To me, the B Minor prelude and fugue go together as a cohesive pair. Unlike the F# Minor prelude and fugue, there aren’t audible musical links between these two pieces. Rather, we experience something of a crisis in the prelude that carries over into the fugue.
The prelude contains a rarity in Bach: a tempo marking, specifically “allegro.” But it’s unlikely that his intention was the precise metronome marking we associate that tempo with today. (The metronome wouldn’t be invented until approximately seventy-five years after Bach’s death). Baroque tempo markings are best approached as guidelines for getting the performer into the right ballpark in terms of tempo and character. In this case, I found it helpful because it would not be my first intuition to take a faster tempo — in fact, the tempo marking seems incongruent with such a darkly minor key.
That juxtaposition — a tempo marking indicating a faster, cheerful character set in B minor (often a solemn key area) — creates an immediate tension in the prelude, furthered through the use of syncopation. The opening material is rhythmically regular, but the soprano and bass move out of sync immediately after the initial phrases. The bass maintains a regular pulse of quarter notes, while the soprano moves in and out of phase above it. Once we arrive in D Major (parallel major), both voices are pulled back into alignment with each other, but the stability is short-lived. We transition relatively quickly out of D Major and back into B minor and never really succeed in reaching a major key area again.
Once we arrive back in the minor, the use of syncopation escalates dramatically into outright conflict between the two voices.
Things get awfully syncopated as we careen into F# minor
At this juncture, both voices start rising, syncopated against each other — the lower voice leads while the upper voice answers. Eventually, there seems to be an attempt by both parties to pull everything back into alignment. In turn, we see each voice leaping downwards, trying to land back on the beat, but none of these attempts are successful. We are pulled all the way down the keyboard and presented with the opening material in a sinister F# minor. There is one final attempt to pull us back out of this crisis — a long, rising sequence, but this is thwarted and we are pulled back down into diminished harmonies and minor key areas. At the very end of the prelude, we hear the opening material return, cut short by diminished harmonies, creating a sense of bitter resignation that we’ve failed to resolve our conflict.
The fugue picks up immediately where we left off. The subject is slightly chromatic with unusual octave leaps.
Those are octave leaps and they are not normal.
These octave leaps are atypical in fugue subjects because such large jumps are difficult to deal with in strict contrapuntal writing. Another unusual feature is the use of two distinct countersubjects:
- The initial countersubject that accompanies the introduction of each voice during the exposition (characterized by a chromatic lower-neighbor gesture reminiscent of the subject, followed by a trill).
- The second countersubject which appears after the exposition and stays with us for the remainder of the piece (characterized by a jagged zig-zaggy gesture).
Together, these features create a mood that is dramatic, angular, and austere.
Over the course of the exposition, we get trills with increasing frequency — first as part of the first countersubject, and then as part of a chromatic, rising sequence. This momentum finally breaks into C# Major (in the context of B Minor, not the most typical place to go), and at this point, things relax a bit. The second countersubject seems to have a mediating effect on our anxious subject.
Things quickly take a more harmonically typical turn into D Major (relative major), and we rise very high up the keyboard. However, we get hints pretty early on that there’s something off about how quickly we arrived here, notably the G natural we get heading into A major (which will lead us to D major).
That’s the note that’s off.
When I was initially learning the piece, I found myself repeatedly wanting to play G# instead of the indicated G natural. This is because, being steeped in the Western musical tradition, our inner ears are accustomed to hearing a half-step movement when heading into new key areas. In Western music theory, we call this movement a “leading tone,” and it does exactly what the name suggests: it leads us into a new harmonic area. But in this case, instead of the semitone movement one would expect, we have a whole step.
So while we do arrive in D Major, there are hints that there will be instability down the road. (Interestingly, this sequence of events is very similar to what happened in the B Major fugue, where we transition into a major key area, very high on the keyboard, but find the major area to be unsustainable.) We hear the subject very high in the soprano voice, and then we start moving down the keyboard, getting a bit of chromaticism along the way. After a bass statement of the subject in A major (systematically unwinding the previous harmonic progressions) we hear the first of two instances of an extremely chromatic, very gnarly rising sequence.
At tempo, it goes by pretty quickly, but when you actually look and slow things down, these few measures are extremely dissonant. The chromaticism juxtaposed against the rising line, particularly the rising fourths and tritones in the alto, feel like an attempted coup, as though the music is trying to claw its way into a different, more stable key.
Like in the prelude, our attempt to find stability — harmonic stability, in this case — fails, and we are once again pulled down the keyboard and into F# minor. We have some attempts to move us out of F# minor through both a restatement of the subject and an episode. However, each iteration of the bass’s sequence of large, upwards leaps are pulled even further down the keyboard, and we eventually reach a low point where we restabilize back in F# minor.
Here, there seems to be a more strategic attempt to get us out of F# minor — while it is an expected key area (the dominant), we can’t stay here forever. We move through a restatement of the subject and into some completely new episodic material, and then hear a final iteration of the subject in E minor. Afterwards, we hear the return of the material that initially brought us into D Major, only this time the harmonic material isn’t subverted in any way. We move predictably through the circle of fifths all the way to G Major. From there, we once again get that highly dissonant rising sequence that brings us back to the tonic, and we finally end with a picardy third, in B major.
To my ears, this fugue is really picking up the prelude’s unresolved crisis, and it has to work pretty hard to overcome those musical problems. The idea of a composer putting out a musical puzzle to be solved over the course of a composition is typically associated with later composers (especially Beethoven). It’s interesting to consider that Bach may have been thinking about his compositions in a similar way much earlier.