. The bass line in this menuet is particularly interesting: it’s primarily characterized by descending scale-wise motion, with occasional and meaningful exceptions. In essence, that bass line defines the shape and direction of entire menuet.

The second of the 2 menuets is in direct contrast to the 1st: in D Major, very melodic, gentle, and containing only one chord (an A-E double-stop at the close of the 1st section). The 2nd menuet provides a perfect and well-timed balance to the intensity of the 1st; it’s beautifully simple, appealing, and inviting, so that the return to Menuet 1 that follows is delightfully shocking.

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The final movement of the suite is a lively, driving, and uplifting one (despite the seriousness associated with d minor). It’s in 3/8 meter and characterized by a sort of rocking motion, consisting of a repeated eighth-quarter rhythm (as in the 1st two measures) or groups of 16th and 8ths (as in measures 5 and 6). The movement is very much a virtuosic display of sequential writing, often single-voiced, but very effectively harmonized at key points (such as the sequences at measures 17-24 and 25-29). After the exhilarating buildup to the G-sharp-F chord in measure 29, the first half cadences in A minor/Major (the 2nd to last measure feels as though we’ve reached A minor, but the C-sharp at the end of the measure is a Picardy 3rd, which “majorizes” our otherwise minor key ending).

The 2nd half of the movement begins very much like the 1st (now in F Major, the relative major of our home key), and continues with the same rhythmic excitement we’ve experienced in the 1st half. This movement truly is a wild ride of energy and drive, filled with a sort of confident sensibility that rounds off the intensive emotional experience of the suite as a whole.