Sunday, November 3, 2019

Listening Journey through Bach's WTC 1. Preludes and Fugues No 3 and 4

Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp major BWV 848 
Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor BWV 849

Second Listening Session, Friday, 10/18/2019

The preludes and fugues in C-sharp major and C-sharp minor are two very contrasting sets, both in spirit and in the way they are composed. C-sharp major is one of the most lighthearted, playful and charming pairs in the Well-Tempered Clavier, the one in C-sharp minor is one of the darkest, most mysterious and profound. The prelude and especially the fugue in c- sharp minor are quite long and complex. For this reason, I decided to begin our session with these two pieces. After playing them, I started the exploration with the fugue, followed by the prelude. Then, we turned to the prelude and fugue in C-sharp major. 
What works well in a live demonstration doesn’t necessarily make for a good read. For this reason, the preludes and fugues are presented here as Bach placed them in the WTC. I also performed them in that order at the end of the session.

Prelude and Fugue No 3 in C-sharp major

Prelude  (click on the link to listen)
The prelude is full of energy and sparkle. It reminds me of icicles glittering in the sunlight, or snowflakes dancing – the reflection of a memory.
Winter in New Hampshire
This was the first piece I learnt after my relocation from Germany to the United States, in an almost empty apartment in the depth of winter in New Hampshire. My belongings, including the piano, were still on the way, and I practiced on an electronic keyboard with the headphones on – a good idea, considering all the wrong notes I played. C-sharp major with its seven sharps is very hard to read, and, at least in this prelude and fugue, extremely uncomfortable to play.

The keyboard pattern of the scale is easy enough:
Black -black-  white – black-black-black- white-black.
Keyboard pattern, scale in C-sharp major
The two white keys come in handy for placing the thumb just at the right time to change the hand position. In the prelude and fugue, it’s a whole different thing. To accommodate the numerous patterns, you’re constantly teetering on the narrow black keys with all five fingers, always in danger of sliding off into the narrow gap between them, and if that happens, you’re stuck. At my second complete performance of the WTC 1 in 2005 I barely avoided a major train-wreck in the fugue. That's early on, and the shock reverberated throughout the entire performance and beyond.  

The music of the prelude in C-sharp major is based on a succession of chords, broken up into patterns. We find a similar approach in the preludes in C-major and C- minor and many others. It’s the way Bach sets those harmonies in motion that makes up the charm and brilliant joy of this piece.
Prelude in C-sharp major. Related musical elements are marked in the same color
The 3/8 time signature gives it a dance-like character. Two different rhythmic elements are combined. To begin with, the left hand has the slower motion: a quarter note followed by an 8th, or three 8ths notes fill the measure. The right hand moves at twice the speed, first in patterns based on the harmony, (M 1-5) then merging into a melodic pattern that moves mostly stepwise (M 6-8). These elements and their exchange between the hands are the core ideas of the piece.

The second half (M 47-62) begins with a reverse of the opening. Then, Bach creates a new pattern. It is based on the 8th note pattern, but shifted in time, so that the right hand notes have to fit in between the notes of the left hand, requiring an interchange between the hands that is almost like juggling.
Exuberant hand-over-hand arpeggios in the last line are like a dancer’s pirouette, followed by cadence chords that conclude the piece like a final bow.

Fugue (click on the link to listen)
The subject (marked green in the score), that opens this fugue in three parts, is full of energy. It starts with a little turn that merges into exuberant leaps. Again, you could imagine a dancer –in fact, the rhythmic patterns of this piece have characteristic features of a Bouree – a popular baroque dance in moderately fast tempo, duple meter, balanced 4+4 phrases, simple harmonies and a joyful mood.

Fugue in C-sharp major M 1-25

Fugue in C-sharp major, M 26-55
The subject has a faithful companion throughout the fugue; a musical idea that consistently appears in another voice together with the subject. The musical term is countersubject . It is marked blue in the score.

Subject entrances are connected by episodes (E1-E6) – sections where the full subject does not appear. The musical elements of the episodes in this fugue are derived from the subject, however. 
In E 1, the two voices on the top exchange a motif consisting of leaps, (yellow) the bass has a sequence made up of continuous patterns in 16th that remind of the initial turn (purple). E1, E3, the 2nd section of E5 and E 6 share this basic structure. Doing the same thing over and over is boring, so Bach slightly varies the motifs each time. 
In E 2 and in the first section of E 5, one hand keeps up the leaps (yellow), while a continuous melodic line in the other hand takes the places of the sequence (orange). In E2, the right hand has the melodic line, in E 5 it’s the left hand. This kind of interchange between the hands is familiar from the prelude. 
In E4 the right hand quotes the opening of the subject in its inversion, accompanied by the countersubject. In the last two sections of E5 the opening of the subject forms a sequence, accompanied by an idea that reminds of the prelude.

The following, very simple “map” illustrates how these musical ideas are distributed throughout the fugue. Identical colors represent related musical ideas. To keep things simple, the map neglects the third voice and the length of sections.

"Map", illustrating the distribution of musical ideas throughout the fugue
Most of the time, sections where related ideas are interchanged between the hands don’t follow each other immediately as they did in the prelude. Instead, they are distributed throughout the piece and weave a fabric of cross-references. 
The final part (M 42-53) is a recapitulation - an almost identical repeat of the beginning section or exposition (M 1-11). It is followed by a very short coda (final section, M 53-55) – just an afterthought, very similar to the ending of the prelude, to wrap things up and confirm the key.
The exposition and the recap hold the piece together like two bookends and provide a feeling of wholeness – containment – contentment - completion.

Prelude and Fugue No 4 in C-sharp minor

Prelude (click on the link to listen)
The Prelude is a lament, an expression of grief, a continuous flow of the deepest sorrow. The alto as the leading voice is in conversation with the other two/three, sometimes four parts that make up the musical structure.
Prelude in C-sharp minor, score
When we discussed the prelude in c-minor last time, I mentioned similarities between Bach’s vocal and instrumental music. I would like to go there again, because this Prelude reminds me so much of one of the most beautiful vocal pieces that Bach ever wrote, the “Erbarme Dich” (Have mercy) - Aria from the St. Matthew Passion.

The aria is a duet for alto and solo violin, accompanied by the orchestra. We find the same kind of dialogue between voices, but the different colors of the voice and the instrument make them easier to distinguish. Listening to this piece will do more for us than dissecting the Prelude into its ingredients; the music speaks for itself.

The context of the aria within the passion is a story of friendship and betrayal. Jesus and his disciples are gathered over the dinner for Passover. He talks about his upcoming suffering and dying, and he also hints that his arrest will disperse the group of his disciples. Peter, totally sure of himself, declares that he will always stand with Jesus and defend him in distress. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answers, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
After Jesus’ arrest, people in the crowd point to Peter and identify him as one of the followers. This happens three times, and Peter denies, each time with more determination. Then the rooster crows. Peter realizes what he has done and he goes away and cries his heart out. 
This is where the aria comes in, with its long melody lines, expressing an endless flow of tears. The following recording is part of the Netherlands’ Bach Society’s project “All of Bach,” which aims to make quality recordings of Bach’s entire work available on the internet. If you subscribe to the website, you get a notification every time a new recording has been released.  In the recording of the “Erbarme Dich” – Aria, the orchestra plays on period instruments and the solo is sung by a countertenor.  (click on the link to listen)

Fugue (click on the link to listen)
Only two fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier 1 were composed for five voices:

No 4 in C-sharp minor and No 18 in B-flat minor. The second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier doesn’t have any fugues in five parts.
The fugue in c-sharp minor from WTC 1 is also special because it has 3 subjects. In the score, No 1 is marked green, No 2 blue, No 3 pink. The subjects differ greatly from each other: No 1 is very short and subdued, No 2 is constantly in motion, No 3 has a distinct rhythmic and melodic structure.

Fugue in C-sharp minor, M1-65
Part 1 (M 1-34, Exposition M 1-18, Counter-exposition M 19-34)
In the first part of the fugue only the first subject appears in its entirety. Traces of the other two subjects are already present as counterpoints, but they don’t appear in their final shape until later in the piece. 

The very short first subject consists of five long notes only. The subject moves in small intervals (falling half step, rising diminished fourth, falling half step, falling whole step) and ends on the pitch where it started. Throughout the history of music composers have used falling half steps to express grief and pain. In terms of momentum and energy, this subject is barely alive.

The lowest voice begins, followed by the other four voices in ascending order, so that the subject rises by two octaves in the course of the exposition. That’s quite remarkable, considering that, in and of itself, it is barely moving. 
The secret lies within the voices that go along with it. Not only do they develop momentum by moving faster – the main characteristic of the 2nd subject - we also find larger intervals, including the perfect fourth, that characterizes the 3rd subject. So, while these subjects haven’t acquired their final shape yet, the seeds are already there at the beginning of the piece. They are marked in the score in the respective colors.

In the counter-exposition (M 19-34), the first subject appears in all five voices again. The accompanying voices continue to develop momentum and make harmonic changes evident. The counter-exposition ends in major. That changes the character of the piece considerably. In the subject, the diminished fourth becomes a perfect fourth, thus anticipating the “signature interval” of the 3rd subject.
Something else is significant: Throughout the two subjects entrances in major (M 29 and M 32) all five voices come together simultaneously for the first time in the fugue.

Part  II The motion in the counterpoints to the subject in exposition and counter-exposition generates a second subject (S2). It’s the opposite of S1, which barely gets moving, and after a brief attempt, returns to its origin. The second subject plays a major part in moving the piece forward and preparing the entry of the 3rd subject. 
Traces of S 2 already appear in the exposition (M 17/18; 23/24; 31/32; 35) In fact, Bach simply doubles the speed of the motif and makes it continuous. The second subject has enough momentum to move forward in small, meandering figures, but it does not have a distinct rhythmic structure, or boundaries. One long, falling line accompanies two entries of S 1(M36-41).
Tension increases in the 3
rd entry of S 2 (M41). This time, the subject is inverted, which makes it rise. The first notes of each pattern form a chromatic line – another means to create expectation. The last two entries overlap – a technique that is called stretto – and lead into the appearance of the 3rd subject (M49).

Part III Rhythmic and melodic structure (a rising fourth and repeated notes) give this subject a determined character  – or is it pleading, a cry for help ?
In the long section that follows, Bach experiments with combinations/layerings of the three subjects. (top, middle, bottom) Writing a good fugue is very difficult . It requires a lot of experimenting and struggle. To this day, learning how to write fugue is a challenging exercise for composers. In his sonata op 110, Beethoven writes fugues as a symbol for problem solving – we get a sense of that here.
Fugue in C-sharp minor, M 66-115
It seems to me that Bach’s objective is to bring all five voices together in a way that works. Most of the time, three voices are involved, sometimes four, but we never get five again until the end of the third section (M 56-58) At that point, the second subject has just about exhausted its energy altogether. It will eventually disappear in the final part of the fugue.
Certain moments stand out in the third part: The brief turn to major in M 54-58; the entry of the first subject in the low bass in M 73, and the long descent of S 2 M 82-86.

Part IV  S 2 disappears after a final entry in M 92. Strettos of S 3 produce a very dense texture. Without the mellowing effect of S3 the structure is very chordal. If there is a dissonance you really hear the clashes. While all five voices are increasingly engaged in the process simultaneously – the ultimate goal – we feel struggle, conflict; the increase of tension. After clashing harmonies in the final part (M 109, M 112), the ending in C-sharp major comes as a faint hope, a sense of possible relief, rather than triumph.
At the core of this ending are the first and the third subject. They finish the piece together, and the it is the third subject that provides the major third in the final chord.

Concluding reflection:
Before performing both Preludes and Fugues in the original order at the end of the session, I shared some personal reflections about the music with the audience:

Elements of the same spirit join in the prelude and fugue in C-sharp major and play together joyfully. Right away, there’s very upbeat energy, momentum, and nothing happens to disturb that. In that kind of genuinely happy spirit, you don’t ask a lot of questions. You simply enjoy the moment and go with the flow. 

It took me a long time to make up my mind about the character of the fugue in C-sharp minor. The images that came to my mind in the course of the search are entirely personal. I’m not saying: “this is what it means.” I’m not suggesting that others have to identify with my associations, but as a performer, I have to take a stand in the way I play the piece.
What strikes me most about this fugue is how it develops momentum, from the initial “hint” of a subject to the final part that involves all five voices and ends in C-sharp major.  After the fierce, dissonant struggle that precedes it, though, the ending  doesn’t feel triumphant. It’s more like a shadow, a faint hope against better knowledge.

Long notes can feel reassuring like pillars that support a structure. That’s not the feeling that comes with the first subject. This is a tentative beginning - the first trace of light before dawn? The music that follows does not suggest a radiant day. The second subject creates motion, but lacks the focus to achieve something beyond that. That’s left to the third subject. The rising fourth, the insistent, repeated notes are like a plea, an outcry - the outcry of our tormented planet?

Ultimately, the prelude, and an incident that made the news, helped me define my personal understanding of this piece.
The prelude expresses deepest grief and sorrow, if not despair. Peter has committed the most atrocious betrayal; the damage is done and cannot be fixed.  

While I was preparing the presentation, another police shooting of a black person in this troubled country was reported in the news: A policeman in Texas shot an unarmed black woman in her own home, after he had been called to the house by a neighbor, who noticed that the front door was open and worried about a possible break in. The policeman saw something move by the window and his shot was fatal.

It’s possible that the incident touched me so deeply because only days before, I had called the police on my downstairs neighbors. They were playing music loud enough to wake me up at 3 am - an unfortunate habit of theirs; and I’m not a light sleeper. I’ve complained; we’ve talked repeatedly. This time I’d simply had it, and it has nothing to do with the fact that they’re from South America.

I imagined the state of mind of that policeman in Texas – assuming his action was not motivated by hate and racism. The combination of poor judgment and fear can be just as fatal. You’re responsible for destroying more than one life, and you will carry the weight for the rest of your days. All you can do is bring yourself to ask forgiveness. Granting it would be an act of boundless generosity on the part of those who have been harmed. There is no guarantee it will ever happen, only the faint light of a possibility at the end.