This set marks the beginning of the end. We’ve almost completed the chromatic climb up from C Major and are now only a whole step away from where we began.
These last four sets are unusually forward-looking, featuring articulation markings, tempo indications, a sense of musical conflict, and clear musical links between the movements (and, arguably, conceptually between sets). All these characteristics are typically associated with subsequent generations of composers (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven). Bach’s works have the reputation of completely synthesizing the compositional stylistic conventions of the High Baroque (and in many ways, they do!). But, these final pieces are also surprisingly innovative — a word typically not associated with Bach.
The B-flat Major prelude has a character of pastoral contentment with moments of playfulness. Written in what I’d consider a “true” early sonata form (as opposed to the proto-sonata forms I’ve written about previously), the prelude is split into two halves, each repeated. Our first theme is a series of scales that pass through each voice, in turn. We kick off with a descent that begins in the soprano then flows down through the alto and into the bass. This movement is then mirrored with a symmetrical ascent.
Descending through the soprano, alto, and then finally bass.
But then! We can’t descend forever — here is a nice symmetrical ascent. It does continue up through the soprano, but the line break was weird and (as of this writing) I wasn’t particularly motivated to smoosh something together.
Our second theme features a descending sequence of arpeggiated seventh chords — fairly standard issue harmonic material. However, the presentation of this theme is clever: the bass and soprano have identical material. The only difference is that their presentations are offset by one beat. Initially, the bass leads, but halfway through they switch, and the soprano becomes the leader. It’s remarkable how such a simple compositional idea can sound so harmonically complex. This material provides contrast — the seventh chords are much less stable than the scalar patterns we’ve just heard — and moves us to the dominant.
I didn’t go and circle every single iteration for you, but you can get the idea: the bass starts and the soprano comes in one beat later with the exact same material.
After this, we move into transitionary material that will ultimately build up to the climactic ending of our exposition. We initially encounter a section characterized by playful hand crossings, which then returns us to scalar patterns reminiscent of those found in the first theme. These scales take us to a local high point and our final (for now) cadential material.
The development begins as we turn the page (Henle — my preferred publisher — tries so hard to put page turns in logical places) and embark on the second half of the piece. While the initial material is completely new, we are quickly reintroduced to that distinctively playful hand-crossing gesture. This iteration of an existing idea moves us harmonically further afield. (This is a common device. Because the listener is familiar with essentially half of what is being presented, it’s easier to immediately comprehend what you’re hearing while introducing enough novelty to remain interesting.) We pass through some minor and diminished harmonies and briefly resolve in F Minor (minor dominant). This sets us up for an unusually extended stay in and around G Minor. The swing into the relative minor isn’t totally crazy, but it is a bit surprising how prolonged it is. But then, we abruptly leave and recapitulate back to our first theme, which is also a bit surprising. Together, these events create a quirky, eccentric character.
The recapitulation repeats our two initial themes, slightly varied — the goal is to stay in tonic (and not veer to the dominant). However, instead of transitioning back into another playful hand-crossing section as we (potentially) remember from the exposition, the soprano and bass enter a series of increasingly dramatic call- and-responses. This section contains totally new material, and it plays with our expectations — tremendously.
The soprano begins the call-and-response with a flurry of activity which ends in an abrupt stop. The bass answers with an ascending scale followed by a leap down by a seventh, a very large and dissonant interval. This is the kind of writing that theory teachers would absolutely take a red pen to if it appeared in a student’s counterpoint exercise. And this pattern proceeds to repeat not one, or twice, or even thrice. This pattern continues four times, varies slightly, and then adds even more repetitions.
Call and response between the top two voices and bass. Look at the jump in the bass! And then — what is this? A huge jump down to A-flat, and then yet another jump down? Crazy.
Western culture is predicated on groups of threes. That principle has been absorbed so completely that it sometimes feels as if God himself sanctioned it. The Judeo-Christian religions shaped and imprinted so strongly on early-modern Western culture that many aspects of those systems have seeped into our culture’s DNA. To give some quick examples of the number three featuring prominently in the religion I happen to know the most about — Christianity: the Trinity; Jesus rising from the dead after three days of being dead; three people witnessed the transfiguration of Christ. (It probably felt natural to read those three examples. I, in fact, could only think of two off the top of my head, and I went and looked up a third just so our list could be rounded out with three examples.)
Anyway, that is one reason why people like groups of three. We are completely accustomed to it. And here, Bach subverts our expectations by repeating this gesture not three times, but four (and then four more). Moreover, the first two descents follow standard harmonic conventions — G (VI, relative minor); D (III, V of VI) — but then on our third iteration, we get a surprise, landing on A-flat, which isn’t even part of the B-flat Major scale that we’re working with. And to top it off, we aren’t even done descending. We go way down to E-flat, nearly the bottom of the keyboard. At this point, we’re at least back in the B-flat major scale and could potentially get back to the tonic, but (spoiler alert) we don’t. Not yet.
What goes down must come up, and the material does ascend. We hear an inversion of our first theme that moves us up the keyboard…but we’ve slipped back into G Minor along the way. Furthermore, only the top voices actually succeeded in ascending. Somewhere along the way, the bass slips back down. This is the most dramatic moment of the piece. There’s now a huge gulf between the bass and the soprano, and the bass (apparently making up for its blunder) makes a gigantic leap up — more than two octaves — except it doesn’t quite land in a consonant spot, and we hear dissonant interval after dissonant interval as we descend back down the keyboard.
Whoops — too far!
Similarly to what happened just a few phrases before, this descending sequence goes on forever. We hear four iterations of one sequence that gives way to another four-step sequence, this time without the bass. After all of this, we are finally back on track, and things begin wrapping with what is essentially a long coda. The two voices, at last on the same page, move in contrary motion against each other. They slowly work back up the keyboard and into the material that we heard at the end of the exposition. This coda was always kind of stressful to play — it’s almost constant running sixteenth notes together in both hands. It’s also one of the longest preludes in the WTC — four pages (with squishier text on the second two pages), and I was always battling some mental fatigue once I got here. But, eventually we reach the end and move onto one of the easiest fugues in the book.
There’s a lot about this fugue that is straight-forward: three voices; moderate tempo; nothing faster than an eighth note; steady, regular counterpoint. There is one unusual feature, though. Bach provided articulation markings in the subject. It’s a small detail — four little slurs, only written for the first iteration of the subject, but it’s significant, both in terms of how to approach performing the piece and in the context of his output.
Slurs — they might look insignificant; they’re actually pretty important.
Two-note slurs go like this: a slightly accented first note, a slightly tapered second (BA-dum BA-dum kind of sound). In the context of this piece, this articulation marking mitigates the potential choice of a performer to accent the first repeated note as opposed to the second, highlighting the slow descending scale as opposed to the repeated notes. It also helps create a pious character — calm and understated. The image that always comes to my mind is one of nuns slowly bobbing along in their habits in a convent, heading off to pray.
For Bach, articulation markings are extremely unusual. They’re almost never included in his manuscripts because music (in his time) was a learned craft — a lot was passed down aurally between master and apprentice. This craft encompassed all aspects of musicianship holistically (as opposed to the modern, narrow focus of only composition, or performance, or teaching). Consequently, a Baroque musical score contains a lot of implicit or presumed knowledge. Additionally, ink and paper were very expensive, so anything that could be omitted was. Yet in the WTC II, we begin getting articulation markings (I wouldn’t say consistently, but with surprising regularity). We are slowly starting to see a composer impose, just ever so slightly, his idea of what a realized score should sound like.
When learning this fugue, I stumbled across a bizarre issue: the fugue was easy — to the point it became difficult to learn. It’s short and sight-readable; there’s nothing to really puzzle out. There are only three voices (as opposed to four, or even five), and nothing crazy happens to the subject — no inversion, augmentation, diminution, etc. The fingering was straightforward, and it fit well under the hands. It’s just technically not that hard.
The challenge was battling complacency. After just a few run throughs, this fugue got to the point where it sounded fine, but not great. And I could tell memory was going to be an issue because I had learned it so easily — I could run through it with a score just fine, but I hadn’t internalized anything.. I talked to my teacher about this problem, and he had some good advice. (And considering he patiently tolerates my very regular complaints about how hard my repertoire is, this was probably a refreshing development.) Anyway, his advice was to adopt a curious mindset — to look at each measure, one by one, and figure out what’s the most interesting thing about each unit. And I have to say, this advice was transformative. After going through this exercise, the fugue sounded a million times better and was mostly memorized. I was glad to have found a new practice strategy to add to the general toolkit.
Beyond this, I don’t have too much else to say about this fugue. It has some really beautiful moments, particularly when there’s a turn to an unexpected shade of minor, or a turn back to major after an extended period away in some of those darker, minor key areas. It’s an understated reprieve before we launch into the musical conflicts of the remaining three fugues, and it’s a total contrast to the monstrous B-flat Minor fugue that’s just around the corner.