It’s been a while since I put out a music theory puzzle. Here is an excerpt from a chorale by J.S. Bach, “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (“”Oh God, look down from heaven”). This particular chorale contains (*gasp*) parallel fifths. Take a look and see if you can spot them. The answer after the break.
Composer Russell Steinberg wrote about Bach’s use of unconventional techniques like parallel fifths.
The risky choices require much more imagination. They introduce elements of chaos and instability into the chorale that require other extreme choices to balance the whole. Not surprisingly, Bach does not choose to play it safe. Instead, he careens around the fringes of tonal coherence. His riskier choices require ever more imaginative responses in an intricate balancing act that erupts in surprise and a hypersensitive awareness of connections between the voices. Bach’s chorales expose possibilities within tonality that are not immediately obvious, all by pushing the system to its breaking point. If the conventional voice leading the textbooks advocate produces a dozen solutions, Bach’s unconventional tendencies expose hundreds of new choices. These choices bend the system and astonish the ear, but still work within the tonal framework, and ultimately support and strengthen its foundations. They revitalize the chorales with the excitement of discovering new possibilities and new beauty in tonality.
Did you spot the parallel fifths yet? Continue on to see the answer.
In this particular example the effect of the parallel fifths is obscured a bit because it happens just after a cadence, but it is yet another example of Bach breaking the rules.
Practicing this type of “error detection” is a useful exercise for music theory students and composers. It’s a valuable skill to be able to proof your own work and practicing finding “mistakes” like Bach’s use of parallel fifths here will help you find it in your own work easier. As a composer, having a profound understanding of how separate voices interact and lead from one harmonic event to another frees up your ability to get those sounds in your head onto the paper and into your performer’s hands quicker and more accurately.