WTC I/1 in C major – Prelude 

from Siglind Bruhn
J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier
In-depth Analysis and Interpretation

I/1.1.1 The prelude-type

The first prelude in the Well-Tempered Clavier consists of nothing but broken chords. It must therefore be described as determined purely by processes of increasing and decreasing harmonic tension.

Effects such as creating an echo in every repeated chord, or emphasizing the chord peak-notes and thus drawing attention to an imaginary melodic line are obviously not the intention of the composer. Such attempts would misguide the listener rather than communicating to him the true meaning of the piece.

 

I/1.1.2 The design of the prelude

The sections of this prelude are clearly discernible by their simple cadential patterns. The first cadential closure is in bar 4, the steps leading to it being:

bar 1 = I, bar 2 = ii2, bar 3 = V65, bar 4 = I.

As all structural breaks in this prelude are harmonically defined, this cadence must be interpreted as the end of a first (short) section.

The next harmonic progression concludes in bar 11. As the F# accidentals from bar 6 onward clearly demonstrate, Bach modulates to G major. The final steps of this cadence are:

 bar 9 = ii7 of G, bar 10 = V7 of G, bar 11 = I of G.

For the reasons mentioned above, this harmonic close must also be regarded as a structural caesura. There are altogether four structural sections in this prelude:

I

bars 1-4

full cadence in C major

II

bars 5-11

modulation to G major

III

bars 12-19

modulation back to C major

IV

bars 20-35

complex, extended cadence in C major

While no portion ever recurs either note for note or in variation there is a transposed passage which, in fact, forms part of an analogy. Bars 15-19 are an exact transposition of bars 7-11: see the progression I6 , IV2, ii7, V7, I in bars 7 - 11 in G major, in bars 15-19 in C major. In connection with this transposition we also find:

Bars 7-8 are composed as a sequence of bars 5/6, and
bars 14-15 are conceived as a sequence of bars 12/13.

In both cases, a two-bar model appears repeated one diatonic step lower. The only structural difference between these two patterns lies in the different amount of overlapping with the transposed portion. We can thus confirm the following analogy:

section II (bars 5-11) corresponds with section III (bars 12-19):
both consist of a 2-bar model + descending sequence
+ analogous cadence-ending.

 

I/1.1.3 Practical considerations for performers

All aspects of performance in this prelude reveal themselves by means of this very basic analysis. As the composition contains no melodic elements whatsoever, there are no open questions about articulation or single-voice phrasing; all notes should certainly be sustained for the exact length of their written value. Phrasing between structural sections should be made transparent by varying the degrees of tension. A performer who works on a modern piano will achieve this through dynamic means. (The phrase-ending ritardando, so important on early keyboard instruments, can be restricted to a minimum on instruments capable of expressing phrasing through dynamic shading.)

The dynamic development between consecutive notes poses the biggest problem. What should be heard in a piece determined by harmonic processes is the relationship between chords not between sixteenth-notes; the notes forming each chord must therefore sound as equal as is humanly possible, and greatest care should be taken to avoid any emphasis on the upper pitches.

A very important factor for any sensible performance of the C major Prelude is tempo. This should again be chosen with a view to best convey the harmonic processes. Too fast a rendition easily diverts the listener’s attention towards an apparent display of virtuosity; too slow a tempo makes it difficult to hear more than just a chord at a time.

The only ornament in this prelude derives from an early copy. It appears in bar 34 and serves to emphasize the final cadence. It is a simple mordent which, since it is approached stepwise, must be played from the main note: E-F-E.

 

I/1.1.4 What is happening in this prelude?

As was stated above, the prelude in C major derives its expression from its harmonic progressions. In two instances, however, these are overshadowed by secondary processes. One case is given in the sequences mentioned above, the other is a protracted pedal note. The development of tension as represented by these features is as follows:

-

In the course of the first simple cadence (bars 1-4), it is the subdominant function which commands the greatest tension; this tension will subsequently find a stepwise resolution through the dominant function towards the tonic. The dynamic equivalent to this process might be described as 

p - mp + - mp - - p

-

The following section (bars 5-11) brings a modulation to G major which is reached in bar 11. As the beginning of this section contains a sequence, the pattern of mere harmonic relationships between consecutive chords is temporarily suspended.
Within the first two bars, the harmonic relationship between the inverted A minor chord (bar 5) and the inverted D7 chord (bar 6) constitutes a rather strong decrease in tension. (This can easily be experienced when listening to the two harmonies, preferably when played as block chords). In keeping with the laws valid for sequences, the same relationship must apply to the following two chords on a generally softer level because the sequence is descending. From the last chord of the sequential pattern onwards there follows a gradual release of tension. The dynamic equivalent to the process in this portion of the prelude could be expressed in these terms:

mf + - mp + - mf - - mp - mp - - p + - p

-

A very similar development occurs in the third section of this prelude. Like the preceding one, it starts with a sequence, and again, the relationships between the first and the second chords in the model constitutes a resolution of tension. This resolution is even stronger here than in the earlier sequence as bars 12 and 14 each consist of a diminished seventh chord resolving onto an inversion of the supertonic (bar 13) and of the tonic itself (bar 15). At the end of this sequence the harmonic tension therefore appears already abated to something very close to the softest shade used in this piece.
The following four bars, being a transposition of bars 8-11, should portray a dynamic outline exactly like the one in the corresponding bars before, so as to help the listener to grasp this analogy. The concept of the entire section (bars 12-19) is therefore approximately:

 poco f - mp + - mf + - mp - - mp - mp - - p+ - p

-

The fourth section of this prelude is almost as long as the first three sections together. The emergence of the dominant pedal in bar 24 serves to divide it into two sub-sections.|
The first of these sub-sections, from bar 20 to the downbeat of bar 24, ends in an imperfect cadence. The harmonic development sets out from the C major seventh chord (bar 20) but then leads away from the tonic in bold steps. The harmonic process includes two diminished seventh chords; in addition, there is a hint of an independent bass line which enhances the sense of urgency. Upon closer inspection, the end of this bass line reveals a circular movement preparing the beginning of the pedal note by sounding both the natural leading-note (from the semitone below) and the artificial one (from the semitone above) to the dominant keynote G .
[It is interesting and, at the same time, somewhat strange to note that Carl Czerny, while editing the first volume of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, added an extra bar here. His reasons were as follows: firstly, it seemed highly improbable, for a composer as conscious of subtle numeric balancing as Bach was, to have written a piece consisting of the uneven number of 35 bars; secondly, a bass line such as the one between bars 22 and 23 seemed melodically incorrect for it contained the interval of the diminished third, which would therefore require a linking note to create a chromatic line. Czerny therefore inserted a tonic six-four chord to correct Bach’s “error”, and by doing so destroyed the forceful tension built up here with so much ingenuity!]
The audacity of these harmonic steps can best be conveyed in the following dynamic plan:

 mp - - mp + - mf + - poco f +

After this forceful increase in tension, the next sub-section commences with a sudden hush which should hardly exceed piano. It is from here that the pedal note takes effect. Its typical gradual and smooth dynamic growth continues not only while the bass remains on G but on to the end of the piece, thus concluding the prelude on something like a triumphant forte chord. The dynamic balance in this section could therefore be represented more or less as follows:

 p + - mp - - mp - mp + - mf - - mf - mf + - poco f - - poco f - poco f + - f - - f

The following graph attempts to show the processes determining this prelude (ex. 2).

 

 

 

 

WTC I/1 in C major – Fugue

 

I/1.2.1 The subject

The subject of this fugue is one and a half bars long. It starts unaccented, after what can be called an "implied breath" on beat 1. This creates the impression of a very long upbeat which is smooth and not very strong in its tendency towards the following downbeat.

In its original statement the subject ends on the E which falls on the third beat of bar 2. That this has to be regarded as the final note of the subject becomes obvious when comparing the first entry with later ones: they either end after this E or its equivalent in another key (see e.g. bars 9/10, 10-12), or they continue in a different way each time. This closure is further supported by the harmonic background of the subject: the dominant is reached at the beginning of bar 1 (on either D or G; this varies throughout the fugue) and resolves onto the keynote chord on this E. The fact that the first statement of the subject is written with an extension, made up of two sequences of the last four notes, does not change its basic confines but just serves to grant a smooth transition from this first entry to the next.

Within the pitch pattern of the subject, ten of the thirteen intervals are seconds; predominant stepwise motion also holds true for the fugue as a whole. The few larger intervals, however, slightly modify the picture because of their particular nature. They do not, as might normally be expected in the context of overall stepwise motion, represent “high-tension” intervals intervals whose expressive gesture is regarded as blending particularly well with the character expressed by stepwise motion. Instead, the three leaps interrupting the smooth line in this subject are two perfect fourths and a perfect fifth, i.e. simple leaps without particular emotional content.

The rhythmic structure of the subject, on the other hand, is not simple. It contains four different note values: eighth-notes, dotted eighth-notes (or, in bar 2, the same value written with tie prolongation), sixteenth-notes and thirty-second-notes. Syncopations are a regular feature throughout the fugue in fact there are only six bars (bars 1, 7, 14, 19 and 26/27) which do not display at least one.

The question of phrasing in the subject of the C major fugue allows for two controversial answers, both of which can be supported with evidence from within the composition itself. The choice between them is thus one of individual conviction or interpretation.

(a)

The overall pitch pattern of the subject, which shows ascending steps at the beginning, descending steps at the end and leaps in the middle, supports the option that this subject is conceived as one indivisible phrase.
The absence of obvious melodic sequences confirms this view.

(b)

For an interpreter who feels that the rhythm plays a crucial role in this subject, there is a pattern which is repeated in slight variation a sequence-like process which reveals the subject as made up of two halves. The first half consists of four eighth-notes which move upwards in stepwise motion, followed, after a rhythmical prolongation, by shorter note values leading downwards. The second segment starts similarly with four eighth-notes which, this time, move in jumps up and down but are also followed, after the same rhythmical prolongation, by a group of shorter note values leading downwards. The phrased subject would thus be defined by the analogous rhythmic structure of the two halves.
This option finds support in the harmonic progression which allows although Bach does not always choose to compose thus for two complete cadences which coincide exactly with the two rhythmically determined halves. (See the harmonic progressions underlying the subject statements in bars 2-4 and bars 5-7.)

The harmonic background is roughly as seen in ex. 3 below. As far as the subtler harmonic progressions from one eighth-note to the next are concerned, there are so many slight variations throughout this fugue that it is not possible to state one unequivocal solution (ex. 3):

Ludwig Czaczkes in his analytical book on Bach’s WTC made his own choice by reconstructing what he regarded as the harmonic basis (ex. 4):

When deciding on the subtle dynamic processes in this subject, the aspects to be taken into particular consideration are the two rhythmic phenomena and their respective harmonic functions:

-

rhythmically stronger is undoubtedly the syncopation which falls, however, on the harmonically rather weak tonic-to-dominant movement;

-

rhythmically weaker is the dotted eighth-note; yet this is supported by the stronger harmony, the subdominant.

 

The decision on which of the two peaks is predominant would therefore rest on whether the interpreter feels the harmonic process more strongly than the rhythmical one, or vice versa.

If a performer chooses option (a) for the phrase structure and reads the subject as one unit which allows for no further subdivision, only one climax has to be determined which will come smoothly prepared by an increase in tension and be followed by a relaxation. If, however, a performer perceives the subject as made up of two halves (b), a decision has to be made as to which of them is stronger and, consequently, which of the two shorter tension build-ups is more powerful. In the latter case the subject would contain two releases, with the E at the end of the first subphrase as a transitory solution, i.e. almost but not quite as soft as the final E.

 

I/1.2.2 The statements of the subject 

The design of the fugue in C major has often been called programmatic: as the first of a collection of twenty-four fugues it contains twenty-four statements of its subject. These appear as follows:

 

1.

bars 1- 2

A

13.

bars 15-16

B

2.

bars 2- 4

S

14.

bars 15-16

S

3.

bars 4- 5

T

15.

bars 16-17

S

4.

bars 5- 7

B

16.

bars 16-18

A

5.

bars 7- 8

S

17.

bars 17-18

T

6.

bars 7- 8

T

18.

bars 17-18

B

7.

bars 9-10

A

19.

bars 19-20

T

8.

bars 10-12

B

20.

bars 19-20

A

9.

bars 10-12

A

21.

bars 20-22

S

10.

bars 12-13

T

22.

bars 21-23

T

11.

bars 14-15

A

23.

bars 24-25

T

12.

bars 14-15

T

24.

bars 24-26

A

(ex. 5)

Among these subject statements, three are varied:

-

The bass entry in bar 17 begins with a rhythmically doubled first note, annihilating the subject’s essential up-beat character.

-

The tenor statement in bar 14/15 shows a variation at the end, after the syncopation.

-

The soprano entry in bar 15/16 states only the first half of the subject before giving way to a new beginning which now unfolds as a complete statement in this voice.

 

While parallels of the subject are not used in this fugue, stretto is a very prominent feature. After the first four entrances, i.e. as soon as each of the voices participating in this fugue has entered, subject statements overlap more often than not. The nine stretto combinations which Bach uses are listed below. (The normal-sized capital distinguishes the respective group leader, i.e. the voice which counts as building the “round”. This leader within each stretto can be detected by looking for any of the following three criteria: which version is more faithful to the original, which version serves to establish a new key, or simply C in the absence of the two other distinctions C which one comes first.)

strettos beginning in bar

voices

7

10



S T , B A

14

15

16

17

A T , B S , S A , T B

19

20/21



T A , S T

24





T A

It is interesting to observe that the first six stretto combinations give a complete account of the six alliances possible between four voices: the soprano is paired with the alto (entries 15/16), with the tenor (5/6) and with the bass (13/14); the alto is further paired with the tenor (11/12) and with the bass (8/9); finally, tenor and bass are also joined (17/18).

 

I/1.2.3 The counter-subject

The C major fugue does not contain any counter-subject. In view of the immense density of material created by the twenty-four subject entries, this will hardly come as a surprise. In the absence of counter-subjects, this fugue claims our full attention by the use of its strettos. A sketch of the phrase structure and the dynamic design should therefore depict the pattern created in such group of statements.

The entries in bars 14-16 are rendered below in two alternative interpretations:

ex. 6 shows what happens if the subject is seen as an indivisible phrase climaxing on the syncopation;

ex. 7 interprets the subject as consisting of two subphrases, with the climax of the first subphrase assumed as stronger than that of the second.

 

I/1.2.4 The episodes

The density of the material in this fugue is only twice interrupted for short stretches which, as the subject is absent, qualify as episodes:

E 1

bar 13 (last three eighth-notes)

to bar 14 (first eighth-note),

E 2

bar 23 (after first sixteenth-note)

to bar 24 (first eighth-note).

In addition, the fugue ends with two subject-free bars the last statement concludes on the first sixteenth-note of bar 26 (E3 bars 26-27).

None of these subject-free bars is even remotely related to the subject; neither are there any episode motives. The two subject-free passages within the fugue are both clearly identifiable as cadential closes. The second half of bar 13 features typical closing-formulas in all three sounding voices C so as to leave no doubt at all that something comes to an end here. In bars 23/24, both soprano and bass again present those typical patterns while the inner voices join in neutral, quasi-chordal style.

Surprisingly, the ending of the composition avoids all these established formulas. Instead Bach, having two bars earlier already started a tonic pedal (and thus making it quite clear that the piece is drawing to its end), allows the other three voices to continue freely with harmonic and melodic developments independent of both material bounds and pattern restrictions. One after the other the voices then come to a halt: the tenor withdraws first, then the alto becomes less eloquent while the soprano is the last to expound by running up to the high C.

The final note in the soprano, the high C, deserves a mention. This note has not been previously reached in this composition. As we all know, it marks the upper limit of the keyboard instruments in Bach’s time just as the final low C of the prelude marks the confines at the other extreme. These two tiny details are another hint that Bach, in writing his twenty-four preludes and fugues, aimed to demonstrate all that was possible on this instrument.

The role which each of the three subject-free stretches plays in the development of this fugue will have become apparent from what has been said above. The two inner episodes clearly serve as nothing but cadential closes and therefore have a relaxing tendency. The two final bars, on the contrary, succeed in creating something however small of their own, thus contributing to a build-up towards a final climax.

 

I/1.2.5 Character, tempo, articulation, ornament realization

Both the overall stepwise motion and the rhythmic structure with its four different note values and frequent syncopations, reveal this composition’s basic character as rather calm. Within the overall frame of this character, the chain of three leaps in the subject brings forward an element of contrast which should be felt and played as such.

The most appropriate tempo is a calmly flowing one flowing enough so that the quarter-notes, rather than the eighth-notes, are felt as a pulse; calm enough so that the sixteenth-notes still sound serene. Regarding the relative tempo of the fugue to its prelude, retaining the beat would lead to a somewhat dull results since both the time signature and the sixteenth-note motion are the same in both pieces. Therefore, a proportion of 3:2 or 2:3 seems better suited. [Approximate metronome setting: prelude beat = 80 or 90, fugue beat = 60.]

The articulation in the fugue is mainly legato. One conspicuous (and regular) exception occurs with the three leaps in the subject which, as consecutive jumps, must be taken detached. Similarly, leaps and cadential-bass patterns in non-subject portions of any voice are also exempt from legato articulation.

The fugue contains three ornaments, namely in bars 13, 18 and 19.

-

The ornament in bar 18 is indicated in the Urtext as clearly deriving from Bach’s own manuscript. It is a mordent which commences on the upper auxiliary note and touches down twice on the main note, thus resulting in four regular notes A-G-A-G.

-

The two other ornaments both serve to decorate typical soprano closing-formulas. As the Urtext printing in brackets indicates they do not appear in the autograph but were added in several early copies. Ornamenting this characteristic dotted note in a cadential formula was common practice, and performers should include some kind of embellishment in any case. The simple mordent (as the symbol in brackets in bar 19 suggests) is a more likely solution in both cases than the compound ornament (as recommended by the small-print version in bar 13) because this soprano formula features an anticipation of the final note (see A-A bars 13/14 and D-D bar 19) which normally replaces C and thus excludes C the suffix completion of the trill.


I/1.2.6 The design of the fugue

The design of the fugue appears clear in consideration of the following:

(a)

Bach orders the voices presenting the subject, and the particular sequence of single and stretto statements, in a very consistent pattern:

-

entries in all four voices, no stretto;

(bars 1-7);

-

entries in all four voices, two with stretto partners;

(bars 7-14)

-

entries in all four voices, all with stretto partners;

(bars 14-19)

-

two stretto pairs including three of the voices, followed by one repeated (“redundant”) stretto pair in the coda.

(bars 19-27)

Within these four groups, the coupling of voices in stretto also seems to follow a plan:

-

the second round groups the “higher” and the “lower” voices:
S + T, A + B

-

the third round groups the adjacent and the outer voices:
S + A, A + T, T + B, B + S

-

the fourth round leaves out the bass completely but uses the next lowest voice, the tenor, in all three combinations.

(b)

The density of voices displays a fourfold build-up of the ensemble:

-

The first four entries produce the regular assembling of all voices involved. (See bars 1-7: from one to four voices.)

-

This full ensemble is consequently reduced to three voices in the first stretto statement. Both the following alto entry and the next stretto sound against one resting voice, so that the next full ensemble is again reached at the fourth statement of this group. (See bars 7-13, from three to four voices).

-

After the cadential close in A minor, the ensemble is momentarily reduced to only two voices; this marks the return to C major as a genuine new beginning. The following three strettos then sound in full ensemble. (See bars 14-19, two to four voices).

-

Finally, the stretto in bars 19/20 which overlaps with the closing-formula sounds again without the soprano. The full ensemble is restored with the ensuing statement. (See bars 19-27, from three to four voices).

(c)

There are several interesting analogies within the four sections of this fugue:

-

Both the first and the second sections contain a harmonic progression which starts from the tonic and is followed by the unusual repeated dominant.

bars 1-5

bars 7-12

A (tonic)

S (+ T) (tonic)

S (dominant)

A (dominant)

T (dominant)

B (+ A) (dominant)

-

The two initial entries of the first section relate to their counterparts in the second section (counting again the “group leader” of the stretto as the relevant voice) in inversion C as do the third and fourth entries of these two rounds.

bars 1-7

bars 7-13

A, S – T, B

S, A - B, T

-

The first stretto of the third section (bars 14/15) reveals a startling analogy with the first stretto of the second section (bars 7/8): both the pitch level and the distance between the second entry and its leader (two eighth-notes) is identical. The second stretto in the third round (bars 15/16) appears as an intensified variation of the corresponding second entry in the second round (bars 9/10), again with the same pitch level.

bars 7-10m

bars 14-16m

stretto (S+T, on C+G)

stretto (T+A, on C+G)

distance 2 eighth-notes

distance 2 eighth-notes

single entry (A) on G

stretto (B + S) leader on G

-

Finally, the fourth stretto of the third section (bars 17-19) brings a modulation into a new key as did the fourth entry of the second section (bars 12/13); in addition, both the group leader here and the single entry there (second section fourth entry) are placed on the dominant of the key of their destination.

bars 12/13

bars 17-19

fourth entry of section II

fourth stretto of section III

on V of A minor

leader on V of D minor

The harmonic progression within this fugue leads first from C major to its relative A minor, confirmed by the cadential close of bars 13/14. Following this there is a new start in C major, diverting after four entry pairs to D minor. This key is again confirmed by a closing-formula (bar 19), although this time pursued by the two outer voices only while the two inner parts continue with stretto statements of the subject. 

As can be seen both from the key of the stretto group-leaders and from the prolonged bass notes (see bars 19/20: D, 21/22: G and 24-27: C), the fugue then reverts to the original tonality, confirmed by a cadential close in C major (bars 23/24). The last four bars will thus appear harmonically as a coda since the final cadence has already taken place and the tonic bass note sounds as an extended pedal note. For a sketch showing the design of the fugue in C major, see the graph (ex. 8). 

 

I/1.2.7 The development of tension

The first section shows a gradual, constant build-up of the ensemble, without any interruption by episodes. The tension rises steadily but, in the absence of additional intensifying factors, reaches only medium level.

The second section, consisting of a twofold stretto-plus-single-entry sequence, indicates a slight twofold relaxation. The first is supported at its end by the closing-formula (see soprano bars 9/10: G---F#-G), while the second is enhanced by the modulation to the minor key and the ensuing resolution within the cadential close.

The third section witnesses a build-up from two to four voices in the densest imaginable stretto setting. The dynamic processes are similar to those in the first section but considerably intensified, and tension appears at its height at the end of this round; here the modulation with its final turn to D major (the Picardy-third version of the expected D minor), with the elaborate cadential formulas and the "impatiently" overlapping first stretto of the ensuing section create a supreme climax.

The fourth section resembles the second insofar as it appears made up of two halves. After two entries which modulate back from D through G to C, thus initiating harmonic relaxation, the cadential bar 23 represents an obvious caesura. The following coda replaces the expected stretto + single entry with a stretto over an extended pedal note, but complements this with two bars of subject-free development.

There are thus obvious relationships between the two halves of the fugue.

-

The first section builds up tension. This build-up extends into the beginning of the second section but is then not developed further, owing both to the divided layout of this section and to the regressing harmonic development.

-

The third section builds up tension towards the climax of the fugue. This elevated tension is continued into the overlapping beginning of the fourth section, after which it subsides gradually, both because of the divided layout of this section and its softening modulation and cadential close.


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I/1.2.7 The development of tension

The first section shows a gradual, constant build-up of the ensemble, without any interruption by episodes. The tension rises steadily but, in the absence of additional intensifying factors, reaches only medium level.

The second section, consisting of a twofold stretto-plus-single-entry sequence, indicates a slight twofold relaxation. The first is supported at its end by the closing-formula (see soprano bars 9/10: G---F#-G), while the second is enhanced by the modulation to the minor key and the ensuing resolution within the cadential close.

The third section witnesses a build-up from two to four voices in the densest imaginable stretto setting. The dynamic processes are similar to those in the first section but considerably intensified, and tension appears at its height at the end of this round; here the modulation with its final turn to D major (the Picardy-third version of the expected D minor), with the elaborate cadential formulas and the "impatiently" overlapping first stretto of the ensuing section create a supreme climax.

The fourth section resembles the second insofar as it appears made up of two halves. After two entries which modulate back from D through G to C, thus initiating harmonic relaxation, the cadential bar 23 represents an obvious caesura. The following coda replaces the expected stretto + single entry with a stretto over an extended pedal note, but complements this with two bars of subject-free development.

There are thus obvious relationships between the two halves of the fugue.

-

The first section builds up tension. This build-up extends into the beginning of the second section but is then not developed further, owing both to the divided layout of this section and to the regressing harmonic development.

-

The third section builds up tension towards the climax of the fugue. This elevated tension is continued into the overlapping beginning of the fourth section, after which it subsides gradually, both because of the divided layout of this section and its softening modulation and cadential close.