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.  

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