Trivia fact: this set contains one of Bach’s only tempo indications. The prelude is marked “largo,” or slowly. It’s a puzzling indication. The prelude is written in a French Overture style, which would have naturally indicated the tempo to musicians of the day. Bach must have felt that there was a risk that musicians would misinterpret his intention and take the piece at too quick of a clip — perhaps feeling the prelude in two instead of in four. In any case, it’s one of a handful of preludes where the tempo choice isn’t left up to completely to the performer.
This prelude always brings to mind images of a mad king. Written in the style of a French Overture, the prominent overly-dotted rhythms would have brought to mind a royal processional for listeners in Bach’s time. The minor key, austere opening, and prominent dissonances makes the music take on a sinister, unstable character. Whatever sovereign this music may be depicting, it is not a kind, affable one. The bass’ first gesture — an upwards leap of a major 7th — is both dramatic and destabilizing.
Off to a dramatic start.
The gesture is unusual for a few reasons. To start, that’s not a normal interval to jump. Usually, leaps are smaller and land on a consonant interval (3rd, 5th, 6th, or octave). More importantly, the raised seventh degree (F#) creates a leading tone. According to the rules of counterpoint, there’s now a conflict. On the one hand, a large leap should be followed by a movement in the opposite direction to balance things out. On the other hand, the one overriding feature of a leading tone is its strong, upwards resolutionary pull to the localized tonic. In this case, the leading tone quality wins out. The F# is not complemented by some kind of falling gesture, but rather resolves upwards to the tonic, an octave higher than where we started. This allows Bach both to have a dramatic harmonic gesture while staying in the tonic. Consequently, he is able to repeat the opening material in G minor before moving along to the dominant (D Major).
That’s not to say the entire prelude is dark and stormy. There are a few places where the sun peeks out, most notably just after the halfway point. By then, we’ve heard the opening material in C minor (the subdominant); had some dramatic moments in D minor, and are back in C minor. For a brief moment, the bass drops out and we hear the soprano and tenor in parallel sixths — always sweet-sounding — before the bass comes in and shifts the register up. The soprano and tenor continue their duet, still roughly paralleling each other’s motion, before breaking into a striking, energetic F Major arpeggio.
A moment of reprieve; parallel sixths always sound nice; followed by a striking F major arpeggio.
The lower two voices keep rising, shifting everything into a fairly high register before making a devastating shift from F major to F minor, acting as a catalyst to return to G minor, our tonic.
Gah, what a devastating pull back into minor.
That move is always striking to me. The gestures leading up to that moment — rising register, parallel movement, major tonality — are so hopeful, like a ray of sunshine in this dark and stormy scene, or our sovereign nearly becoming benevolent.. And then it abruptly vanishes and sinks back into our gloomy home key. The remainder is essentially cadential, closing things out by alternating between the dominant and the tonic, remaining in the somber affect. Musically, everything remains in the low-middle range of the keyboard, which adds to the depressed mood — until the very end. The soprano takes a final leap up into the upper register to close things out. Curiously, ending with a Picardy third — G Major.
This fugue is monstrous — long, technically demanding, musically challenging. The difficulty begins immediately. The subject itself is odd, full of rests and repeated notes. The beginning of the subject is basically an upper neighbor gesture disrupted by rests, followed by seven repeated notes that finally take off into a true countersubject.
Upper neighbor gesture that’s disrupted by rests; eventually making its way to B-flat.
In four voices, we build out from the middle: tenor, alto, soprano, then bass. After the exposition, things lighten up a bit. The tenor drops out; the bass takes up a running bass line, while the upper two voices carry on a back-and-forth exchange. After the soprano and alto have finished their brief conversation, the tenor comes back in with the subject, which simply moves the music along to the next episode. This second episode starts picking up fragments of the countersubject and embeds the idea in all three voices, which creates a sense of unity between the subject iterations and the episodic material.
Fragment of the countersubject in all three voices.
Bach seizes on this compositional strategy for a long time. The entire next page features almost constant iterations of the subject set against the countersubject in varying voice combinations:
- Subject in tenor, countersubject in the bass, upper two voices have more lyrical, fragmentary material.
- Subject in alto, countersubject in soprano, tenor has a lyrical running line.
- Soprano subject, alto countersubject, tenor continues its running sixteenth notes.
- Bass subject, soprano countersubject, tenor and alto take the more lyrical material
…and so it goes. This section generally takes on a softer, more lyrical quality. Here, we start to see the moderating effect the countersubject has on the subject. The subject itself is halting and jagged. In contrast, the countersubject features running sixteenths and two very audible, lyrical falling fifths. Together, they balance each other out, particularly when the subject gets to its repeated notes. The waterfall descending gesture of the countersubject helps create a sense of motion against such a static gesture.
After cycling through all of these permutations, Bach begins doubling voices, with the subject appearing in thirds and sixths. Functionally, this builds sound and draws attention to the subject, giving it more weight against the countersubject. After the subject in parallel sixths, I’d generally expect Bach to move onto another episode, which he does, briefly. After a fairly long, downward sequence, we end up sinking down from C minor to G minor, where both the subject and the countersubject appear together, both in thirds.
The lower voices have the subject, the upper voices have the countersubject. Everyone is in thirds.
This is extremely unusual — I can’t recall another fugue that uses this same strategy. Typically at this point in a fugue, Bach introduces advanced compositional techniques like inversion, retrograde, and diminution to carry the motion forward. In this case, he recursively goes back to the beginning of the fugue, relying on just the original elements. With the top two voices stating the countersubject and the bottom voices both stating the subject, Bach effectively finds a way to pump the breaks on the fugue. There is almost a complete moment of stasis when this idea is originally introduced. The music picks up some momentum as the subject progresses, only to become recursive, repeating the ending ideas over and over again, until the countersubject has taken over all four voices.
The subject gives way to cascading sixteenth notes from the countersubject.
Finally, after seemingly endless thirds, Bach cadences. And strips things down even more. Now, we’re left with only two voices: the tenor with the subject against the alto as a countersubject. The original two voices, building back up. The stripped down material quickly becomes a stretto, with the bass taking the countersubject and the soprano taking the subject, which reintroduces a four-voice texture. After the soprano finishes her statement of the subject, everything stops. Together, the four voices land on the dominant seventh chord, followed by a rest. Followed by a cadence, then another rest, and then an extended cadence.
Cadence; rest; extended cadence.
You don’t find block chords that often in Bach fugues – they’re a bit antithetical to the counterpoint, which has multiple, independent voices. But here, there’s a large convergence of our four voices, that eventually launches us into what’s essentially a coda. It’s mostly just scales running between the various voices, which sounds quite dramatic. The bass has a germ of the subject, enough to draw the listener’s ear towards it, but functionally, everything after the block chords seems like extra material that spins out the energy that’s built up over the course of the fugue.
So long, kind of weird, really hard. Sums up the fugue. This is another one I played when I was younger and found there were some things I had simply learned badly the first time around that had become ingrained. Oh well!