What a delightful set of contrasting pieces. The prelude features calm counterpoint that weaves seamlessly across the three voices, while the fugue is bouncy and energetic. The pieces’ respective meters highlight this contrast. The prelude is written in 3/2 (three half notes in each measure); the fugue is in 6/16 (six sixteenths notes per measure), a meter not commonly seen. Simply looking at the first few measures of each piece immediately suggests the contrasting characters.
Prelude: placid; calm
Decidedly less so – faster meter, quicker notes
The prelude begins simply enough: a single F in the lowest register of the keyboard, followed by a descending scalar passage that begins in the soprano. The same idea is transferred seamlessly to the alto and then the bass, culminating in a cadence on the dominant. This is an example of antecedent/consequent phrasing – the balanced, 4-bar phrasing moving from the tonic to the dominant back to the tonic – that became one of the hallmarks of the classical style. Fun fact, Bach left a small Easter egg in the opening: the tenor line in the first two measures is the subject of the B Major fugue later in the book.
These two things are essentially the same.
The piece largely consists of a stream of eighth-notes that pass from one voice to another, generally in four-bar phrases. Which — predictably — creates some challenges. In this case, the constant eight-notes (while lovely) have the potential to create a morass of undifferentiated sound. This problem was particularly acute when the eighth notes passed between voices in a stepwise manner. If not careful about the small details, the piece can easily begin to sound like a single, undulating line and not several voices picking up a singular idea.
The descending motion is passing through many voices. It’s tricky to bring out. And don’t let go of certain notes too soon!
Additionally, the descending scales hold certain notes, building chords out of these long lines. This kind of writing is more idiomatic to the organ than the harpsichord (or piano). On the organ, sound has the potential to grow into full chords. In the context of this piece, the sound could accumulate into a triad that naturally grows into a more vertical chord progression. Unfortunately, on the piano or harpsichord, there’s an immediate decay of sound that creates a difficult scenario. By the time you come to the held downbeat of the third measure (in this example), the upper voice is almost completely dissipated. Ideally, with some careful listening, the next chord won’t sound overly accented (by contrast). But, in practice, that continuity is difficult to achieve. Long held or tied notes abound throughout the entire prelude, making this a recurring challenge.
In terms of form, the prelude takes on some kind of ternary structure. The initial material in F Major is brought back almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the piece. With some small harmonic tweaks, Bach concludes the reprise in the tonic as opposed to the dominant, which happened in the beginning. I hear the middle of the prelude essentially as a quasi-development section. After some vaguely episodic, harmonically wander-y material, Bach introduces the opening idea in D minor (the relative minor). This idea quickly slides to the bottom of the keyboard – stripped down to a single G-sharp in the bass – before building back up through a series of diminished harmonies into a sequential passage…which again culminates with a diminished chord. Weaving through various key areas, Bach eventually traverses the circle of fifths to a structural cadence on C major (dominant), which leads us back to F Major. This movement allows the original material to be restated in its original key.
The extendedness of this quasi-development section is a bit atypical, which is why I think of it as a proto-development section.. In Bach’s music, there’s almost always a brief detour into the relative major/minor key area. Here, the detour begins about where it’s expected, but then it just…keeps going, lasting for exactly a third of the piece. One of the compositional challenges of the Baroque was how to extend musical material over longer periods of time. Especially in contrapuntal music, music tended to cycle through both musical material and key areas quickly. It took composers a long time to figure out how to harmonically extend a section of music, which is one of the reasons why Baroque pieces tend to be shorter and denser than what came later. With a piece like this, we can maybe see a strategy emerging for how to develop and extend musical ideas over a longer period of time.
I was intimidated by this fugue at first. On first glance, it has a harmonically straight-forward “look” (by which I mean there aren’t many accidentals on the first page). However, the odd-ball time signature — 6/16 — six sixteenth-notes to a bar — means that the whole piece is almost entirely quick notes, which just makes the things look hard, straight out the gate. Eventually feeling the piece with one big beat to the bar helped mitigate this effect.. Instead of frantically counting 1-2-3-4-5-6 as fast as possible, thinking a big 1-2-3-4-5-6 makes things feel less frenetic, at least on a psychological level.
The subject is perky. A lower-neighbor gesture on the tonic followed by a leap up to the dominant; the same gesture is repeated one step higher, followed by a scale up to the tonic and then back down. The other two voices quickly join in – the alto followed by the bass — and then we’re off.
Fugue subject: a couple of leaps and then some scales
During the first episode, the material retains some of its initial perky features, such as the leaping figures in the right hand, but G minor shading diminishes some of the liveliness. Not for long, though, as the bass transitions from longer, held notes into running sixteenth notes that burbles below the upper voices’ lilting call-and-response sequence that brings us a dominant cadence. But, the cadence is a bit breathless. The soprano and alto keep racing on. The soprano leaps up to a high G and is counterbalanced by a downward scalar passage; this idea is picked up in stretto by the alto, reminiscent of some of the scalar passing in the prelude.
Yes, there’s a cadence, but no real breathing room.
The soprano begins this idea again, going even higher, before deciding that a third iteration isn’t in the cards. At this point, the bass comes back in and tries to move things in a different direction. We hear a surprisingly large amount of sequential, episodic material before the bass finally takes its undulating line and transforms it into a descending scale, bottoming out on the lowest D – the relative minor. Finally in a familiar harmonic zone, the alto offers a dramatic restatement of the subject in D minor, but fails to move the music out of this sequence-y, episodic place. We hear yet another sequence that gradually pries the bass from the upper voices, pulling down even further to the lowest C, before leaping up to F to create a tonic pedal underneath the alto and soprano, who continue their duet.
Woo – bass has bottomed out
The long, held F in the bass dissipates and then disappears entirely into rests; the soprano and alto quietly finish their back and forth before the bass comes back in with the full restatement of the subject in B-flat major, the subdominant. This is the beginning of a long build up to the most dramatic moment in the fugue.
After a restatement of the subject in the bass, the bass bubbles along with the soprano in parallel thirds and tenths; the soprano stops and holds on B-flat (keeping us in the subdominant while helping create more sound) and the bass picks up its parallel scalar motion with the alto for another two measures. The bass finally breaks out of its constant sixteenth notes and into a descending lilting line that jolts the music into a descending sequence.
The bass has sixteenth notes forever. And once it stops for a second, the upper two voices begin a descending sequence.
The sequence first descends to C major (the dominant) and then, curiously, starts to reverse itself back up. After two iterations of the rising sequence, the soprano picks up energy and extends its gesture by leaping upwards; the alto picks up this energy and answers the soprano. Functionally, this moves things along harmonically and in kind of unexpected ways, passing through a series of minor and diminished harmonies, culminating in a dramatic leap in the bass from A-flat down to the low D that ends up forming an augmented sixth harmony that finally resolves to C major, the dominant.
Soprano starting to break free, which finally resolves onto the dominant. The bass has an augmented sixth.
After we finally make it back to C Major, soprano has a bold restatement of the subject that places full chords on the upward leap.
Subject in the alto voice; landing on full chords. Odd.
The chords aren’t exactly what we’d expect – we briefly land on B-flat minor – before the music humorously “neverminds” itself almost immediately and resolves into F major to finish the subject’s restatement. The humor continues as the upper voices have scalar 32nd note runs that help build up to a larger flourish that brings us into what’s essentially a small coda.
And then we get super quick notes that lead us into a coda.
So overall, it’s just fun. Bouncy, funny, energetic without becoming breathless. And it ended up being more fun to play than I thought. Some tricky moments, but not the kind of fugue that’s just agonizing to attack.