On the spectrum of how closely related these two pieces are, I place them at one of the far ends: not really musically related at all. The prelude is written in a virtuosic, Italian style; the fugue is composed in a style that would have been considered old even in Bach’s time, reminiscent of Palestrina.
The prelude initially looked straightforward — ABA form, fairly homophonic textures — but as I began learning it, I had the realization that I may have underestimated some of its challenges. To start: the choice of tempo. On one hand, there are many lovely, lyrical moments (particularly in the middle of the B section) which a slower tempo would highlight. On the other hand, there are echoes of the gallant Italian style, along with a fair number of toccata-like sections (i.e. single, melodic lines that traipse up and down the keyboard), which would usually indicate a faster tempo. Ultimately, I thought there was a stronger argument to be made for something fairly quick.
Taking a faster tempo, then, brings us back to the perpetual challenge of keeping all the running sixteenth notes even. Particularly in the toccata-ish sections, it takes considerable finger-discipline to ensure that every note lands firmly in its allotted time and place. The score indicated to split the single line between the two hands, which does pose an advantage where one can almost always be using the hand’s strongest fingers. However, the corresponding disadvantage is determining the right choreography that would ensure a seamless line of material.
Some attempt to visually display hand choreography; above the line is the right hand’s chore, below is the left hand’s task. Would this be easier to play with just one hand? Maybe. I tried it out, seemed like a horse apiece.
Finally, the beginning of the prelude is incredibly difficult. Trills are one of my bigger technical challenges, especially when they are in the right hand, especially when they are set against a busy left hand. All of those conditions are present here, and being the beginning of the piece, it’s an exposed spot. The strategy of getting a running start, faking things a bit, and hoping that we’ll be done soon doesn’t really work here. I guess I eventually got something worked out, but I always held my breath (in retrospect, probably not the best strategy) until I got into measure three.
Each fugue requires its own approach when it comes to learning and/or understanding it. For some, it’s easy to understand what is written, and it’s primarily a technical endeavor to reflect what is on the page in sound. Others require more puzzling out. The key for unlocking this fugue came from understanding its underlying harmonic structure. So, the following is basically a walk-through of the fugue from a theoretical perspective. It is kind of long and involved, but I think it’s the best way to understand this particular fugue.
(TL;DR: Sometimes you need to know music theory to learn a fugue. Followed by an assertion that the WTC could potentially be viewed as something resembling a cohesive, large-scale work.)
To start, this is a beautiful fugue — although, admittedly, I tend to prefer these old-style fugues (the E Major fugue is written in a similar style and is also one of my favorites). It’s unusual: fairly long, cycling through a lot of key areas, with a particularly interesting interplay between the soprano and bass voices. In these final few fugues (B-flat Minor, B Major, B Minor), I find an aspect typically associated with Classical and Romantic works: musical conflict. Almost all music, regardless of when it was composed, has the undulating push and pull of tension/release, but it wasn’t until later that a larger-scale narrative of conflict/resolution emerged. In these final fugues, though, Bach anachronistically uses harmonic movements (along with other compositional devices) to create a conflict and tell a musical narrative. This use of conflict, the fairly frequent use of a proto-sonata form, and the musical pairings within and between some preludes and fugues in the WTC make me believe that Bach was much more of a trailblazer than he is typically given credit for.
Now on to the fugue itself. The subject is simple and very balanced: an outline of an ascending triad followed by a descending triad, then a large leap up that is immediately complemented by a descending scale.
Fugue subject — reminiscent of Newton’s Third Law of Motion
We are systematically introduced to each of our four voices from low to high, beginning with the bass, and working our way up through the tenor, alto, and finally the soprano. However, the introduction of the soprano voice is less satisfying than one would expect. When this voice enters, the bass cuts out completely, creating an untethered feeling. This effect of the bass cutting out and the soprano precipitously rising reoccurs at critical junctures throughout the fugue, and creates a scenario typically associated with later compositions: a musical conflict. After the soprano’s introduction, we are reintroduced to the bass voice, which briefly gives the impression that this could be a five-voice fugue. But, it isn’t — we transition into a short episode with just the four voices and cadence on F# Major, the dominant key.
At this point, we are introduced to the countersubject that will stay with us: undulating eighth notes with rising passing tones, followed by descending triads.
Countersubject — this material (i.e. this general melodic shape) will appear a lot moving forward.
While we begin in F# Major, we are ultimately headed toward D# Minor, and will have an unusually long stay in various minor key areas. Once we reach our initial harmonic destination, the bass once again drops out and an untethered, ethereal character emerges. The top two voices keep rising chromatically up the keyboard until the bass enters with a low, restatement of the subject in minor, attempting to counterbalance the upper voices. And it works — the soprano is quickly pulled down into a chromatic quagmire of minor material. An energetic low point, this episode brings us to the darkest point of the fugue. However, we are not stuck in the darkness forever, and a buried iteration of the subject in the tenor voice acts as the mechanism which will pull us out of this minor material and back into major (I always find that moment to be particularly beautiful). However, things still feel a bit off. As we approach the cadence in E Major, a chasm opens between the bass and other three voices, and the bass drops out immediately after the resolution in E Major.
The ethereal character reemerges as we transition into a long, wandering episode which pulls us back yet again into minor key areas. However, the energy begins picking up, with quick, descending sixteenth notes in the tenor set against rising fourths in both upper voices. The tenor’s downward gesture can’t control the energy of the upper voices, which pull us high up the keyboard once again, with no bass to harmonically undergird things. Finally, the bass is reintroduced with a restatement of the subject in B Major. Typically, a tonic restatement of the subject would indicate that we are about to wrap things up. That expectation is subverted here — we have almost a full page of material left. Instead of heading into a coda, we are led into yet another chromatic episode that circles us back into the minor key areas we thought we had left. After we bottom out (back in D# Minor), we move sequentially up the keyboard, systematically unravelling the previous harmonic progressions, and the soprano’s final iteration of the subject succeeds in pulling us solidly into B Major.
This final statement of the subject is notable: it is the only time the soprano has a statement of the subject with all other voices present. Throughout the fugue, there seems to be conflict between the bass, which drags things down, and the soprano, which tries to ascend. We repeatedly see that the soprano is only able to drift upwards on the keyboard when the bass isn’t present, and the bass often comes in and attempts to pull the soprano back down. Only at the very end is the soprano able to have a high, soaring line with the bass harmonically supporting it.
Even here, though, we are not free and easy. Diminished chords drive the final harmonic movements of the fugue, which creates a sense of harmonic instability, even as we are wrapping things up. And of course, a turn of the page to the next prelude and fugue drops us back into the minor: B Minor — which is interesting to think about in terms of the large-scale structure of the WTC. We are accustomed to viewing these works as self-contained, but occasionally you can find connections within and between pairs. Many of Bach’s last pieces were his biggest, large-scale works: Goldberg Variations, Art of the Fugue, Musical Offering — it seems possible that in WTC II he was striving for a larger, cohesive form even with smaller works that we typically consider to be self-contained.