Saturday, March 30, 2013

J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier 2, Preludes and Fugues No 17-20. 5th Mini Recital of the Community Listening Project, Sunday March 31st 2013

Click on the title in order to listen to the pieces.

Solemn and dignified, this Prelude has the gesture of baroque splendor. The key of A-flat major conveys warmth and contentment - a late summer day, the fulfillment of harvest within reach. The texture makes me think of a concerto, I hear “tutti” sections that are played by an orchestra, and sections where two solo instruments converse with each other. 

The Prelude could be the more extrovert sibling of the Prelude No 13 in F-sharp major, the pieces are related through their time signature, the rhythmic and melodic structure. 

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

The Prelude has set the scene, the Fugue continues in the same atmosphere. There is  constant motion, the optimistic subject radiates joyful energy, reminiscent of the Fugue No 1 in C-major - but everything feels bigger, more expansive, more “grown up.”

The subject opens the piece with leaps and bounds, followed by an afterthought in lively 16th notes. On the second entry, it is joined by a countersubject that is just the opposite - a melodic line descending slowly in dignified half steps (chromatic). Often, this is a symbol of grief in Bach's music. For the moment, it seems as if the counterpoint was trying to restrain the enthusiasm conveyed by the subject. But the energy of the subject is contagious, and the countersubject ends in a syncopated bouncy rhythm.

The leaps of the subject, the descending chromatic line of the countersubject, and the running 16th notes form the basic material of the piece. The structure remains quite simple. The subject retains its original form throughout, the entrances don’t overlap, it is not inverted. Yet, as the piece progresses the harmonic structure becomes increasingly more colorful -and it is the "grieving" chromatic countersubject that suggests those “adventures!” It is not too far fetched to suggest an analogy to the life experience, that of transcending grief and turning it into energy that is ultimately renewing and creative. The most striking moment in the music is the turn to a Neapolitan Sixth shortly before the end of the piece. The passage ends in a fermata  - a moment of hesitation before the coda sets in and full chords bring the piece to a triumphant ending.

Country Garden, Vermont

The temperature drops several degrees after the warmth and splendor of the Prelude and Fugue in A-flat major. The Prelude in G-sharp minor conveys a different kind of beauty. There is something somber and serious about the minor key, as we encounter the familiar “pleading” half steps in the second measure. They prevail throughout the piece, but only as an afterthought. The predominant impression is the continuous motion of the pattern that opens the piece. “Running” 16th notes are always present, either in the form of the opening melodic motive, or in the tremolo pattern that accompanies the half-step “sighs”. The texture of the piece alternates between sections that can be heard as orchestral, and sections that suggest two solo instruments in conversation with each other. The feeling of determination and resilience, and its never ending flow of energy make this piece so engaging.  

Time signature and rhythm of this Fugue suggest the character of a Gigue, - a fast courtly dance, appearing often as the last movement of a suite. The melodic structure speaks a different language. The countersubject, which eventually develops into an independent subject, moves in half steps, giving the melody a slightly undecided, searching, tormented character, that doesn’t quite fit the lighthearted, outgoing mood generally associated with a Gigue. Establishing the appropriate tempo is a difficult task, and one hears different interpretations. Some performers choose to emphasize the dance - like character of the rhythm, while others play the piece very slowly, following the questioning character of the melody. When I first studied the piece I used to play it very slowly, but found the tempo unsuitable to sustain the energy throughout this long fugue.

The piece is a double fugue, like the Fugue No 4 in C-sharp minor. The first subject consists of floating 8th note triplets. Certain melodic figures in Bach’s vocal music are consistent with the use of specific contents or words. The subject of this Fugue has been likened to the image of a dove, which stands for the Holy Spirit. I find that the idea of something flowing, filling air and space goes well with the character of this subject.

The exposition, where the subject appears in each voice once, has a fourth, redundant entry, a compositional technique to be found in many of Bach’s 3-part Fugues. The counterexposition has three subject entries. In the third section the subject disappears altogether, but the triplet motion continues, accompanying the second subject, a falling chromatic line, as a counterpoint.

In the fourth part of the Fugue, Bach joins the first and the second subject together.

Winter Landscape, New Hampshire

Serenity and gentle kindness characterize the beautiful, calmly flowing long melody lines of this Prelude, a three-part invention in 12/8.

A Walk in Central Park, NYC

The Fugue conveys a feeling of joyous expectation. It is the rhythmic structure of the subject that leads me to imagine a happiness that lies in the future, rather than the feeling of contentment, or a present joy. The energy of the long upbeat, the syncopation moves forward, the “center” the main point of gravity lies on the downbeat of the second measure, the second beat of the syncopation, while the note is held. One could say that you can feel it, but you can’ t hear it. The other two voices fill that “empty space” once they join in. 

After the counter exposition the “afterthought”, the melodic idea that ends the subject takes up more and more space. There are no strettos, inversions, or other complications in this lighthearted and happy piece.

(The following three photographs are combined with different sections of the piece in the recording.)

On the way to happiness in Central Park, NYC, 1

On the way to happiness in Central Park, NYC, 2
On the way to happiness in Central Park, NYC, 3

This two-part Invention is one of the most interesting and bizarre pieces of the entire book. The key signature is a-minor, but the melodic ideas are chromatic - they progress in half steps, which introduces many notes that don’t really belong to the key. This conveys a sense of instability and search.

Two motives are predominant : a subject, consisting of tones that move steadily in half steps (chromatic), and a counterpoint, that is as restless and twisted as the subject is straightforward. Its note values are twice as fast as the subject, its melodic structure is made up primarily of rising and falling half-steps. It could be read as two separate voices, that create another falling chromatic line between themselves. 

The counterpoint accompanies the chromatic line like a vine or a spiral. The two voices imitate each other constantly, each one getting its share of the subject as well as the counterpoint.

High Rise, NYC
The first half of the Prelude is dominated by the falling line. In the second part, Bach inverts the process. Then, contrary motion sets in, the subject and the counterpoint begin moving in opposite directions. The coda presents one of each, a falling and a rising subject, accompanied by a falling and a rising counterpoint, at last, a balance of direction. 

The Prelude is all lines, the Fugue is all edges. Other composers have used the subject; Haendel in the chorus “And with his stripes we are healed,” in the Messiah, and Mozart in the Kyrie of the Requiem. 

The powerful subject begins with four notes that stand isolated. The falling diminished seventh at the end sounds open, like a question mark. The silence that follows makes it stand out even more - as if someone had made a challenging statement, or asked a provoking question. An afterthought repeats the opening motive twice as fast, draws it out into a sequence, but the second subject entry already follows before the first phrase is quite finished.

Limestone formations in a cave, Bermuda

The space between the “Pillars” of the subject are filled in by fast, virtuosic  passagework in the other voices. They raise quite a storm and fill the spaces between the “Pillars” of the subject. Gradually, the character of the piece changes from fierceness to brilliance, which spreads as the piece progresses, increasingly obscuring the edges of the subject. I like the bright A-major chord at the end, like the sun coming through the clouds after the storm, or the victory after the battle, but in a different version of the piece, Bach chose the minor chord.  

Saturday, March 16, 2013

J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2. Fourth Mini-Recital, Sunday March 17, 2013; Preludes and Fugues No 13 - 16

In order to listen to each piece, click on the title.

Two voices converse with each other in this Prelude. The top voice begins with a motive that reminds me of speech - two “exclamations,” followed by a short melodic motive that picks up the dotted rhythms of the accompanying bass, before the strong rhythmic structure of the “subject” dissolves into evenly flowing 16-th note figures, made up of broken chords. The opening “subject”, the dotted rhythms, and the flowing 16th notes - these three elements form the material of the piece. 

Sections where the “subject” is present alternate with “episodes” where the dotted rhythms and 16-th note passages flow calmly side by side. Sometimes, both voices have the subject at the same time, imitating each other - fragments of a conversation between two people, tossed back and forth during a walk, or a dance, as the 3/4 time signature might suggest?

Shadows of trees in early spring
What strikes me in particular with this piece is the elegance, and transparency - like lace, a spiderweb, or the shadows of trees on the pavement in early spring.

The fugue subject starts with a bold opening, a trill on the leading tone of the key. A statement, consisting of three quarter notes, confirms the purpose, followed by a melodious afterthought that covers a wide range. The subject sounds as if it wanted to say: I’m really up to something, great things are going to happen. Its rhythmic structure has some resemblance to the opening subject of the preceding Prelude. Interestingly, the countersubject ( motive that accompanies the subject throughout the fugue ) is made up of the “sighs” the falling seconds that we know from the f-minor Prelude. They also appear in the episodes of this Fugue, but the upbeat that leads into the motive gives it bounce - nothing subdues the bright, bold and optimistic nature of this piece.

Summer Sky

When I started to learn this piece, I used to play it through again and again, marveling at the power of the music to express sadness, grief, pain and transcend it at the same time, turning it into something beautiful.

Full Moon in early spring
At the beginning, everything seems to be falling, turning downward. Motion comes into the melody, but it falls, as if the phrase were to come to a close. Instead, it suddenly rises up beyond the point where it started, and then it repeats the opening motive of a falling fourth two, three times. The note values are twice as fast as they are at the beginning, emphasizing the “off-beat” character of the motive, adding urgency. The submission of the beginning has turned into a desperate plea.

The opening motive, and its diminuition, connected by long lines that cover a wide range are the elements that make up the melody. The lines don’t flow smoothly, changes between 16th notes and triplets, some ornamentation suggest emotion that breaks through to the surface. 

Two lower voices accompany the melody in free counterpoint. There is some imitation of motives in the leading voice, but the main function is to supply a foundation, harmonically, and rhythmically. 

The Prelude has three parts. Each begins with the opening motive of a falling fourth. The same point of departure leads to a different place each time. The second part starts in a lower register and gives a lot of space to long meandering melody lines. The “plea” the repeated motive in diminuition, only appears later in the section, which ends in a fermata on the dominant, and a moment of silence.

The recapitulation quotes the opening of the piece. It gives ample room to the “plea” motive, which dominates three measures, with a magic shift to G-major in M 34 - like a silver lining on the horizon. Afterwards, things gradually come to rest, the lines flow more evenly and often stepwise, they gravitate downwards, the piece winds down and ends on a cautious F-sharp major chord.  

This is one of my favorite fugues. The way it develops momentum is so energizing, from the entry of the fairly contained first subject to the exuberant ending, that combines the three subjects in a feast of music making. 

Three subjects? As we saw in the double Fugue No 4 in C-sharp minor, Fugues can have more than one subject. The Fugue in F-sharp minor is the only “triple fugue” in the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each subject has its own exposition, not until the last part do they all come together. 

On the you-tube recording I combined this piece with photographs of an artist creating an asphalt flower on the pavement at Columbus Circle. The pictures are synchronized with the beginning of the four parts, listen for the new subject.

The first subject shares the leaps into the syncopation with the opening motive of the Prelude. 
The making of an asphalt flower, Columbus Circle, NYC
The second subject of the Fugue is a short, falling melody line, energized by the dotted rhythm.

The making of an asphalt flower, Columbus Circle, NYC
The third subject enters, a continuous chain of 16th notes, running smoothly, continuous, and playful. This subject gets things moving, and it is crucial for the performer to keep that in mind when choosing the tempo of the first subject, to make sure one can keep things under control. 
The making of an asphalt flower, Columbus Circle, NYC
The entry of the first subject marks the beginning of the last part of the Fugue. Shortly afterwards, the second subject enters. A short episode uses motives from the first subject, another entry of the second subject follows, and another episode. The continuously running passages from the third subject are always present in one of the voices, infusing everything with energy. In the last phrase, Bach combines all three subjects.

The making of an asphalt flower, the finished work, Columbus Circle, NYC

Bright and brilliant, this Prelude is like looking into an azalea bush in full bloom.

The shortest fugue has the longest subject, as Keller remarks. The piece is a playful dance, full of motion, joy and humor.
Dogs splashing in the fountain at Columbus Circle NYC

The Prelude presents itself serious and solemn. The slow and festive courtly dance conveys the spirit of an era, the splendor of the baroque aristocracy, rather than a personal emotion.

Gate to the Summer Garden, St. Petersburg, Russia

This is another one of my favorite fugues, and another example of “exuberance in minor.” The solemn, festive Prelude has set the scene, the fugue is one big release of energy. The time signature is 3/4, and subject enters slightly “off beat” on the second beat of the measure with a single note. There is a lot of determination in the two motives that follow. The subject ends an insisting, almost stubbornly repeated note. 
With the second subject entry the counterpoint appears. It provides faster moving, 16th-note energy - and with that, the fugue is on its way. 

The Organ at All Souls Unitarian Church, NYC
The construction of the piece suggests a big organ fugue. Bach often chooses different registers of the keyboard for different sections, which would suggest the use of different registrations on the organ or the harpsichord. Sections that have the subject alternate with episodes. 

The long coda ( final section) is particularly impressive - with endings piling on top of each other, as if the composer couldn’t get enough, before the piece ends in a triumphant major chord after a final entry of the subject in the bass. I follow the example of Edwin Fischer, and take the liberty of playing the final subject entry in octaves.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

J.S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2, Third Mini-Recital, Preludes and Fugues No 9-12 Sunday, March 3rd 2013

In German, I would call the feeling that this Prelude evokes “Stilles Vergnuegtsein” - serenity, a sense of trust and inner balance. It’s not the kind of happiness that makes you feel like embracing the world, rather, it comes from contentment, from being in tune with yourself and the world around you, grateful and happy that everything is as it is. 

Blackbird in a Magnolia Tree, Central Park NYC
The Bass opens the piece, laying the foundation with a pedal point on E. The soprano enters the scene with a rhythmically distinct step upwards, and is immediately joined by the alto, who imitates the gesture. A few short melodic motives pass back and forth between the two, and into the bass. The process repeats in the second phrase, in the key of B-major, with the alto taking the lead. Then the short motives begin to expand, and the three voices weave an intricate fabric of increasingly longer melodic lines, garlands made out of scales and broken triads.  

The Prelude has two parts, each of them can be repeated.

Long melodic lines also characterize the Fugue in E-major, but they have broadened out into solemnity, the feeling that goes along with experiences of the sublime and the sacred. Bach did not invent the subject, it had been used by composers before him ( Fischer, Froberger) and it reflects the style of an earlier time. 

Old Country Church, Bermuda

The subject is accompanied by a countersubject throughout the piece. In the course of the development, the density of the musical structure increases through strettos (overlapping subject entrances) and the diminution of the subject (the subject appears twice as fast as originally), ending in a cadence in g-sharp minor that seems almost dramatic. 
Without any transition, a stretto of alto, soprano and tenor sets in. It comes across like comfort, and recalls the atmosphere of the beginning. The following subject entrance by the soprano in the high treble is one of the great moments of the Fugue, as if the sky suddenly opened. Step by step, the line glides back to earth, grounded at last by the final subject entrance in the low register of the bass.

Together, the Prelude and the Fugue appear like relatives standing in different places - secular vs sacred, instrumental vs vocal.

The motive of this two part invention circles around itself in never ending motion like snowflakes twirling around in a blizzard. The flow of the lines is occasionally interrupted by unexpected, unruly leaps, as if a sudden gust of wind had blown them off track. The 3/4 time signature supplies an underlying feeling of dance.

The Great Lawn in a Blizzard, Central Park, NYC

Adventurous and full of energy the long subject of the E-minor Fugue gets on its way. It is easy to distinguish the three sections of the subject. Little turns add momentum to the staccato bounces of the beginning, the middle section is characterized by big leaps and dotted rhythms, then it runs out in evenly flowing triplets. Those triplets - accompanied by dotted rhythms - constitute the material of the episodes - sections where the subject is not present throughout the Fugue. They create moments of fairly calm flow, that is interrupted whenever the first motive of the subject enters and the turns create rhythmic turbulence, obstacles almost, that run against the current. 

It is an unruly, eccentric piece, something about it reminded me of the unreal world of “Alice in Wonderland”  - the reason why I chose the photo of the monument in Central Park .

Alice in Wonderland Monument, Central Park NYC
The Fugue is difficult, and yet fun to play. It’s a challenge to keep its temperament and momentum in check, and Bach may have found that himself, adding an extended coda that seems like an encore, the forces that were let loose refuse to calm down and come to an end.

This Prelude gives me the feeling of a wide open space, a place where you can see very far. Long lines, supported by pillars of chords create connection, and they inspired me to choose the picture of the Bridge crossing the Hudson River to go with this music. The lines meander between the voices - four voices most of the time, occasionally additional notes are added to produce a fuller harmony. 

Bridge across the Hudson River

The Prelude is an improvisatory piece with harmony as the driving force, similar to the C-major Prelude, but the character is calmer, less exuberant, more resting in itself. The time signature is 3/2, but the constant flow, the phrases that merge into each other create an impression of timelessness.

Unexpected offer on a Sunday morning, Columbus Circle, NYC 

Lighthearted and full of good humor the subject comes bouncing along. Three subject entries would be expected in the exposition, yet, there is a redundant, fourth entry of the bass. In the development section, the descending melody line that is derived from the second part of the subject pretty much assumes a life of its own. Descending lines in all three voices chase each other as if they were playing tag, and it takes a while before the complete subject appears again. 

Usually, a section of Fugue is finished when the subject has appeared once in each voice. In the development of the F-major Fugue, the subject is extended by long sequences, a pedal point prepares the next entry, so each entry appears like a section of its own. The soprano is the last of the three voices to enter, and the second motive of the subject shockingly ends in minor, supported by a chord! It sounds like a wrong note, as if someone sticks out his tongue or says something outrageous - but it passes quickly, and an extended bass subject brings the fugue to its happy end, accompanying passages adding exuberance.

Three voices join together to sound some of the darkest music of Book 2. There is no melody line of heartbreaking beauty, as in the Preludes in C-sharp minor and F-sharp minor. Instead, a series of “sighs” opens and dominates the Prelude, as if every step was an effort, there is no energy to sustain a melody. The first two episodes present a brittle harmonic skeleton, and only towards the end of the first part a figure of arpeggiated chords generates continuous, soothing motion, while the sighs continue in the tenor. Longer lines continue throughout the development section, but in the end, things take a downward turn and end in a final, resignated “sigh.”

Back Yard, NYC

The rhythmic determination and the stubborn insistence of the repeated notes in the subject denote a quality that characterizes many of Bach’s fugues in minor keys: resilience. There is energy, there is trust, even a trace of optimism.

The fugue is a very straightforward piece, the subject is easy to follow against the background of continuously flowing 16th passages. The repeated notes from the subject also appear in the episodes; the “motto” of the piece resounds from all sides: It can be done, even if it’s difficult, in the end, we will prevail.

Notice on a lamp post, 9th Ave, NYC