I am hooked. I’ve heard it before, but never played it, the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria”, that is. Then I had to learn it to accompany a singer, and now I cannot stop playing this thing! What is it about this simple piece that is so fascinating? Let me take you on an harmonic hike through this beautiful German forest provided to us by our friend Johann Sebastian Bach. (I must admit I know this piece only from Gounod’s adaptation of it. I heard that Gounod made alteration in the harmony at one or more points. I don’t have ready access to the Bach original, so I am going to base my analysis on what I see in the accompaniment to the Gounod version. I hope it is not too different.)
The Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” begins with an instrumental statement of the four bars which will be repeated when the singer enters. So we’ll treat the first four chord changes once only, the remarks being applicable to both the four bar intro and the subsequent accompaniment of the singing.
Now, what are the chords, and where do they take us?
C=C major – This is the harmonic home, the tonal center of the piece. Here we start and here we will end (eventually).
Dm7/C=D minor seventh with a C in the bass – We’re stepping away from home a bit now. We still have one foot in the door, that C in the bass(ment). But that C is the seventh of D minor seventh, and it begins our harmonic hike. We still haven’t encountered any foreign notes. All the notes of the D minor seventh chord are in the scale of C major. But now a sense of anticipation is in the air. We’ve heard this thing before, and we know where it’s going. Our harmonic hike is a happening thing!
G7/B=G seventh with a B in the bass – Oh, that B! It just wants to go somewhere, and it just happens to be part of the G7 chord that is next in the circle of fifths after the Dm7 chord we just heard, so we keep our musical momentum going. We know where we came from, we (think we) know where we’re going!
C=C major – Bach does not disappoint. That B, yearning to be free, to become a C, makes its way home. And so do we. So was that little excursion into Dm7/C and G7/B just a trivial little timid step into the fearsome forest, and now we’re all back home, fat, dumb, and happy in our comfort zone, copping some C’s?
Am/C=A minor with a C in the bass – Forget that, folks. Big Daddy Johann has other things in mind. Here he asks us to keep our feet on the C note base. (Don’t want to get picked off by the pitcher.) But that C note is part of the A minor chord, and that is a chord even farther afield from C than the earlier D minor seventh chord where we tentatively ventured out of the nest, only to fly back in fear and trembling. This time we jumped farther, to A minor, and now we’re going to follow the circle of fifths to its next logical destination.
D7/C=D seventh with a C in the bass – The circle of fifths has a logic of its own. After we finish drinking the first fifth, we want to go on to the next. (Make mine Seven Crown!) No, seriously, the A minor seventh has a strong impetus to the D seventh, and Bach allows us to go there. We’re happy again. This meets our tonal expectations. The C in the bass is also a melodic component of a bass line flowing down to A.
G7/B=G seventh with a B in the bass – Another fifth! (I won’t be able to finish the hike if I keep this up!) But the musical momentum is getting better established now. We’ve gone from C major to A minor to D seventh to G, a nice orderly fifthy type tango. We’ve also set our bass feet on the next lower step, a B.
Cmaj7/B=C major seventh with a B in the bass – Well, well, well! What have we here? Our fifthy fling has finished finally. But wait! We hear a little nagging dissonance tickling our ear, that buzzing B. It’s telling us something. Not so fast, buddy! We ain’t finished yet.
Am7=A minor seventh - The harmonic thrust here is logical enough. We’ve gone to A minor from C before. But here the harmonic logic is accompanied by a continuation of the beautiful bass melodic touch begun two chords ago. The B of the last C chord just happens to be another step down the staircase on the way to the A of the present A minor chord. So not only did the buzzing B clash gently with the C major seventh chord, upsetting our complacency, it also led “bass”-icly to the root of the present A minor chord.
D7= D seventh – Now we’ve downed another fifth! (Oops! I phrased that improperly. We went down another fifth.) We went from A minor seventh to D seventh. Those sevenths add even more urgency to our rush around the circle of fifths, sort of like a ring of magnets in a particle accelerator, hastening those reluctant particles along their path. Note also that our bass-ly descent into the lower depths has been (temporarily) reversed. But don’t be disappointed. Bach will continue down the staircase again.
G=G major – This is the next logical station stop on the circle of fifths. In itself it seems rather unexceptional and uninteresting. But this is only a fleeting moment. The next chord upsets all our expectations.
G diminished – Whoa! What’s this all about? These darn diminished chords are chock full of ambiguity! Who knows where this could lead? One thing to note is that the G is in the bass, where it will be the first of a new set of steps leading us further into the darkest part of the forest.
Dm/F=D minor with an F in the bass – It’s starting to get real scary now. We now have our foot lower down the stair case, on the F, the third of a minor chord, the one note that makes the essential difference between our bright and cheery major chords and their dark and gloomy minor brethren. We are descending deep into a black hole.
D diminished/F= D diminished with an F in the bass – Watch out! It just got even scarier. Not only do we have our foot on the same note which previously was the third of a minor chord, but the harmonic context of D minor has been ripped away and replaced by ambiguity! Our F step could be part of four different diminished chords, F diminished, A flat diminished, B diminished, or D diminished. My poor little mind cannot handle this kind of uncertainty. O Lord, save us from ambiguity!
C/E=C major with an E in the bass – Mercifully, Bach rescues us from that ambiguity. The diminished chord resolves itself into our familiar home key of C major. But wait! There is still some ground to cover before our harmonic hike is over. The E in the bass, as before with the B in the bass of the G7 chord, wants to go somewhere. Its logical destination would be F. Will Bach take us there? (Note also that the E in the bass continues the descending bass line that started three chords ago, from the note G to the note F and now to the note E.)
Fmaj7/E=F major seventh with an E in the bass – Bach satisfies the circle of fifths. He takes us to F major seventh, but he holds on to the E of the earlier chord, bounced up an octave because he didn’t want the sound to get too muddy. So we have dissonance, and we have room to continue down the spiral staircase of bass-ly descent. This thing keeps moving.
Dm7=D minor seventh – Now were getting into more conventional territory.
G7=G seventh - It’s getting pretty tame around here. This is just another stop on the circle of fifths.
C=C major – Ditto. You know, this is getting boring! (Just kidding, of course) This is only the calm before the storm. Bach wants us to get a little bit comfortable, a little bit complacent, a little bit bored, just to set the stage for the climax, a mere seven chords away.
C7=C seventh – Now we’re starting to get excited again, because that seventh is accelerating our harmonic expectations in a new direction.
Fmaj7=F major seventh – The C seventh chord wanted very badly to go to F, and it did, but Bach left that dissonance hanging, the E. Note also that from this E there is an upward half-step progression of notes in the bass line in the next three chords, from F to F# to G.
F# diminished – This transition chord is part of the continuing build-up from that C7 two chords ago.
Cm7/G=C minor seventh with a G in the bass – This chord is deceptive, made up of notes from the minor triad, and not with the third in the bass, which always wants to go somewhere, nor with the root in the base, which wants to stay put, but with the fifth in the base, which wants to go to the dominant seventh, which in this case would be F7. But such is not to be.
Dm7(b5)/Ab=D minor seventh with a flatted fifth in the bass – Bach grinds out a really tortured chord, and to make it even tastier, puts the altered note in the bass, just a half step down from the last chord’s fifth, to make a nice melodic comment on the shifted chords overhead.
G7=G seventh – The last chord was the final preparation before the climax. Now this piece is zeroing in on its target. Although we have focussed on the melodic logic of the bass line, overhead the singer’s melody has lately been bouncing in gentle but inexorable rising arcs toward the literal high note climax of the whole proceeding. And watch how the G note just hangs on and won’t let go for the next eight measures.
C/G=C major with a G in the bass - Holding that G note in the bass, the singer’s melody continues its gentle ascent.
G7(sus4)=G seventh with a suspended fourth – Eveybody loves these suspended fourths. What would church musicians do without them? And they have found their way into all kinds of other music too. I’m bouncing gently now on the bungee c(h)ords of harmony. Next measure my toes are going to touch.
G7=G seventh – I told you my toes where going to touch!
C diminished/G=C diminished with a G in the bass – This yearning diminished chord explodes in climax in the chord of the next measure.
C/G=C with a G in the bass - We have arrived, O masterful melody, O chordal climax! From this point on it’s a gentle bounce down.
G7(sus4)=G seventh with a suspended fourth – I’m floating. Let me down gently.
G7=G seventh – Thanks.
C7=C seventh – I feel a more at home now. Something about that C note in the bass, and notice how it just stays there for the next four measures and out.
F/C=F major with a C in the bass – Let’s step to the closest related key that won’t push us all the way home.
G7/C=G seventh with a C in the bass – Now we have come to the penultimate chord, the one that says, go home, my friends, you have been on a wholesome hike, now you deserve a rest. And Bach lets the C that began two chords ago continue to sound in the bass, clashing in gentle dissonance with the B and the D of the G seventh chord now winding its way around home.
C=C major - Nothing more need be said.
This verbal explanation of the magic of music in actuality does not come close to explaining anything. The beautiful Gounod melody combined with the equally beautiful arpeggiated harmonies of Bach form a complete whole which stands on its own as powerful and beautiful music.