A Major P&F

On the surface, these two pieces are contrasting. The prelude is calm and pastoral; the fugue is much more energetic. However, to my ears, these two still somehow “go together.” 

The Prelude

This pastoral-sounding prelude is written in compound meter, a lilting 12/8. Dialogue between the soprano and alto is supported by the bass, whose long-short-long-short rhythmic pattern helps reinforce the bucolic character. 

Three elements: dialogue between the soprano and alto (in the squares) and a lilting bassline (unnecessarily, in the oval). 

One interesting aspect of this prelude is the amount of time we spend in minor key areas — significantly more than you’d typically expect. While the broader harmonic strokes follow typical conventions, the paths taken to get there are often atypical, and our stays are almost always cut short with slips into the minor.  

Here’s a quick illustration. After our first phrase (which cadences in the tonic), we move through B Minor on the way to our expected arrival point: E Major (dominant). However, we stay in E major very briefly — only a measure and a half or so — before slipping into E Major’s relative minor, C# Minor. After cycling around C# Minor and some of its closer related harmonies, there’s a sense that we’re stuck in minor. But change is possible. All three voices begin an ascent, with the soprano and alto climbing up to the top of the keyboard. 

The bass in the lower stave is functionally absent; the soprano and alto are climbing up the keyboard. 

Unfortunately, this move is insufficient to bring us completely into brighter pastures. The ostensible success created by the lifting register (generally a hopeful moment) is undermined by the instability of the harmonic underpinning. The bass has essentially dropped out and we are mired in unsustainable minor and diminished harmonies. Eventually, we resolve into F# Minor (relative minor) in an especially poignant moment, as we hear the original melodic material in a minor iteration in the bass.

As this minor iteration progresses, undulating chromatic movements in the bass finally bring us back to A Major (tonic), with our initial melody restated exactly as it began in the soprano. However, this reprieve is short lived. Instead of working our way up the entire octave (as happened previously), we stop just short and top out one step lower than expected. The music circles back, trying again and failing again. We slip back into the minor and stay there for a long time before finally circling around to D Major (subdominant), then E minor (the minor form of the dominant), before finally returning to A Major, our tonic. 

It’s interesting and unexpected that we spend the majority of a piece written in a major key slipping into minor key areas and trying to work our way back out again. Some of the later fugues I’ve already written about (B Major and B Minor) follow a similar pattern. It lends this later music a slightly darker quality, one reminiscent of struggle. It’s interesting to juxtapose that tendency against something like the Goldbergs — also a late composition, but brimming with joy. 

The Fugue

“Breathlessly energetic” is my preferred description for this fugue. The subject is more elaborate than many we’ve seen: several quick, oscillating sixteenth-notes, followed by a rising syncopated line. 

Subject: some sixteenths, the ties create syncopation. 

Our accompanying countersubject features a dotted-sixteenth note rhythm that becomes more pervasive as the piece progresses. 

Countersubject. Hold onto your butts, we’re about to hear this rhythm all over the place. 

Similarly to the prelude, we spend more time in minor than you’d expect, even briefly touching the relative minor during the exposition (unusually early) with the introduction of the soprano voice. This general tendency to slide into minor helps create continuity between these two pieces, despite their apparent surface differences. After our exposition, we start moving down the keyboard and bottom out both energetically and physically low in C# minor (the relative minor of our dominant). This ushers us into the first minor episode: a call-and-response between the soprano and alto voice, while the bass jumps in with the perky countersubject, upping the energy. 

After cycling through the circle of fifths, the bass descends hugely, outlining B Minor then E Major (ii-V, a fairly standard progression), and cadences — also hugely — on A Major. This cadence is particularly noteworthy because it uses the extremes of the keyboard. It is standardly taught that the range of the keyboard (most likely the harpsichord) that Bach used to compose the WTC ran four octaves, from low C to high C. Here, however, we reach all the way down to a low A, two notes lower than that low C, and disprove that factoid. 

That is an exceptionally low note. 

This extreme gesture marks a turning point. We are back in A Major, and the energy is high. This carries us all the way through to the end of the piece, although there are some local low points which add interest and create contrast. Apart from those, however, after that low A, we generally just move up the keyboard and build energy. The extremely energetic dotted-sixteenth countersubject gesture becomes increasingly pervasive, and as we reach the climax of the fugue, it is maintained in the bass, moving chromatically up the keyboard. This movement is complemented by octave leaps, and the tension builds as we are pulled up to the dominant. Finally, this pent-up energy releases into a sequence that slides down the keyboard into A Major. Because there has been such a prolonged build-up, the ending is also fairly extended, giving the music time to unwind itself. 

So, lots of fun. This fugue is lively and playful. Of course, with any piece prominently featuring quick sixteenth-notes, there are technical challenges, particularly when two (or more) voices have sixteenths in unison. And some of the more chromatic moments were a bit finger-bendy. But all-in-all, this was an enjoyable set to learn.