Here’s a rarely played key – G# minor. Thinking about it, I can’t recall any other piece I’ve played in this key. It took a little while to get used to reading it (there are a lot of B- and E-sharps, which you rarely see), but ultimately, it was a pretty comfortable key to play in. This set might not be commonly played, but it is often referenced: it’s one of the handful of Bach’s pieces that contains explicit dynamic indications.
Woo – dynamics
The prelude points toward the emerging “classical” style that was just around the corner when Bach was writing the WTC II. Binary form, short phrases, and dynamic indications — characteristics I associate with later 18th century music — all show up in this prelude. .
It opens with a two-bar phrase, followed immediately by an echo. The echo is notable — this is one of the few examples in Bach where dynamics are explicitly indicated, and not just hinted at from context. On the one hand, this could indicate that Bach was thinking more about the affordances of newly emerging technologies, like the fortepiano. On the other hand, it could suggest that Bach was thinking about the social context of music in a different way — the musical knowledge someone learning the piece might have, and the changing role of the composer. By explicitly indicating information that had previously often been left implicit, it seems possible that he had a strong musical idea in mind that he felt compelled to communicate to whoever the eventual player might be.
One of my favorite things about the prelude is how the phrasing builds. The piece starts with a two-bar call-and-response. That musical idea is then expanded on in a larger four-bar phrase. After that full eight bar phrase is finished, Bach moves to a different musical idea entirely — one that is much more contrapuntal, and much more “Baroque.” The initial musical gesture sequences down three times before fragmenting off a little piece of that gesture, and riffing on that for an ascending sequence.
More “baroque” – small sequences of repeated material that builds into larger phrases
This pattern — the introduction of an initial musical idea that begins with several small, self-contained musical phrases, which then spins out into a much longer musical utterance is one of the underlying structures of the piece. It’s funny that this is one of the things I like most about the prelude, since it’s not a particularly Bach-ian innovation — compositionally, it’s pretty standard-issue. But I think in this particular context, it feels fresh and new, especially in contrast with the fugue, whose subject is one seemingly endless, undulating line.
The prelude is energetic — there are certainly moments of lyricism, especially in the second half, but, in general, the music is very gestural, with a lot of two-note “sighing” gestures, and there are a lot of leaps that get progressively larger as the energy builds. For example, at the end of both the first half, the three-note ascending gesture covers an increasingly wide interval as things move into the final measure.
The soprano line gets more dramatic as there are both more notes and larger ascending intervals
Similarly in the second half — at a slightly earlier structural moment, with the repetition of the opening material, the echo of the initial material keeps going. The sighing gesture alternates between thirds and sixths, each time reaching up a little higher on the keyboard, reaching a climactic diminished chord right at the top of the keyboard before releasing that energy into the closing material.
Similar thing in the second half — climbing, climbing, climbing. Very dramatic before releasing into the closing material
All in all, it took a little while to get this prelude under my fingers (and completely assimilate all of the double sharps!) but it was actually pretty fun to play. I especially liked the moments where the counterpoint broke out of the smaller bits of phrasing. There is something just so satisfying to it. I think it’s the contrast between the musical gesture fragmenting into smaller pieces against the musical phrase expanding into a longer utterance. It’s full of musical energy yet so controlled and symmetrical. In any case, I’m here for it basically every time it happens.
If the character of the prelude is robust, articulate, and with just hints of lyricism, the fugue is the opposite: long lines, lyrical, much calmer, poignant at times. It’s a three voice fugue. The subject is a relatively long and undulating idea. Like the prelude, there is an element of a 2+2 call-and-response. The first two bars are answered with very similar material, one step higher. I wouldn’t say there’s a “true” countersubject in the fugue, but there certainly is a lot of chromaticism set against the subject whenever it happens.
Subject – long, lyrical, undulating, breaks into a 2+2 phrase
The chromaticism is interesting. First presented as an ascending pattern that builds tension that leads into the next musical idea, this musical idea is later inverted into a much longer, descending chromatic line. And these descending lines always struck me as a bit funny — it’s awfully reminiscent of the first movement’s coda from Beethoven’s 9th symphony. It’s not exactly the same (the rhythm is steady eighth notes in Beethoven; it is long-short-long-short here), but the idea of a chromatic line that descends by four semitones before rising back up is identical. It was fun to hear something that sounded familiar about that line and then finally put my finger on what it reminded me of.
Ascending chromatic counter-subject-y idea
That’s then inverted. I think this line is reminiscent (as reminiscent as something written a half century before can be) of Beethoven 9.
One of the other things that struck me when learning this fugue is that it’s kind of…sparse. Which, on the one hand, is a weird word to use for a fugue that is so lyrical, with such long lines. But on the other hand, there are many moments when one voice drops out entirely, or just offers a brief interjection at certain moments. In a way, this is helpful for dynamic indication — fewer voices equals a softer dynamic — but going down from three voices to two is always a little tricky. It’s necessary to balance creating a nice phrase ending for the voice that’s taking a breather against bringing out the voices that are remaining. Which doesn’t sound that hard, but actually is kind of hard to manage. It’s easy for the remaining voice to sound like a continuation of the voice that’s dropped out if you aren’t really paying attention and listening equally to all of the voices.
Something like this is always hard. It’s so easy to hear the top two voices as a single voice here.
This fugue is also long, which is always an additional concentration challenge. The subject doesn’t develop that much. Bach doesn’t subject it to a ton of different permutations of itself (like augmentation, inversion, etc.). Instead, the subject simply unfolds in an unhurried manner, passing calmly between the three voices for most of the fugue. There is a beautiful moment when we pass through C# minor, picking up a little bit of energy with some sixteenth notes, and then get an energetic ascending sequence before returning to the subject, mostly in the upper voices.
This is always a nice moment with a little more energy
The episodic material seems to be what Bach uses to push the music along. The first several episodes are brief, often only a few measures long. But there is one longer episode, and it’s in this digression that Bach introduces the descending version of the countersubject and starts playing with that idea. The episode starts in just two voices – the soprano and bass, followed by the alto and soprano. Once all three voices come back, the material remains intensely chromatic for quite some time. Bach reintroduces some of that earlier, energetic episodic material, and juxtaposes it against chromatic ascending lines in both the soprano and the bass before breaking into a long, descending sequence, where all three voices pass around a short, ascending chromatic gesture that eventually disintegrates into descending scales that bring us back to a tonic restatement of the subject.
The intensely chromatic material finally breaks down into a diatonic scale, allowing for a tonic restatement of the subject in the bass.
But, this is not a final tonic restatement of the subject. On the contrary; this reintroduction of the subject seems to give Bach a way to combine the subject with the intense chromaticism he had previously developed over the course of the long episode. And indeed, in a somewhat symmetrical way, he returns to the unhurried developmental character of the subject initially presented. We hear the subject cycle through all of the voices twice before the fugue is finally finished. In a way, the fugue takes on an ABA form (although that’s not really correct to say). But the idea that there is a pretty long expository section, followed by a long episode where the subject is virtually absent, and a return to that initial material makes me mentally structure the fugue in that form. In the end, this wasn’t a fugue I was overly excited to learn, but it really grew on me! It’s really beautiful.