As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I generally find that each prelude and fugue pair falls into one of three categories:
- Clearly musically paired, with musical ideas carried over from the prelude into the fugue.
- Complementary pairs, where they are musically related in terms of character or texture, but don’t have strong underlying unities beyond that.
- Basically unrelated.
The C Minor pair falls into that third categorization: two basically unrelated pieces that happen to be in the same key.
The prelude’s character is largely vigorous and mechanical, but is occasionally balanced with more lyrical moments. Overall, it is a pretty standard Bach prelude: two halves, each repeated, following a conventional modulation scheme. The first half moves from C minor to E-flat Major (relative major), and the second half moves from E-flat Major back to C minor.
The main challenge with this prelude was managing the constant stream of sixteenth notes in such a way that maintained rhythmic integrity while accentuating the contours of the larger-scale melody. The main melodic line is embedded within a group of sixteenth notes, usually as the first note in the group. The remaining notes then play an (often repetitive) accompaniment role, such as a lower-neighbor gesture.
Lower neighbor gesture; happens a lot. The first note of the group is really the only important one.
Figuring out how to emphasize the first note without making it longer (therefore losing rhythmic integrity) took some playing around with. Eventually, a mixture of voicing/manipulating hand weight, pedalling, and finger pedalling all helped give shape to the piece. I also found that engaging in quick, mini-Schenkerian analysis helped with hearing the slower melodic movements embedded within faster-moving lines.
The fugue stands in contrast to the prelude: slower, more lyrical, and very dense. It’s a fairly short four-voice fugue, although Bach refrains from using all four voices together until relatively late into the piece.
It opens predictably, with the four voices being introduced to us over the course of the exposition. But unpredictably, Bach doesn’t veer into purely new material after the initial material is presented, as one might expect. Instead, Bach immediately reintroduces the subject, syncopated, in the uppermost voice. As anachronistic as it sounds, this syncopation always sounds jazzy to me, and it makes me smile. As we make our way to the halfway point — a weighty cadence in G minor (the minor form of the dominant) — at first glance it appears we’ve finally moved on to purely episodic material. But if you listen closely, you can hear the subject occur twice more before the cadence, hidden in the lower voices.
Once we hit that low point in G minor, things really take off. Within a two measure span, we get the original subject, an augmented subject, and an inverted subject in stretto:
- First, in the soprano voice, we get the original subject
- A half-beat later, the tenor voice comes in with an augmented version of the subject
- One measure later, the bass comes in with an inverted form of the subject
From there, we get into a fairly chromatic stretto that builds to an augmented presentation of the subject in the original key that eventually pulls us down the keyboard into a dramatic cadence in C minor. The rest of the fugue functions as a coda, reinforcing the tonic. It contains the basic melody of the subject in both original and inverted form, but this material is fundamentally cadential.
Overall, this fugue was technically straight-forward, but making sense of the voices was tricky, and it was difficult to memorize. Although this is a four-voice fugue, often only two or three voices are present (like, to the point where I wondered if the publisher Henle had made a mistake in its assertion that this is a four-voice fugue). Consequently, a fair amount of puzzling out was needed to make sure I understood which particular combination of voices was present at any given time. Because the fugue is short and dense, there’s almost always some presentation of the subject happening, and making sure it was consistently audible was a challenge — especially when other voices had interesting melodies at the same time (and doubly true in the instances where those other lines were handled by the same hand that has the subject).