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

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