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8 min

I promise I won’t talk about all of this. Come back.

(#4 in the Laney’s List series — a music professor chooses 36 pieces to introduce his 16-year-old daughter to classical music.)

If you gave me ten seconds to name the most gorgeously crafted, unsurpassably elegant masterpiece of musical art ever created in Western music, I would say, “Air from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite in D, also known as ‘Air on the G String'” and ask what you’d like me to do with the other six seconds.

The list of reasons is long and wonky, but I’ll stop at two.

1. The Bass Line

A bass line descending by step was common in the Baroque — part of something called the “doctrine of affections,” a way of signaling a particular emotion. Bach could have done something like this

or maybe an octave higher

Instead, he weaves elegantly between the octaves: down / up up / down down…

It’s such a graceful variation on a common idea. Follow the purple squares on the visualization for a few bars to see how it unfolds (15 sec):

[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2j-frfK-yg” parameters=”start=16 end=32″ /]

2. The Most Elegant Two Measures in the History of Oh My Gawd

About halfway through is a two-bar passage that manages to somehow surpass everything that came before. The progression is not just chords but a smooth series of mini key changes — G major, A major, B minor, E minor. See all those sharps sprinkled in there as it rolls by? That’s Bach altering chords along the way to point to new keys, all hung on a bass line of rising half steps. The result is this rich tapestry of sound that builds tension with a dissonance on each downbeat, ending on that brief, searing G against F# in the violins. It’s an eight-beat master class in voice leading and harmony from the Lord High Commander of both.

Listen to those two measures (14 sec):

[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2j-frfK-yg” parameters=”start=156 end=170″ /]

Now forget all that and enjoy the piece my wife and I chose as her wedding processional 27 years ago.

BACH, ‘Air’ from Third Orchestral Suite in D (5:00)

[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2j-frfK-yg” parameters=”start=15″ /]

See also: 1 Chopin | 2 Scarlatti | 3 Hildegard

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.