Oof, this is a weird key to play in! There are lots of accidentals, and it feels awkward under the hand. Rumor has it that this set was originally written in D minor and then transposed to D# minor when Bach was compiling the WTC II because he needed something in that key. And I must say, I tried transposing it down to D minor and the piece did seem more natural that way. In any case, this set is contrasting — the prelude and fugue have totally different tempi and characters, with no real underlying musical ties between them.
This is a pretty standard issue prelude. There are two halves, each repeated, and the initial melodic material takes basically even turns between the hands. That is not to say that it doesn’t pose some challenges. D# Minor a difficult key to play in (especially when paired back-to-back with C# Major, which was my situation). Nearly everything is sharp in this key signature, and double sharps abound with almost any harmonic movement.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of learning this prelude was finding the hidden, playful melodic lines. After our initial material, we move into a descending sequence. While written in ostensibly two voices, both the soprano and bass have slower-moving lines embedded within. In the bass, we see a stepwise ascending line. The right hand has the initial, fast descending scale, followed by an off-beat rising line. When these rising lines are highlighted, this section develops a jaunty, syncopated feel, which is always fun. This happens a couple of different times throughout the prelude.
A morass of sixteenth notes? No! There are slower melodic lines embedded into the overall texture.
Toward the end of each section, Bach ramps up the drama with both hands playing constant sixteenths (and thirty-seconds). It’s critical that the hands are in exact alignment. Furthermore, this is one of those sections where the hands move in a mix of contrary and similar motion, and the movements are never quite perfectly mirrored. It takes a lot of concentration to know exactly what each hand is supposed to be doing at precisely every moment.
As the second half opens, we hear the initial opening material in the bass (transposed to the dominant), while the soprano gets a perky, undulating line. Thirty-second notes, which were introduced only in the briefest manner in the first half, take on a more significant role. These ultra-quick notes are used to create a counter-melody to our initial material.
Beginning of the second half. The bass has the initial material; the soprano becomes more active, inserting thirty-second notes into the mix.
This quickly veers from the dominant into a series of minor sequences that eventually resolve into a major key area. This cadence relieves some of the mounting tension, and this respite continues with the re-emergence of familiar material (the melodic yet jaunty, syncopated sequence). However, this reprieve is short-lived as the sequence abruptly gives way to the opening melodic material in the bass set against broken, ascending diminished seventh chords in the soprano.
The bass has the original melodic material. The soprano has broken diminished seventh chords, which almost always indicate drama.
The hands switch tasks, leading us through sequence after sequence around the circle of fifths. The original melodic material is set against the frenetic thirty-second notes, finally peaking at the dominant. The energy quickly dissipates as we make our way back to the tonic. This energetic dispersal is important, as the upcoming fugue is a contrasting, contemplative one. Easing out of the considerably more active prelude allows the link to become somewhat less jarring.
This fugue feels totally different from the prelude: calm and contemplative, with some brief moments of anguish. In four voices, we are introduced to the inner voices first before moving outwards to the bass and soprano, respectively.
The subject is characterized by a series of repeated notes, followed by a leaping fourth that occurs about halfway through.
The repeated notes and the upward leap tends to be the most noticeable aspects of the subject once we get the ball rolling.
This fugue doesn’t use extreme registers as often as other, more overtly dramatic fugues. Largely staying in the middle of the keyboard with the voices in close proximity, Bach creates a dense texture that is mitigated through the absence of particular voices at various points in time. These absences allow the dynamic and energy level to decrease, while the re-emergence of all four voices builds structure and drama while bringing the dynamic level back up.
For example, all four voices are present throughout the exposition. However, almost immediately after the first episode begins, the alto voice drops out, leaving the soprano, bass, and tenor with the task of finishing out the episode. Once these voices have cadenced on the dominant, the soprano disappears, just as the alto returns. In fact, the alto picks up on the same note the soprano ends on, which poses some challenges with phrasing — how to distinguish the ending G# from the G# that is the beginning of another iteration of the subject.
This part is challenging! The first G-sharp (in blue) is the soprano ending a phrase. The subsequent G-sharps belong to the alto voice. Phrasing and the ever-elusive “color-change” is the only way to make clear those are two different events.
Left with the lower three voices, there is a dark turn toward the minor. Briefly, all four voices are heard when the soprano comes back in — still in minor, sounding very anguish-y, a moment which always brings the pieta to mind. But, this reunion does not last for long as the soprano bows out once again.
After winding through more episodic material, the fugue turns toward major, which is one of my favorite moments. I generally find the turn to either the relative major or relative minor to be particularly poignant — a cloud passing over the gaiety, or a ray of sunshine in the darkness. I am reminded of the Buddhist tenants around impermanence, that nothing is forever. Here, after the pieta and an anguished stretto that languishes in minor, a ray of sunshine breaks through with a cadence on F-sharp major (relative major). It’s a moment of lightness — the bass gets stepwise passagework that brightens the texture, the tenor disappears, and the soprano and alto have a delightful duet.
Cadence on F-sharp major: passagework in the bass; subject in alto; nice melody in the soprano.
But, impermanence being what it is, things quickly veer back into the minor. The middle of the fugue is largely a three-voice work. It isn’t until the very end, with the final iteration of the subject in the bass, that all four voices are consistently present. But even then, it’s the bass set against blocked chords, which creates a dramatically asymmetric feel during the ending climax (one voice against three voices is never really a fair fight). Nevertheless, the bass persists and is eventually joined by the soprano and tenor who take up the subject and inverted subject simultaneously, winding down to the end.
Ending climax – the bass has the subject (beginning is indicated). All of the other voices are completely stagnant, inserting dramatic interjections in unison.