Friday, December 27, 2019

Listening Journey through J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier 1, Session 4: Preludes and Fugues No 7 and 8.

Structure of this blog entry:

1) General observations on the Preludes and Fugues No 7 and 8 in English
2) Allgemeine Betrachtungen zu den Präludien und Fugen No 7 und 8 auf Deutsch (German translation)
3) Individual discussion of each piece (English only)

1) General Observations (English)

The Preludes and Fugues in E-flat major and E-flat/D-sharp minor cover a whole range of emotions. The long and thoughtful Prelude in E-flat major is followed by a short, lighthearted, joyful fugue. The long and thoughtful fugue in D-sharp minor is preceded by a short Prelude that is full of sorrow. To get a feeling of the arc that connects the pieces, I suggest you explore them the way we did at the session: The two “bookends” first – the prelude No 7 and the fugue No 8 – then the prelude no 8 and the fugue no 7. If you then listen to the pieces in order – which we did after our exploration – you get a much better idea of the connections between them.

Those two Preludes and Fugues express opposites that nevertheless belong together.

A poem by Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran expresses this beautifully:
Kahlil Gibran 1882-1931
جبران خليل جبران
On Joy and Sorrow
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.     
And he answered:  
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.     
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.     
And how else can it be?     
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.     
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?     
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?      When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.     
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.          
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”      
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.     
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.      
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.     
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.     
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Just a few days before the session, I came across a fascinating interpretation of the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major on the website of the Netherlands Bach Society.  

In his youth, Bach was quite a hothead. Always on the look for a job that would offer him better pay, better conditions for and recognition of his work, he had, in 1717, already signed a contract with a new employer in Koethen before he was officially released from his job in Weimar. He only got a dishonorable discharge after spending four weeks in prison, and music historian Gerber, whose father studied with Bach in the 1720’s, hints that Bach is reported to have written part of the WTC “at a place where boredom, frustration and the absence of any musical instrument forced him to find a past time."
 
J.S. Bach in 1715.
(Some art historians have doubted the authenticity of this painting.)

Of course it’s interesting to speculate which pieces might reveal some of the frustration he felt there, and the way he dealt with it. The prelude and fugue in E-flat major may well be one of them. 

Prelude No in E-flat major BWV 852, p 1-2

Prelude No in E-flat major BWV 852, p 3-4

The motif we hear at the beginning of the prelude (click on the link to listen) is like a question: could he have handled things differently, so he wouldn’t have ended up in jail? The following chorale leads all the way down to the low register of the instrument. In the third section of the prelude, Bach creates a fugue from the two musical ideas that opened the piece. The fugue subject changes direction, and with the question “wrapped around it” like a vine winds around a tree trunk, the composer embarks on a process of contemplative self-examination. 

Fugue No 7 in E-flat major BWV 852
The bold and joyful fugue (click on the link to listen) that follows could mean that he didn’t blame himself – he did the right thing. What he’s going through right now will pass. He’s full of great plans that he will carry out on his new position – in fact, artistically, Koethen turned out to be one of the most productive and fulfilling periods of his life.

If the prelude and fugue in E-flat major stand for turning uncertainty and frustration into confidence and joy, the pair in E-flat minor stands for turning sorrow into insight. We hear pain, anger, despair, even a touch of resignation in the prelude (click on the link to listen)- but Bach’s music doesn’t know resignation. 
Prelude No 8 in E-flat minor BWV 853
After the final, tentative major chord follows a fugue (click on the link to listen) that has all the answers. Reaching back before his own time, Bach set it in the polyphonic style of church music of the 16th century“ (stile antico). He often uses it to express something mystical, something that is beyond our understanding. It is one of the fugues I like to call: “mystery fugues.”

Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor, p 1-2 BWV 853

Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor p 3-4 BWV 853
The subject, the statement that opens the fugue meets its opposite, the inversion. I picture them as two opposite views on the same issue in an argument. After a series of strettos (overlapping subject entries), a part of the subject and a part of its inversion are fused together into one statement in a stretto of all three voices. In the final part of the fugue, the subject is augmented: all note values are doubled, so that it becomes twice as long and shines through the musical fabric like a vision. That’s the big picture, rising above the moment, the kind of insight that is mostly hidden from us, because we’re trapped inside ourselves and can’t get out of our skin to take a look “from the outside,” so to say.

Aurora Borealis
Photo by Adithya Ananth on Unsplash

Two days before our listening session, the House voted to impeach the current president. The decision needs the approval of the Senate, and at this point, it seems unlikely that this will happen. The situation was on my mind the whole time, while I tried to find analogies for the way things proceed in the fugue in d-sharp minor. “Don’t go there,” I told myself, “that’s taking it too far.”

After the listening session, over snacks and casual conversation, an audience member suggested the fugue in D-sharp minor should be presented in the Senate, for inspiration!

In the quiet of the Christmas days, a fairy tale has taken hold in my imagination:
The president has a once-in-a-lifetime moment of insight and resigns. He acknowledges that he’s done wrong and from now on, employs his fortune to benefit all the people he has harmed and the urgent issues he has denied. The president’s example creates a movement that gains great popularity among the rich and powerful on our planet …

2) Allgemeine Betrachtungen

Ausdrucksmässig sind die Präludien und Fugen in Es-Dur und Es/Dis moll sehr unterschiedliche Stücke. Dem ausgedehnten, nachdenklichen Präludium in Es-Dur folgt eine kurze, heitere und unbeschwerte Fuge. Die lange, tiefsinnige Fugue in Dis-moll wird von einem kurzen, schmerzerfüllten Präludium eingeleitet. Stellt man aber das Es-Dur Präludium und die Dis-moll Fuge nebeneinander so spürt man eine innere Verwandschaft des Ausdrucks. Sie werden zu „Buchstützen,“ die das Set zusammenhalten, wenn man danach alle vier Stücke in der originalen Reihenfolge hört.

Die beiden Präludien und Fugen bringen Gegensätze zusammen, die dennoch zusammengehören. Der libanesische-amerikanische Dichter Kahlil Gibran beschreibt das wunderbar treffend in diesem Gedicht:
Kahlil Gibran 1882-1931
جبران خليل جبران

 „Von der Freude und dem Leid“

Eure Freude ist euer Leid ohne Maske. 
Und derselbe Brunnen, aus dem euer Lachen aufsteigt,
war oft von euren Tränen erfüllt.
Und wie könnte es anders sein?
je tiefer sich das Leid in euer Sein eingräbt,
desto mehr Freude könnt ihr erfassen.
Ist nicht der Becher, der euren Wein enthält,
dasselbe Gefäß, das im Ofen des Töpfers gebrannt wurde?
Und ist nicht die Laute, die euren Geist besänftigt,
dasselbe Holz, das mit Messern ausgehöhlt wurde?
Wenn ihr fröhlich seid, schaut tief in eure Herzen,
und ihr werdet finden, daß nur das,
was euch Leid bereitet hat, euch auch Freude gibt.
Wenn ihr traurig seid, schaut wieder in eure Herzen,
und ihr werdet sehen, daß die Wahrheit um das weint,
was euch Vergnügen bereitet hat.
Einige von euch sagen:"Freude ist größer als Leid".
Und andere sagen:"Nein, Leid ist größer"
Aber ich sage euch, sie sind untrennbar.
Sie kommen zusammen, und wenn einer alleine mit euch am Tisch sitzt,
denkt daran, daß der andere auf eurem Bett schläft.
Wahrhaftig, wie die Schalen einer Waage
hängt ihr zwischen eurem Leid und eurer Freude.
Nur wenn ihr leer seid, steht ihr still und im Gleichgewicht.
Wenn der Schatzhalter euch hochhebt, um sein Gold und sein Silber zu wiegen,
muß entweder eure Freude oder euer Leid steigen oder fallen.
Einige Tage vor dem Treffen fand ich eine faszinierende Interpretation von Präludium und Fugue in Es-Dur auf der Website der Niederländischen Bachvereinigung.
In jungen Jahren war Bach ein ziemlicher Hitzkopf. Immer auf der Suche nach einer Stelle die ihm ein besseres Gehalt, bessere Arbeitsbedingungen und angemessenere Würdigung seines Könnens versprach, hatte er bereits einen Arbeitsvertrag in Koethen unterschrieben, bevor sein Arbeitgeber in Weimar seiner Kündigung offiziell zugestimmt hatte. Erst nachdem Bach vier Wochen im Gefängnis zugebracht hatte, wurde er unehrenhaft entlassen. Der Musikhistoriker Gerber, dessen Vater in den 1720-er Jahren einige Zeit bei Bach studierte, beschreibt dass Bach einen Teil des Wohltemperierten Klaviers an einem Ort schrieb, wo „Langeweile, Frustration und das Fehlen jeglichen Musikinstruments ihn zwang, einen Zeitvertreib zu finden.“


J.S. Bach, 1715.
(Authentizität des Gemäldes ungeklärt.)

Natürlich ist es interessant zu spekulieren, in welche Stücken diese Frustration zum Ausdruck kommt. Präludium und Fuge in Es-Dur könnten dazugehören. 
Präludium No 7 in Es-Dur BWV 852, p 1-2

Präludium No 7 in Es-Dur BWV 852, p 3-4
Das Anfangsmotiv des Präludiums (zum Anhören bitte auf den link klicken) klingt wie eine offene Frage: Hätte er sich anders verhalten sollen, so dass er nicht im Gefängnis gelandet wäre? Der Choral im 2. Abschnitt des Präludiums führt in die tiefen Register des Klaviers. Das Thema der folgenden Fuge ist eng verwandt mit dem Thema des Chorals, ändert aber die Melodierichtung. Die anfangs gestellte „Frage“ wickelt sich um die langen Töne des Themas wie eine Ranke um einen Baumstamm – der Komponist durchläuft einen Prozess der Selbstbesinnung. 

Fugue No 7 in Es-Dur BWV 852
Die freudige und zuversichtliche Fuge (zum Anhören bitte auf den link klicken) könnte darauf hinweisen, dass Bach sich keinen Vorwurf machte. Er hatte das Richtige getan – in der Tat wurde die Zeit in Koethen in künstlerischer Hinsicht zu einer seiner produktivsten und erfüllendsten Schaffensperioden.
Wenn Präludium und Fuge in Es-Dur die Umwandlung von Frustration in Freude beschreiben, so beschreiben Präludium und Fuge in Es/Dis-moll die Umwandlung von Traurigkeit in Einsicht. Im Präludium (zum Anhören bitte auf den link klicken) hören wir Schmerz, Wut, Verzweiflung, sogar einen Schimmer von Resignation – aber Bachs Musik kennt keine Resignation. 
Präludium No 8 in Es-moll BWV 853
Nach dem vorsichtigen Dur-Akkord, der das Stück beendet, folgt eine Fuge, die alle Fragen beantwortet. Stilistisch wendet Bach sich zurück in eine vergangene Zeit und komponiert im polyphonen Stil der Kirchenmusik des 16. Jahrhunderts (stile antico) Er wendet dieses Mittel häufig an um etwas zum Ausdruck zu bringen dass unser Verständnis übersteigt. Ich nenne diese Fugen gerne „Mysterienmusik.“
Fuge No 8 in Dis-moll, BWV 853, S 1-2

Fuge No 8 in Dis-moll BWV 853, S 3-4 
Das Thema, das die Fuge eröffnet, trifft im Verlauf des Stückes auf sein Gegenteil, die Umkehrung. Ich vergleiche diesen Vorgang oft mit zwei kontrastierenden Meinungen zu einem Sachverhalt in einer Diskussion. Nach einer Reihe von Stretti (Überlagerung von Themeneinsätzen) fügt Bach ein Motiv des Themas und ein Motiv seiner Umkehrung in einem Stretto aller drei Stimmen zu einer Aussage zusammen. Im letzten Teil der Fuge wird das Thema vergrössert. Alle Notenwerte werden auf das Doppelte verlängert, so dass es zweimal so lang wird und wie eine Vision durch das musikalische Gewebe scheint. Man spürt eine Art von Einsicht, die unsere Vernunft übersteigt und uns meistens verschlossen ist; denn wir sind in uns selber gefangen und können uns und unsere Situation nie „von aussen“ betrachten.  
Aurora Borealis
Photo by Adithya Ananth on Unsplash

Zwei Tage vor dem Hörtreffen sprach sich das amerikanische Repräsentantenhaus für ein Amtsenthebungsverfahren des derzeitigen Präsidenten aus. Die Entscheidung bedarf der Zustimmung durch den Senat, und die Chancen hierfür sind gering. Die Situation ging mir nicht aus dem Kopf, während ich nach Ideen suchte, den Zuhörern die musikalischen Vorgänge in der Fuge in dis-moll nahezubringen. „Das geht zu weit,“ ermahnte ich mich und übte Zurückhaltung.
Dem Hörtreffen folgt immer noch ein Imbiss und ein wenig geselliges Zusammensein; da sagte plötzlich jemand über die Fuge: man sollte dieses Stück im Senat vorstellen, zur Inspiration!
Über die stillen Weihnachtstage hat sich ein Weihnachtsmärchen in meiner Vorstellung festgesetzt:
In einem einmaligen Moment tiefer Einsicht legt der Präsident legt sein Amt nieder. Er bekennt sich zu seinen Verfehlungen und setzt von nun an sein Vermögen zum Nutzen der Menschen und Anliegen ein, denen er geschadet hat. Sein Beispiel ruft eine neue Bewegung ins Leben, die große Popularität unter den Reichen und Mächtigen auf unserem Planeten gewinnt...


3) Discussion of individual pieces (English only)


Prelude No 7 in E-flat major (click on the link to listen)

Prelude No in E-flat major BWV 852, p 1-2

Prelude No in E-flat major BWV 852, p 3-4
The first thing that catches the attention when hearing this piece is momentum. A free, improvisatory opening that consists of passagework over sustained harmonies, is followed by a slow and solemn section. The basic pulse of both parts is the same, but the slow motion of the long notes creates an atmosphere of the deepest calm and serenity, like a hymn or a prayer. A short melody is passed on from one voice to another. The intersections between the voices create the harmonies that move the piece forward, often in unexpected turns (M 13-15) It is very soothing to follow that process of changing harmonies and melodies shining through the musical texture.

In the third part of the piece, Bach combines the two elements of the introduction into a fugue. The subject is taken from the chorale. The passagework of the opening becomes a countersubject that weaves around the long notes of the subject like a vine winds itself around a tree trunk. I’ve marked the two ideas in different colors in the score. You don’t have to be able to read music to see how the green lines, marking the countersubject, zig-zag up and down, while the brown lines, marking the chorale subject, are long and steady.



Formally, this is a fugue with strettos and episodes. They are marked in the score, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be aware of them while listening to the beautiful, meditative piece that Bach has created by bringing together two ideas of opposite character.

Certain features of the piece suggest that Bach may have had an organ in mind when he wrote it. The opening suggests a Toccata – a keyboard composition with an improvisatory, often virtuosic opening, followed by a section that uses imitation, often a fugue. 

At our session, we listened to an organ recording of the E-flat major prelude. Organist Louis Thiry plays the piece considerably faster than I feel it, but it’s worthwhile to experience the effect of the long notes actually being sustained. Sound production on the piano does not allow for that, and dissonances hidden in the musical structure of the piece become more predominant. Also, note the distinct change in “color” of sound, which the organist achieves through a change in registration at the beginning of the fugue.  

   
Fugue in E-flat major (click on the link to listen)


Fugue No 7 in E-flat major BWV 852

After the masterpiece of a prelude – that is really a prelude and fugue – what’s left to top it? Looking at the fugue that follows, the answer is: do something completely different. The fugue in E-flat major is a straightforward, exuberant, extrovert outbreak of joy. No strettos, inversions, augmentations, nothing fancy, just all three voices in turn catching on to the joy of the subject, and frolicking through the episodes between the subject entries that continue in the same character. And to provide some special joy to the performer, the piece provides several field days worth of practicing trills.

Prelude in E-flat minor (click on the link to listen)

Prelude No 8 in E-flat minor BWV 853
The prelude is a Sarabande: a slow, very expressive dance. The rhythm/pacing  and the harmonies are lined out by repeated chords. Above that, and sometimes below, we hear something like a “melody”. This is not an ear-catching tune, however. Rather, it is like an outpouring of pure emotion. In the book Dance in the Music of J.S. Bach (Indiana University Press 1991/2001) Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne quote a description of a dancer performing a solo Sarabande. (p 94)

Drawing of a dancer 


It was found in a French and Latin dictionary, published in Lyon in 1671. Though written considerably earlier than Bach’s prelude, I could very well imagine it to go with this piece:

“But all this was nothing compared to what was observed when this gallant began to express the emotions of his soul through the motions of his body, and revealed them in his face, his eyes, his steps and all his actions.
Sometimes he would cast languid and passionate glances throughout a slow and languid rhythmic unit (cadence); and then, as though weary of being obliging, he would avert his eyes, as if he wished to hide his passion; and, with a more precipitous motion, would snatch away the gift he had tendered. .
Now and then he would express anger and spite with an impetuous and turbulent rhythmic unit; and then, evoking a sweeter passion by more moderate motions, he would sigh, swoon, let his eyes wander languidly; and certain sinuous movement of the arms and body, nonchalant, disjointed and passionate, made him appear so admirable and so charming that throughout this enchanting dance he won as many hearts as he attracted spectators.”

Fugue in D-sharp minor (click on the link to listen)

Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor, p 1-2 BWV 853


Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor p 3-4 BWV 853
A brief comment on the key signature of this fugue: The prelude that goes with it is notated in E-flat minor. Sound-wise, there is no difference on the keyboard between e-flat and d-sharp minor. It’s only a matter of how you notate them.

Not all pieces of the WTC were especially composed for this collection; it is a compilation of works. Frequently, Bach included earlier works, sometimes reworking, improving them. Many Preludes, are found in the little Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann, a kind of “method book” that he composed for one of his sons.

In the case of this fugue, it is thought that Bach referred to an earlier fugue in d-minor. Rather than make a completely new copy in e-flat, he transposed it to d-sharp, which required little more than putting in the sharps. It saved work and expensive manuscript paper. 

The subject is a fully developed melody that seems to float in time. It’s beautifully balanced, consisting of an initial statement and an afterthought that create two arcs. Something about it breathes the spirit of Gregorian chant.

All three voices pick up the subject in the order A-S-T. You could expect this to be the end of the exposition, but as in most 3-part fugues, this one, too, has a 4th, “redundant” subject entry in the exposition. Bach places it in the range of the bass and thus, creates the illusion of a 4th voice. 
The 4th subject entry is followed by an episode. Here, the three voices are mostly synchronized rhythmically – like a joint effort. That is the cue to what happens next: a stretto – overlap of subject entries, which intensifies the expression. The highlight of this section is in M 24/25, where Bach unites all three voices in the subject. It is preceded and followed by a stretto between alto and soprano. The first time, the alto begins, the second time, it’s the soprano, with the bass accompanying. This formal structure conveys a feeling of balance.

In M 29, the soprano introduces a whole different “view” of the subject: the inversion. The alto follows in M 35, immediately followed by the bass entry in M 39. This entry completes the exposition of the inversion. 
The next entry of the inversion follows in the bass range, keeping up the illusion of a four-part fugue. It is not a redundant entry, though, as in the exposition of the subject (M12); it marks the beginning of a stretto of the inversion between Bass and Alto, followed by a stretto between Tenor and Soprano. 
  
Two strettos follow that involve all three voices. Stretto 6 features the subject, stretto 7 the inversion of the subject. Both times, Bach only uses the first idea and leaves out the afterthought, which is replaced by the first statement of the inversion. Only a few notes separate the two strettos, and they feel like a fusion between the subject and its inversion – like fusing together two opposite points of view. 
A triumphant subject entry in the soprano leads to the final section of the piece. After the inversion and its combination with the original subject, it introduces yet another “view”: the augmentation of the subject.

The note values are twice as slow as in the original version. That doubles the length of the melody in time, and the accompaniment can accommodate both the subject and the inversion in their original length/ or twice the subject. It rises through the structure from tenor to alto to soprano before all voices come together in the coda, finishing the piece with a feeling of unity and hope.

Following our exploration, we listened to a harpsichord recording of this fugue by Bart Jacobs. It’s not possible to bring out individual voices on the harpsichord by playing them louder, but the way Bach has combined them –different registers, high vs low, the changing rhythmic structure actually helps to hear the subject within the web of voices. 


Monday, December 2, 2019

Listening Journey through J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier 1. Preludes and Fugues No 5 and 6

The third session of our listening journey presented the Preludes and Fugues in D-major and D-minor from the WTC 1.

I was a little uneasy about my decision to discuss the pieces in order, because it put the fugue in d-minor at the end of the session. Technically, it’s not very challenging, but there is something edgy, almost tormented about the music. It’s not a crowd-pleaser, not an easy piece to listen to, and analysis remained the only way I could think of to demonstrate Bach’s supreme craftsmanship in weaving the piece together.  

My greatest challenge in guiding the audience through the pieces on our journey is to imagine what they might sound like to listeners who hear them for the first time. I can’t even remember my own first listening experience. It’s impossible to recall it in my imagination after exploring the music thoroughly in the course of learning to play it, and living with it for a long time.

I try to fill those presentations with “life” as much as possible, in order to illustrate what happens in the music through analogies that are accessible to a general audience. I had found a few “bells and whistles” to illustrate the Prelude and Fugue in D-major: 
a video of a “Pendulum wave” for the Prelude,

a video of Händel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, with showers of sparks illuminating the night sky 


for the Fugue in D-major, and a video of the Jacques Loussier Trio, presenting a Jazz improvisation of that fugue on Leipzig’s market square, part of the festivities on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000. 
Jacques Loussier, 1934-2019
The falling leaves swirling all around us in late November created a perfect illustration for the swirling notes in the right hand of the D-minor Prelude, 


but the fugue in D-minor stubbornly resisted my efforts to make the discussion attractive. At the end of the day at the end of the week, Friday 7pm- 8pm. “If everybody is fast asleep by the time we get finished, I can’t help it,” I said to a student who played both pieces last year.

I had underestimated the enthusiasm of the dedicated audience, assembled at the Ethical Culture Society that evening. More than 20 people – the largest crowd we’ve had so far – not only followed the presentation with great interest, but stayed on after the end of the session to discuss additional questions. Thank you, every one for coming, and please, come again. And then we talked some more over refreshments, generously provided by Terri Suess and served by Marshall Norstein, which goes far beyond his tasks as building manager. Thank you both, Terri and Marshall, and thank you, everyone at Ethical who is helping with this project. It’s a joy to make it happen, inspired by your support.

For readers who find the script of my presentation of the individual pieces too challenging or tedious to follow without the sound examples, I’m putting my concluding remarks first in this blog. That way, you have some introduction and you can click on the link in the text to listen to the pieces on youtube, if you like. All recordings come with the marked score that illustrates items pointed out in the discussion. A more detailed discussion of each piece follows after the general remarks.

Prelude and Fugue in D-major and D-minor – contrast and balance.
In the Preludes and Fugues in D-major and D-minor we encounter ways of joining together opposites.

At the core of the Prelude in D-major is a pattern that consists of two motifs that complement each other. The second is the inversion of the first, there’s a balance between them.

Bach combines this perpetual motion prelude with a fugue whose basic rhythmic impulse is stop-and-go – the dotted rhythm, that’s at the core of the subject of the Fugue in D-major.  

In the course of the fugue he abandons the subject as it appears in the beginning and separates its two elements - the initial turn and the dotted rhythm. If you look at the proportions of the sections throughout the piece, however, they’re of equal length – two subject entries are balanced by two elements of a sequence in the first episode. The accumulation of subject entries in M 11-16 has exactly the same length as the following long episode. Two measures dominated by the turn (first element of the subject) are followed by two measures dominated by the dotted rhythm (second element of subject). While the elements of the subject are eventually separated, the “big picture” reveals a concept of balance.

The Prelude in D-minor is a very energetic and somewhat “unruly” piece. 

Melodic lines hide between the patterns of broken triads in the right hand. They frequently show up “off-beat”, seemingly at random, always trying to escape from the melodic lines of the “walking bass” in the left hand, as if refusing to be tethered down.

The Fugue in D-minor undertakes the challenging task of weaving opposites together, getting them to cooperate. 

The subject asks a troubled question. It changes its shape many times; it feels undecided, alternating between major and minor thirds. It turns this way and that, even upside down. I like to think of inversion – as the technique is called - as the other point of view in an argument between two opponents.

In the coda, Bach joins the first idea of the subject together with the inversion of that idea, synchronized in time. He uses the major third, and the piece ends in a major chord. A friend once gave me this little card with a quote by Heraclitus:



Discussion of the individual pieces



The Prelude in D-major is a “perpetual motion” piece. The ups and downs of the pitches in the right hand create a melodic pattern. Once it is set in motion, it never stops.  The pattern consists of two groups of four 16th notes. They do not coincide with the way the 16th are grouped together, by the way.
The first impulse consists of three rising steps, followed by a drop down. The second is just the opposite: three falling steps, followed by a leap upwards. Those two motifs complement each other; in fact, the second is the inversion of the first. That creates a feeling of balance. A gap separates the two motifs throughout the piece. Sometimes it’s as small as a third, at other times as large as a 7th, but it’s always there.
 The first two measures are based on the cadence in D-major and stay within the scale. In M 3 the pattern returns to its starting point. You could create an “endless” loop, simply repeating it. Musically, this is not very interesting, however. You want go somewhere, visit other places. Bach gets there by way of modulation. In M 3-6, a consistent g-sharp appears, a note that does not belong to the D-major scale. This note is like a switch on the railroad that gets the train on a different track. 

We may not be conscious of it, but we feel the key changes throughout the piece. We also sense the places where the melody reaches a harmonic destination, supported by the single notes in the left hand that are like the pushes you give a swing to keep it moving.
In the course of the piece, we get to visit the harmonies of steps I-VI of the D-major scale – I: D (M3) – V: A (M6) – III: F-sharp minor (M10) – II: E-minor (M12) – VI: B-minor (M18 – note the long transition to this point) and finally IV: G(M 20) At this point, Bach quotes M 1-6 of the Prelude. It’s the same section of the piece, but the lower register makes it feel more mellow than the bright opening.  The modulation in M 22-24 brings us back to the initial key of D-major.   
The final part of the Prelude is a grand finale. Harmonically, it solidifies the key with a long pedal point in A-major, the dominant. Gradually, Bach starts to abandon the melodic pattern (M 30/31) The piece merges into a free improvisation that prepares us for something great: the fugue.

Pendulum Wave Toy
 Since the Middle Ages, people have tried to construct “perpetual motion machines” – once started, the energy will continue to flow, sustained by its own momentum. For all we know today this is impossible, the little perpetual motion toys people put on their desks, often wheels or pendulums definitely run for a long time before they stop. They remind me of the chain of melodic patterns that Bach sets in motion in this piece. The following link connects to a video of a pendulum wave: Pendulum Wave



If I heard this music, not knowing the piece, I’d never think it’s a fugue, because with fugue, we associate a network of independent voices. What catches the ear in this piece is the distinct chordal structure. Of course one always tends to forget that chords are the intersection of melodic lines. We get the impression of chords in this fugue whenever the separate voices move at the same time. The most striking example is the coda. What we perceive as chords are independent melodies that move in the same rhythm. 

note the tenor (marked blue) rising higher than the alto in the second measure

In the last four measures of the fugue Bach isolates the two elements that make up the subject: the dotted rhythm and the quick turn that precedes it. The turn is really an embellishment of the dotted rhythm. It creates continuous motion, like a start-up that harnesses energy for the leap upwards (6th) that is so characteristic for this subject.

The dotted rhythm is characteristic for a baroque form we call French Ouverture: A piece that begins with a slow introduction dominated by this rhythmic idea, followed by a quick and lively section, often a fugue. The character associated with this kind of opening is festive, grandeur, dignity, splendor, lots of light and color. Rather than turn to one of Bach’s compositions in this form, we listened to the opening of Händel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. The key of D-major suits trumpets perfectly. At times, Händel creates a question-and-answer structure between different groups of instruments. Bach employs a similar structure between groups of voices in the episodes.

The D-major fugue is set for four parts. First, we’ll follow the subject. In the course of the exposition it rises consecutively from the lowest to the highest voice. The next two entries are in bass and soprano, modulating to b-minor. Then, in M 11-15, it appears five times. In addition, the bass has two sort of “fake” entries (M 11 and 13). Strictly speaking, they don’t qualify as entries, because there are slight changes in the melodic structure, but they retain the rhythmic structure, especially that initial turn. I think that dominates in the aural impression we get.
In this section one subject entry immediately follows the next, as if the initial turn lighted the fuse that shoots one fireworks rocket after another into the sky.


After that, the subject is burnt out. It never appears again in its complete form. The fugue ends with a long episode and the coda.

The opposite of the dotted rhythm is continuously flowing motion – the prelude is an example of that. Of course, the dotted rhythm develops its own kind of continuity when its elements are repeated, but it never looses that “limp.”

In the episodes Bach separates the elements of the subject – the turn and the repeated notes/dotted rhythm and, by dissolving the dotted rhythm into a continuous pattern of 16th notes, he creates a continuum of motion between two voices: that smoothes the effect of the dotted rhythm that is still present in two voices, often in the middle register.

The coda once again presents both elements of the fugue. Once he’s taken it apart, Bach never puts the subject back together again. For all I know, this is the only fugue in the entire WTC where that happens.  The Jacques Loussier Trio takes elements of the fugue as the basis for their Jazz improvisation.

Jacques Loussier, 1934-2019


Here’s another “perpetual motion” piece, but it’s very different from the D-major Prelude. There, the momentum appears steady, measured, controlled. The D-minor Prelude moves forward in a continuous surge of energy and constant restlessness. 

If D-major evokes the image of a pendulum, this one reminds me of a leaf-blower, or leaves caught in a corner, twirled round and round by the wind.


The pattern is based on broken triads, a three-note pattern in triplets. It opens with the cadence harmonies in d-minor, all the while supported by a repeated d (pedal point) in the left hand.
A huge leap in M 2 marks a new beginning. A sequence follows, descending at first, then rising, while the pattern is shortened – it sounds more urgent this way. It reaches its peak on a high C and then descends more than two octaves – where we find ourselves in the key of F-major.

This opening contains features that will become more poignant in the course of the piece. The accompaniment has the manner of a walking bass” in Jazz: at a medium tempo, it ascends and descends stepwise, one note to each beat. Bach builds the energy gradually in this piece, from the initial repeated notes to the bounces that follow, to the continuous bass line that emerges in M 4.

Hidden melody lines that shine through the pattern in the right hand are the second feature. They’re very subtle at the beginning, but you do get a line if you connect the peak notes of each phrase in M 2-4.

As the piece progresses, those lines are everywhere (see marked notes in the score) The tricky thing is: they’re mostly “off beat” and thank heavens for the walking bass in the left hand that keeps the pace. They continue throughout the second part of the Prelude, while the bass gets a little more static. The pedal point d is like a leash for the RH in M 16-20. Then, a 3rd voice is introduced: additional harmony notes support the walking bass lines. All the while, the RH follows its own path.
In the last two lines, there’s one more sweep up, before the RH triplets sink down in half steps as diminished triads before a big cadence ends the piece - all the leaves are in the bag.


There’s something dark and brooding, almost tormented about this fugue. This music is not trying to charm or please. At the same time, it’s most exquisitely crafted. Everything that happens in the fabric that the voices weave together is related in one way or other to the subject.

The subject consists of three motifs. It begins on the first note of the scale and ends on the fifth – the musical equivalent of an open question. You would expect the third subject entry in M 6 to mark the end of the exposition. Every voice has now had the subject once in this fugue in 3 parts.
The 3rd entry is immediately followed by a fourth, however. It has the same overall melodic shape and rhythmic structure, but it starts on a different step of the scale. That changes the intervals (distances) between the melody notes and makes the melody sound different – quite disturbing, actually. The harmony of d-minor shines through the moving voices that accompany the last note, but the feeling of resolution is obscured and immediately swept away by the motion in the left hand in the following episode.
This section sounds quite mellow initially, but the ending only underscores the initial questioning character of the subject. IN M 12, Bach splits the subject, combining its 2nd and 3rd motifs in the bass with the inversion of the first motif in the middle voice. The tied b-flat in the soprano adds a jarring suspension on the first beat of M 13.
Stretto 1 The inversion foreshadows what is to come in the first stretto immediately afterwards. The subject in the soprano overlaps with the inversion of the subject. The counterpoint in the bass underscores the dramatic character of the section.
Stretto 2 A second stretto follows. Two subject entries in bass and alto overlap. They are not exactly the same; Bach alternates between the major and the minor third. This kind of change takes place throughout the entire piece - almost as if the subject were in search of its own identity. At the end, all three voices come together in the single note a, undefined in terms of major/minor.

The second part mirrors the first in terms of the “dramatic” development and structure. What’s new:  the idea of “inversion” – turning the subject and its elements upside down plays a significant part.
Stretto 3 The part begins with a stretto that combines the subject and the inversion. Inversion dominates, and continues into the following episode.
Stretto 4 This open ending leads into another stretto. It again combines subject and inversion – this time, the subject is placed 2nd and in the middle voice. This is the only time after the exposition where the subject is exactly the same as at the beginning of the piece.
Episode 3 is very similar to E1. Things calm down. Again, the last measure splits up the motifs of the subject, but the first motif is not inverted. Harmonically, it turns to the tonic (I), not the dominant (V) -  the resolution to the question. (To feel the difference, play M 12/13 and M 33/34 back to back)
Stretto 5 Two subject entries overlap in this stretto. The second entry is incomplete and leads into an episode where the tension clearly rises – note the sequence of motif 1, inverted, in the left hand.
Stretto 6 Two subject entries overlap – alternating major/minor 3rd, as in Stretto 3 that concluded 1st part,

Coda: after so much darkness and tension, the ending in major may come as a surprise: Bach combines the first motif of the subject – in major - with its inversion. Additional voices support the impression of harmonies, rather than independently moving voices.