This set is short and sweet. The prelude is reminiscent of the famous C Major prelude from WTC I. The fugue is quirky, peppy, and fun.
This prelude sounds calm, simple, and straightforward. However, there is a lot to manage under the surface! It’s written in four voices, each of which needs to be tracked consistently throughout the piece.
Four voices: quarter note bass; eighth note tenor; sixteenth note alto and soprano. Together, it can sound like one line, but if you listen closely, it’s really four distinct ideas working together.
First, we have the bass line: simply a quarter note every other beat, grounding the harmonic structure. Not too hard. Building up, the tenor (true to form) is prominent and basically in the driver’s seat. Still one of our lower voices, the constantly pulsing eighth notes reinforce a firmer sense of footing while the melodic movement propels the overall harmonic action forward. That is not to say this line was easy to manage — on the contrary, it posed a number of challenges. The downside to the steadfast eighth notes is that they are so regular. It took a lot of care to ensure each one had consistent articulation, avoiding weird bumps that would make a random note stick out. Further complicating things, the line contains many repeated notes. This is a perpetual challenge, as hearing the same note over and over again can quickly become irritating. Varying dynamic level or tone is generally my go-to strategy for keeping things interesting.
Adding to this solid foundation, we can now turn our attention to the right hand’s responsibilities: the alto and the soprano. The alto is the most subordinate voice out of the four. It comes in on the last beat of each measure — four sixteenth notes in a consistent melodic pattern. The soprano, being the highest voice, is the line our ears would typically naturally gravitate toward. In this instance, that’s kind of true. It is possible to listen to the soprano’s highest notes while tracing the slow, large-scale melodic movements through the piece. However, it’s in a weak rhythmic position, making the highest notes less domineering than expected. The soprano is a three-note gesture, coming in on the second sixteenth note of the first beat, with the highest and most prominent note occurring on the fourth sixteenth note. That is, the note our ears are most drawn toward melodically comes in at the weakest spot in the measure, rhythmically. This displacement contributes to the tenor’s prominence, as the tenor is both rhythmically solid and melodically interesting.
The soprano voice. Our ears are naturally drawn toward the highest note, but the weak rhythmic structure subverts the strength of the melodic line. This subversion allows the tenor’s line to become more prominent.
Together, these lines become a constant, undulating stream of notes, creating a sense of calm. But there are brief moments of underlying tension which slowly increase as the prelude progresses, climaxing as we stall out on a dominant pedal for several measures (a long time, given the overall length of the piece). When this resolves, we are surprised with an uptempo fughetta. This contrapuntal section is a complete contrast to what we heard before — drier texture, distinctive imitative lines, and a faster tempo. In many ways, we see that this prelude is really a miniature overture that will bridge us directly into the forthcoming fugue.
The fugue is cheery, playful, and a bit unusual; it’s a three-voice fugue with an extremely short subject. We are first introduced to the bass, then the soprano. The alto’s introduction comes next, but surprisingly it isn’t a simple reiteration of the subject like we would expect — it’s already inverted. I can’t recall any other fugues that start messing around with the subject before the exposition is complete.
Subject; subject; inverted subject
Other descriptors that spring to mind: clear phrasing, minimal episodes, novel material. With the phrases being so unusually clear-cut, each one brings us something new. After the exposition, we are introduced to the subject in diminution, a scalar pattern which ends with some thirty-second notes, and a foray into minor.
Subject in diminution
Then we get some scales with quick notes at the end.
Following this minor detour (terrible pun intended), we begin hearing these ideas in combination. The thirty-second note scalar pattern is set against the subject, the diminuted subject, and the augmented subject in turn. The introduction of the augmented voice is one of the most dramatic moments of the fugue. The middle voice, channeling the tenor from the prelude, reclaims its glory as “The Important Voice” and takes the augmented iteration of the subject as the soprano and bass lines move to the highest register of the keyboard before rapidly descending down to its lowest reaches.
The middle voice has the augmented subject; first we go high, then we go low.
As the end nears, the bass takes a crack at the augmented subject and eventually lands on a dominant pedal tone, similar to what happened before the surprise fughetta in the prelude. Variations on both the subject and the previously encountered scalar patterns are interwoven over the bass’ pedal. This energy ultimately culminates into a toccata-like section. The soprano begins a thirty-second note run down the keyboard, which is transferred to the alto and then the bass, finally moving us out of G# Major (dominant) and back into C# Major (tonic). A short coda helps dissipate the excess energy and solidifies our return to the tonic.
This fugue packs a punch. It’s extremely compact — Bach pulled a lot more material than I expected out of that tiny subject — and enjoyable to play. C# Major is a fun key. It’s a bit quirky, since everything is sharp, but I find it fits naturally under the hand. The prelude’s slow build into the fughetta that leads us into this cheerful fugue creates a delightfully interesting set.