Does A Whiter Shade of Pale quote Bach?

A look at the notes by Bernard S. Greenberg
4 July 1997

Procol Harum's renowned 1967 hit A Whiter Shade of Pale (henceforth AWSOP) is widely known for its baroque-styled organ solo, composed by the group's organist, Matthew Fisher (Gary Brooker is responsible for the rest of the music, and Keith Reid the lyric). Fisher, an admirer of Bach, has cited in interviews two very well-known Bach works as inspiration, the Aria from Bach's Orchestral Suite in D, BWV 1068, more popularly known as the Air for the G String, and the chorale prelude BWV 645, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, known auf Englisch as Sleepers, wake. Nevertheless, debate continues over to exactly what extent Procol Harum's piece is indebted to these works, whether it is a "copy" or a "quote", and what exactly the resemblances, if any, are. I hope to settle all these issues here by examining the notes.

Please visit, especially, for transcripts of such debates and relevant citations from interviews with Matthew Fisher.

Here is the opening of A Whiter Shade of Pale, in C Major, the key it is performed on Procol Harum's first album, the dotted rock-bass rhythm removed from the bass to show the latter as quarter notes (I have left the passing tones), and the turns and other ornaments written out in full. The analysis of the harmony is shown as a figured bass (the numbers under the score -- follow this link if this is unfamilar to you), which I have "spelled out in full" for the benefit of those not familiar with the usual shorthands used in that notation. (Note also that the bass is being played by a bass guitar, i.e., an octave lower (16'), so the figuring of the final chord is correct, and that we have cut all note-values in half from usual rock notation to better illuminate the parallels at hand.)

"A Whiter Shade of Pale", score

This pattern of harmony and bass form the basis of the entire song; the organ obbligato notated above, with variants of octave transposition and ornamentation, accompanies the vocal throughout the song in a manner very similar to that of almost any baroque aria.

Now here are the first six measures of Bach's famous Aria BWV 1068.2, levelled to the same playing-field, as it were: transposed to C major, the eighth-note pizzicato motion of the bass reduced to quarter notes, the ornaments written out, and the harmony expressed as figured bass. The two middle voices (second violin and viola, whose plaintive yearnings are responsible for much of the piece's fame) have been totally excised, and are evident only in the figuring.

"Air for the G String", score
First measure commonalities

The first full measure and a quarter of each piece, is harmonically and structurally identical: the bass proceeds down in studious, majestic quarter-notes from I to IV (C to F here in our common key of C), the harmony changing every half-note to the chord whose root is the bass at that beat (the exact same scheme as epitomized by doo-wop songs such as Duke of Earl, by the way), while the obbligato holds the E, ornamented with sixteenths in Fisher but not in Bach. The example to the left shows the essentials of the first five beats of both pieces.

The 6-4-2 notation in the Bach example is a fancy way of saying that "the chord doesn't change as the bass proceeds downward stepwise through its lower neighbor as a passing tone" -- Bach holds the chord religiously, while Fisher does not expose the dissonant seventh of the passing chords and only holds the two common notes of the neighbor chords (hence the lack of 2 in the figuring of AWSOP): Gary Brooker had written AWSOP's chord progression before Fisher created the organ solo. The chromatic passing tones of AWSOP (Gb, Db, the last eighths of mm. 1 and 3) are totally out of idiom for the Bach piece. They seem to add a pro forma "rock feel", and can be ignored for the purposes of this comparison.

Another composition that has been cited as a possible inspiration for AWSOP's chord progression is the beautiful 1966 Lennon-McCartney composition For No One, the harmonic and melodic outline of whose first five measures is given at right (original key and meter). Note that the bass line is the same as that of both AWSOP and BWV 1068.2, the intermediate chords change as in AWSOP but not 1068.2, and the goal of the sequence is suspension of the major 7th E over F, as in 1068.2 but not AWSOP. Note that the (cut) tempo is quite fast, and the amount of time given to each bass note is about the same in all three pieces.

For No One

That common first measure and some is not just a little snippet of music, but about ten seconds at the usual tempi for the Aria, and only a little less for AWSOP, and one of the most well-known and beloved openings in Bach, if not the whole classical literature, and the opening and ritornello and "signature riff" of AWSOP as well. The gesture is not unlike starting a speech with "Fourscore and nine days ago..." and repeating it.

The technique underlying both pieces is continuous stepwise descent in the bass in quarters, with harmony changing every half-note (compare measure 4 of both pieces, for example) until the final, cadential measure. In both pieces, the obbligato repeatedly holds the third of the chord as a long note at the beginning of each measure, and trails off into ornamentation in sixteenths in the second half of each measure to prepare the next (e.g., mm. 3, 4 5, of Bach, and mm. 1, 2, 3, of Fisher). The similarities of structure and effect are indisputable.

Bach's harmony is considerably more evocative and ingenious, if for no other reasons than the he has four real voices to work with and is trying to modulate to the dominant (G here, A in the real work), while Fisher is limited to a texture of solo and continuo, and must remain in the key of the song. Note also that Fisher's melody is also designed to serve in counterpoint to the vocal lead of the song -- Fisher and Brooker's work is actually more deserving of the title Aria than Bach's!

The profound structural similarities and allusions notwithstanding, Fisher's work is not Bach's, nor an arrangement of Bach's: it is a new composition not so much in the style of Bach as in the style of his famous Aria in particular. While not the same work at all, it is clearly motivated and informed by, and alluding to, Bach's. The opening notwithstanding, the overall harmonic structure is not the same, and the ornamentation of the solo is quite different -- in fact, Fisher's ornamentation openly alludes to that of BWV 645 (Wachet, auf). Here are the relevant six measures of that work, presented in the same terms (transposed, ornaments written out, etc.). The transposition is to F to cause critical parallel measures to appear in the same key:

"Sleepers, wake", score

The quick ornament on the third quarter of mm. 8 and 9 of the above excerpt occurs throughout this chorale prelude, is quite famous, and instantly identifies it to anyone who has ever heard it. Fisher uses it in the exact same place in the measure and the same context in mm. 2 and 3 of AWSOP cited above. Notice how the solo in all four of these measures (both Fisher and both Bach) starts out on the third of the chord. Fisher's two measures are almost a quote of the Bach measures. In fact, changing Bach's syncopated eighth-quarter-eight to dotted-quarter-sixteenth-sixteenth, and restoring Bach's sharpened fourth to a natural, Bach's measure 8 becomes Fisher's measure 2, for the entire solo line and three of the four bass notes. Bach's Measure 9 is in the same way very similar to Fisher's measure 3, but Bach is trying to modulate while Fisher is trying to stay in key, necessitating a less striking effect. Note that while the AWSOP retains the same descending bass in both measures, Bach inverts the bass pattern (turns it upside down) in the second measure to heighten interest.

The sixteenth-note passing tones at the last beat of AWSOP m. 2 constitute an interesting "alternate solution" to the reconciliation of the breaking of the downward motion of the bass and the need to arrive at V (here, G), which Bach handles by sounding an F on the last beat of m. 8. The AWSOP line passes up through F -- it seems in part motivated by the motion imparted by the 3/16-1/16 dotted-rock-rhythm on most of the beats of the piece.

The ascending bass (A-B-C in our common key) in eighths, supporting a cadence approaching the tonic via 6-3's, in Fisher's m. 4 seems to allude to the same in Bach's (BWV 645) m. 12.

Clearly, A Whiter Shade of Pale quotes a measure and then some and a very famous ornament from Wachet, auf (BWV 645). AWSOP takes advantage of the structural similarities between these excerpts of BWV 1068.2 and BWV 645, (the descending bass in quarter-notes, cf. mm. 6-7 and 10-11 of BWV 645) and evolves as a new piece built out of these common ideas. The song itself, not just the organ obbligato, is built around this bass and harmonic pattern, announced at the outset.

(By the way, this chorale prelude is an arrangement of the fourth movement of the Cantata BWV 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, for the 27th Sunday of Trinity, which presents and considers the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Matthew 25:1. One wonders if the reference to "one of sixteen Vestal Virgins" in the libretto of AWSOP bears any connection to this.)

The basic musical vocabulary of A Whiter Shade of Pale, when seen from the standpoint of rock music, owes heavily to the Baroque. Although master rock bassists such as Jack Casady and Phil Lesh routinely created bass lines brimming with contrapuntal ingenuity, rock bass tends to lean heavily on jumps between root-position chords: long, linear bass lines of this kind are unusual. The piece's lack of the syncopation so characteristic of rock is as deliberate and uncommon as its overtly baroque ornamentation idiom. Whether "Bach-like" or not, AWSOP, like much of Procol's work, is purposefully phrased in the discursive vocabulary of Baroque music.

Does A Whiter Shade of Pale quote Bach? For a measure, yes. Is it a Bach piece? No. Is it related to a Bach piece? Its relationship to both these pieces is unmistakeable. Is it an "original work"? That is a matter of judgement, not fact, and only you can decide. I, for one, am impressed with the originality and beauty of this composition.

Copyright © Bernard S. Greenberg 1997

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