A Minor P&F

I purposely saved this set for last. I love the eerie chromaticism of the prelude and the austere dramaticism of the fugue.

The Prelude

Bach immediately introduces the main idea for the prelude: a small, diatonic scalar fragment before both hands begin winding chromatically down the keyboard. First the line reaches up, through a sharpened, raised note, balanced by sighing downwards gesture, through a flattened one. With this much chromaticism, articulation seemed obvious: emphasize the “sighing” gesture of the chromatic notes into their diatonic landing place. Along with emphasizing the chromaticism of the line, these gestures gave the prelude an off-kilter feel, since the stressed notes are slightly off the main beats. The main challenges of this articulation were making sure I maintained it consistently throughout the prelude and taking care that the second note of the slur (which lands with the left hand) isn’t accidentally accented. 

Articulation to highlight the “sighing” character of the chromatic notes

After the soprano offers this initial idea, the bass echoes it before moving into a transitory material that serves two purposes: first, it adds interest; second, it lifts the music back into the middle register after two measures of material that is being pulled down the keyboard. Some sprightly thirty-seconds and leaping sixths move us into a restatement of the opening material in E minor.

Transitory material

In many ways, that is the template for the prelude: a question, an answer, and then something different – usually an expansion of that transitory material. That predictability made this prelude easy to sightread and get under my fingers quickly. However, I find that there’s usually an inverse relationship between reading something seemingly straight-foward and being able to memorize it easily. When I can look at a piece of music and just play it, without wrestling through fingering, or puzzling over articulation, or trying to hear some buried line…it’s easy to go on auto-pilot and not really assimilate much of the piece. I found that I literally needed to talk myself through what was happening in the piece, in either melodic or harmonic terms, before I could memorize it. For example, at the end of the first transitory episode, the main things I here are the thirty-second notes in the right hand and octane leaps in the bass. Keeping my attention on those two elements, I tracked the harmonic movement: “first it’s G major; now A minor; then it’s D major, then G major…” I found that memorization came quickly once I talked myself through the piece and figured out either what to think or what to listen for at any given moment.

Like many of Bach’s preludes, the second half opens with an inversion of the opening material. And (as is also typical in his minor pieces)  we shift into the major — the dominant major, in this instance. Instead of the material dragging down, like in the beginning,  it rises up into (what was) the highest register of the keyboard. The rising line coupled with the major is really special – it’s a complete contrast to what we heard in the first half. But, like always, this ray of sunshine doesn’t last very long — at the apex, there’s an abrupt shift into D minor, and we never quite recover.

This moment is very poignant.

Harmonically, this half goes pretty far afield. Many diminished and augmented sixth harmonies, often coupled with a faster harmonic rhythm. Instead of ideas (and harmonies) expanding through an entire measure, Bach cycles through harmonic movements in half that time. This strategy helps create drama, since we are moving through “crunchier” material at a faster clip – there’s no time to settle anywhere for long. When we finally circle back to the opening material, it’s in E minor (minor dominant, not the expected A minor). 

The right hand begins with the opening material, but then takes a gigantic leap — over an octave — beginning a chromatic climb from E all the way to B, leading us to the climax of the prelude. Registrally, the voices are very far apart, which indicates a loud dynamic (and adds dramaticsm more generally). Melodically, the only response is to sequence back down. Which is the choice Bach makes: the two voices sequence down together, until both are situated together in the lower register.A bit of cadential material rounds things off.

Woo – that’s the climax. And then we sequence down forever.

I don’t know — I really love this prelude. It’s not difficult; it’s really interesting from both a harmonic and melodic perspective. It has a dark character, yet there are brief moments of lightness that puncture through. And, it’s interesting that Bach ends the prelude ambiguously, with open As…

The Fugue

This fugue is bizarre and I am here for it. “Austere” is the main adjective that comes to mind — it’s a three voice fugue, but a lot of it reads like a two-voice writing. Sometimes this is because of a fairly high proportion of rests in one particular voice, but at other times it’s due to lean writing interspersed equally throughout voices. There might technically be three voices on a page, but it would be easy for many listeners to miss one.

This is also one of the few subjects that contain explicit articulation markings: daggers over the second half of the subject, which I took to indicate a sharp, detached articulation. To me, it seemed a bit odd that these markings are included. The whole fugue is dramatic — it uses the whole range of the keyboard, has an abundance of quick note values, including thirty-second notes, and trills, along with a toccata-esque ending — all of these elements made me consider the subject in those same terms. The opening gesture begins on a weak beat, is rhythmically stagnant, and ends with a diminished seventh leap down. In this context, every one of those elements points to a heavy, dark, severe character. The following eighth notes provide some lightness. But my only instinct with this subject was to play everything in the subject detached. It definitely wasn’t a fugue where I messed around much with various articulation possibilities.

Subject; note the articulation markings over the second half of the subject

The countersubject sits, in some respects, in complete contrast to the subject. It’s buzzy — a bunch of fast notes that zig-zag around in musical space.

A fairly lengthy, somewhat lyrical episode counterbalances the stark dramaticism of the exposition. One of the most audible markers is the trills that pass between the three voices. When the subject makes its reintroduction, all three voices are high in musical space, in the middle and top registers of the keyboard. This sudden lack of bass creates a sense of airiness, like the musical material is floating on top of things for a moment. But, a shift back into minor and a long run down the keyboard firmly pulls the material back down and into a low, alto restatement of the subject.

From there, a long sequence up the keyboard, marked again by trills that crawl up in the bass. Once the bass finally reaches its apex, more than two octaves high from where it started, the subject returns in the soprano, supported by fragmentary subject material in the alto. The bass takes on the countersubject and buzzes around undulating thirty-second note gestures. Harmonically, things get weird and kind of awesome. Starting in B-flat major (a neapolitan harmony — dramatic); the fugue moves from A Major to G Major to C Major, which then allows Bach to take advantage of a relative minor relationship between C Major and A minor, and the fugue is back in the tonic. I love this part.! There’s so much happening from so many different perspectives. And because the material is moving quickly through so many different harmonic areas – major harmonic areas — it creates a sense of of struggle, like the fugue is trying to wrestle its way out this really dark character and just can’t do it. 

And then the ending just stays in this heightened affective state – back in A minor – toccatta-like textures in the upper voices, the subject emerges in the bass to close things out, still in minor. No picardy third here. It’s dark. This fugue is so dark and austere that it could only end in minor. 

I purposefully saved this set for last. When I was figuring out the best order to learn the last few P&Fs from WTC II, this one stood out as a potential favorite, with an added bonus that both pieces were short. I sometimes found the “look” of the fugue intimidating, since it had so many fast note values. Plus, because the subject’s rhythm consisted of quarter and eighth-notes, but the countersubject had thirty-second notes, it seemed like picking a tempo would be difficult. It couldn’t be too slow, because the initial presentation of the subject would sound stodgy. But it also couldn’t start too fast, because there needed to be enough to accommodate notes 6x faster than those initial quarter notes. In the end, though, those two elements turned out pretty easy to reconcile;  the runs were basically diatonic and laid well under the hands; setting the tempo ended up feeling pretty intuitive.