WTC II/1 in C major – Prelude 

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

II/1.1.1 The prelude-type

The C major prelude presents itself as a tightly woven texture of four complementary voices. There are no distinct motives; recurring melodic features appear more like formulas marking the beginning or end of a structural unit. The formal design of the prelude is determined by its harmonic progressions, together with secondary features like peak-note lines.

 

II/1.1.2 The overall design of the prelude

The first harmonic progression concludes on the downbeat of bar 3. This phrase is the only one in the entire prelude in which all motion is provided for by the soprano alone: the alto has not yet made its entry, and tenor and bass are locked in a tonic pedal in double octave. As these three voices have not yet entered the musical development, this cadential close cannot be regarded as a structural caesura. Such caesura occurs only after the reiteration now with four active voices of the C major cadential progression. This second cadence concludes in bar 5. When reading through the piece for the first time, one might assume that this is a strong-beat ending in which the close falls on the middle beat. Comparing this ending with similar ones in bars 8, 20 and 22 it is evident that these cadential closes end in weak-beat extensions of four sixteenth-notes. The first section of the prelude thus concludes on the fourth beat of bar 5.

The pattern established in this first progression, i.e. a not-quite conclusive cadence followed by a stronger confirmation, is repeated twice in the course of this composition. In bars 14 and 28, a modulation to a new key area is harmonically complete but somewhat unconvincing due to the rest in the bass. The target key is subsequently corrected and firmly closed a few bars later.

There are altogether eight structural sections in this prelude.

Ia, b

bars 1-3d-54

I

(C major)

II

bars 54 - 82

I - ii

(C major/D minor)

III

bars 82 - 11d

ii confirmed

(D minor)

IVa, b, c

bars 11-142-163-202

ii - vi - IV

(D minor/A minor/F major)

V

bars 202 - 224

IV - V

(F major/G major)

VI

bars 224 - 253

V

(G major)

VIIa, b

bars 253-284-302

V - ii - I

(G major/D minor/C major)

VIIIa, b

bars 302-322-34

I

(C major)

These eight sections thus represent, on a large scale, the steps of the simple progression: tonic (bars 1-5), subdominant (bars 6-20), dominant (bars 20-25) and return to the tonic.

The prelude contains two extended passages which are built in strict correspondence to one another:

compare

with

bars 54 - 143

bars 202 - 284

Another analogy which is established through the use of pedal notes rather than that of melodic resemblance exists between the opening bars and the closing bars:

compare

with

bars 1 - 3d

bars 32 - 34

We can thus condense our structural overview into the following schema:

opening

main

middle

main-section

closing

section

section

section

recapitulation

section

bars 1-3/3-5

bars 5-14

bars 14-20

bars 20-28

bars 28-32/32-34

 

II/1.1.3 Practical considerations for performers

In this texture of voices which complement one another in a seemingly endless stream of sound, no articulation or even obvious phrasing is desirable. Instead, the sound flow should meander from one voice to the other in an unbroken legato.

An appropriate tempo has to take into consideration both the details of the surface pattern and the underlying metric pulse. It must be calm enough to allow for clarity in the sixteenth-notes and occasional thirty-second-notes in the weaving lines, but not so slow as to render the quarter-note beats imperceptible.

 

II/1.1.4 What is happening in this prelude

When describing details of tension growth and decrease in this prelude, we must keep in mind that these appear only as shadings before the backdrop of the predominant harmonic developments.

The first phrase (bars 1-3d) displays an ornamental line falling over an entire octave. The dynamic development follows the shape, creating a single diminuendo. The line can be read as a hidden two-part structure in double sixths (ex. 9):

 

This hidden two-part structure anticipates what later materializes frequently as a complementary pattern between two adjacent voices.

The second phrase (bars 3-5m) appears as a more complex reiteration of the same process. Here, the octave descent occurs within the first half bar in the form of a scale which falls through the alto and bass registers. The descent is then extended, first imitating the more elaborate ornamental pattern of the first phrase (see bars 3m-4), then continuing in a cadential bass pattern (bars 4-5m). The falling line covers altogether more than two octaves.

Only from bar 6 onward does the listener get the impression of true four-part structure, and secondary features emerge with slight tendencies to counteract the overwhelming impression of descent. The tenor emancipates itself in bar 4 with a four-note ascent (a little crescendo); the soprano, which had been motionless for more than a bar, follows with an ascending fourth (bar 4m: D-G; a smaller crescendo), and the alto adds an even weaker ascending step (bar 4: B-C). After this, all voices blend in once more with the overall relaxation. This is completed with the weak-beat ending in the bass. (Careful: the four ascending sixteenth-notes here are passive, and the C on beat 4 of bar 5 is most probably a pianissimo note.)

The first phrase of the main section introduces a figure which is to recur several times as an active gesture: the zig-zag broken-chord descent in sixteenth-notes which, after reaching an artificial leading-note (F#), resolves indirectly onto G (see bass bar 54 to bar 62). This short figure will be referred to as M1. Its little tension-curve with the dynamically active beginning inspires two similar curves in the soprano (bars 6/7) and bass (bars 6/7). A last, softer curve in the soprano (bars 7/8) leads to the final relaxation of this phrase with a weak-beat ending on the second beat of bar 8. (Again, the ascending notes in the tenor are passive and end in pianissimo.)

The second phrase of the main section also begins with M1 in the bass, followed by a one-bar dynamic curve in the soprano (bars 8/9). It is interesting to see that, upon closer inspection, the end of this phrase corresponds with that of the previous phrase (compare S+A: bar 7 with B: bar 10, and the passive ascent in T: bar 8 with the passive descent in S+T: bar 11). The performer’s shaping should be geared towards underscoring such resemblances.

The next phrase consists of two consecutive larger curves. One begins in bar 11 with three active gestures (S, B, A) followed by a protracted relaxation through to the second beat of bar 13; the other is launched primarily by the prominent bass line which builds up some tension in bars 13/14. The phrase ends once more with passive gestures (here in A + T).

In the middle section, it is possible to continue thinking in little curves. Yet there are overriding large-scale pitch lines which deserve attention and should determine the performer’s concept of dynamic shaping. The first peak line occurs in the bass: after two consecutive active gestures describing ascending fourths (see bars 14/15: C to F and F to Bb), it descends gradually in an ornamented line which extends through the remainder of this middle section, i.e. through six full bars. This bass line is joined, in the second phrase within this section, by a similar embellished descent in the soprano:

bars

15

16

17

18

19

20

soprano

A

G . . F
E . . D

C# C B Bb

A

bass

Bb . . A

. G . . F

. . E . D
. C . Bb

A . . G

F

The most appropriate interpretation, which admittedly asks for a “long breath” of the performer, is one that renders the entire descent as one gradual diminuendo.

From bar 20 onwards, the recapitulation of the main section follows, developing along the same lines as the motions described earlier. It is complemented in bars 28-30 and 30-32 by two short phrases featuring fragments of M1 in the bass (see bars 28-29 and bar 30). These are integrated by another descending peak line which ends in a keynote / leading-note / keynote formula:

bars

28

29

30

31

32

soprano

A Ab

G

F# F

. E

D

B . C

B

C

 

Again, rendering these bars in a continuous and almost unbroken diminuendo would seem the best interpretative choice.

The final phrase (which begins after the passive gesture, i.e. in bar 32 beat 2!) can be said to bring forth the real surprise of this prelude. It is launched by yet another fragment of M1, this time in the alto, followed by an active gesture in the soprano (bars 32/33). The penultimate bar of the piece which, due to voice splitting, regains four-part texture despite the extended bass pedal expresses such obvious reluctance to calm down and resolve that it is probably most appropriately interpreted as a final build-up to the seven-part climactic chord that concludes the prelude.

To sum up, the prelude’s main section (and its recapitulation) contain fairly intricate patterns of small-scale tension curves. The middle section and the two initial phrases of the closing section are characterized by large-scale descents. The opening section also represents descending motions, while the final phrase, structurally conceived as a coda, is the only one in the entire prelude to be dominated by clearly increasing tension, which ends this meditative prelude on a surprisingly assertive note.

 

 

WTC II/1 in C major – Fugue

 

II/1.2.1 The subject

With its length of four bars, divided by a rest exactly in its middle, the subject of the C major fugue reveals a very regular phrase structure. The beginning after an eighth-note rest converts the first bar into an upbeat to bar 2; similarly the third bar, with its downbeat rest, also serves metrically as an upbeat to bar 4, after which the phrase concludes on the first sixteenth-note of bar 5.

The question whether this phrase consists of two subphrases or one indivisible unit with a tension-sustaining rest in its middle, allows for two answers. These have to be in keeping with the interpretation of several other features in the subject of this fugue. Let us look at these features first.

The pitch outline develops in a fairly restricted range, between the middle C as the lowest and the sixth (A) as the highest note. The beginning on the fifth gives the subject a hint of “being already in the middle of things”, while the conclusion on the third has a gently releasing quality. The pitch pattern contains two accented inverted-mordent figures (see bars 1 and 3) and an unaccented one (see bar 4). These written-out ornaments suggest that the remaining sixteenth-notes (in the subject, and in the fugue as a whole) should also be interpreted as ornamental rather than melodious in their intent. The two larger intervals within the subject appear as consecutive jumps (see bars 1/2), thus confirming the lively character. The target of these consecutive jumps, the A on bar 2d, is supported in many ways: melodically the highest pitch, rhythmically the first of two longer notes, and harmonically representing the subdominant, it is further emphasized by an ornament in full speed (see the inverted-mordent symbol) before it relaxes slightly in the following step downward.

One could now perceive bars 3-5 as a varied sequence of bars 1/2: (GF)G-C-A-G would have become an ornamented (FE)F-(E)-D---E. In this view, the subject appears as two (fairly balanced) subphrases. The rest in bar 3 must then played as an interruption before a new beginning, the written-out inverted mordent following it (see bar 3 F-E-F) would be more active than the fairly relaxed G in bar 2, and the D on bar 4d would come out as a second (though softer) climax.

Another view is equally possible - and perhaps more conducive to the transmission of overall unity in the subject. The entire string of sixteenth-notes in bars 3-5 can be regarded as ornamental. One would then define the main melodic steps in the subject as (GF)G-C-A-G-F---E. In this case, the gradual descent from A to E requires an uninterrupted line. The rest in bar 3 is then perceived as tension-sustaining, after a G which sounds only minimally softer than the preceding climax. The A-G and the tension-sustaining rest would thus allow for a further release through the following F (and all its gradually retreating ornamental surroundings) to the final E. In other words, this interpretation renders the subject as an uninterrupted unit.

The harmonic background of the subject does not do reveal anything that would decide the matter. The active step to the subdominant appears on bar 2d - but then we never had any doubts about the overall climax anyway. Bar 4 represents the relative minor to the subdominant, which is then followed by the dominant and the final tonic (ex. 10).

 

 

II/1.2.2 The statements of the subject

The three voices of the C major fugue present altogether eight subject entries:

1.

bars 1-5

M

5.

bars 25-29

U

2.

bars 5-9

U

6.

bars 39-43

L

3.

bars 9-13

L

7.

bars 47-51

M

4.

bars 21-25

M

8.

bars 51-55

U

(ex. 11)

Apart from the interval modification in the answer (where the falling fifth in the first bar becomes a fourth) the subject does not experience any changes; neither does it appear in any stretto or parallel setting.

 

II/1.2.3 The counter-subject

After concluding the subject, the middle voice presents a melodic line against the answer, i.e. at a point where one expects a counter-subject to be introduced. In the further course of the piece, this line recurs twice in its unabridged version (see middle voice bars 25-29 and 51-55); in two other cases, only the initial bar reappears (see upper voice bars 9 and 39).

While independent from the subject in structure, this counter-subject is not completely independent in material. The first two bars (see from the second sixteenth-note D in bar 5) are closely related to the subject’s final two bars, and only the counter-subject’s second half with its ascending scale, syncopation and closing-formula contributes new components. Another shortcoming of this counter-subject is the fact that its unabridged version remains restricted to the middle voice, appearing always in accompaniment to an upper-voice subject statement, and thus lacks true polyphonic versatility.

The inner structure of this phrase poses an important question for the contrapuntal setting in this fugue. Following the pitch pattern of descending sequences in the first two bars of the counter-subject, most performers will choose to interpret these as expressing gradually lessening tension. After the lowest note A, the ascending scale would then support an increase towards the syncopation, after which the closing-formula brings a relaxation.

With this dynamic outline in mind, let us go back to our two options for the interpretation of the phrase structure in the subject. We shall find that the concept described above for the counter-subject is ideally suited to balance the concept of the subject as an indivisible phrase. In the case of a subject consisting of two dynamic curves, however, this interpretation of the counter-subject is most unlikely as it would create simultaneous phrase cuts in both voices and thus interrupt the polyphonic texture in quite an awkward way. (Performers who definitely prefer a divided interpretation of the subject must therefore render the counter-subject as an unbroken phrase, beginning with an extended crescendo.)

The two sketches display the options available for the phrase structure and dynamic design in subject and counter-subject.

(ex. 12)

 

 

II/1.2.4 The episodes

The C major fugue contains only four subject-free passages.

E1

bars 13-21

E3

bars 43-47

E2

bars 29-39

E4

bars 55-83

At this point it might be interesting to learn that Bach’s first version of this fugue (according to the Kellner manuscript) ended on bar 68d. The composer later re-wrote the perfect cadence in bars 67/68 as an interrupted cadence and added sixteen bars on a pedal note C. This extended coda certainly concludes the piece much more convincingly. At the same time, the fact that it was not yet there in the earlier version is of great help for a true understanding of the fugue’s architectonic design.

The episodes make ample use of material from the subject.

-

E1 contains an imitative pattern based on the subject’s first half, complemented by an eighth-note instead of the rest (see bars 13-19, upper and middle voices; the final imitation in the middle voice is inverted and varied). This pattern recurs faithfully in bars 55-61. In both instances, the lower voice adds a figure which is derived from the last bar of the subject and/or from the first bar of the counter-subject. The lower-voice sixteenth-notes then continue, with a little more liberty, until the end of the episode (bar 21 downbeat) and until the final cadence of the earlier version (bar 67 downbeat) respectively.

-

The head of the subject occurs further in the coda where it is imitated through all three voices (see bars 68-72: L, bars 72-76: M, bars 76-80: U). The first eight bars are again accompanied by the sixteenth-note figures from subject ending and/or counter-subject beginning.

-

In E2, the first segment contains a two-bar motive which is only in its beginning rhythmically related to the subject head (see bars 29-31: U, sequenced in bars 31-33); this is again accompanied by the string of thematic sixteenth-notes. The second segment of this episode brings an imitation built exclusively on the sixteenth-note pattern (see bars 33-37d: U, bars 34-39d: M).

-

E3 displays a lower voice which is even more closely related to the end of the subject as it sequences the final bar (see bars 43-46: L).

 

Apart from the final bars of the coda, the only components of the episodes that are not related to the primary material appear in the upper and middle voices of bars 43-47 and 61-67. They do, however, recall the other episodes insofar as they also contain an imitative pattern in sequences.

The role each episode plays in the dynamic design of the fugue is easily determined in accordance with the sequential patterns. E1 builds up tension through bars 13-19 but then brings a slight release in bars 19-21. E2 keeps a very low profile in its constantly falling lines. E3, on the contrary, ascends continuously in all three voices and thus produces a considerable increase. E4, like E1, begins with rising lines and a crescendo (bars 55-61) followed by a gradual descent (bars 61-65) and a cadential release - which now, in its revised version as an interrupted cadence, expresses much more intensity than did the earlier perfect cadence. The coda begins in a fairly leveled softer shade, followed only in bars 80-83 (see the split voices) by a final strengthening.

The uniformity and simple relationship throughout both the primary and secondary material adds to the playful character of the fugue. This character is further enhanced by rhythmic continuity: before the final cadence, the sixteenth-note pulsation is almost constant, with minimal interruptions only on four occasions (see immediately after the downbeat in bars 11, 21, 22 and 41).

 

II/1.2.5 Character, tempo, articulation, ornament realization

After all that has already been observed, the basic character of this fugue can no longer be a mystery. The simplicity of the rhythmic pattern, the ornamental structure of the pitch line and the jumps that occur both in the subject and in the episode material clearly express a rather lively character. The tempo, too, should be fairly swift. The articulation that follows requires non legato for the eighth-notes and quarter-notes, and legato for the sixteenth-notes.

The relative tempo of the prelude to the fugue should be chosen in complex proportion. The reason lies in the prevailing patterns of almost continuous sixteenth-notes in both pieces which would sound dull if the respective pulses were in simple proportion. A good and feasible solution is to translate each of the four quarter-notes in the final bar of the prelude into triplet eighth-notes (instead of the previously felt four sixteenth-notes), and to turn these imagined triplet eighth-notes - after having freed them of their grouping into lots of three - into the eighth-notes of the fugue (Approximate metronome settings: prelude beats = 72, fugue beats = 108). In other words:

an (assumed) triplet eighth-note

corresponds with

an eighth-note

in the prelude

in the fugue

 

The prominent ornament (now talking about those notated in symbols) is the inverted mordent in the subject. Its pitch does not pose a problem as it always uses the natural (white key) for its lower neighbor note. As is the case with all ornaments which form a characteristic feature of a fugue subject, this inverted mordent must be played even where the composer did not write it again (i.e. in bars 22 and 26). By contrast, the episode motives deriving from the subject head need not be ornamented as Bach does not indicate this in a single case. (The presence or absence of the ornament has the further advantage that it tells listeners already after one bar whether what they are hearing is going to be a subject entry or a subject-related motive - a distinction which, due to the uniformity of material in this fugue, would otherwise not be so easy to make.)

Another ornament appears in two of the three statements of the counter-subject. In bar 8 it is printed as an inverted mordent, while bar 28 features a mordent symbol without the slash. The first reading is slightly confusing in a typical closing-formula where the experienced performer might have added a full trill even without any ornament symbol from the composer’s hand. Thus the second reading appears more convincing and can safely be chosen in both cases. As a leading-note trill approached stepwise it begins with a sixteenth-note on the main note, followed by six thirty-second-notes including the suffix, and resolving smoothly and without interruption on the following downbeat. In bar 54 the closing-formula is varied and needs no ornament.

Finally, the long trill with a tie-suspension in bars 37/38 begins regularly, i.e. from the upper note; it then shakes in thirty-second-notes until the very end of the bar where it ties the last F over to the next downbeat. No suffix is possible in this case since the ornamented note lacks a resolution.

 

II/1.2.6 The design of the fugue

Cadential formulas together with the key of the subject entries and the dynamic build-up in some of the episodes determine the structural layout in this fugue. Only the end of the initial section might cause some doubt. In bars 21/22, Bach presents the first closing-formula with typical features in both the upper and the lower voices, thus creating a strong feeling of closure. The fact, however, that the beginning of a subject statement in the middle voice overlaps with this closing-formula for an entire bar strings the first and second sections closely together.

As the number of voices is reduced to two after the cadence in bars 24/25 - and thus would normally advocate the beginning of the second section only here, one obviously needs good grounds for a differing view. The reasons which lead to assume the closing of the first section in bar 22 are as follows:

(a)

As all three voices have already presented the subject, the first section can only end here or after one more - a redundant - statement. Yet the overlapping subject statement in the middle voice ends with a cadential close which is much less satisfactory as a close, due to a sudden breaking off in the upper voice (see bar 25d) which creates a strong link between the upper-voice line in bar 24 and the new beginning in bar 25.

(b)

The overlapping subject statement in bars 21-25, while commencing in the harmonic surroundings of G major, soon reveals its key as D minor (see the C#s and Bbs from bar 22 onwards). This statement thus forms a pair with the following upper-voice entry which, from its second bar onwards, is in A minor - the minor dominant of the preceding statement. A closer look at the beginning of both statements further strengthens this view as they display the interval structure of subject + answer. (Compare bars 21/25 with bars 1/5.)

(c)

If the subject entry in bars 25-29 was the first of a new section, then the episode which follows would have to be regarded as linking two consecutive statements. The long and definite tension decrease in E2, however, makes such an interpretation very unlikely.

(d)

The dynamic design of E1 is very much related to that of the original E4 (until bar 68): both describe a full curve, using similar material.

Having said all this, a conclusion for the remaining sections follows without problems. The harmonically related entries in bars 21-25 and 25-29 constitute, together with the decreasing E2, the second section. The return to C major and to three-part texture in bar 39 marks the beginning of the third section which encompasses three statements and a closing episode (like the first section, the only difference being the inserted E3). The exceptionally long coda must be regarded in the light of its relative in the Classical period: it rounds off the entire piece, not just the final section.

For a sketch showing the design of the fugue in C major, see the following graph (ex. 13).

 

II/1.2.7 The overall dynamic outline of the fugue

Within both the first and the third sections, the tension rises from one entry to the next. In the first section, this is bolstered by the gradual increase in texture, whereas in the third section, Bach uses two particular devices to create a similar effect: the beginning in a very low keyboard register (see bars 39-43 in which even the upper voice sounds mainly below middle C) and the inserted episode with its strongly increasing direction.

The second section is distinguished by three factors which decrease tension: the reduced number of voices which is valid for all but the first four bars, the minor mode, and the strongly decreasing direction of the episode.

The coda begins somewhat subdued for the first eight bars but builds up gradually as the pedal moves to the lower C and the lower-voice figures suggest hidden two-part structure (from bar 76 onwards). When the other voices finally also split, a fully resonant close is reached.