I find that pairs of preludes and fugues fall on a spectrum from clearly musically paired to basically unrelated. This prelude and fugue falls into that intermediate classification: the character and texture are clearly related, but I don’t find deeper musical ties between them.
Both pieces are cheery and playful, and both feature a nearly constant stream of sixteenth notes. The regular sixteenth notes, very few long/held notes, and the zigzagging melody that creates the illusion of a pedal point are all good indications that Bach had a harpsichord in mind when writing these two pieces.
The prelude was deceptively difficult. On the page, it looks reasonably straightforward: two repeated halves, mostly in two-part counterpoint, with expected harmonic movements. We move from the tonic (G Major) to the dominant (D Major) during the first half. In the second half, we start on the dominant (D Major), move through the relative minor (E minor), and make our way back to the tonic (G major).
However, the main melodic material — those zigzaggy sixteenth notes that begin in the right hand, then oscillate between the two hands over the prelude — requires a surprising amount of technique to manage. The most salient issue is that every other note is the same. We are constantly coming back up to D, which can quickly become irritating to the listener if not managed well.
That is a lot of D’s.
This kind of writing makes a lot of sense, considering the mechanics of a harpsichord. They create sound by plucking a string (as opposed to the piano, in which a string is struck), which makes sustaining tones impossible. To get around this problem, composers developed techniques to create the illusion of sustained tones. Continually coming back to the same note was a common strategy used to create this effect. As an added bonus, the repeated note also reinforces the underlying harmonies.
However (as mentioned above), from a listener’s perspective, hearing the same note repeated ad nauseum can become irritating, and so this kind of writing requires some management from the performer. Voicing can direct the listener’s attention toward the moving line and away from the repeated note. While the concept is simple in theory — play some notes louder and some more softly — execution is another matter entirely. It took time to get the right distribution of the weight in my hand such that one half of my hand could nimbly and clearly play the moving line, while the other half could quietly play the droning, repeated note.
Of course, the repeated-note issue is not the only tricky aspect of the prelude. For most of the piece, the two voices are engaged in a 2:1 ratio. That is, for every two notes the right hand plays, the left hand will play one note, and vice versa. But occasionally, things align into a 1:1 ratio, which at faster tempos takes some effort to maintain precise alignment between the two hands.
You can see that the second measure is harder because of how much difficulty I had fitting a little box in there.
Its partner, the fugue, is quite humorous. The subject begins on the second sixteenth note of the measure (so just slightly later than the downbeat, which is generally the strongest place in the measure). The subject is a whopping eight measures long. First, it outlines the G major triad, then descends sequentially down the G major scale. It finishes with a rising line that ushers us into D major, where the second subject can enter. The first entrance of the subject is playful, bouncy, and full of energy. This energy transforms into outright humor as the other two voices enter. It reminds me a bit of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, who is always running late, trying to catch up.
This rest makes things humorous. What are you doing here, little rest?
After the first (alto) voice gets going, it immediately becomes evident that the subject’s opening is never quite where it “should” be. In the musical episodes that follow, there’s almost always one voice that manages to play on the downbeat, keeping things somewhat rhythmically grounded. However, because the other voices keep coming in on a metrically weak part of the measure, things continue to feel slightly off-kilter. It’s like the various voices keep trying (and failing) to land together on a metrically strong beat. I found this to be one of the bigger hurdles to memorizing the fugue — it’s easy to get lost when you don’t have a clear sense of where measures begin and end.
As the fugue progresses, we have the expected harmonic movement: going away from the tonic (G Major) to the relative minor (E minor). After the brief interlude in E minor, the fugue starts moving back toward G major. At this point, the character starts to shift — still playful, but with a more serious undertone, as if the voices are really getting down to business. Most audibly, there’s a trill that passes down from the soprano voice all the way through the bass voice, which brings us to (what was) the very bottom of the keyboard. With a rush of energy we traverse from the very bottom of the keyboard back to where we started, with the alto voice once again presenting the subject in G Major. The fugue ends with another rush of energy back down the scale, where we finally have all of the voices landing (almost) together on the downbeat. The image that always comes to my mind is a group that slides into an event just in the nic of time, just as the proverbial door closes.