Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Catherine Nolan

2nd Supervisor

Dr. Peter Franck

Joint Supervisor


This dissertation proposes a Schenkerian perspective of J. S. Bach’s modal compositional practice in his chorale preludes for solo organ. It develops two major themes: first, a viable framework for reconciling Schenker’s theory of tonality with the kind of composition that Bach’s modal music exemplifies (chapter 3); and second, a definition of Bach’s modal compositional practice in the chorale preludes as revealed through analysis of the repertoire (chapter 4). Additionally, the dissertation explores the pertinence of traditional modal theory to Bach’s modal music (chapter 1), confronts Schenker’s evaluation of modal composition (chapter 1), and responds to other scholarly work in this area (chapter 2).

In advancing a Schenkerian interpretation of Bach’s modal compositional practice, my approach aims to reconcile rather than to adapt. Instead of altering Schenkerian theory or offering an exclusively tonal view of Bach’s modal music, I define a space within Schenkerian theory that can accommodate this repertoire. I remain faithful to the principles of Schenkerian theory but stretch their scope beyond the borders of tonality. To accomplish this, I argue that the Ursatz is best understood as an abstract prototype of tonality, and I elaborate Matthew Brown’s expression of Schenkerian theory as a set of law-like generalizations of tonal contrapuntal and harmonic behaviour.

Rather than adopting an a priori idea of modality, I define Bach’s modal compositional practice by the musical behaviour that the chorale preludes exhibit as revealed in analysis and through the Schenkerian perspective. To this end, I offer original analyses of five modal chorale preludes: “Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder,” BWV 742, from the Neumeister collection; “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 599, “Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott,” BWV 602, and “Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist,” BWV 631, from the Orgelbüchlein; and “Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit,” BWV 669, from Klavierübung III. I show that in the modal chorale preludes, despite the multiplicity of available options, Bach uses only seven distinct background patterns divided among three modal categories. The musical content of these modal backgrounds and the tonal behaviour of the foreground and middleground structural levels define Bach’s modal compositional practice.

Included in

Music Theory Commons