F-Sharp Major P&F

This is a relatively contrasting set. The prelude has a lilting, pastoral feel, while the fugue is robust, assertive, and energetic.

The Prelude

One of the hardest things about this prelude is the equality of the voices. It’s not the more common situation where both voices are interesting and it’s a bummer to have to prioritize one over the other. On the contrary, both voices are…well, kind of boring. The two main ideas — a lilting dotted-eighth-sixteenth figure and a sixteenth-note figure that arpeggiates the underlying harmony — both have ‘filler’ characteristics that make it difficult to decide which one to prioritize.

Two main ideas. Neither one is especially compelling.

While these two ideas are occasionally punctuated by some sprightly thirty-second note gestures and trills, repetition was one of the biggest challenges with this material. The dotted-eighth figure tends to be more melodically wide-ranging, but the rhythm doesn’t vary. The sixteenth-note figure’s main challenge is that the repeated notes can begin sounding incessant. In addition, while these two ideas switch between the hands with some frequency, it’s still the same general material. It was challenging to figure out what to do when confronted with more of the same. Ultimately, I found the melodic interest of the dotted-eighth sixteenth usually edged out the more confined harmonic interest of the constant sixteenth notes.

In broad, formal terms, the prelude basically breaks down into A-B-A-Coda. Like other preludes I’ve written about, there’s something quasi-pre-sonata-esque about this form in Bach’s hand. The B section is long and Bach moves things pretty far and dramatically into (harmonic) left field before turning the corner and bringing things back to home base. Or, in musical terms, back to the original material in the tonic key.

The B section begins when the right hand’s opening material is restated with an altered accompaniment.  Instead of the left hand having the lilting, dotted eighth figure, it takes the more active sixteenth note gesture instead. 

Beginning of B section – right hand is similar to the beginning; left hand provides a little bit of contrast

The most audible aspect of the B section is the trills that ornament the dotted-eighth gesture. First, there’s a static iteration of this ornamentation, where the trill is repeated on the same C-sharp for a couple of measures. 

Static iteration – trill on the C# for several measures 

Then, the trill is expanded to include both a head and a tail, and begins alternating between the two voices. Bach uses this call-and-response to pull us into minor harmonies. Bach stays in minor for several phrases, and each phrase takes on a different shade of dramatism.

More dynamic extension of the idea; call and response between the two voices

After the call-and-response trills, the opening melodic material returns, with the dotted-eighth gesture in the bass and the sixteenth idea in the soprano. But, we remain in a dramatic, minor space. The bass begins taking huge leaps down the keyboard while the soprano stretches upwards with minor and diminished harmonies. 

Bass has some big leaps; covers a lot of melodic ground 

It takes a final phrase of both voices taking on the harmonically-focused sixteenth material before things slip back into the tonic and into a restatement of the opening A material. 

All in all, even after I learned this prelude, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It’s kind of nice – easy to listen to, moments of dramatism but not too much, and it lays under the hands reasonably well. But it always left me scratching my head a bit, since the entire prelude seems to be made up of predominantly filler material.

The Fugue

Two things caught my attention with this fugue. First, the subject itself. It’s a long, rhythmic, and modular subject. It opens with a trill on the leading tone that resolves up to the tonic — basically an embellished ‘sigh’ gesture — that’s punctuated by a rest. Then, we hear a plodding, rising stepwise motion that pauses for an extra moment at the top before springing into a faster-moving section that leads into a final leap down into a trill.

Fugue subject – four distinct parts

But, despite its modularity, Bach doesn’t fragment the subject into its component pieces all that much. Instead, he just takes a tiny piece — the finishing, downwards leap — and uses that as the basis for extended episodes. After the exposition, we hear a lyrical first episode. Once the episode cadences, the soprano comes back in with a restatement of the subject. Except the subject never really finishes. Once it gets to the last leap, it just keeps repeating that final idea. After several repetitions by the soprano, the idea is passed to the alto voice, with the bass providing steady accompaniment all the while.

Let’s just riff on the same idea for a while 

Bach uses this basic strategy to build out the rest of the fugue. After the extended episode that riffs on the end of the subject, we hear several restatements of the subject in minor iterations. These minor restatements lead into a long, lyrical episode — the soprano has some lovely moments — before a new restatement of the subject leads into another extensive riff on the falling gesture. 

The overall effect is that this fugue sounds less dense than many others. The subject is restated throughout the fugue, but it’s more occasional than in others. For example, the B-flat minor fugue has near constant permutations of the subject. This is nothing like that. This fugue is more wandery — branching out, exploring other ideas, and then occasionally circling back to the subject. This relative sparseness, combined with the almost homophonic texture of those extended episodic riffs creates a sense of lightness, despite the subject being so robust. It’s easy to imagine that a subject like this could turn into a chest-pounding kind of fugue, but Bach balances the modular, assertive character of the subject with more extended lyrical passages. It ends up creating a lighter, cheerful character that’s really quite pleasant.