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.

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