McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium

Megan Paterson

Considered by Charles Rosen to be one of the most important precursors to the sonata and concerto forms,(1) the baroque da capo aria represented the most straightforward ternary form. According to Douglas Green, the significantly different tonal and melodic characters of the A and B sections of the formal framework, A-B-A, determine ternary form.(2) However, Bach's da capo aria "Bereite dich, Zion" from the Christmas Oratorio (1734), scored for alto, violin and oboe, and continuo, represents a shift towards a more integrated formal design, blurring the previously clear delineation between A and B as well as creating more complexity than expected. Although the reasons for breaking the basic boundaries are unknown, the contrasting formal divisions of da capo arias were typically distinguished by contrasting sentiments in the text. Perhaps Bach's avoidance of sharp delineation between the A and B sections in "Bereite dich, Zion" was owing to a lack of contradictory elements in the text.(3) An examination of this aria elucidates how Bach employs musical commonalties to obscure the traditionally strict confines of the da capo aria form while at the same time creating sufficient differences to maintain the ternary form at the larger scale.


The two sections are both differentiated and related through the use of textural and motivic elements. In most da capo arias these elements are clearly defined, but in "Bereite dich, Zion" A and B are less distinct than expected. In baroque da capo arias, the presence, absence, or reduced prominence of instruments emphasizes textural contrasts between the sections. For example, the A and B sections are clearly audible in Bach's "Sich üben im Lieben" from the Wedding Cantata because of the consistent use of the oboe throughout the A section, but a more sparse role in the B section. Although the opening of the B section in "Bereite dich" is clearly marked by the absence of the violin or oboe, both instruments return after the first phrase and are equally active in the remainder of the section as they were in the A section.

The material introduced in the violin and oboe ritornello becomes the principal motivic design of the A section. Not only does the ritornello serve to introduce the melody that is later picked up by the voice, but it also provides structural delineation and cohesion within the aria. The ritornello only appears in its entirety as separate from the voice in two places in the piece (mm. 1-16 and 73-78), thereby demarcating each A section. The entrance of the voice sparks the repetition of the ritornello music as the voice doubles the oboe/violin part in the first phrase. However, in m. 25, as a result of the active obligato, the alto is relegated to a subsidiary role, acting as a kind of inner voice or secondary melody to the oboe/violin. Despite the constant repetition of the same material in the instrumental parts, Bach creates textural variety and development by manipulating the upper instrumental phrases to accompany different phrases of the voice. For example, in mm. 36-44 the oboe/violin part performs an active sixteenth-note figuration (derived from mm. 8-16) above the vocal line rather than the original doubling of the more melodic first phrase of the ritornello (mm. 1-8), as it had at the initial vocal entry. Alternating between the predominantly eighth-note texture and the sixteenth-note passage in mm. 44-69, Bach extends and develops the established material from the ritornello by evolving it chromatically through a series of sequences based on secondary dominants until the tonic resolution in m. 69. The return to a stable tonic harmony instigates the return to the original design in the closing ritornello of the A section.

Rather than having completely contrasting material in the B section, Bach employs large portions of the ritornello, mostly in different guises, to create more similarities between the two section. However, while the instrumental parts create a direct link to the A section, the voice is given new material throughout the B section. The character of the vocal phrases of the middle section effectively contrast those of the A section. The "organic" eight-measure phrase which began the A section (mm. 17-24) is effectively contrasted with the fragmented asymmetrical phrases of the opening measures of the B section and is combined with it to create a longer phrase (mm. 89-102). The lack of instrumental activity with the voice at the beginning of the new section (mm. 89-101) highlights the structural change as well as the markedly different vocal line. But once the oboe and violin join the voice (m. 102) a connection to the A section is created and perpetuated throughout the rest of the section. The entry of the oboe/violin sonority is clearly audible because its music recalls the rhythm and melodic contour of its characteristic line in the A section (mm. 8-16). The clearest reference to the A section occurs in mm. 115-122 as the oboe/violin line sounds without the voice and draws directly upon its music from mm. 1-8 but transposes it to the dominant (e minor). Picking up from the short instrumental interlude, the sixteenth-note figuration from the ritornello (mm. 8-16) is transposed up an interval of a perfect fifth and extended to allow for the harmonic movement provided in the bass. In the transition from a minor to C major at the end of the B section (mm. 123-138), the oboe/violin part (mm. 130-133) restates a portion of its original line (mm. 8-11) in its original key, both demanding and facilitating the return of the A section.


It is at the tonal level that "Bereite dich" exceeds the simplistic formulation of a traditional Da Capo aria from this period. Instead of the expected tonic-dominant-tonic relationship between the three sections, Bach introduces a more intricate and unexpected tonal framework (Figure 1). The A section is set in the tonic (a minor), within which Bach creates harmonic activity based on a pattern of descending fifths with tonicizations of C major and D minor. However, rather than clearly shifting to the dominant (e minor) in the B section, as dictated in the traditional da capo form, Bach creates tonal ambiguity at the outset, with e minor not established as a tonal area until m. 100 and abandoned in m. 122. Perhaps the most striking tonal movements of the aria occur towards the end of the B section, starting at m. 123, with a return to a minor which serves as a transition to the closing key of C major (III of a minor).

Figure 1. Overall tonal design
A (mm. 1-88)
B (mm. 89-138)
A (mm. 1-88)
a minor
[C major]-e minor-G Major-e-minor-a minor-C Major
a minor
The large-scale tonal movement of the aria is anticipated at a more detailed level in the opening ritornello. The opening phrase of the ritornello sets up much of what is to come in the rest of the piece. Unlike most baroque pieces in which one expects a clear exposition of the tonic chord in the opening four bars, tension, ambiguity, and pull are created immediately. The aria begins with the anticipated a minor triad, reinforced by the melodic motion from g-sharp to a in the oboe/violin of m. 2, but that tonic reinforcement is juxtaposed with a g-natural in m. 3, briefly inflecting a C major tonality. This is seen most clearly in the harmonic movement i-V/III-III in the bass, supported in the melody with an ascent from a to c. Although this is a typical arpeggiated tonic opening melody, it is the underlying harmonic support (evoking C major) which provides interest. An emphasis on c in the melodic line is also immediately established in the first phrase (mm. 1-7) with the lower neighbor motion in mm. 1-2. C remains prominent in the rest of the phrase, only descending stepwise to b for the half cadence on V in m. 8. Bach uses both the melodic and harmonic movement of these initial measures to invoke c as a prominent tone in the rest of the piece. Though these first few measures outline the tonic triad in terms of Schenker's ideal, they also anticipate the role of c, both melodically and harmonically, as an important feature of the piece. Moreover, the opening sets up A minor and C major (i and III) in a kind of opposition that continues throughout the aria, both providing tension which demands some resolution and a sense of continuity between the two sections. This momentary inflection towards C major replaces the customary tonic prolongation with directed movement towards the dominant in m. 8 to end the first phrase of the ritornello.

Figure 2. Foreground graph of mm. 1-8

The essential movement from the dominant back to the tonic in the second phrase of the ritornello is highlighted by a descending stepwise sequence. Bach creates a stepwise harmonic motion, V-iv-III, through a series of secondary dominants in order to prepare the close of the ritornello on the tonic (Figure 3). Although this is a chromatic movement, Schenker suggests that chromaticism serves as an ornament to the underlying a diatonic pattern. The sequence is a union between diatonicism and chromaticism and is used as a chromatic decoration in the movement from the dominant to the tonic. However, the decorative nature of the sequence is superseded by its importance to the underlying structure of the aria.

Figure 3. Foreground graph of mm. 8-16

In his book on fugal analysis, William Renwick addresses the issue of how sequences fit into voice leading in the context of Schenker's principles.(4) Renwick notes that Schenker avoids dealing directly with sequential progressions, likely because of their inherent repetitive structure and emphasis on voice leading over harmonic movement. In accordance with Schenker, Renwick suggests that although a sequence cannot be considered tonal in itself, it "represents a passage between two points of a tonal system."(5) Moreover, Renwick identifies descending stepwise sequences as the most effective means of creating a directed motion towards a goal, particularly because they reflect Schenker's ideal melodic linear progression, the fundamental line.(6) It is within the context of creating a directed motion from one tonal area to another that Bach uses sequences in "Bereite dich." The sequence creates a pull from V to III, mirroring the motion from i to III in the opening measures of the piece. In mm. 8-12 both the harmonic and melodic lines begin on e and descend a third through d to c, the melodic and tonal goal of the sequence. The large scale motion by thirds is emphasized and mimicked by small scale descending third patterns that both shape the stepwise melodic descent from e to c and the inner voice movements. This momentary inflection to C major and the melodic movement by third again highlights c, further enhancing the A minor-C major binary established in the first phrase.

Rather than returning directly to the tonic in the second phrase of a ritornello as one would expect, Bach uses a sequence strongly directed towards an inflection of C major to break up the dominant harmony before the perfect authentic tonic cadence. With the emphasis on c in both phrases of the ritornello, Bach effectively sets up a binary opposition between a minor and C major that is realized and developed on a larger scale in the remainder of the aria.

The established tension created by the association between A minor and C major (i and III) in the A section is further evoked in the B section through a series of intense harmonic movements in a manner atypical of B sections of da capo arias. To further challenge the premises of da capo aria form, Bach avoids the simple tonal delineation between the two contrasting sections. Instead of a clear statement of the dominant key at the beginning of the B section, the opening measures of the new section are tonally ambiguous. The vocal line consists of a series of major quality triads creating a clear contrast to the minor tonality of the A section. Moreover, the first two measures of the voice (mm. 89-90) clearly present an inflection to C major, the tonal goal of the B section. The dominant tonality (E minor) is reached through a descending sequence moving through G major (mm. 91-94) and A minor (mm. 95-99). Once in the dominant key (m. 99) Bach creates an ambiguity between E minor and G major (i and III), mirroring the relationship between A minor and C major in the A section (see Figure 4). However, the brevity of the modulation to E minor allows the tonal tension to play out on a larger scale. In m. 123 E minor is replaced by a return to the tonic, A minor. Within A minor Bach uses another sequence, V-i-iv-VII-III-VI-V/V-V-V/iv-iv (mm. 123-132), as a transition to C major. The sequence, established at the outset as a means of projecting a directed motion, is used as a pull from A minor (i) towards C major (III) for the end of the B section, reaffirming the play between i and III in the home key. Moreover, the final cadence in C major at the end of the B section, as opposed to the expected close in E minor, both provides continuity with and necessitates the return of the A section.

The large-scale tonal structure of the B section is unusually linked to the A section through the i-III (A minor-C major) opposition. Figure 4 illustrates the overall modulations and tonicizations of the B section, revealing an anticipation of the final cadence in C major by the inflection towards C major in mm. 89-90, a similar i-III harmonic motion between E minor and G major, as well as a larger motion between A minor and C major. The small scale opposition between tonic and mediant established in the ritornello is developed on the large scale, inevitably resulting in the B section's striking final cadence on c to facilitate the return to A minor in the A section. The unity achieved in this aria through tonal commonalties challenges Greene's assertion that ternary form is largely determined by tonal contrast in the B section--a movement typically to the dominant--and therefore contributes to the blurring of the traditional da capo form.(7)

Figure 4. Tonal movements in B section (interplay between i and III in e minor and a minor).
m. 89
m. 99
m. 107
m. 109
m. 123
m. 132
[C Major]
e minor
G Major
e minor
a minor
C major
i (in e)
III (in e)
i (in e)
Motivic and tonal and activity in both sections of the piece work to inform the deeper structure of the aria. The importance of c, both melodically and harmonically, is revealed at the middleground level (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Middleground graph of the aria

In the A section, c is the most important tonal deviance in the motion between I and V, and is emphasized in the melodic line resolving stepwise to a at the end of the section. Within its dramatic modulations, the B section can also be characterized by its consistent focus on c melodically which is then confirmed by the cadence on c that closes the section..

Figure 6a illustrates the deepest level of structure of each section and Figure 6b depicts the fundamental structure of the aria as a whole, with the Urlinie descending in a 3-line (c-b-a). The B section is particularly significant in that it extends c (3^), the aria's Kopfton. While prolonging 3^, the B section mimics the descent of the 3-line with a motion from e through d to c at the middleground level.
Figure 6. Background graph

(a) Background graph of the three sections

(b) Background graph of the entire aria

A Schenkerian analysis of Bach's "Bereite dich, Zion" reveals many features that inform the fundamental structure of the aria while both challenging and reaffirming its traditional da capo form. An interesting characteristic of the aria is the overall impact of the ritornello on the aria as a whole. Here, the ritornello transcends its anticipated role as introductory material for the main content of the vocal line to form the impetus for the remainder of the aria. The melodic and harmonic material of the ritornello, which is then developed and expanded by the voice, serve as unifying devices and therefore illustrate the deepest level of structure. Although the B section's markedly contrasting vocal line and tonal activity distinguishes it from A, the middle section is nevertheless intrinsically related to A through the recurring ritornello melody which occurs over the voice and harmonic motion between i and III. While the textural and melodic differences at the foreground level create sufficient contrasts between the two sections, the melodic and harmonic commonalties of the two sections at the middleground and background levels blur the expected clear delineation.


1. Charles Rosen, Sonata Forms (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), 27-68.

2. Douglas Green, Form in Tonal Music (New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1979), 85.

3. Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben,
Den Schönsten, den Liebsten bald dei dir zu sehn!
Deine Wangen müssen heut viel schöner prangen,
Eile, den Bräutigam sehnlichst zu lieben!

Prepare thyself, Zion, with tender desire
The Fairest and Dearest to behold with thee soon!
They cheeks today must shine the lovelier,
Hasten most ardently the Bridegroom to love.

4. William Renwick, Analyzing Fugue: A Schenkerian Approach (Stuyvesant, New York: Pendragon Press, 1995), 139-164.

5. Ibid., 140.

6. Ibid.,141.

7. Green, 85.

© Copyright 1999 by Megan Paterson.