Friday, December 27, 2019

Listening Journey through J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier 1, Session 4: Preludes and Fugues No 7 and 8.

Structure of this blog entry:

1) General observations on the Preludes and Fugues No 7 and 8 in English
2) Allgemeine Betrachtungen zu den Präludien und Fugen No 7 und 8 auf Deutsch (German translation)
3) Individual discussion of each piece (English only)

1) General Observations (English)

The Preludes and Fugues in E-flat major and E-flat/D-sharp minor cover a whole range of emotions. The long and thoughtful Prelude in E-flat major is followed by a short, lighthearted, joyful fugue. The long and thoughtful fugue in D-sharp minor is preceded by a short Prelude that is full of sorrow. To get a feeling of the arc that connects the pieces, I suggest you explore them the way we did at the session: The two “bookends” first – the prelude No 7 and the fugue No 8 – then the prelude no 8 and the fugue no 7. If you then listen to the pieces in order – which we did after our exploration – you get a much better idea of the connections between them.

Those two Preludes and Fugues express opposites that nevertheless belong together.

A poem by Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran expresses this beautifully:
Kahlil Gibran 1882-1931
جبران خليل جبران
On Joy and Sorrow
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.     
And he answered:  
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.     
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.     
And how else can it be?     
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.     
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?     
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?      When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.     
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.          
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”      
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.     
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.      
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.     
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.     
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Just a few days before the session, I came across a fascinating interpretation of the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major on the website of the Netherlands Bach Society.  

In his youth, Bach was quite a hothead. Always on the look for a job that would offer him better pay, better conditions for and recognition of his work, he had, in 1717, already signed a contract with a new employer in Koethen before he was officially released from his job in Weimar. He only got a dishonorable discharge after spending four weeks in prison, and music historian Gerber, whose father studied with Bach in the 1720’s, hints that Bach is reported to have written part of the WTC “at a place where boredom, frustration and the absence of any musical instrument forced him to find a past time."
J.S. Bach in 1715.
(Some art historians have doubted the authenticity of this painting.)

Of course it’s interesting to speculate which pieces might reveal some of the frustration he felt there, and the way he dealt with it. The prelude and fugue in E-flat major may well be one of them. 

Prelude No in E-flat major BWV 852, p 1-2

Prelude No in E-flat major BWV 852, p 3-4

The motif we hear at the beginning of the prelude (click on the link to listen) is like a question: could he have handled things differently, so he wouldn’t have ended up in jail? The following chorale leads all the way down to the low register of the instrument. In the third section of the prelude, Bach creates a fugue from the two musical ideas that opened the piece. The fugue subject changes direction, and with the question “wrapped around it” like a vine winds around a tree trunk, the composer embarks on a process of contemplative self-examination. 

Fugue No 7 in E-flat major BWV 852
The bold and joyful fugue (click on the link to listen) that follows could mean that he didn’t blame himself – he did the right thing. What he’s going through right now will pass. He’s full of great plans that he will carry out on his new position – in fact, artistically, Koethen turned out to be one of the most productive and fulfilling periods of his life.

If the prelude and fugue in E-flat major stand for turning uncertainty and frustration into confidence and joy, the pair in E-flat minor stands for turning sorrow into insight. We hear pain, anger, despair, even a touch of resignation in the prelude (click on the link to listen)- but Bach’s music doesn’t know resignation. 
Prelude No 8 in E-flat minor BWV 853
After the final, tentative major chord follows a fugue (click on the link to listen) that has all the answers. Reaching back before his own time, Bach set it in the polyphonic style of church music of the 16th century“ (stile antico). He often uses it to express something mystical, something that is beyond our understanding. It is one of the fugues I like to call: “mystery fugues.”

Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor, p 1-2 BWV 853

Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor p 3-4 BWV 853
The subject, the statement that opens the fugue meets its opposite, the inversion. I picture them as two opposite views on the same issue in an argument. After a series of strettos (overlapping subject entries), a part of the subject and a part of its inversion are fused together into one statement in a stretto of all three voices. In the final part of the fugue, the subject is augmented: all note values are doubled, so that it becomes twice as long and shines through the musical fabric like a vision. That’s the big picture, rising above the moment, the kind of insight that is mostly hidden from us, because we’re trapped inside ourselves and can’t get out of our skin to take a look “from the outside,” so to say.

Aurora Borealis
Photo by Adithya Ananth on Unsplash

Two days before our listening session, the House voted to impeach the current president. The decision needs the approval of the Senate, and at this point, it seems unlikely that this will happen. The situation was on my mind the whole time, while I tried to find analogies for the way things proceed in the fugue in d-sharp minor. “Don’t go there,” I told myself, “that’s taking it too far.”

After the listening session, over snacks and casual conversation, an audience member suggested the fugue in D-sharp minor should be presented in the Senate, for inspiration!

In the quiet of the Christmas days, a fairy tale has taken hold in my imagination:
The president has a once-in-a-lifetime moment of insight and resigns. He acknowledges that he’s done wrong and from now on, employs his fortune to benefit all the people he has harmed and the urgent issues he has denied. The president’s example creates a movement that gains great popularity among the rich and powerful on our planet …

2) Allgemeine Betrachtungen

Ausdrucksmässig sind die Präludien und Fugen in Es-Dur und Es/Dis moll sehr unterschiedliche Stücke. Dem ausgedehnten, nachdenklichen Präludium in Es-Dur folgt eine kurze, heitere und unbeschwerte Fuge. Die lange, tiefsinnige Fugue in Dis-moll wird von einem kurzen, schmerzerfüllten Präludium eingeleitet. Stellt man aber das Es-Dur Präludium und die Dis-moll Fuge nebeneinander so spürt man eine innere Verwandschaft des Ausdrucks. Sie werden zu „Buchstützen,“ die das Set zusammenhalten, wenn man danach alle vier Stücke in der originalen Reihenfolge hört.

Die beiden Präludien und Fugen bringen Gegensätze zusammen, die dennoch zusammengehören. Der libanesische-amerikanische Dichter Kahlil Gibran beschreibt das wunderbar treffend in diesem Gedicht:
Kahlil Gibran 1882-1931
جبران خليل جبران

 „Von der Freude und dem Leid“

Eure Freude ist euer Leid ohne Maske. 
Und derselbe Brunnen, aus dem euer Lachen aufsteigt,
war oft von euren Tränen erfüllt.
Und wie könnte es anders sein?
je tiefer sich das Leid in euer Sein eingräbt,
desto mehr Freude könnt ihr erfassen.
Ist nicht der Becher, der euren Wein enthält,
dasselbe Gefäß, das im Ofen des Töpfers gebrannt wurde?
Und ist nicht die Laute, die euren Geist besänftigt,
dasselbe Holz, das mit Messern ausgehöhlt wurde?
Wenn ihr fröhlich seid, schaut tief in eure Herzen,
und ihr werdet finden, daß nur das,
was euch Leid bereitet hat, euch auch Freude gibt.
Wenn ihr traurig seid, schaut wieder in eure Herzen,
und ihr werdet sehen, daß die Wahrheit um das weint,
was euch Vergnügen bereitet hat.
Einige von euch sagen:"Freude ist größer als Leid".
Und andere sagen:"Nein, Leid ist größer"
Aber ich sage euch, sie sind untrennbar.
Sie kommen zusammen, und wenn einer alleine mit euch am Tisch sitzt,
denkt daran, daß der andere auf eurem Bett schläft.
Wahrhaftig, wie die Schalen einer Waage
hängt ihr zwischen eurem Leid und eurer Freude.
Nur wenn ihr leer seid, steht ihr still und im Gleichgewicht.
Wenn der Schatzhalter euch hochhebt, um sein Gold und sein Silber zu wiegen,
muß entweder eure Freude oder euer Leid steigen oder fallen.
Einige Tage vor dem Treffen fand ich eine faszinierende Interpretation von Präludium und Fugue in Es-Dur auf der Website der Niederländischen Bachvereinigung.
In jungen Jahren war Bach ein ziemlicher Hitzkopf. Immer auf der Suche nach einer Stelle die ihm ein besseres Gehalt, bessere Arbeitsbedingungen und angemessenere Würdigung seines Könnens versprach, hatte er bereits einen Arbeitsvertrag in Koethen unterschrieben, bevor sein Arbeitgeber in Weimar seiner Kündigung offiziell zugestimmt hatte. Erst nachdem Bach vier Wochen im Gefängnis zugebracht hatte, wurde er unehrenhaft entlassen. Der Musikhistoriker Gerber, dessen Vater in den 1720-er Jahren einige Zeit bei Bach studierte, beschreibt dass Bach einen Teil des Wohltemperierten Klaviers an einem Ort schrieb, wo „Langeweile, Frustration und das Fehlen jeglichen Musikinstruments ihn zwang, einen Zeitvertreib zu finden.“

J.S. Bach, 1715.
(Authentizität des Gemäldes ungeklärt.)

Natürlich ist es interessant zu spekulieren, in welche Stücken diese Frustration zum Ausdruck kommt. Präludium und Fuge in Es-Dur könnten dazugehören. 
Präludium No 7 in Es-Dur BWV 852, p 1-2

Präludium No 7 in Es-Dur BWV 852, p 3-4
Das Anfangsmotiv des Präludiums (zum Anhören bitte auf den link klicken) klingt wie eine offene Frage: Hätte er sich anders verhalten sollen, so dass er nicht im Gefängnis gelandet wäre? Der Choral im 2. Abschnitt des Präludiums führt in die tiefen Register des Klaviers. Das Thema der folgenden Fuge ist eng verwandt mit dem Thema des Chorals, ändert aber die Melodierichtung. Die anfangs gestellte „Frage“ wickelt sich um die langen Töne des Themas wie eine Ranke um einen Baumstamm – der Komponist durchläuft einen Prozess der Selbstbesinnung. 

Fugue No 7 in Es-Dur BWV 852
Die freudige und zuversichtliche Fuge (zum Anhören bitte auf den link klicken) könnte darauf hinweisen, dass Bach sich keinen Vorwurf machte. Er hatte das Richtige getan – in der Tat wurde die Zeit in Koethen in künstlerischer Hinsicht zu einer seiner produktivsten und erfüllendsten Schaffensperioden.
Wenn Präludium und Fuge in Es-Dur die Umwandlung von Frustration in Freude beschreiben, so beschreiben Präludium und Fuge in Es/Dis-moll die Umwandlung von Traurigkeit in Einsicht. Im Präludium (zum Anhören bitte auf den link klicken) hören wir Schmerz, Wut, Verzweiflung, sogar einen Schimmer von Resignation – aber Bachs Musik kennt keine Resignation. 
Präludium No 8 in Es-moll BWV 853
Nach dem vorsichtigen Dur-Akkord, der das Stück beendet, folgt eine Fuge, die alle Fragen beantwortet. Stilistisch wendet Bach sich zurück in eine vergangene Zeit und komponiert im polyphonen Stil der Kirchenmusik des 16. Jahrhunderts (stile antico) Er wendet dieses Mittel häufig an um etwas zum Ausdruck zu bringen dass unser Verständnis übersteigt. Ich nenne diese Fugen gerne „Mysterienmusik.“
Fuge No 8 in Dis-moll, BWV 853, S 1-2

Fuge No 8 in Dis-moll BWV 853, S 3-4 
Das Thema, das die Fuge eröffnet, trifft im Verlauf des Stückes auf sein Gegenteil, die Umkehrung. Ich vergleiche diesen Vorgang oft mit zwei kontrastierenden Meinungen zu einem Sachverhalt in einer Diskussion. Nach einer Reihe von Stretti (Überlagerung von Themeneinsätzen) fügt Bach ein Motiv des Themas und ein Motiv seiner Umkehrung in einem Stretto aller drei Stimmen zu einer Aussage zusammen. Im letzten Teil der Fuge wird das Thema vergrössert. Alle Notenwerte werden auf das Doppelte verlängert, so dass es zweimal so lang wird und wie eine Vision durch das musikalische Gewebe scheint. Man spürt eine Art von Einsicht, die unsere Vernunft übersteigt und uns meistens verschlossen ist; denn wir sind in uns selber gefangen und können uns und unsere Situation nie „von aussen“ betrachten.  
Aurora Borealis
Photo by Adithya Ananth on Unsplash

Zwei Tage vor dem Hörtreffen sprach sich das amerikanische Repräsentantenhaus für ein Amtsenthebungsverfahren des derzeitigen Präsidenten aus. Die Entscheidung bedarf der Zustimmung durch den Senat, und die Chancen hierfür sind gering. Die Situation ging mir nicht aus dem Kopf, während ich nach Ideen suchte, den Zuhörern die musikalischen Vorgänge in der Fuge in dis-moll nahezubringen. „Das geht zu weit,“ ermahnte ich mich und übte Zurückhaltung.
Dem Hörtreffen folgt immer noch ein Imbiss und ein wenig geselliges Zusammensein; da sagte plötzlich jemand über die Fuge: man sollte dieses Stück im Senat vorstellen, zur Inspiration!
Über die stillen Weihnachtstage hat sich ein Weihnachtsmärchen in meiner Vorstellung festgesetzt:
In einem einmaligen Moment tiefer Einsicht legt der Präsident legt sein Amt nieder. Er bekennt sich zu seinen Verfehlungen und setzt von nun an sein Vermögen zum Nutzen der Menschen und Anliegen ein, denen er geschadet hat. Sein Beispiel ruft eine neue Bewegung ins Leben, die große Popularität unter den Reichen und Mächtigen auf unserem Planeten gewinnt...

3) Discussion of individual pieces (English only)

Prelude No 7 in E-flat major (click on the link to listen)

Prelude No in E-flat major BWV 852, p 1-2

Prelude No in E-flat major BWV 852, p 3-4
The first thing that catches the attention when hearing this piece is momentum. A free, improvisatory opening that consists of passagework over sustained harmonies, is followed by a slow and solemn section. The basic pulse of both parts is the same, but the slow motion of the long notes creates an atmosphere of the deepest calm and serenity, like a hymn or a prayer. A short melody is passed on from one voice to another. The intersections between the voices create the harmonies that move the piece forward, often in unexpected turns (M 13-15) It is very soothing to follow that process of changing harmonies and melodies shining through the musical texture.

In the third part of the piece, Bach combines the two elements of the introduction into a fugue. The subject is taken from the chorale. The passagework of the opening becomes a countersubject that weaves around the long notes of the subject like a vine winds itself around a tree trunk. I’ve marked the two ideas in different colors in the score. You don’t have to be able to read music to see how the green lines, marking the countersubject, zig-zag up and down, while the brown lines, marking the chorale subject, are long and steady.

Formally, this is a fugue with strettos and episodes. They are marked in the score, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be aware of them while listening to the beautiful, meditative piece that Bach has created by bringing together two ideas of opposite character.

Certain features of the piece suggest that Bach may have had an organ in mind when he wrote it. The opening suggests a Toccata – a keyboard composition with an improvisatory, often virtuosic opening, followed by a section that uses imitation, often a fugue. 

At our session, we listened to an organ recording of the E-flat major prelude. Organist Louis Thiry plays the piece considerably faster than I feel it, but it’s worthwhile to experience the effect of the long notes actually being sustained. Sound production on the piano does not allow for that, and dissonances hidden in the musical structure of the piece become more predominant. Also, note the distinct change in “color” of sound, which the organist achieves through a change in registration at the beginning of the fugue.  

Fugue in E-flat major (click on the link to listen)

Fugue No 7 in E-flat major BWV 852

After the masterpiece of a prelude – that is really a prelude and fugue – what’s left to top it? Looking at the fugue that follows, the answer is: do something completely different. The fugue in E-flat major is a straightforward, exuberant, extrovert outbreak of joy. No strettos, inversions, augmentations, nothing fancy, just all three voices in turn catching on to the joy of the subject, and frolicking through the episodes between the subject entries that continue in the same character. And to provide some special joy to the performer, the piece provides several field days worth of practicing trills.

Prelude in E-flat minor (click on the link to listen)

Prelude No 8 in E-flat minor BWV 853
The prelude is a Sarabande: a slow, very expressive dance. The rhythm/pacing  and the harmonies are lined out by repeated chords. Above that, and sometimes below, we hear something like a “melody”. This is not an ear-catching tune, however. Rather, it is like an outpouring of pure emotion. In the book Dance in the Music of J.S. Bach (Indiana University Press 1991/2001) Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne quote a description of a dancer performing a solo Sarabande. (p 94)

Drawing of a dancer 

It was found in a French and Latin dictionary, published in Lyon in 1671. Though written considerably earlier than Bach’s prelude, I could very well imagine it to go with this piece:

“But all this was nothing compared to what was observed when this gallant began to express the emotions of his soul through the motions of his body, and revealed them in his face, his eyes, his steps and all his actions.
Sometimes he would cast languid and passionate glances throughout a slow and languid rhythmic unit (cadence); and then, as though weary of being obliging, he would avert his eyes, as if he wished to hide his passion; and, with a more precipitous motion, would snatch away the gift he had tendered. .
Now and then he would express anger and spite with an impetuous and turbulent rhythmic unit; and then, evoking a sweeter passion by more moderate motions, he would sigh, swoon, let his eyes wander languidly; and certain sinuous movement of the arms and body, nonchalant, disjointed and passionate, made him appear so admirable and so charming that throughout this enchanting dance he won as many hearts as he attracted spectators.”

Fugue in D-sharp minor (click on the link to listen)

Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor, p 1-2 BWV 853

Fugue No 8 in D-sharp minor p 3-4 BWV 853
A brief comment on the key signature of this fugue: The prelude that goes with it is notated in E-flat minor. Sound-wise, there is no difference on the keyboard between e-flat and d-sharp minor. It’s only a matter of how you notate them.

Not all pieces of the WTC were especially composed for this collection; it is a compilation of works. Frequently, Bach included earlier works, sometimes reworking, improving them. Many Preludes, are found in the little Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann, a kind of “method book” that he composed for one of his sons.

In the case of this fugue, it is thought that Bach referred to an earlier fugue in d-minor. Rather than make a completely new copy in e-flat, he transposed it to d-sharp, which required little more than putting in the sharps. It saved work and expensive manuscript paper. 

The subject is a fully developed melody that seems to float in time. It’s beautifully balanced, consisting of an initial statement and an afterthought that create two arcs. Something about it breathes the spirit of Gregorian chant.

All three voices pick up the subject in the order A-S-T. You could expect this to be the end of the exposition, but as in most 3-part fugues, this one, too, has a 4th, “redundant” subject entry in the exposition. Bach places it in the range of the bass and thus, creates the illusion of a 4th voice. 
The 4th subject entry is followed by an episode. Here, the three voices are mostly synchronized rhythmically – like a joint effort. That is the cue to what happens next: a stretto – overlap of subject entries, which intensifies the expression. The highlight of this section is in M 24/25, where Bach unites all three voices in the subject. It is preceded and followed by a stretto between alto and soprano. The first time, the alto begins, the second time, it’s the soprano, with the bass accompanying. This formal structure conveys a feeling of balance.

In M 29, the soprano introduces a whole different “view” of the subject: the inversion. The alto follows in M 35, immediately followed by the bass entry in M 39. This entry completes the exposition of the inversion. 
The next entry of the inversion follows in the bass range, keeping up the illusion of a four-part fugue. It is not a redundant entry, though, as in the exposition of the subject (M12); it marks the beginning of a stretto of the inversion between Bass and Alto, followed by a stretto between Tenor and Soprano. 
Two strettos follow that involve all three voices. Stretto 6 features the subject, stretto 7 the inversion of the subject. Both times, Bach only uses the first idea and leaves out the afterthought, which is replaced by the first statement of the inversion. Only a few notes separate the two strettos, and they feel like a fusion between the subject and its inversion – like fusing together two opposite points of view. 
A triumphant subject entry in the soprano leads to the final section of the piece. After the inversion and its combination with the original subject, it introduces yet another “view”: the augmentation of the subject.

The note values are twice as slow as in the original version. That doubles the length of the melody in time, and the accompaniment can accommodate both the subject and the inversion in their original length/ or twice the subject. It rises through the structure from tenor to alto to soprano before all voices come together in the coda, finishing the piece with a feeling of unity and hope.

Following our exploration, we listened to a harpsichord recording of this fugue by Bart Jacobs. It’s not possible to bring out individual voices on the harpsichord by playing them louder, but the way Bach has combined them –different registers, high vs low, the changing rhythmic structure actually helps to hear the subject within the web of voices. 

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