What Bach Piece is A Whiter Shade of Pale?
What does Procol Harum mean, anyway?

Ostensibly "far from these things", but it's broken Latin, because (a) it's rightly procul, not *procol, and (b), procul ("far from") takes the ablative, not the genitive case, so it ought be procul his--- hence, this putative phrase is not classical in origin. For a dissertation on the derivation of the band's name, see this page on the Procol Harum site.

Perhaps "far from these things" is also a good answer to "what Bach piece is it?": it's no Bach piece, and all credit goes to composers Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher (the latter, the group's organist, responsible for the now-famous organ obbligato) of Procol Harum. The first five chords (quarter-note each) and their descending bass line are strikingly similar to those of the renowned Air for the G String (Air from the Suite in D, BWV 1068), especially under the organ obbligato on the third degree of the scale, although the ornamentation of the obbligato is very different. The ornamental figures at the end of the phrase are, according to Fisher himself, a reference to those of the renowned "Schübler" Chorale-prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme ("Sleepers, wake", BWV 645), itself Bach's transcription of the fourth movement of the Cantata (BWV 140) of the same name. The organ melody appears as a ritornello throughout the piece, much in the manner of a Baroque aria.

Procol Harum's (skillful) use of the organ, a little bit of counterpoint, and the allusion to these two Bach works has been enough to lead many mistakenly to believe that this beautiful rock song is in fact a quoted or paraphrased Bach work. It is not -- "Bach-inspired" (as enough of Mozart and Brahms!) would be the best description. It is not to be overlooked that Fisher's deliberate attempt to "sound like Bach" has produced a song widely admired for its majestic beauty, in particular by many listeners wholly unfamiliar with the music to which it pays homage.

For a note-for-note consideration of the relationship between these three pieces, with copious musical examples and technical music language, please see our page

Does A Whiter Shade of Pale quote Bach?

Those with further interest in this venerable 60's anthem might want to visit Jens Ravnaas' definitive Procol Harum web site, which features a page on A Whiter Shade of Pale ("AWSOP") including text and analysis of its opaque libretto and a discussion of appropriate credit for its shared authorship, including lengthy debate of the exact degree of Bach's influence, as well as other Procol Harum resources including links to yet more.

Matthew Fisher's own home page cites the page you are reading (and its companion) as authoritative and definitive on this matter.


Copyright © Bernard S. Greenberg 1996, 1997, 2000


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