“Joyful” is the adjective that comes to mind with this set. Both the prelude and the fugue are light, playful, and occasionally boisterous — a complementary pair.
The prelude is dance-like, generally channeling the lilt of a gigue. At the outset, we are introduced to two initial ideas: a call-and-response between the soprano and bass, and a rising line accompanied by a galloping bassline. These two ideas work together to both create and dissipate energy as we move through the piece. The rising line generates energy as it traverses up the keyboard; the call-and-response plays a mitigating role, calming things back down.
Call and response between the soprano and bass
Rising line in the soprano accompanied by a galloping bass line. The blue box is the especially gallop-y bit.
The call-and-response idea lends itself well to another prominent element in this piece: musical humor. There are several moments (typically after a local high point) where the texture becomes unusually sparse. As if in an overly decorous courtship, the soprano and bass back off into comically restrained exchanges. Harmonically, we take several unexpected turns and cycle through some minor keys and diminished harmonies. These turns create a slightly darker mood, but that is quickly subverted as the second idea (that rising, lilting line) is reintroduced.
There is a moment right in the middle of the piece where this cycle is particularly comedic. After our extended, minor-turning call-and-response, the rising, galloping line returns. The soprano melody is easily recognizable as something we have heard before. The bass is what adds so much humor. Initially, the bassline and the soprano rise in tandem until the very top of our melodic line. At which point the bass suddenly and completely drops out.
After this unexpected departure, the bass re-enters with the same rhythmic pattern as in the beginning of the piece (quarter-eighth note pattern; a dum-ba dum-ba dum-ba dum feel), but there’s a clever melodic shift. In the beginning, this rhythm was supported with a sturdy droning bassline. Here, it becomes a series of huge leaps instead. Adding further silliness, the bass continually seems to miss the downbeat, leaving the soprano to fend for itself as it reaches its melodic high point.
So much humor — the pink is a rest on the downbeat, right as the soprano is achieving its melodic high point. You’d generally expect something to be there. The blue circles are hilariously large leaps.
Not once, but twice our expectations of achieving a melodic high point are subverted with this absent downbeat followed by a falling interval. On the third try, we finally hear the music attempt to change the script. The soprano’s melodic contour remains unchanged — sort of succeeding in arriving at a local high point, but immediately descending. However, our bass (apparently trying to get its act together) attempts some huge ascents in an effort to break free of this pattern. Eventually, this succeeds, but the bass overshoots. Both voices rise up to the very top of the keyboard, completely dismantling any sense of foundation. This height is unsustainable, and we quickly turn toward the minor before slowly floating back down to the more typical middle-range of the keyboard and make our way back to the tonic.
Like so much of Bach’s music, the end is satisfying. Starting fairly low on the keyboard, we hear a rising sequence up to a restatement of the initial melodic material, although our lilting, rising line is now transformed into a descending one. After landing on the dominant, a slightly unexpected series of chords brings us back to the tonic, where we hear a very relaxed outline of the tonic triad and a cheeky mordent to wrap things up.
While the fugue retains the playful qualities of the prelude, it is sturdier and more boisterous. The subject and accompanying countersubject are long, but Bach ultimately prioritizes three ideas: a rising fifth, a lower-neighbor eighth-note gesture, and a quick, descending sixteenth-note gesture.
Fugue subject. Most audible musical ideas are the rising fifth (first circle) and lower-neighbor eighth-note gesture (second circle).
The countersubject contains a sixteenth note gesture (indicated) that features prominently throughout.
Once we have been introduced to each of our four voices in turn and are through the exposition, we hear some exuberant, rising parallel sixths that lead us to the most countrapunctually dense area of the fugue. Dropping down from the full four voices to just two, we land in a quasi-episodic area that retains elements of the subject without ever giving us the subject in its entirety. Next, we transition into an extraordinarily clever stretto. The subject begins with its distinctive rising fifth in the alto, on the dominant (meaning we begin on B-flat and rise to E-flat). The soprano enters one measure later on the tonic (beginning on E-flat and rising to B-flat). What is so clever is that the soprano voice enters at the exact same moment the alto is leaping up to E-flat — that is, they share the note.
It’s so clever — the alto and soprano share the note! The alto is wrapping up its rising fifth, the soprano is just getting started.
Audibly, this creates a moment of uncertainty. On one hand, it seems like we are circling back to an iteration of the subject; on the other hand, it also sounds like we are just leaping up the keyboard by fifths. The density of the counterpoint continues, with the four voices constantly paired up in parallel thirds and sixths. It’s very satisfying to listen to, but somewhat awkward to play.
Bach then quickly backs off by stripping away the bass, and wanders into a long episode that dissipates some of the energy we picked up during the stretto. After we traverse down the keyboard, we slowly start picking up steam again, culminating with the final reintroduction of the subject in the soprano. This entrance transforms into yet another stretto between the soprano and bass, with the two middle voices reinforcing the lower-neighbor eighth-note gesture from the subject. The texture is very dense (implying a loud dynamic), which makes sense here as we build toward the ending. Our top three voices, moving in parallel, finally climax on the dominant, setting us up for our final cadence. We make our way down the keyboard sequentially, landing on a very sturdy E-flat Major chord.
All in all, these two pieces are good representations of Bach’s lighter side. Too often, the tendency with Classical music is to regard it as something serious, proper, and devoid of any whimsy. Bach (with his reputation of being one of the most “serious” composers in the canon) is particularly vulnerable to this view.
But that is very often not the case — musical humor is a regular feature in many of his works. Keeping this in mind has the potential to transform the listening experience from stodgy to amusing.