I don’t often relearn pieces. The piano repertoire is so expansive that it’s hard to justify revisiting old works when I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there. This set has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and years back, I jumped at the chance to learn it for my undergraduate senior recital. With this project, I was glad for an excuse to take another crack at them. A couple things surprised me when taking a second look. First, you really do retain muscle memory — these were easy to get into my hands again. Second, there were quite a few details I had missed the first time around.
But before we get into all that, here are the broad strokes. The prelude and fugue are related in character: a richly emotive undercurrent runs underneath a poised, cool surface. However, I would keep them in that middle categorization (related in character, but not deeply musically related), as the prelude has more of a pastoral quality, while the fugue is written in the old style (stile antico) that is often associated with church music.
Now for the specifics. The most curious detail that I simply just don’t recall giving much (if any) thought to previously was the choice of tempo — I must have just rolled with some intuitive sense for my recital. This time around, though, tempo was an intriguing puzzle piece that I gave a lot of thought to.
So let’s talk about it. In Baroque music, there are typically no indicated tempo markings. Music was an apprenticed craft, composers and performers were one and the same (these specializations didn’t appear until the twentieth century), and tempo conventions were largely learned through experience. Additionally, paper was expensive and copying music was time-consuming, so anything that could be omitted from the written score was. Furthermore, the metronome didn’t exist yet, so the mathematical precision allotted to specific modern tempos wasn’t possible.
What this means in practical terms for modern performers is that there is considerable interpretive freedom around tempo choices. It should be said that certain genres have retained more tempo conventions than others. For example, in the dance suites (ex. Partitas, French Suites, English Suites), the allemande is fairly moderate; courantes are quick, but correntes are quicker; the sarabande is slow; the gigue (or giga) is fast. But even then, these are all relative — the allemande should be slower than the courante, the sarabande slower than the allemande. There are no exact tempos to aim for, just a general feeling that “matches” the character of a particular dance.
Since nothing in the writing or character of either of these pieces indicates a dance, the performer is essentially given total control over tempo choice. For both the prelude and the fugue, I struggled with whether a slower or quicker speed worked better. There were pros and cons to each.
For the prelude, a slower tempo created a calmer, more placid atmosphere while a quicker one created a more energetic, pastoral character. Taking the fugue faster created more of a flowing quality while taking it slower brought out the pious, old-style quality. In both cases, a slower tempo risked sounding draggy. Furthermore, slow fugues can be particularly mentally taxing. (It takes a lot of sustained attention and careful listening to manage the decaying sound of long, held notes as they connect to what comes next.) Conversely, faster tempos run the risk of sounding frenetic, and you might breeze through some of the most beautiful moments.
In the end, I couldn’t decide which way I liked better. Typically, if I’m on the fence about two tempos, I’ll eventually discover that there’s a stronger argument to be made for one versus the other. But in this case, I thought both choices were about equally successful. Ultimately, I chose to record two versions of this set — one slower, one faster. This freedom is one of the things I like best about this music. Unlike in Classical or Romantic music, you’re not simply choosing between gradations of a particular tempo. You have the option to play with the entire spectrum of possibilities.
A few other things to listen for:
The prelude tends toward minor more than we might expect, which creates a wistful quality. It has a very typical form: A|B, with each half repeated. The repeats allow for some additional ornamentation, which is always fun to play around with. In these situations, I generally use my inner ear to gauge if I want to add anything. To me, this prelude seemed pretty complete without filling in gaps or adding a lot of extra trills and mordents, but I did throw in a few things here and there.
The fugue is one of the more contrapuntally complex ones. It has a short, simple subject that gives Bach a lot of room to play around with.
Subject. Five notes. Super simple.
Curiously, although Bach uses a smattering of advanced contrapuntal techniques, he never inverts the subject. Stretto is his primary tool of choice, and he often uses a stretto to bridge into new episodic material. My favorite moment of the fugue is near the climax of the piece. We have heard the subject in diminution, then in diminution and in stretto, and then (finally) in diminution and in stretto set against the original subject.
That note is the best note in the piece. It’s the beginning of the subject in its original form after all of this diminuted stretto-ing.
I am such a sucker for this kind of moment: when Bach brings back the original subject after playing around with it. It is always poignant, regardless of context, and these events tend to be some of my favorites in all of Bach’s writing.