J.S. Bach's Boureé in B Minor Decoded

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BY NO STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION HAVE I EVER BEEN a classical guitarist—the first time I heard a Bach bourrée was when Jethro Tull’s This Was came out—but years ago, I did recognize the value of adding a Bach piece to one’s oeuvre purely for personal satisfaction and musical enlightenment. When it came time to roll up my sleeves and get to work (and for reasons I can’t remember), I chose the road less travelled—Bach’s “Bourrée in B Minor,” a.k.a. BWV 1002—and it’s been with me ever since.

Unlike Johann Sebastian Bach’s more popular and guitar-friendly “Bourrée in E Minor” (a.k.a. BWV 996), which was specifically written for the lute and supplied the source for Tull’s jazzy arrangement, this bourrée (also named for a French dance) comes from the seventh of eight movements in Bach’s “Partita for Violin Solo No. 1 in B Minor,” also known as BWV 1002 in accordance with the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue), a shorthand numbering system established in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmieder to identify Bach’s compositions thematically versus chronologically. Bach wrote the partita in 1720 and it was first published in 1802. The bourrée was later transcribed and arranged for guitar by the great Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) and has since become part of the classical guitar repertoire.

In the long run, learning this bourrée has provided an advanced lesson in melody and harmony, as well as how to combine both elements, all of which has proven to be extremely rewarding and applicable to all styles of music. I invite any guitarist who simply wants to dip a toe into this vast pool of knowledge and beauty to do the same. You simply can’t lose.

Disclaimer: Of course, this piece was intended to be played fingerstyle on a nylon-string acoustic, but you can certainly learn it on any guitar using any technique you choose. (You didn’t hear that from me.) Just don’t mess with the notes. Here’s the play-by-play:


Ex. 1 depicts the first 20 bars of Tarrega’s arrangement and left-hand fingerings, which we’ll be breaking down into four- and three-bar phrases for analyses. With a few exceptions, right-hand fingering (p = thumb; i = index; m = middle; a = ring) has been left to individual interpretation throughout. Generally, bass strings and chord strums are played with the thumb, while the index, middle, and ring fingers cover the top four strings.

The piece, like all bourrées, begins with a one-beat pickup, i.e., a single quarternote or two eighth-notes. (Note how this recurs every two measures throughout bars 1–8.) In this case, it’s an F# quarter- note, the 5 of the key center, moving to a full Bm chord barred at the 7th fret, as indicated by the “CVII” symbol. The same move is repeated, but the pickup into bar 2 leads us into a G-F#-E-G line harmonized as Edim7, a substitute for F#7, the V chord in B minor. Next, the contrary motion between top and bottom voices in bar 3 creates Bm/D, A7/E, and Bm/F# (or F#7) harmonies, which, instead of directly resolving to Bm, channel through the sus4 and sus2 moves in bar 4, all played using a 2nd-fret barre (marked “CII”).


Bar 5 is preceded by a double eighth-note pickup before we continue holding the 2nd-fret barre and progress through counterpoint Bm and Bm#5 harmonies (à la John Barry’s James Bond theme). Bar 6 features a measure of A7-based melody, followed in bar 7 by A7-to-A6 counterpoint moves played over a pedaled open fifth string. This deceptively resolves to an unexpected Gmaj7 in bar 8, and, with Gmaj7 being the IV chord in the key of D, puts us one step closer to a pending modulation to this relative major key.


Starting with the pickup to bar 9, we resort to a single-note line that sequentially descends through an A9 arpeggio before targeting a dissonant G-plus-A major second interval to imply A7 on the downbeat of bar 10. We continue up the B minor/D major scale for the remaining three beats (note the dynamics) before arriving at bar 11’s four-chord deceptive cadence—D-D/F#-G6-A. This targets Bm on the downbeat of bar 12, but due to the previous harmonic setup, it doesn’t sound like the tonic I-minor chord anymore. In fact, the jazz-like Bm7-E7 progression in bar 12 also signals a shift to 3-bar versus 4-bar phrases for the remaining nine bars.


Here, the I-minor chord becomes the V of V, as we back-cycle through a Bm7-E7- A7-D7 harmonic framework—in jazz, bars 12 and 13 might be construed as a IIIm7- VI7-II7-V7 progression in G—thereby setting up another deceptive cadence (G-D-A-D9) to G in bar 14.


There’s a dynamic crescendo in bar 15’s A7/C#-to-A6-based harmony before we quiet down in bar 16 with the A7/C# recap and Bm#5-based line that leads to bar 17’s ascending A7 arpeggio, which now officially becomes the new V chord as we head “home” to D. The dynamics move back to forte for bar 18 and 19’s descending single- note line that precedes the final V-I cadence (A7-D) in bars 19 and 20. Thus ends the excerpt. But wait—there’s more…


One thing you never see in Baroque music is a chord chart…until now! Unconventional as it may be, Ex. 2 sketches the harmonic progression of our 20-bar BWV 1002 excerpt as if it were a jazz standard. Use it to study and marvel at Bach’s harmonic scheme, or perhaps even try (gasp) improvising over it. The chart also makes it easier to experiment with alternative fingerings. Speaking of which…


While learning this piece, I adopted several left-hand fingering variations—in some cases, familiar jazz voicings—which, for whatever reason, seemed more logical. For instance, bars 1 and 2 remain untouched except for the pickup into bar 3, but I found bars 3 and 4 to be a more comfortable fit as shown in Ex. 3. The pickup simply inverts the Edim7 chord from bar 2 in the same position by using the lower part of the same chord grip. From there, I’ve relocated the Bm/D and A/E voicings in bar 3 to the fifth, third, and second strings. Bar 4 remains the same as in Ex. 1.


In Ex. 4’s version of bars 5 and 6, the pickup and ensuing Bm-to-Bm#5 and A7 moves now reside in the seventh and fifth position, respectively. These now require a bit of a stretch, but I liked the idea of keeping the voicings on the same strings as ones coming up in the next phrase. Ex. 5’s variation of bars 7 and 8 continues the descent through A7-A6 and Gmaj7 in similar fashion to Ex. 4 before landing in third position.


The descending A9 arpeggio in bar 9 is realigned in Ex. 6 as a four-note una corda shape on the top four strings, which facilitates a jumpy but comfortable transition to the b7-plus-root A7 dyad on the downbeat of bar 10. The ascending scale line that follows now remains in second position (again, note the dynamics), while the rest of bar 11 (D-D/F#-G6-A) stays unchanged. Ex. 7 shows how I swapped the Bm7-E7-A7-D7 chord shapes in bars 12 and 13 for standard seventh- and fifth-position jazz voicings. Bar 14 (not notated) remains untouched.


Ex. 8 takes advantage of the open G string to convey the A7/C#–A6 and Bm#5 motion in bars 15 and 16. In bar 17, I’ve moved the last two notes of the A7 arpeggio to the second string before switching back to Tarrega’s fingerings for the descending scale sequence and final V-I cadence in bars 18 – 20. One exception: I couldn’t resist inserting a half-step trill (F#-to-G) on the and of beat one in bar 19.

For all its riches and no matter how you play it, once you learn this excerpt it goes by fairly quickly. I hope this month’s Under Investigation inspires you to seek out the Tarrega score and work your way through the rest of this beautiful and satisfying piece. Put in the time and it’s yours for life!