already discussed somewhat. Twice, even. But it's one of those topics that, for me at least, never gets old. And besides, I haven't even nearly done it justice. In my essay on whether Bach wrote an Album for the Young, I only gave a brief, general description of the WTC as a whole, whereas other "Albums" for the young and the mature have gotten a full, piece-by-piece treatment. And while I gave more consideration to the tonal scheme of the WTC in my article on how many major and minor keys there are, I didn't say half a word about the music itself.
Is this an Album for the Young or an Album for the Mature? Answer: Yes. There are pieces in the WTC that I started playing, at least in a simplified arrangement, at quite an early age. By my teens I was playing carefully selected numbers from it. In college, I prepared one of the preludes and fugues for a recital. I've been living with the two books of the WTC long enough to own two editions of it. There is the cheap, not very reliable edition that I started with, and that I keep with my "manuals only" organ books at the church I currently serve as worship accompanist (because their instrument does not have a pedal board). And there is the Henle Urtext edition, which I have collected volume by volume until I have almost all of Bach's non-organ keyboard works in it, and which has altogether spoiled the other edition for me.
How important are these two books of Preludes and Fugues? Let me try to express their importance to me by means of an illustration. I am well along in the process of packing everything I own to move from St. Louis to another city. All but two of my piano albums are packed in cardboard boxes, held shut by cellophane tape. For this last week before I move, I am cut off from Handel, Haydn, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, and all the rest. Even most of my Bach collection is tucked in for the duration. No French Suites, English Suites, or Partitas for the next little while. No Inventions, Sinfonias, or Toccatas. No Goldberg Variations, even. What did I keep out, to be packed up in my personal luggage at the last moment before I leave? What was the bare minimum of that I needed to be able to play? Guess. Hint: One of them has "Teil I" under the title, and the other says "Teil II." That's German for Part 1 and Part 2.
Don't bother asking what one piano album I would want with me, if I could have only one (and an instrument to play), during a long period stranded on a desert island, or in a bunker below a post-nuclear wasteland, or in a space capsule bound for Proxima Centauri. You already have your answer: The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach.
At the risk of repeating what little I have told you about these books in my previous posts, here is what they're about. Bach wrote these two books, each containing a Prelude and a Fugue in each of the twelve major and the twelve minor keys, to celebrate the invention of a system for tuning musical instruments that made it possible to play decent-sounding music in all of those keys. You see, there is more than one way to divvy up the twelve musical tones within an octave. The now popular system of "equal temperament," which assigns evenly-spaced numbers of Herzes to each pitch, is only a recent development and wasn't the one Bach's title referred to. Older systems of temperament, however, made some of the theoretically available major and minor keys unusable in practice. Because each "half step" or "whole step" interval wasn't exactly equal, some keys sounded more agreeable than others. Some keys, in the tuning systems customarily used up to Bach's time, sounded downright obnoxious.
So what Bach meant by "well-tempered" was an instrument tuned in such a way that every possible major and minor key sounded "in tune," within an acceptable margin of error. Believe it or not, such systems of temperament were, and in some circles still are, controversial. Instead of some keys sounding really good and others sounding grotesque, all keys now sounded about equal, but just a wee bit off. It wasn't ideal. But it made possible, for the first time, a realistic keyboard technique running the full range of sharps and flats. For more information on this issue, I recommend this book. Rather than belabor it further, let's just take it as read that the title of these books has to do with this remarkable new tuning system, which the contents demonstrate by taking a Preludes-and-Fugues tour through all 24 major and minor keys. Twice.
Perhaps by accident, or perhaps just because we're talking about J. S. Bach, these pieces also happen to be consistently marked by the highest standard of craftmanship. They explore a vast range of moods, styles, and textures—practically a compendium of what could then be done on a keyboard instrument. They are masterpieces of form, style, and expression. They are deeply intelligent pieces of music, yet at the same time are full of passionate feelings and splashes of beauty that defy analysis. I bear witness, from personal experience, that a fearless pianist with moderately good technique and note-reading ability—or even a pianist with only one or two of these qualifications, assisted by a love for the art of music—can play pieces from these books every day for decades without growing tired of them. One constantly finds new facets in them, new food for thought, new delights that cannot be described in words. These pieces constantly reward the pianist fortunate enough to hear them, feel his hands running over them, and meditate on them. They open a pathway through which today's musician can sit at the feet of the master who died in 1750, and be taught by his genius. And as one becomes increasingly proficient in playing them, it is comforting to think one is sending these pieces spinning out into the cosmos, doing their part to correct all that is wrong with the universe.
Before we talk about the pieces individually, let's talk about the concept of the Prelude and Fugue.
"Prelude" (Praeludium in Bach's original text) is a pretty generic title for a piece of music. It doesn't really describe anything about it, except the expectation that it will be followed by something else. There are a lot of Preludes and Fugues among Bach's organ works. The English Suites and Partitas all begin with a movement titled "Prelude," often the longest, most serious, and most intricately structured piece in the suite. Then consider: the original title of each of the fifteen two-part Inventions was Preambulum, which is closely related to the concept of the Prelude; and none of these pieces were specifically meant to go "before" anything else. Many of Bach's organ works were Chorale Preludes, which is to say, self-standing pieces of music arranged around the framework of a hymn tune, or chorale. Insofar as they were conceived as an introduction to the tune, to be played before singing the hymn, the word "Prelude" makes some literal sense; but it didn't have to be played before the hymn to be regarded as a Prelude. To be fair, the term Chorale Prelude is an English-language gloss on the German term Choralbearbeitung, which literally means "Chorale Setting." So my analysis isn't definitive. But as far as what gives the WTC Preludes their "preludishness," it needn't be merely an introductory flourish, or a musical clearing of the throat, before the seriousness of the Fugue. The Prelude could be as large-scale, as contrapuntally sophisticated, as dramatically expressive, and as structurally significant as the fugue itself. Ideally, the two movements formed an equal balance.
The Prelude could, in theory, be just a short piece establishing the tonality (home key) of the fugue. Some of the Preludes to Handel's keyboard suites, for example, fit exactly that description; often Handel's preludes weren't even fully written out, but only sketched in such a way that a musician of Handelian skill could improvise an effective "realization" of the score. But in Bach's suites, as in the WTC, the Prelude was nearly always a major work in itself, fully realized, and following through on a complete musical argument. Sometimes it was a free-form piece, starting in the tonic key, moving through other harmonic areas, and firmly reasserting the tonic before the end. Sometimes it was a binary form, with repeat-signs at the end of the first section (ending either in the dominant key, or in some minor-key cases the relative major) and again at the very end (beginning the repeat at the start of the second section). A couple of the WTC Preludes are practically fugues in their own right.
"Fugue" (Fuga in Bach's score) designates a very special style of imitative counterpoint. What's that? "Counterpoint" is a musical texture in which different melody-lines, or voices, move around independently. Think of this as opposed to one melody line being supported by generic background patterns, or all the voices moving together from one chord to another. Counterpoint is "imitative" when each voice uses similar melodic material at different times, and in different ranges of pitch. If you pay attention to a piece of imitative counterpoint, you should recognize the same melody, or something like it, coming in first in the top voice, then in the next voice down, then in the bottom voice, etc., or in whatever order. Some pieces of imitative counterpoint will have the voices chasing each other with a whole succession of musical ideas. The style of imitative counterpoint known as "Fugue" makes use of the same musical subject, give or take some obvious permutations of it, from one end of a piece to the other. Sometimes there may also be a second and even a third subject, coming in at later stages of the piece; and sometimes there will be a countersubject, accompanying every entrance of the subject; but these will only add to the richness of the treatment of the main subject, combining with it in various ways.
You may see some common landmarks go by during your journey through any given fugue. The first thing you will see is an initial entry group, in which each voice comes in, one at a time, with either the subject or an "answer" to the subject. The answer is an altered but still recognizable version of the subject, with one or more intervals changed to lead back to the next statement of the subject. Statements of the subject and/or answer, at least within the initial entry group, will tend to alternate between the tonic key and the dominant (the key based on the fifth note of the tonic scale). They will alternate, tonic-dominant-tonic, etc., until all voices have entered, whether there are two, three, four, or five voices in play. (Because the WTC is meant to be playable by keyboard soloists with an average of ten fingers, none of the fugues have more than five voices. Given other instruments or singers, the number of voices in a fugue is limited only by the composer's ingenuity.) After the initial entry group there may be several other entry groups, separated by more or less unrelated "episode" material. The other entry groups will use the same subject material, and perhaps additional subjects, to explore other key areas. The piece will end after a final entry or group of entries brings the music back to the original tonality.
Besides the "answer," discussed above, one may see, hear, and play many other kinds of permutations of the subject. Motives, or thematic fragments, may be broken off the subject and used to bring a sense of unity to the otherwise loosey-goosey episodes. The subject may be inverted, or flipped upside-down, so that its upward intervals move downward and vice versa. It may be turned retrograde, or back-to-front, with the same intervals played in reverse order. A retrograde inversion is also a possibility, though often harder to recognize. The subject may be played against itself at two different speeds, either by augmentation (when the new speed is slower than the original) or diminution (when it's faster than the original). And very often, a fugue may climax in a stretto, which means "speeding up"—or, in the context of the fugue, bringing in the overlapping entries of the subject sooner than expected, so that it seems to be in a rush and interrupts itself. This is a good way to build tension, and one of the key selling-points of a fugue is the sense of drama inherent in the form. Who knew? The fugue isn't just an exercise for the intellect. It is also, and indeed primarily, an outlet for dramatic expression.
Some fugues are very rigorous. This means that, if you analyze them closely, you will find a high population density of subject or answer entries, including stretti, inversions, augmentations, and whatnot. They don't have to be very rigorous, though. Some very dramatically effective and beautiful fugues only have the minimum allowance of subject entries, or thereabouts. So as we move ahead into describing the 48 Preludes and Fugues of the WTC, you can expect me to remark now and again on whether or not a fugue is particularly rigorous.
And now we get to Book 1, BWV 846-869, which begins under the full title: "Das wohltemperirte Clavier oder Praeludia und Fugen durch alle Tone und Semitonia." This practically translates itself as, "The Well-Tempered Clavier [keyboard instrument], or Preludes and Fugues through all Tones and Semitones." By "tones and semitones," I think Bach means all the black and white keys.
Prelude 1 starts us off as white as can be, with the no-sharps-or-flats key of C major. This is the famous prelude whose rolling pattern of broken chords (arpeggios, in musical lingo) was adapted by Charles Gounod, with the addition of a measure or two, as the accompaniment of his setting of "Ave Maria." It isn't the only piece in this album that has been sampled by later musicians. I guess you can call it an homage. This piece could probably be transcribed very easily for guitar or harp. In fact, I have an upstairs neighbor who, unless my ears deceive me, has been trying to learn to play this piece on the harp. God bless her. If she has to listen to me play Bach all the time, she is entitled to her revenge.
Fugue 1 in C major (4 voices) is a nice, bright, friendly-sounding example of a rigorous stretto fugue. In 27 bars, I count 24 entries of the subject, plus a few false entries (i.e., little fragments of the subject that fake you out before trailing off into filler material). The stretti begin quite early in the fugue. Though the subject is a measure and a half long, entries #5 and 6 overlap each other at a remove of only one beat. Something like this happens again two bars later, then at the end of the very next bar, then again and again throughout the piece, with different voices duetting off each other in a grab-bag of textural combinations. With the subject coming at you from all directions, nearly all of the time, you might worry about not being able to recognize it. Put that worry aside. The subject has a very distinctive shape and rhythmic pattern that will stick right out of the texture for you.
Prelude 2 in C minor (3 flats) is a good piece to show musically-declined people when you want to impress them. They'll look at the two pages of almost unbroken runs of sixteenth-notes, in both hands, and gape at you as if astonished: "You're really going to play that?!" Once you've read through it a few times, you become familiar with a machinelike pattern that makes it surprisingly easy, though it sounds very dramatic and passionate. The drama is heightened by changes of tempo toward the end.
Fugue 2 in C minor (3 voices) is the other side of the irony, or paradox, or whatever you want to call it, that a fugue that sounds so serious to the ears, and that feels so convoluted to the hands, turns out to be not at all rigorous on paper. If the C major fugue's charm belies a subject-dense, stretto-fugue structure, the C-minor fugue's histrionics conceal a lightly argued structure in which the subject surfaces only eight times in 31 bars. Part of the reason the entries are so spread out is that the subject is all of two bars long and does not lend itself to stretto. Also contributing to its sparseness of subject entries is the considerable space given to episode material, mainly sequences based on fragments of the subject.
Prelude 3 is a dazzlingly bright, quick piece in 3/8 time, in the tricky key of C# major (7 sharps). It will help you brush up your double-sharps, to say nothing of remembering that E#=F and B#=C. Once you've wrapped your head around the key-signature, playing it is a cinch. It's technically a breeze. If you're desperate to run through it without a big struggle, and if four or more sharps in the key signature makes you sweat bullets, you may transpose it on sight to C major by changing the sharps into naturals, the double-sharps into sharps, and the naturals into flats; but in my opinion, the resulting piece would be a shade duller than the key it is written in. You could also try transcribing it into D-flat (5 flats) while playing exactly the same keys. Some non-Urtext editions probably do this for you. But again, I suspect that the results would sound different. This is something to work on. Don't be afraid. It's worth it.
Fugue 3 in C# major (3 voices) is why it's worth it. While the prelude is light and playful, this piece has an emotional depth and a richness of harmonic color that can only be the result of a man of genius rising to the challenge of writing music in a previously unheard-of key. It's a relatively long fugue for this album: four pages in the Urtext edition, 55 bars. Again, it's not particularly rigorous. The two-bar-long subject, recognizable by several leaps as wide as the interval of a sixth, only makes about 12 bona fide entries. The remaining passages, including a dry spell almost a page in length, are filled with false entries and episode material based on motives from the subject.
Prelude 4 in C# minor (4 sharps) is a dramatic dialogue between the soprano and tenor lines, tarted up with rolled chords, grace notes, embellishments, and more of the exquisite harmony that makes C-sharp minor one of my favorite keys. Another good reason is Fugue 4 (in 5 voices), a magnificent four-page, 115-bar, double stretto fugue. You already know what I mean by "stretto fugue," thanks to Fugue 1. By "double fugue," I mean that it has two separate subjects which, although they often overlap each other, are introduced at different times and are sometimes spotlighted on their own. By the time Subject B makes its first appearance in bar 49, Subject A has entered the argument at least 14 times. The final score, unless my reckoning is off, is 28 entries of A vs. 36 entries of B. This includes some pretty thick stretti, and at least one instance where two entries of Subject B occur simultaneously, in parallel thirds. All this is in addition to a pattern of running eighth-notes that almost comes across as a countersubject. The five-voice texture makes it a handful, and an earful, and a brainful. But the final resolution after the intense climax is, for my money, one of the most beautiful harmonic and dramatic payoffs in music history.
Prelude 5 in D major (2 sharps) is a demonstration of the amazing Baroque-music technique of Single Voice Counterpoint. Over a simple, detached left-hand part that does little more than lay down a bass line, the right-hand part looks like little more than an endless run of sixteenth-notes. When you listen to it, however, you realize that you are hearing a dialogue between two characters, delivering their lines with comic timing so that their voices overlap at the beginning and end of each remark. It's like Abbot and Costello at the opera, only with your fingers playing both roles. The addition of a pedal note (a long, low A in the left hand) signals the denouement of the set piece, and the last few bars serve as a sort of orchestral flourish punctuating the final punchline.
Fugue 5 (4 voices) is a deceptively non-rigorous fugue, based on a subject that begins with a finger-twisting challenge: a one-beat run of 32nd-notes, followed by a pattern of dotted eighths and sixteenths. Shostakovich's Fugue in G major, from his set of Preludes and Fugues, seems to have been inspired by this idea. Anyway, it's a good exercise for independence and agility in both hands. And the considerable number of false entries means you will have lots of chances to work on that 32nd-note pattern, even though I can only identify eleven authentic subject entries in this piece.
Prelude 6 in D minor (1 flat) is a right-hand exercise in triplet sixteenth-notes, set against an eighth-note throb in the left hand. For all its usefulness in building right-hand technique, it is also a dramatically effective piece. Fugue 6 (3 voices) takes the study of finger independence even further, with a subject that includes a staccato note and a trill. It also has the interesting twist of inverted entries of the subject; i.e. the same melodic shape, only turned upside down. And then there are stretti involving entries of the original subject overlapping with its inversion!
Prelude 7 in E-flat major (3 flats) is a four-page-long, toccata-like number. This is to say, it divides itself into several distinct sections, rather than following through on one basic idea from start to finish. First there is an introduction in which the two hands converse in alternating runs of sixteenth notes, concluding in a flurry of 32nd-notes. Then, in longer note values, something resembling a fugue subject appears, engaging all four voices in an increasingly intricate contrapuntal texture, full of harmonic suspensions. After a few bars of this, something like a second subject is added, based on the sixteenth-note patterns at the opening of the prelude. The remainder of the piece explores this loosely double-fugue-like argument so thoroughly that you may be surprise to find that Fugue 7 hasn't even begun yet. In 3 voices, the fugue is one of the sweetest and most radiant pieces in this book, allowing the performer to practice his or her arpeggios in a painless and delightfully rewarding way.
Prelude 9 in E major (4 sharps) is a nice rounded-binary melody with a little chromatic-scale surprise at the end of both sections. For you music newbies, that's a bit where the melody moves by half-steps, hitting all the white and black notes within a given range. The effect is most unusual. Fugue 9 (3 voices) is an energetic number with a pattern of sixteenth-notes running through it like a motor. It's another piece that makes effective use of suspensions, that harmonic device in which (to over-simplify it) two voices move against each other, taking turns pulling in and out of a stable harmony, like two people running a three-legged race together. It's a handy way to create and release musical tension.
Prelude 10 in E minor (1 sharp) is a left-hand exercise in running sixteenths, keeping up a constant nervous patter while the right hand plays a slow decorated melody with little separated chords in the middle parts. It's a pretty long prelude, but before it quite gets boring, the tempo changes to "Presto" and both voices take off in a flash of sixteenths. Fugue 10 is the WTC's only two-voice fugue, with a subject that combines a broken triad with a chromatic, wedge-shaped, single-voice-counterpoint figure in running sixteenth-notes. It buzzes along briskly like two insects doing a courtship dance around each other, and ends with a humorous twist.
Prelude 11 in F major (1 flat) is a little bit like one of the Inventions, with two voices swapping material back and forth. It's not strictly a two-voice piece, though, and there are some good opportunities to practice trills in it. Fugue 11 (3 voices) has a subject similar to one of Rimsky-Korsakov's fugues, though to be sure Bach had it first. It's a bright, cheerful piece, and a good fingering exercise besides.
Prelude 12 in F minor (4 flats) is a very expressive piece, rich in the interplay between voices. Fugue 12 (4 voices) is another long one, 58 bars, four pages in the Urtext. Its three-bar-long subject is slow and torturously chromatic, and it comes with a somewhat more energetic countersubject that adds to the tonal uncertainty. The episodes come across as moments of relaxation between the entry groups with their anxious intensity.
Prelude 13 in F# major (6 sharps) is another piece, like Prelude 3, whose light, bright, touching beauty seems specially designed to reward you for mastering a key signature with an E-sharp in it, to say nothing of accidental B-sharps and various double-sharps. The left hand lays down the beat, and the right hand tries to pull against it. It's really nifty. Fugue 13 (3 voices) exercises some of the same note-reading skills, while adding an expressive repeated-note countermelody that upstages the formal subject.
Prelude 14 in F# minor (3 sharps) is a witty piece that makes me feel grateful to whomever invented the system of temperament that permitted Bach to write in this key. It really captures in a nutshell everything that makes F-sharp minor a fun key to play in. The accidental E-sharps and B-sharps feel natural (no pun intended). The running-sixteenth-note melody, passing from one voice to the other, combines a major key's fun sense of play with a minor key's range of interesting harmonic colors. And at one point, the piece motivates you to work out how to play a widely spaced chord with one hand. Fugue 14 (4 voices) is another member of the type of fugue with a long (three bars), chromatic subject. It keeps changing its mind about whether it wants this or that note to be sharp, which lends the entire fugue an air of strangeness and uncertainty. Again there is a countermelody with throbbing, repeated notes, only now in a more drooping, descending pattern. The subject has an interesting rhythm that suggests acceleration, or growing agitation. For some reason, I tend to find myself playing this piece more and more loudly, ending with a sound of satisfying fullness.
Prelude 16 in G minor (2 flats) is the one whose opening you will recognize by the measure-long trill in the right hand. Such trills occur several times in the piece, making good practice for controlling and balancing sustained trills against other moving parts. Elsewhere, the piece is a dialogue between its voices, featuring rhythms alternating between sixteenth- and 32nd-notes. Fugue 16 (4 voices) is the technically demanding "My dog has fleas, but I don't give a damn" fugue, a fairly rigorous, stretto-fraught number that may make you wish you had been born with three hands, or at least six fingers on each hand.
Prelude 17 in A-flat major (4 flats) demonstrates a technique called double counterpoint. This means, roughly, that the melody line in the right hand swaps material with the left-hand part, proving that the counterpoint works equally well either way. It's a warm, charming piece whose inner workings are deceptively sophisticated. Fugue 17 (4 voices) has a subject based on broken chords. Contrapuntally straightforward, with no special fugal techniques, it is nevertheless a very effective piece, taking one on a far-reaching harmonic adventure.
Prelude 18 is in G-sharp minor (5 sharps), the easier-to-play enharmonic equivalent of A-flat minor (7 flats). For all that five sharps are less than seven flats, you still have to live with the ever-present fact of G-double-sharp, among other tricky accidentals. The piece encourages you along with the transparent logic of a three-part Sinfonia. Fugue 18 (4 voices) has a two-bar-long subject that combines a variety of motives, including a repeated-note figure that likes to be set off against detached chords in the other voices. Again, the unusual key-signature seems to bring out the harmonic genius of Bach in a very special way.
Prelude 19 in A major (3 sharps) is a somewhat chromatic piece in triple counterpoint; which, by analogy to double counterpoint, you should be able to understand as a piece in which all three voices swap material without any harm to the overall effect. And the overall effect is a pleasant piece with a slight tinge of melancholy. Fugue 19 (3 voices) is a four-page double fugue, which (as I hope you'll recall) means it introduces two distinct subjects, one after another. The first subject is a single eighth note, followed by three eighth-rests, followed in turn by a pattern of ascending intervals of a fourth, mainly in eighth-note rhythms. After a page and a half of this, Bach introduces a second subject in running sixteenths. Typically the solution is two parts Subject A to one part Subject B, but towards the end of the fugue there is another passage where the first subject goes it alone. The second subject returns for just a couple of entries right at the end.
Prelude 21 in B-flat major (2 flats) is a little virtuoso showpiece with 32nd-note flourishes and runs. Believe it or not, yours truly played it as a recital piece in college, along with Fugue 21 (3 voices). The latter is a quick little number. It starts off with a four-bar subject that encompasses two wide leaps and a stream of sixteenth-notes that seems to flow in circles. As each successive voice comes in, it becomes evident that the piece has not one but two countersubjects, which is to say, it's written in triple counterpoint. No matter which bit of melody is on top, the other two strains are invariably under it somewhere, creating not only interesting fingering challenges for the pianist but also a scintillating variety of harmonic effects.
Prelude 22 in B-flat minor (5 flats) is another piece of the type that climaxes dramatically with a huge chord, held under a fermata and followed by a general rest. This particular chord has nine notes in it, which should say something about the richness and strength of the mood Bach is expressing here. It's one of the few minor-key pieces in this book that, in my opinion, could really be interpreted in a tragic light. Fugue 22 (5 voices) has a subject dominated by a descending interval of a fourth, followed by a wide upward leap of a ninth; in the answer, these become a fifth and a tenth respectively. It actually becomes a challenge to follow the separate voices and to pick out all the entries in what proves to be a tremendously rigorous stretto fugue. I used this pair of pieces for the final project in my orchestration class in college, and actually got a chance to conduct a reading of it with the university orchestra—the only time I have ever conducted an orchestra!
Prelude 23 in B major (5 sharps) is a nice, carefree piece, at least once you learn to unclench at the sight of E-sharps and F-double-sharps. Fugue 23 (4 voices) has a charming two-bar subject, and develops it in a straightforward fashion, with no fancy fugal techniques, apart from superb writing and sparkling charm. I had to sit down and play it just now, because it's probably the piece in this book I have played least often—not because it's especially difficult, or because I don't like it, but probably because I tend to flip the book open to somewhere close to the middle and pick something to play at random. It's simply too close to the end of the book to be picked often.
Prelude 24 in B minor (2 sharps) avoids that problem by being one of the first pieces in this book that I ever learned. Its left-hand part is an example of the "walking bass" type of accompaniment, often played by the cellist in solo arias, for example, in Bach's cantatas. The upper two voices form a duet, similar to the Violin I & II parts in a Baroque trio-sonata (another potential use for a walking bass). These two upper voices play off each other in a contest of suspensions, giving and taking moments of harmonic tension and relaxation. The repeat-signs at the midpoint and at the end make this one of the few preludes in Part I that fall very definitely into the rounded-binary form; more of these appear in Part II.
Fugue 24 in B minor (4 voices) is the six-page masterpiece that anchors the end of Book 1. The three-bar subject, in eighth-notes, is extremely chromatic: it actually comprises all twelve tones of the well-tempered system. The result is harmonically strange, tonally unstable, and emotionally tortured to a degree that must have seemed unusual in the heyday of the stile galant. Nevertheless, rays of consolation shine through, and the subject even tries on a happy, major-key face for a while. And when the piece finally concludes with a well-earned B-major chord, the composer's notation of "Fine. S.D.G." really seems meaningful, and not just a pious gesture. With these initials for the Latin phrase for "Glory be to God alone," Bach asserts that this book is a confession of grateful faith to the orderer of all things (including the gift of music), and an offering to Him of the first-fruits of a new musical system.
Prelude 1 in C major makes up for the first book's C major prelude being a beginner's study in arpeggiated chords. Here is a piece with the grandeur to serve as the introduction to an entire volume of small-scale masterpieces. Its intricate counterpoint and wide-ranging harmonic journey foreshadow many things to come. Fugue 1 (3 voices) has a four-bar-long subject that, like many of Bach's longer fugue subjects, breaks into two segments: the first a strikingly distinctive turn of melody, the second a vanilla run of sixteenth-notes. In stark contrast to the corresponding fugue in Book 1, this is an exceedingly non-rigorous fugue, showcasing the possibilities of the keyboard with toccata-like bravura and dwelling more on episodes (using the first half of the subject to build sequences) than on subject entries, of which I spotted maybe eight in 83 bars.
Prelude 2 in C minor is mostly of the two-part Invention type, with two-voice double counterpoint and repeat signs at the mid-point and the end. You may notice that the journey to the first repeat-sign leads to the key of E-flat, which is the relative major of C minor. Starting to notice key relationships like this will help you develop your ability to make sense of these pieces, and to communicate that sense in your playing. Fugue 2 (4 voices) is a pretty rigorous fugue, putting its one-bar-long subject through at least 24 permutations in only 28 bars, including inversion, augmentation, and stretto, besides a couple of slightly varied entries.
Prelude 3 is once again in C# major. Although I've made this observation before, I still find it noteworthy that Bach would rather play in seven sharps than in five flats (as in the enharmonic key of D-flat). This piece is a mannered little harmonic study, comparable to the rolling-chord pattern of the C major prelude in Book 1, only with a four-voice texture and a repeated-note throb in the tenor line. The piece ends with a relatively long coda in a contrasting meter and tempo, breaking into three-voice imitative counterpoint, like a prelude with a built-in fughetta.
This doesn't take anything away from Fugue 3 (3 voices), whose subject consists of exactly four notes, and which nevertheless appears in a different guise for each of its three initial entries: the subject proper in the bass, the answer (with slightly altered intervals) in the treble, and the inversion of the subject in the middle voice. This sets the stage for an INSANE fugue. And when I say "insane," I mean conspiracy theorists should study it, because they might find even more hidden permutations of the subject than I do. The subject, as originally presented—do-mi-do-so in straight eighth-notes—only appears about four times, all within the first page of the fugue. The answer occurs some 14 times, as does the inversion. And that's not counting full or partial diminutions of both the answer and the inversion (changing at least some of the eighth-notes into sixteenths), each occurring several times; two augmented entries of the answer; one possible retrograde-inversion entry (albeit in diminution, and rhythmically displaced); a false entry or two; and several other possible variants, depending on how much alteration of the subject you can accept. It's mind-blowing. The number of permutations will probably be different for each listener, and perhaps each hearing of the piece.
Prelude 4 in C# minor is a relatively long (3 page), meditative piece in a deliberate, compound-triple time, slow enough to alow for lots of embellishment. The three voices weave together independent lines of an almost vocal quality, full of passionate meaning. Fugue 4 (3 voices), another three-page piece in a compound meter, moves along at a faster pace, like a dark jig. It isn't a very rigorous fugue—in fact, one episode goes on for most of a page—but the occasional inversion of the subject adds spice to the counterpoint. It's also another point of similarity to the gigues of Bach's suites, where he frequently used thematic inversion.
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Fugue 5 (4 voices) is likewise destined to be a crowd favorite. The fact that the episode material is a dense weave of references to the second half of the subject makes it sound three times as rigorous as it actually is, but with at least 23 full subject entries it's no slouch. Far from it: during each imitative episode, Bach seems to be catching his breath for his next fugal stunt, each more daring than the last. He starts with a two-entry stretto in bar 14, then another in bar 22. He dials it up to two full entries and a false entry, coming even closer together, at bar 27-28. Then he swings three full entries in bar 33, overlapping so tightly that they're practically on top of each other. Then after a false entry in bar 44, he delivers the ultimate stretto with four complete entries in as many beats. After that the fugue winds down with a glow of cocksure smugness, like a gymnast who has nailed all the hard parts of his routine with ten seconds to spare.
Prelude 6 in D minor pulls impressive effects out of such unimpressive means as the well-worn spinning-wheel figure of broken chords cycling up and down. The piece is a winning combination of textual variety and dramatic tonal design, with clever harmony and a couple strange-sounding bits where the fingers of both hands overlap each other. Fugue 6 (3 voices) belongs to the school of long subjects that split into two segments. The triplet-sixteenth rhythms of the first segment contrast interestingly with the straight-sixteenths that often accompany the second segment, which is also notable for its chromatically descending line. The effect is one of the more disturbing pieces of music in the set, full of rhythmic and tonal ambiguities.
Prelude 7 in E-flat major is a piece that reminds me, somewhat, of the Courantes from some of Bach's keyboard suites. With a sprightly, compound-triple rhythm, it challenges both hands to be at their nimblest, while rolling out a demonstration of textural variety. Fugue 7 (4 voices) sports one of the longest subjects seen so far in the WTC, with six bars of melody split into two segments of uneven length. The first two bars consist of a whole note, leaping up a fifth (or fourth in the answer) to a half-note. Then, after a quarter-rest, the subject continues with a two-phrase sequence—which means that both two-bar phrases have a similar melodic shape, but one is a step higher than the other. The result is one of the catchier fugues you are ever likely to hear. And though it is not an awfully rigorous fugue in number of entries, the structure of its subject lends itself nicely to stretto.
Prelude 8, unlike that of Book 1, is in D# minor rather than the enharmonic key of E-flat minor. It plays like a longish (three-page) Invention, with two contrapuntal voices and a pair of repeat-signs dividing it into two structural units. Fugue 8 (4 voices) is another three-pager, notable for its hesitant sounding subject, beginning with three repeated notes. The unexpected strength inherent in this subject appears later on: first when it appears in the bass, with detached chords in the upper voices; then when the subject and its inversion enter simultaneously at the end of the fugue.
Prelude 9 in E major is another movement of the trio-sonata type, with two intricately woven upper parts and a bass line that occasionally moves into the foreground. It also has repeat-signs accenting its tonal structure. Fugue 9 (4 voices) has a catchy five-note subject, lending itself to textures that really feel neat under the hands, and to rich harmonies. It's written in such a way that I am amazed nobody has put lyrics to it and turned it into a choral piece.
Fugue 10 (3 voices) has an incredibly long subject, six bars with pickup, and one that has lots of different rhythmic and melodic things going on. It seems to divide into three or four segments: first a pair of triplet-eighths leading to a bar in which quarter notes alternate with groups of four sixteenths, then a broken triad of staccato quarter-notes, then a two-bar sequence with tied-across-the-barline quarter-notes and dotted-eighth rhythms, and finally two bars of triplet eighths. Once the voices begin piling on, the fugue reveals its potential for sudden contrasts, e.g. between groups of 3 and 4 pulses to a beat. Like a garden-path sentence that you have to re-read from the top to understand correctly, it forces you to reconsider your initial choice on how to interpret the dotted-eighth rhythms—as written, or as shorthand for a triplet figure? Other challenges in this four-page piece include two voices in the right-hand part that cross each other, and a sort of written-out cadenza at the end.
Prelude 11 in F major is a three-page piece that exercises your ability to keep four or five voices in play, with non-stop eighth-notes flowing through them from one voice to another, without getting your fingers tied in knots. Successfully playing it is a triumph of fingering technique. Fugue 11 (3 voices) has the seldom-seen time signature of 6/16, which suggests a delicately fast, floaty-dancy texture, not unlike a gigue. Its four-bar-long subject has a skirling, birdsong-like quality. And again, it makes its argument pretty thoroughly by the standards of the WTC, with 99 bars spread out over three pages.
Prelude 12 in F minor is one of the pieces I had in mind earlier when I mentioned pieces by Bach being sampled by later musicians. The 2005 hit song "They," by Welsh pop star Jem, sampled a 1960s Swingle Singers recording of this prelude, adding such lyrics as "I'm sorry, so sorry" to its distinctive melody. The result is a mind-worm that will never die. Played straight through, without lyrics, it's a deceptively easy piece that requires sensitive phrasing to have its full effect. The three-page Fugue 12 (3 voices) has a four-bar subject in 2/4 time, again dividing into two distinct segments: the first, featuring a pattern of three repeated eighth-notes, versus the second in running sixteenths. Watch for instances of the repeated eighths broken off as a separate motive. It's a dramatically intense piece.
Prelude 13 in F-sharp major is a three-page-long Invention, spotlighting dotted rhythms, sixteenth-note patterns that outline chords, and a wide-ranging exploration of harmony. Fugue 13 (3 voices) has, as is increasingly the case in Book 2, a long and multi-segmented subject. This one begins and ends with a trill, though its most memorable feature is an early turn towards a secondary tonal center. This guarantees four pages of poignantly interesting harmony.
Prelude 14 in F-sharp minor features a continuous flow of richly-accompanied, rhythmically complex melody. Its attractiveness and relative easiness, in terms of keyboard technique, seem at odds with its depth of expression, to say nothing of the challenging exercise in keeping different rhythmic groupings (such as 3 vs. 4) in balance. Fugue 14 (3 voices) is a four-page triple fugue with a similar emphasis on rhythmic variety. This emphasis appears right away in the three-bar-long first subject. In contrast the second subject, entering in bar 20, is four notes long, and has only a dotted rhythm to help it stick out of the texture. Then there's the third subject, entering at bar 36, comprising a four-beat pattern of sixteenth-notes with an eighth-note pickup. It really gets to be fun when all three subjects are coming in at the same time.
Prelude 15 in G major is sparkling, energetic musical game, divided into two sections by repeat-signs. Typically, while one part plays single-voice counterpoint in sixteenth-notes, a second voice duets with it in eighth-notes. So it sounds much more difficult than it really is. Fugue 16 (3 voices), elaborating on of a simpler fugue in (I believe) the Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, has a seven-bar-long subject in running sixteenth-notes that outline chords. The kind of triple counterpoint Bach uses in this piece reminds me of the B-flat major fugue in Book 1. The whole quick, happy, clean-cut fingering exercise leads to a 32nd-note flourish at the end.
Prelude 16 in G minor, with the tempo marking Largo, is an example of the "French overture" type of music often spotted in Baroque music, e.g. "Behold the Lamb of God" in Handel's Messiah. The slow tempo gives the performer license to embellish the music with as many trills, turns, and whatnot as he can tastefully manage. The multiple levels of dotted rhythm invite the player to apply some interpretive judgment, such as "over-dotting" the dotted-eighth figures, so that their sixteenth-notes synchronize with the 32nd-notes of the dotted-sixteenth figures simultaneously occurring in another voice. Fugue 16 (4 voices) has a long subject that begins with a three-bar, chord-outlining sequence. It then concludes with a full measure of eighth-notes repeating the same pitch. By embedding these repeated-note patterns in a four-voice fugue, Bach makes it hard to follow your orthodox piano teacher's rule of using finger substitutions when playing repeated notes. You just have to do your best to shape these patterns, say, with a crescendo and diminuendo. You'll have four pages of dramatic music to work it out.
Prelude 18 in G-sharp minor (again, the enharmonically-respelled key of A-flat minor) is a four-page piece divided into halves by repeat-signs. It's a poignantly expressive piece, touched by a jolt of nervous energy. Fugue 18 (3 voices) has a four-bar subject, comprising an ascending sequence of two-bar phrases. This leads to a relatively non-rigorous, four-page fugue in which the harmonic evolutions carry the weight of the drama.
Prelude 19 in A major is a three-voice Sinfonia type of composition, with a gigue-like theme treated in a triple-counterpoint texture that somehow manages to seem nice and transparent. Fugue 19 (3 voices) makes happy use of overlapping dotted-eighth-note rhythmic patterns to achieve clever and catchy effects.
Prelude 20 in A minor is a rigorous piece of double counterpoint in the tradition of the two-part Inventions. Split in two by repeat-signs, it is intensely chromatic and full of rhythmic energy. Fugue 20 (3 voices) is another whose subject is emphatically split into two segments, the second moving twice as fast as the first. It also has a counter-subject full of 32nd-note filigree and trills that will demand extra practice, especially when they occur in the middle voice. The piece ends with a veritable cascade of little notes.
Prelude 21 in B-flat major is another gigue-like piece, four pages long and divided in half by repeat-signs. Its technical challenges include hand-crossings and fistfuls of notes that flash by fast enough to leave your fingers panting by the roadside. Fugue 21 (3 voices) has a four-bar subject in running eighth-notes, comprising two sequences, one descending and the other ascending; the latter sequence features a bouncy repeated-note figure.
Prelude 22 in B-flat minor is twice as long and infinitely more free-form than its opposite number in Book 1, yet certain phrases in it have always struck me as quotations from the latter. Fugue 22 (4 voices) has a long subject which, judging by the rests in it, comprises four distinct segments. More importantly, these rests create interesting textural and rhythmic effects as different voices combine motives from the subject in a variety of ways. Oddly, for such a complicated subject, it also proves susceptible to stretto and inversion. The piece concludes with a grand stretto in which pairs of voices enter with the subject simultaneously, the second pair one beat behind and in inversion.
Prelude 23 in B major suffers from the same curse as its counterpart in Book 1: I hardly ever play it, because it's too close to the end of the book to be the page I randomly open to. It reminds me somewhat of a major-key version of Prelude 13, with a touch of Baroque vamping now and then. So I really don't regret the accidents of chance so much, in this case. Fugue 23 (4 voices), however, is a piece that I have sought out on purpose many times. It is one of my favorite fugues, full of brightness and nobility. It is also a double fugue, with a second subject entering at bar 28. Both B minor pieces in this book are three pages long.
Prelude 24 in B minor is mostly of the two-part Invention type, a very colorful and even playful piece given its minor key and contrapuntal rigor. It comes to an operatic climax, followed by a stirring coda. The whole set then ends with the three-page Fugue 24 (3 voices), whose six-bar-long subject includes octave leaps. This, in addition to a trill figure that migrates from one voice to another, makes for some pretty wild fingering challenges. Nevertheless, it's an easier read than the tortured colossus as the end of Book 1.
My remarks may have prejudiced you for or against trying certain of the pieces in Bach's almighty 48. I don't know how to correct this except to state that I have owned these books for many years now—longer than I have owned a piano. I started playing each of them when I chose, and not a day sooner; but eventually I had tried all 48 of them; or rather 96, since one may play a prelude with no obligation to its fugue, and vice versa. After many years I haven't just tried them all, but become thoroughly acquainted with them all. I play some less often than they deserve, and others more often than I suppose my upstairs neighbors can stand, but not because I feel less equal to playing some than others (with only a couple of exceptions). In contrast to the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, some of which I still cannot get through without agonizing quarter-hours of trial and error, and a few of which I frankly don't like, there isn't a piece in this book that I don't consider a dear friend. And it isn't because I'm a great talent, which I'm not; or because I have practiced the daylights out of them, which I haven't; it's all a matter of attitude. I don't just appreciate them as great art works, or respect them as an architectural wonder. I love them. Neither sharps nor flats, nor fugal rigor, can keep me away from them. No, not even tape and cardboard!