On Transitions, Loss, and Bach's Organ Sonata #2

I’ve been mulling over musical transitions since my latest UpBeat Live talks at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Transitions are passages that move from one key area to another. While inherently unstable, they often create the most interesting musical moments. Take the opening movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, a rather sunny pastoral D major piece, not unlike his 2nd symphony. Except for the transitions! Those transitions are in fiery gypsy-Hungarian minor keys and that’s the music from this piece that we best remember.

I also spoke about the Shostakovich Cello Concerto. The sardonic marches of the outer movements contrast so deeply with the “other world” spiritual quality of the inner slow movement, that Shostakovich composed such an extended cello cadenza to connect them that it forms its own complete movement. Shostakovich felt a sufficiently long emotional transition was necessary to return to the sardonic music in the finale.

The  “granddaddy” of all transitions—as composer Kenneth Klauss once told me— is Beethoven’s music connecting the 3rd and 4thmovements of his fifth symphony. The ghostly scherzo quiets down to a drone in the strings while the timpani almost subliminally intones the famous rhythmic motto of the symphony. Then the violins rise from the mist (taking with them the hair on the back of our necks) and reach to heaven in an orchestral crescendo that prepares the most power dominant harmony I know in music. That dominant chord resolves in the triumphant bright light of C major, complete with blaring trombones and piccolo (who incidentally use this entrance announce their bonafide citizenship in the symphony orchestra). The power of that transition haunts the finale in a memorable moment when the ghostly scherzo makes a surprise return, a war wound that has left a permanent mark on the piece.

Most of us know that Beethoven 5th symphony transition extremely well. But I recently played through an extraordinary piece not quite as well known that reveals a quality of transitions not often mentioned, the sense of loss. In other words, in transitioning from one area to another, we don’t always gain. Sometimes we lose something special.

This really struck me with the slow movement of Bach’s second Organ Sonata. Inner slow movements are transitional by design and this one specifically begins in a major key and ends in a minor key—more specifically it ends on the dominant of the minor key as a preparation for the final movement. That isn’t so unusual for Baroque slow movements. What is unusual is that the piece begins with some of the most excruciatingly beautiful music to come from Bach’s pen—and it never returns! Instead, sequences lean to minor keys with increasing dissonance, traveling ever further from the shore of that opening glorious melody and its sequence of fifths in E flat major. I find the emotion of loss—that this melody never returns—to be as powerful a feeling as the devastating sadness of the opening music itself. I can’t help but question, “How could he not bring this music back?” That is the crux, the question that leads away from childhood into the apple-knowledge that beautiful things have their time and come to an end. Transitions lay bare that fragile quality of beauty, and that’s why we love them.


Bach’s opening theme is a series of leaning tones, or appoggiaturas, that play over a descending 5th sequence of harmonies. That sequence is the oldest trick in the book for a Baroque composer; it was the bread and butter “go to” sequence for composers like Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, etc. Why does it sound so particularly poignant in this Bach piece? The answer lies in Bach’s enormous obsession with dissonance and its resolution. First of all, the magic of the descending 5th sequence—the reason it sounds so good and is used so often—is both that it resolves from chord to chord in a way that ends in a particular home key. But these chords are sometimes major and sometimes minor. And we respond differently to these modes. Bach enriches this difference between major and minor by creating a melody of leaning tones that produces a delicious and continual dissonance over these harmonies. And the variety in these dissonances is considerable. Sometimes they produce 7th chords, othertimes suspensions of the 2nd, 4th, passing tones, neighboring tones. In fact, the most poignant moment for me in this piece is the second beat of the 3rdand 10th measures. It was one of the most beautiful and sad moments I know in music.  In both instances, Bach’s dissonance implies a 9th chord, in a sense the most “advanced” dissonance of the piece and one we usually associate with later 19th century Romantic music. The complexity of Bach’s dissonance is perhaps even more apparent in my piano version than in an organ performance (hence the reason for recording it).

The architecture of the Largo from Bach’s Organ Sonata #2:*

Opening theme played in a descending 5th sequence in E flat Major (8 measures)
Opening theme played in a descending 5th sequence in B flat Major (8 measures)
Four bar transition to C minor (4 measures)
Ascending sequence in C minor (4 measures)
Descending 5th sequence in C minor (4 measures)
Descending 5th Sequence and cadence in G minor (8 measures)
Ascending sequence in G minor leading to C minor (4 measures)
Descending 5th sequence and cadence in C minor (8 measures)
Coda ending in the dominant of C minor (4 measures)

* some of these sections are elided (one section begins on the same measure the preceding section ends)