I first played this prelude and fugue when I was in high school. What an enjoyable set to revisit! Coming back to it was an eye-opening experience to how much my approach to playing Bach has changed. These days, I’m more inclined to faster tempos and more detached articulations, and I feel more confident about bringing out less prominent but more interesting lines. This reacquaintance made me appreciate how much I’ve grown as a musician in the intervening years. It also made me question the prevailing logic that it’s best to learn as much difficult repertoire as young as possible and take advantage of muscle memory. Perhaps that’s true for the Romantic warhorses. But for Bach, my technical approach is so different than it used to be; I often found my muscle memory more of a hindrance than a help.
The prelude has many characteristics we associate with the later Classical era. Stylistic features more commonly connected to Mozart than Bach — straightforward phrasing, homophonic textures, and minimal ornamentation — can all be found here.
The opening phrase introduces us to the first main idea for the piece: a downward, sighing gesture in the right hand, accompanied by the most basic possible version of a I-V-I progression in the left hand. After a predictable four bars, we are introduced to our second main idea: a sparsely textured duet between the two hands. The left hand has the melody, while the right hand has the accompaniment and creates the harmonic underpinning which moves, as expected, from F minor (tonic) into C major (dominant).
Second theme. Left hand has the melody; right hand has the accompaniment.
Lyrical sequence moving stepwise down the keyboard. Leads us into the final cadential material for the first half.
The second half begins with the familiar opening material in the new key. A-flat major is a brighter, sweeter key than F minor, and we are immediately transported into a new sound-world. This sweetness is short-lived, as it tends to be in Bach, and as the melody moves into the second theme, it is no longer paired with the I-V-I progression from earlier. This time, it’s set against a series of diminished chords that never fully resolve. The phrase ends on E-flat minor before launching straight into new melodic material that works sequentially downward from A minor to F major to B-flat minor.
Wow — that’s a lot of diminished and/or dissonant harmonies!
In some ways, what happens next repeats the experience we just had. Continuing with new melodic material, we once again open in a sweet-sounding major key — D-flat major, the relative major of B-flat minor. We sequence down into A-flat major, becoming more agitated along the way. The right-hand has some jagged leaps, supported by seventh chords in the bass. Remaining unsettled, the hands proceed to switch places, with the left hand picking up the sixteenth-note accompaniment, cycling through various diminished chords. The left hand, in an effort to reassert order, brings back the initial melodic material — the downward sighing gesture. Only this time it’s not the easy thirds and sixths we heard before, but a constant cycle of dissonant seconds briefly resolving down to a more consonant third or sixth.
The bass has the primary motive from a rhythmic perspective. From a melodic/harmonic perspective, this area is full of dissonance.
This effort eventually bottoms out. The secondary thematic material comes back in a shadowy form, and tiptoes us back into F minor. Once we are back in the tonic, the original opening material re-emerges in a slightly embellished form, and we once again hear the closing material from the first half in the home key.
Overall, this prelude balances the short, sighing gesture with more extended melodic material. The extended use of diminished harmonies throughout the second half is a bit unusual, adding anguish to an otherwise mellow piece. Most interpretations I’ve heard of this piece take it at a slightly slower tempo than I chose. I’m sure I took a slower tempo when I was younger, but this time around something about the long-scale melodic lines made me want to take a quicker tempo. Another difference I noticed was that I was much more capable of following those longer melodic lines throughout the piece, particularly in the ending sequential sections. It’s one thing to know that there’s a downward sequence; it’s another to listen with your inner ear and be able to mentally trace those slower moving lines.
Militant and energetic, balanced with moments of lyricism, this fugue is a ball of energy from the get-go. The subject begins in the soprano and goes like this: falling fifths, repeated eighth notes. Repeat this one step down, then climb up, up, up with running sixteenth notes.
The alto enters with the same as the soprano continues to bounce around, up and down arpeggiated figures. Next, bass joins in with the subject, and the alto and soprano switch to a falling lyrical duet until the soprano stalls out on an upper neighbor figure on the dominant. This resolves into the first episode, which I considered a countersubject: repeated eighth notes, an upward leap of a sixth, followed by a tight-knit ascending twirl. The bass has its duet with the soprano featuring arpeggiated sixteenth notes followed by triadic eighth notes. Together, these pieces act as counterweights: when one hand has sixteenths, the other has eighths, and vice versa. From a technical perspective, this should theoretically make things easier because there’s always a 2:1 ratio between the hands to track. In practice, it’s easy to rush the sixteenth notes and accidentally create a sense of falling forward. My albatross.
Countersubject. The left and right hands trade off between playing sixteenth notes and eighth notes.
It’s technically incorrect to consider this section a countersubject. Countersubjects generally accompany the fugue subject, showing up concurrently with it. What makes me consider this melodic material a countersubject (despite never appearing set directly against the subject) is that it recurs consistently throughout the piece. It has a definite structural function. The other option would be to consider it as a second subject of the fugue, but that is clearly not the case here. It returns several times, but it’s never set against itself as we would expect a second subject to be. Its function seems to be to supply a lyrical counterweight to the more militant subject.
After the exposition and first episode, the fugue relaxes into A-flat major (the relative major), followed by another iteration of the countersubject, which then moves us into C minor (minor dominant). Back in the minor, this section begins picking up energy. The subject is in the bass, which is almost always an energy-building phenomenon, and the soprano and alto overlay this statement with completely new melodic material. Reaching higher on the keyboard than we’ve been so far, the soprano begins a lovely, lyrical descant to accompany the gruff subject.
The soprano has a nice line here!
Now in the center of the fugue, the energy continues to increase. The bass and alto have an ostinato that is a rhythmic fragment of the subject and leads us to an intensely chromatic compression that propels us into the next page. A brief resolution allows us to catch only a small breath before the bass resumes the ostinato, outlining diminished harmonies. Juxtaposed against this, we hear the soprano and alto stalling out on their melodic material: the soprano repeats a single tone, slightly off the beat; the alto repeats the same series of lower neighbor gestures, over and over. Tension mounts as we get the sense that the music is trying to get someplace else and just can’t.
Rhythmically, the bass has the countersubject. Harmonically, its outlining diminished harmonies, which is unstable. The alto and soprano, meanwhile, are pretty stalled out — repeating the same gesture over and over again.
But all things must pass, and eventually we resolve to the countersubject in F minor, followed by several bars of more lyrical material that brings us to the final presentation of the subject in the bass. This is the only time the subject and countersubject are set against each other. Which is exciting! This builds into a relatively virtuosic coda, with sweeping arpeggiated sixteenths in the bass undergirding a final statement of the countersubject.
Interestingly, the piece concludes with only two voices, the bass and the soprano. The lack of the alto creates some ambiguity about what key the fugue ends in. Often, fugues in minor end with a Picardy third — that is, the piece ends in its parallel major key (in this case the fugue would then end in F Major), but that’s not always the case. In the end, I’m not sure which one Bach intended. The prelude ends in minor, which maybe indicates that the fugue should end similarly. The fugue itself is fairly dramatic and tends toward minor, and it feels a bit cliche to simply put an F Major chord at the end. I’d be curious to know what others have thought.