These two pieces couldn’t be a greater contrast. The prelude is slow, lyrical, and somber; the fugue is relentless, featuring endless streams of melody.
Like Tolstoy’s famous quote on how unhappy families are each uniquely so, each work in the WTC is difficult in its own special way. This particular prelude is technically straightforward, but it places considerable musical demands on the performer. From the beginning, there are several unusual aspects: the time signature, the complexity of the counterpoint, and the form.
The time signature is 9/8, a relatively unusual meter. Like the more frequently encountered 3/4, 9/8 contains three large beats every measure. However, 3/4 divides each larger beat into two smaller ones (time signatures that do this are called “simple”). In 9/8, the large beats subdivide into three smaller ones (called a compound meter). It’s beautifully symmetrical: three large beats per measure, with each large beat embedded with three smaller ones.
Three groups of three; nine eighth notes total.
While we don’t often get this 3×3 feel in music, a “symmetrical” meter isn’t unusual in and of itself. 4/4 is one of the most commonly used time signatures (literally called “common time”), and it breaks down into a symmetrical 2×2. Like 3/4 mentioned above, 4/4 is a simple meter. Because the base unit is subdivided into two, there’s more flexibility to “play” with the beat. It’s easy to subvert rhythmic expectations while still staying grounded enough in the meter to help both the performer and audience follow along. In contrast, 9/8 moves along with such evenness that it can be difficult to keep one’s place in each measure. As a result, its character is rational, calm, placid, unhurried, soothing.
Here, this meter is layered with a complex, three-part counterpoint (just like the forthcoming fugue), more intricate than what is found in many of the other preludes in the book. The opening material first gives the impression of a soprano melody with alto and bass accompaniment, but as things progress, the lower two voices pick up (and occasionally embellish) the original melody. While this complexity is certainly interesting, what’s even more remarkable is that it’s folded into an early quasi-sonata form.
Sonatas are usually associated with the more homophonic music that came in the generations after Bach. The form developed gradually over the eighteenth century, reaching its fullest expression in the early-nineteenth century in the sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. In its fullest expression, sonata form goes like this:
Exposition | Development | Recapitulation
The exposition introduces two themes in the tonic and dominant (or relative major) keys, respectively. The development section then takes that initial material and, well, develops it — plays with it harmonically and/or melodically. Finally, we return to our initial two themes, both stated in the tonic key the second time around in the recapitulation. To me, the critical hallmark of the form is this moment of recapitulation, when we are reintroduced to the initial material after a period of being away, both melodically and harmonically.
Now, this prelude is a relatively short piece, and I am in no way arguing that this is a fully-formed sonata. But, the critical pieces of the form are here:
We are introduced to the initial melody (exposition):
Then, we move harmonically away from the tonic to the relative major. We get some new material juxtaposed against existing material (development):
Beginning of development; weird line break, so here’s just the first little bit.
And we return to a restatement of the original material, which stays in the tonic for the remainder of the piece (recapitulation):
Recap — similar to the beginning, but a little different
So, while the entire piece is written in complex three-part counterpoint, the structural form is more forward-looking — a harbinger of the music that’s yet to come. Bach has a reputation as being the GOAT who looked back. We’re generally taught that his works, while not particularly innovative, synthesized and perfected the principles of the High Baroque. Later composers venerated his music and drew on some of his ideas to varying degrees, but those later composers are typically regarded as the real trailblazers in of Western music history (Beethoven generally wins the vote for “most innovative composer”). However, in basically any piano literature course, one of the key takeaways for Beethoven is that his late works draw influences from Bach. For example, each late piano sonata contains an escalating amount of contrapuntal material or fairly explicit references to back to Bach:
- Op. 101 has a fugue in the first movement’s development section
- Op. 106 and Op. 110 both have fugues that make up entire movements of the sonata
- Op. 109 has a set of variations as its last movement, several of which are modeled explicitly on the Goldberg variations
- Op. 111 has counterpoint woven throughout the entire first movement, synthesizing contrapuntal writing with sonata form; the second (and final) movement is a large-scale, systematically organized set of variations (which are structured differently than the Goldbergs (progressive rhythmic diminution as opposed to the 10×3 canonical structure), but they are conceptually similar)
We credit Beethoven with taking sonata form to its limits, playing with its structure, and stripping it down to the essential home | away | home. But, the integration of counterpoint with sonata form may have actually been another influence drawn from Bach. It’s a radical idea, but interesting to think about!
I have much less to say about the fugue beyond that it’s a nightmare to play. The particular arrangement of black/white keys is awkward (especially with such tightly woven, chromatic lines) and there is unabating passagework from the first beat of the first measure until the very last chord.
Over the course of the fugue, Bach plays with four primary ideas:
- The subject, which contains two main ideas: an initial curlicue followed by an upwards swoop
- The inverted subject
- A rising, syncopated line
- A jazzy-sounding descending rhythm.
Subject — curlicue kind of thing, then an ascending scale.
Inverted subject in soprano voice. Opposite kind of curlicue, then a descending scale.
Rising syncopated line
Jazzy bit. To be honest, I’m not sure why “jazz” is the word that comes to mind; might be the chromaticism.
Unlike in some fugues, the last two ideas (the rising syncopated line and jazzy descending line) don’t feature as “true” countersubjects that either consistently accompany or immediately answer the subject. Rather, they are introduced as totally new musical ideas which are then integrated into the fugue.
As is typical, we begin with an exposition: the systematic introduction of each of our voices (in this piece, there are three). The exposition is followed by a descent down the keyboard where we hit a relative low point and are introduced to that first new idea (rising syncopated line in the soprano). This material pulls us up and out to a local high point. This general pattern continues throughout the fugue: a descent followed by an exciting, ascending line. New musical ideas are generally introduced at these local low points and serve as the catalysts that propel us upwards once again.
In terms of contrapuntal writing, this strategy of counterbalancing ascents with descents, low energy with high energy, is a good one. It creates a rational, comprehensible listening experience. Although the character of the fugue is totally different than the prelude — it’s a ball of pure, vaguely jazzy energy — the proper, well-balanced counterpoint that is so characteristic of Bach permeates both.
Similarly to the C Major fugue (also fast and passageworky), Bach doesn’t utilize that many ‘advanced’ contrapuntal techniques. Several instances of the inverted subject appear after the first episode, but he tends to use those two accompanying ideas instead of playing with the subject. Interestingly, throughout the piece Bach shies away from the subject at the high-energy points, preferring instead to use one of the other three musical ideas. It isn’t until the very end that we hear the subject coinciding with a high point, although even then it is set against the jazzy descending line.
Highest high point. The subject is in pink, the jazzy line is in blue. Because blue is a cool-cat color.
All in all, this fugue is cool to listen to, but I did not particularly enjoy playing it. It’s really hard! The sixteenth-notes are relentless, and it is extremely tough to keep both your fingers and brain straight at every moment. It’s also long and requires a lot of concentration to perform. It’s interesting that the prelude and fugue place essentially opposite demands on the performer. The prelude is technically straightforward, musically demanding, and countrapunctally complex. The fugue is fairly straightforward both musically and countrapunctally, but very technically demanding.
It’s an interesting set, and I’m glad I tackled it…but also very glad to be done.