I never found this set that compelling when listening to the WTC and usually skipped it when it came up. It turns out that it’s an enjoyable set to play — the overall mood is light-hearted, with some moments of sneakiness folded in.
The prelude gets off to a running start. There’s a split second freeze-frame before our voices race off. The two voices give the impression of a light-hearted chase: first, the bass seems to be “it,” with an ascending arpeggiated melodic line, while the soprano chases after with running sixteenths. After a few measures of chase, the bass bounces around a cadence and the two voices switch roles. The soprano now has the calmer, more playful line while the bass runs after it. It’s a comical effect.
The sixteenth-note accompaniment stagnates in the same area of the keyboard — good voice leading, not too difficult from a technical perspective — but, musically, this means that the same few notes are repeated over and over (and over). It’s easy to hear any unsteadiness in this kind of accompaniment, and there’s always the risk of the drone-like effect becoming irritating. In some ways, this opening is reminiscent of 1920’s comical film music, where there’s a staged chase. Our voices might be running, but they seem to be running in place, just like characters in an old talkie who are confined to a relatively small set.
There’s some movement in the accompaniment, but overall it’s pretty static and repetitive.
The playfulness continues into the next phrase. Instead of a chase, there’s an entanglement of scales in contrary motion, creating the effect of two objects about to crash into each other but veering away at the last second. This entanglement eventually becomes a true call-and-response passage that sequences down to the middle of the keyboard. Once there, the melodic movement stagnates and we hear a passage that is awfully reminiscent of Bach’s later D minor keyboard concerto. .
D minor prelude or D minor keyboard concerto?
The left hand has eight measures of an idling eighth-note figure that bounce between two notes ad nauseum, under a right-hand accompaniment that repeats almost the same figure, twice as fast, in sixteenth notes. An occasional chromatic note helps harmonically move things along, but the overwhelming feeling is one of frenetic stagnation. There’s a sense that the piece is slowly building up enough energy to get out of its rut and into the next idea. And eventually, it does. The two voices make their way into E major (V/V) and finally — briefly — resolve on A minor before the bass runs down the scale to restate the opening gambit.
This opening repetition quickly transitions into the climax of this prelude, an extended series of climbing chromatic movements, followed by a harmonically stable bar that functions both as a stabilizing mechanism and as a way to bring the rising line back down. The initial pattern repeats twice, and (as is typical), becomes even more dramatic during its third iteration. The two voices, with descending scales in parallel thirds, sequence up through the D minor scale, resolving on the tonic. But only for the briefest of moments — the left hand takes an awkwardly large jump up – a minor 9th – clashing against the right hand’s ascending chromatic line.
Extended contrary motion adds drama and could indicate that Bach had a crescendo in mind for this passage. The harpsichord (the instrument this was probably written for) isn’t capable of dynamics in the same way a piano is because the strings are plucked, not struck. There’s no real way for a single mechanism to pluck a string louder or softer. So, during the Baroque composers came up with several strategies to create the sense that things were getting louder or softer. One strategy is to either add or remove voices; another is to move the voices into different registers. Having something really high paired with something really low can create an effect of “loud” for the listener.
The two hands are moving apart here, to opposite ends of the keyboard. It’s one of the strategies composers used to simulate a crescendo on the harpsichord.
In any case, this long, rising chromatic line is the most dramatic part of the piece – there’s a sense of energy winding up, getting ready to release. And it does, into G minor (iv, a dominant preparation). This release quickly stagnates, though, as the opening melodic material in the right hand is paired against a drone-like pattern in the left hand. Harmonically, things move along once per bar, but the overall sonic effect is one of stagnation, which creates the feeling of an energetic buildup. Finally, another sequence of scales in parallel thirds leads us into a quasi-improvisatory fantasia that winds the piece down.
Chromaticism carries over from the prelude and into the fugue. The subject has three main ideas: undulating, gradually rising triplets; a chromatic descent; and a syncopation that motivates a finishing gesture. It’s a fairly long subject for a relatively short fugue, which meant that restatements were often competing with other compelling material. I generally found that the opening triplet gesture remained relatively audible, even when set against the two other voices. One the other hand, the syncopated ending had a tendency to get buried.
Fugue subject – triplets, a leap, then a chromatic descent
Bach fragmented this subject to an unusual degree — unsurprising, given that the subject does so readily break into several component parts. After a single measure of the first episode, Bach reintroduces the first, triplet idea from the subject but cuts it short almost immediately.
A measure and a half into the first episode and there’s already a subject fragment.
This triplet idea is restated in an expanded form and set in a stretto before the upper two voices break into a descending, syncopated chromatic line. That is, Bach sets different fragments of the subject’s material against itself during these episodes. Which is a bit unusual — typically, episodes are characterized by the absence of subject material. In this case, while some new material is introduced, most of the thematic ideas are taken directly from the subject itself, broken up and juxtaposed together in various ways.
Eventually, the subject does come back in its entirety, set against its fragmented self. The soprano presents the subject in its entirety, set against the tenor line emphasizing a chromatic descent and the bass line pulling things down even further with syncopated downward leaps. All three core ideas from the subject are present simultaneously. Their co-presence seems harmonious; it never sounded like these ideas were competing against each other. Rather, they seem to work together both horizontally and vertically.
Soprano has the subject; tenor is basically a chromatic descending line; bass is a syncopated falling line.
This basic idea continues — we hear a mix of stretto entries of the subject that usually fragment off in other directions, often playing around with a syncopated, descending chromatic line. Eventually, the music finds its way to G minor, which seems to allow things to move in another direction.
Picking up energy, the alto kicks things off with the triplet idea, followed by a pair of bouncy eighth notes, which generates a call-and-response between the all three voices. After this idea has cycled through each voice twice, this call-and-response idea converges; the soprano and bass continue with undulating triplets in contrary motion against each other, while the alto voice waits patiently on the dominant. After the soprano and bass have finished their duet, the alto takes this opportunity to reintroduce the initial episodic material, which is picked up by the soprano and then the bass.
Call-and-response between all three voices; eventually leads to the reintroduction of the initial episodic material.
This episodic material slides down in register until finally it gets low enough that the soprano drops out. The alto and bass keep descending in parallel thirds and sixths, bottoming out at the very low end of the keyboard. From here, the beginning of the subject is reintroduced in stretto by the alto, then the bass, and then finally the soprano comes back in with a full restatement of the subject, finishing us off.
The lower voices have descended very far down the keyboard. The soprano finally comes back in with a full restatement of the subject to finish things off.
One of the main challenges of this fugue was determining the tempo. On the one hand, the slithery, spooky vibe would seem to indicate a slower tempo; on the other hand, most of the note values are quick and there is a lightness to some of the episodic material, which throws some weight behind taking a faster tempo. I played around a lot with varying possibilities, trying to see what made the most sense over the course of the entire fugue. I ultimately landed on something kind of moderate: not too fast so the chromaticism wasn’t glossed over; not too slow so that the perkier parts seemed to drag. On the whole, this is one of the easier sets, and would be a good introduction to the WTC.