E Minor P&F

These two look deceptively sparse. The prelude is constant two-part counterpoint; the fugue looks like a long, but not overly dense, three voice fugue. Yet, each comes with its own challenges. One of the fugue’s main challenges is its rhythmic character; the prelude’ s is phrasing — it’s easy for the prelude to sound like a perpetual motion machine that just keeps on running. 

The Prelude

It’s funny — even after having played this prelude, it’s difficult to ascribe a particular character or descriptive quality to it. In some ways, it gives you basically what you’d expect from a Bach prelude. Two halves, each repeated. The material doesn’t develop so much as he just riffs on it.

The opening gambit is a balanced gesture: the soprano line has an ascending scalar pattern followed by a descending one. This gesture is then repeated in the bass line. Those two sets of material form the basis for everything that comes next.

Balanced gesture – the two voices both come up, and then come back down

After Bach presents this initial material, he brings the melody back to the soprano, sequences up a few times, and then expands the idea into a cadential figure. And that’s the strategy for essentially the whole prelude. Relying on sequences to move around, he often presents a fragment of either the initial or inverted opening gambit, repeats it up or down a step a few times, and then expands the idea for a few measures. 

Sometimes, like in the beginning of the second half, this material takes on an accompanying role. Here, the soprano has a melodic line set against the inverted opening gambit in the bass. In places like that, it’s a fun challenge to keep hearing both lines as equal partners, and not overly focus on the new, melodic material.

Beginning of the second half. The opening material takes on an accompanying role in the bass.

An additional quirky feature is that in both halves, there are several phrases that feature constant, running sixteenths notes with that familiar melodic figuration in one line, set against the other line just trilling on a single note for a really long time — multiple measures worth. This happens four times throughout the prelude, at what is presumably one of the more climactic moments of each half. In the first half, the trill starts in the soprano line and then is passed to the bass; in the second half, Bach inverts the order, beginning the trill in the bass before passing it to the soprano. It’s really odd.

Such a weird moment!

Presumably, this prelude was written for the harpsichord, so the the trill was implemented to sustain the note. Since harpsichords have a fast decay, holding a note over multiple measures would fade to nothing quite quickly. On a modern instrument, the sound decays much more slowly, and it’s possible to shape the trill’s dynamics in a way that’s not possible on a harpsichord. But, you need to be careful about the pedal, which when trilling in the middle range of the keyboard with a running scalar passage in the non-trilling hand can sound muddy really quickly. I guess for me, the sudden stasis of otherwise constantly moving lines was always puzzling. And I never really figured it out; those parts always felt like “well, I guess this is what’s happening now.” 

It’s a pleasant prelude to play and to listen to, but there’s not a lot that sticks out as particularly noteworthy about it. 

The Fugue

One of the most interesting things about this fugue is its rhythmic qualities: the subject contains a mix of triplets, quarter, eights, and sixteenth notes, and the subject begins slightly off the beat, on the second beat of a triplet.

Beginning of subject — the pickup into the first downbeat is rhythmically unusual

The subject is one of the weirder ones in Book 2. It’s energetic, full of variety, and quite long. It starts by working its way up the e minor pentascale, from E to B. One it reaches B (the dominant), the subject leaps down the e minor triad before catapulting right back to where it was before, continuing its ascent, all the way up the octave to E. After reaching the apex, the subject jumps downwards into an undulating triplet figure. Mostly scalar, with some leaps introduced to build tension and to help the music change direction occasionally.

The dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythmic figure that appears halfway through the subject forms the basis for the most prominent episodic material.

This idea from the subject forms the basis for later episodic material

And it’s interesting – when this rhythmic pattern appears in the subject, I’m much more inclined to play it as a true dotted-eight/sixteenth figure. By contrast, in the episodic sections, this rhythm takes on a much more lyrical quality and is set against running triplets in the bass. In these sections, I’m much more inclined to treat those figures as a triplet, lining the sixteenth-note up with the last triplet in each beat to highlight the lyricism of each of the three lines. Moreover, thinking from a historical perspective, notational practices were less precise in Bach’s time; much more was assumed to be implicit knowledge. There wasn’t a need to get the overly precise, fussy notation that comes later (like in Mozart) or much later (like Webern). 

It’s not that surprising that such a long subject lays the foundation for a long fugue. One of my favorite things about this fugue is the long, extended major section. After the first episode (with those dotted-eighth figures), Bach takes a graceful turn into G major. On the one hand, this movement is completely predictable – in a minor key piece, the relative major is the first place you’d expect Bach to go. But he does this move so effectively! There’s a graceful landing into G major and then the most lovely, lyrical episode. The alto and soprano engage in call-and-response scalar patterns travels down the scale, accompanied by the bass bopping along with some broken chords.

This is a really nice episodic moment

The fugue stays in this really lovely character when the subject is reintroduced in major. In contrast to the gruffer, more austere presentation of the subject at the beginning of the fugue, in the major, the subject takes on a much more graceful, lyrical quality. Unusually, Bach cycles through several major iterations of the subject before pulling back into minor, where we essentially stay for the remainder of the fugue. 

Like the major section, the we’ve-returned-to-minor material is more extended than you’d expect, and this extension allows the drama build for quite some time. The energy picks up – the alto and soprano begin doubling each other in thirds when the subject reappears in the tonic which reinforces its rhythmic (as opposed to lyrical) character. The range between the voices widens, which adds both dramaticism and (implied, on the harpsichord) sound. And things keep building. Bach builds up tension over a couple of pages —  a mix of episodic and subject material — before hitting a cadential fermata on the V, which suddenly stops all of the momentum on a high point of tension, since everything stopped on an unstable scale degree.

Stopped at a high point of tension

And then, the tension releases into a quasi-toccata-like section. Lots of running notes, bigger and bigger leaps, the soprano and alto doubling again, emphasizing the rhythmic effects; before breaking down into a completely improvisatory gesture outlining dominant and diminished harmonies. Followed by another moment of high-tension stasis before releasing all of this pent-up energy into an extended, figurated cadential gesture.

It’s a cool fugue. Frustrating how it looks quite straight-forward on the page but actually pretty difficult to figure out… but I liked playing it a lot; I think it’s a lot more interesting than the prelude.

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