I was not excited to learn this set. For a long time, I’ve considered this pair my least favorite P&F. I found the fugue’s short, oddball subject irritating. I was never completely turned off by the prelude, but I was never attracted to it, either — I often hit the skip button whenever it came up on a playlist. It’s still not my favorite set, but there are some parts I’ve grown fond of.
Looking at the prelude, one thing immediately jumps out: the time signature. There are two — one indicating cut time, the other indicating 12/8.
This is the first time I’ve encountered that. Looking ahead in the score a bit, there are consistently four beats per measure; the difference is that sometimes there are triplet eighth-notes (where you get 12 eighth-notes in a bar), and sometimes there are “regular” eighth-notes. The first two measures are a good example of this: the first measure is in 12/8, the second is in cut time. But, in both cases, there are four main beats in the measure.
The first measure is an example of 12/8; the second is an example of cut time.
From a notational perspective, this created a bit of ambiguity later on in the piece, when there are dotted-eighth/sixteenth figures set against triplet eighth notes.
Slightly ambiguous rhythmic situation.
Technically, from a 21st century perspective, this situation would normally indicate that the last sixteenth note should come just slightly after the last eighth-note triplet. In Bach’s time, notation wasn’t that precise — in many cases, performers would have played the last notes of each group together. For me, I split the difference in perspectives. When I wanted to emphasize the rhythmic character, I opted to put that last sixteenth note later in the beat; in more lyrical moments, I played the last notes of the group together.
Formally, the prelude gestures toward early sonata form, which is to say that it’s a rounded binary form (ABA’), with repeats indicated after each iteration of A. The A section begins with a trumpet-like fanfare, first in the upper voices, then echoed in the lower voices.
The opening fanfare gesture then fragments into a more contrapuntal texture, with that initial fragment cycling through each of the three voices, in turn. At this end of this phrase, the scalar gesture mellows, leading us into a more lyrical section. The upper voices trade a sequence of pentascales, while the bass bops along in an undulating pattern before taking a short rest. The bass’ rest is apparently regenerative, since the bass reintroduces the fanfare from the opening. Moreover, the bass drives the material into some harmonically intense places (mostly diminished harmonies) which adds to the excitement. The resolution to the dominant kicks off a mini-coda, again returning to a contrapuntal texture. The moment where the counterpoint breaks out was always my favorite moment in this half. The release of energy in these moments — like the music couldn’t hold itself together in a unified way and just had to break into individual lines — is just satisfying to my ear.
This part is really cool.
The B section functions like a development section. It begins by inverting the opening gesture — a dramatic descending gesture, as opposed to a grand ascending one. After one measure, we’re back to an ascending gesture, but we’re presented with a totally different character. We’re no longer hearing trumpets, but rather woodwinds (because of the open parallel sixths in the left hand and the low trills later on in the right hand).
After this opening gambit, the material fragments into counterpoint for a long time. The fanfare gesture attempts to reassert itself about halfway through this section, but is derailed by a detour into a long sequence in B minor (the relative minor). The return to A’ is fun and quite dramatic — a toccata-like moment, where both hands begin together with sixteenth-notes. The left hand continues with these sixteenths while the right hand executes a series of suspensions that builds a diminished chord, which resolves down the D major scale into to a restatement of the opening.
Bit of a toccata before reintroducing the A’ material.
This B section basically functions like a development section of a late-18th century sonata for two reasons. First, fragmentation of previously introduced material is used as the basis to explore remote key areas in a dramatic way. Second, Bach manipulates material to make the return to A’ a dramatic high-point of the prelude. When I think about the later “classical sonata form” championed by Haydn, Mozart, and (especially) Beethoven, those are the two fundamental elements that mark a development section, and we see them both here. And similarly to a recapitulation, the return of the A is basically that. At its most basic level, Bach repeats the material in the first half, tweaking the harmonic material so the prelude ends on the tonic, as opposed to the dominant. And that’s exactly what we’d expect to happen in a recapitulation. We hear material that is the same as before, but a little bit different, and likely a little more dramatic.
I still don’t really like listening to this prelude, but I do admit it’s pretty fun to play, especially on a modern instrument. It’s bombastic, the passagework isn’t too finger-bendy, so most of the passagework is enjoyable (as opposed to stressful) to play at speed. It took a while to get under my fingers though — for some reason, D major (and B-flat major) always feels a little awkward under my hands. Two black keys seems like the worst amount. One black note — great, adds variety. Three or four? Perfectly natural. All five black notes? A little weird to read, but a super natural fit once it’s in your hands. I don’t know — that never seems to happen with D major or B-flat major!
I’m not quite sure how, but Glenn Gould’s recording of this fugue seared itself into my brain. When I was first learning this fugue, my mental sound-ideal was something dry and fast. It made sense looking at the score: a dense, four-voice fugue in cut time (which often indicates a quicker tempo). Because a lot is going on at any given moment, a drier articulation should prevent things from getting muddy and lines muddling together. On an intellectual level, all of this made sense as I began learning the fugue. The only problem was that it continued to sound terrible, day after day. I couldn’t crack it.
Part of the problem is that the fugue is written with relatively open voicing (until the end, when third abound). A lot of sixths, octaves, even a couple of tenths (which are unusual — I can only recall a handful of other times tenths pop up), which made achieving a consistent articulation and coherent lines really difficult. Especially since my hands are on the smaller side, there were quite a few awkward stretches that made it difficult to end phrases in a one voice while the others kept going, while keeping consistent articulation through the closing gesture of the subject.
In any case, I struggled with this approach for a while, and finally broke down and did something I try to avoid when learning a piece: I listened to it. I normally like coming to a piece with a blank slate and figuring things out for myself — making choices that make sense to my musical and intellectual world. But in this case, there was something about this fugue I just couldn’t quite figure out, and I went off to hear how other people (besides Gould) approached it. And I was massively surprised. Nearly everyone else plays this fugue slowly, with mostly legato articulation. After hearing this, I put on my thinking cap and realized that the cut time might not actually indicate a quick tempo. It could, in fact, point to the fugue being in stile antico, one of the old style fugues. Normally, they are written in cut time with very slow note values, like whole and half notes. Here, it is nearly all eighth notes and quarter notes.
So I tried it out. I embraced a slower tempo, took a more legato approach to the articulation, and added more pedal. And it sounded way better. At first, I had an energetic character in mind for the fugue subject. Ultimately, something a little more subdued and introverted seemed to be the right character. Weirdly, the character reminded me of the B-flat major fugue. Both seem to have a quiet understatedness to them. With this approach, I was able to bring out the rising triadic figures that occur to prominently in the fugue, especially in the stretto sections.
So, all in all, this fugue did grow on me. Still not one of my favorites, but I “get it” in a way that I didn’t before.