WTC II/7 in Eb major – Prelude 

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

II/7.1.1 The prelude-type

Perhaps the most striking feature in this prelude is its rhythmic pattern. The eighth-note seems the predominant note value; in fact, with the short exceptions in bars 9, 56 and 67/68, it constitutes a constantly upheld pulse.

With regard to texture, patterns in complementary rhythm (see e.g. bars 1/2) alternate with homophonic accompaniment in strongly metric patterns (see e.g. bars 3 and 6-8), parallel lines (see e.g. bars 13-16) and occasional pedal notes (see e.g. bars 5-8: Eb, bars 13-16: Bb ).

Although a number of recurring melodic figures can be identified, the prelude does not strike the listener as a piece dominated by thematic development. The overwhelming impression is that of the continuously flowing rhythmic pulsation in the eighth-notes. The piece might therefore be described as metrically determined, and belongs to the compositions expressing meditative mood.

 

II/7.1.2 The overall design of the prelude

The first harmonic progression is completed in bar 4, with a metrically weak "tail" in the lower voice (until the seventh eighth-note). The subsequent modulation to the dominant concludes in bar 12 where it features the same closing bar.

There are altogether seven relevant sections in this prelude:

I

bars 1-47

tonic confirmed

II

bars 4-127

modulation to the dominant

III

bars 12-244

modulation to the relative key (C minor)

IV

bars 24-324

return to the dominant

V

bars 32-504

modulation to the dominant relative (G minor)

VI

bars 50-61d

return to the tonic

VII

bars 61-71

tonic confirmed

Several structural correspondences meet the eye.

-

I recurs at the beginning of VII, although with several small variations
(cf. bars 1 / 618-64d)

-

II is sequenced in III, again with variations and enhanced texture
(cf. bars 4-8d / 128-16d)

-

III/IV are partly quoted in V/VI, with many small melodic modifications
(cf. bars 21-287 / 47-547)

-

V contains a three-bar sequence involving both hands without adjustments
(cf. bars 325-354 /355-384 )


Furthermore, there are two partial sequences (see bars 385-404 and 405-424).

 

II/7.1.3 Practical considerations for performers

Aspects of performance in this prelude are closely related to the meditative character. The pulse of continuous eighth-notes represents timing in triple meter. From a metric viewpoint, the "triplets" within each of the beats appear as gentle embellishments which lack not only rhythmic variety but also melodic intensity.

By the same token, differentiation in articulation is not an issue in this piece. The sound flows uninterrupted in at least one of the voices at any given moment. As Bach takes the trouble to write many of the "triple-meter" beats in the left-hand part with rests (see bars 3, 11, 20-23 etc.), we can assume he took it for granted that all notes written in quarter-note values would be sustained for the entire duration. The performer's concern is therefore merely to distinguish between

-

passages of true complementary motion, in which neither interruption nor overlapping may occur (see e.g. in bars 24m-32m, 56m-60);

-

notes which are to be sustained explicitly in order to transform broken chords into vertical chords (see e.g. bars 18, 34,7, 9/10 and 26/28); and

-

bars in which a subordinated rhythmic pattern needs to be observed (particularly the bars with a pedal note, see bars 5-8, 13-16).


In the interest of the atmosphere the composer tries to convey, the dynamic level throughout the prelude must remain quite leveled. Fine shades in intensity should create light and shadow, or foreground and background, rather than powerful increases and decreases in tension. Details that guide the performer in this delicate task can be discovered in answer to questions like:

-

Does the melodic flow proceed from eighth-note to subsequent eighth-note? In this case, each note would carry active melodic weight.

-

Are subsequent eighth-notes conceived as spread-out chords with additional rhythmic "fills" or "tail"? In this case, a larger number of notes may represent only one musical unit, and may therefore have to appear under the impression of a single gesture, with only one weighted note.

-

Do subsequent notes represent two different melodic layers? In such cases of hidden two-part structure, different coloring of the "parts" is essential.

 
There are several ornaments in this prelude: grace-notes, inverted mordents and a mordent. The grace-notes (see bars 2, 4, 62) all represent eighth-note appoggiaturas followed by quarter-note-value resolutions. (The question whether the ternary (dotted) note value should be split into one third appoggiatura and two thirds resolution (a concept which applies most often in J.S. Bach) or into two thirds appoggiatura and one third resolution (as demanded by his son C.P.E. Bach in the famous treatise On the True Art of Playing the Keyboard) does not arise here, for in all cases has the lower voice abandoned the harmony on the third beat.) Among the two inverted mordents, the one in the final bar of the piece is straightforward while the other one (see bar 50) demands second thoughts regarding the pitch of the lower neighbor note. Despite the Ab in the key signature, this ornament requires an A natural as it occurs in the harmonic context of G minor. Finally, the cadential mordent in bar 68 begins on the main note and can contain three or, better still, five notes.

 

II/7.1.4 What is happening in this prelude

The first phrase is conceived in ornamented chordal structure which unfolds as a simple cadence. The only melodic feature used repeatedly is the figure in the lower voice which appears like a "female" extension to the downbeat chords. This figure recurs frequently in the course of the prelude and will be referred to as x (see here: L bars 1, 2, 4).

The second phrase is characterized by a motive in which the main beats appear ornamented, either by a pre-beat inverted mordent (see in bars 5, 6, 7 etc. beats 1 and 2) or by an escape note (see the same bars beat 3). This motive (M1) is accompanied all along by a rhythmic pedal note (see bars 5-8d: tonic pedal). Three non-motivic bars then focus on an F major seventh chord which triggers the modulation to the dominant; this harmonically significant moment is underpinned by x in the lower voice. The phrase ends with a cadential close basically similar to that at the end of the first phrase (compare bars 10-12 with bars 2-4).

Phrase III commences with a M1 transposed to the dominant. The next three bars suggest a return to the tonic (see the twofold x stressing the harmonic significance of bars 17/18). The short quote of M1 in inverted voices (see bars 19/20) confirms the V7 chord, but the four-bar long cadential close turns instead to the relative minor key.

The fourth phrase begins with almost perfect complementary motion. The little figure x appears in the right here hand and in the form of a V7 chord. Its resolution is conceived as another figure in which tied notes form a chord. This two-bar motive (M2) is then sequenced (compare bars 268-287 with bars 248-267). The phrase ends with a modulation to Bb major.

The fifth phrase commences with a new motive (M3). Its first half (bars 325-334) consists of the same seventh chord in both voices, preceded and followed by inverted-mordent figures. Its second half (bars 335-354) complements this, after a repetition of the seventh chord, with a descent which features parallel seventh in both voices. After one complete and two partial sequences, all in ascending order, the climax (see bar 43d) triggers a four-bar extension. The phrase ends with a similar four-bar cadential close as that which concluded the third phrase.

Phrase VI continues the analogy by beginning with M2. It ends with ascending sequences, in a pattern which is complementary except for the dominant pedal on each downbeat (see bars 56-60). The final phrase begins similarly to the initial one. The four-bar cadence is extended here and, after a short general pause (see bar 67), the return to the tonic is substantiated with a renewed full cadence in Eb major (see bars 68/69) and an additional three-bar key confirmation.

Dynamic shading in this prelude is very restrained so as not to jeopardize the meditative calm of the composition. At the outset of phrases II-VI, the three motives describe melodic curves of one, two and three bars respectively, while the endings of these phrases and the framing cadences are defined by very slight harmonically induced tension developments.

The following simplified version of the seven phrases aims at highlighting the main features and facts once again (ex. 11).

 

 

 

WTC II/7 in Eb major – Fugue

 

II/7.2.1 The subject

The Eb major subject is firmly rooted at its beginning but ambiguous at its end. Commencing with the keynote on the downbeat, it extends through more than six bars before it concludes on the downbeat of bar 7. As the return to the tonic harmony occurs already one bar earlier (on the G of bar 6), the question whether or not bar 6 belongs to the subject has led to many heated discussions. On the one hand, both the structural design of the phrase and Bach's very consistent use of the entire length support the view that what is harmonically but a "tail" has to be regarded as an integral component of the subject. On the other hand, Bach's harmonization of this "tail" often does not remain in the tonic but leads away from it (see e.g. bars 12/13, 19/20, 26/27 etc.). This is a strong argument for the shorter version. In the following analysis, we will try to keep both aspects in mind: the melodically consistent longer version (which contains a complete sequence) as well as the one which is one bar shorter but harmonically more convincing.

With regard to its pitch pattern, the subject describes a curve which sets out from and returns to the Eb-Bb interval, enclosing several ups and downs in-between. Skips and steps seem fairly equally distributed in this phrase. Apart from the initial fifth which swings back in steps, there is a perfect fourth (bar 3) followed by seconds that lead to a broken chord (bars 4/5); all three features (fourth + seconds + broken chord) are then sequenced. The rhythmic pattern displays great variety, with four different note values present already in the subject: a whole-note, minims (two of which are placed as syncopations), quarter-notes and eighth-notes. To these are later added dotted quarter-notes, sixteenth-notes and various tied values.

The harmonic background of this subject is interesting insofar as it comprises two complete cadential progressions. Bach harmonizes the initial whole-note with an active step from the tonic to the subdominant (see e.g. bar 14) or to the dominant of the dominant (see e.g. bar 60), followed in bar 2 by the dominant (or dominant-seventh) and on the downbeat of the third bar by the return to the tonic. From there onwards, the syncopated C initiates another subdominant harmony which gives way, on or before the syncopated Bb (see bars 64 and 18 respectively), to the dominant and returns to the tonic in bar 6 (ex. 12):

The phrase structure which can be detected behind all these details encompasses three subphrases:

-

the first subphrase coincides with the first cadential progression, thus closing on the downbeat of bar 3;

-

the second subphrase commences with the syncopated C and closes before the sequencing syncopated Bb, i.e. on the downbeat of bar 5;

-

the third subphrase consists of the complete or shortened sequence of the second.


In the light of this phrase structure, our earlier assessment of the interval structure calls for a small revision. The perfect fourths are in fact not conceived as intervals (in the sense of steps within an unbroken melodic context) but as cuts between adjacent subphrases. The pitch pattern thus balances the initial fifth and the broken chord at the end of the second subphrase with stepwise motion in-between.

Determining the overall climax is not difficult. The C in bar 3 is not only rhythmically outstanding, it also represents the definite turn to the subdominant harmony. It follows that the gradual relaxation in the second subphrase is echoed in the third subphrase, with a smaller climax on the syncopated Bb and a more complete relaxation to the tonic. In the first subphrase, the initial note should be felt as an implied increase of tension (which, obviously, the keyboard is unable to produce but any string or wind player would provide very convincingly), peaking gently on the Bb in bar 2 before diminishing until the end of the subphrase.

 

II/7.2.2 The statements of the subject

The fugue contains twelve entries of the subject. Among them, one is significantly changed at both the beginning and the end; in the table below it appears marked with an asterisk. All other subject statements are given here in their full melodic length, including the "tail".

1

bars 1-7

B

7

bars 37-43

A

2

bars 7-13

T

8

bars 38-44

S

3

bars 14-20

A

9

bars 53-59

T

4

bars 21-27

S

10

bars 55-59

A*

5

bars 30-36

T

11

bars 59-65

S

6

bars 31-37

B

12

bars 60-66

B

(ex. 13)

Apart from, on the one hand, the adjustment of the initial interval in the answer and, on the other hand, the evident modification in the tenth entry which was already mentioned, the subject remains basically unchanged throughout the fugue. Slight changes in pitch appear in bars 31, 38 and 60 where the second interval in the tenor, alto and soprano statements respectively is adjusted (a note repetition instead of the descending second). The only rhythmic variation appears in the statements from bars 30, 31 and 53 onwards where the initial whole-note is shortened to a half-note.

While neither inversion nor augmentation are used, strettos appear frequently. Their structural position and the kinds of combination chosen are interesting. The four stretto settings in this fugue include pairing of the two lower voices (T+B, bars 30-37), the two upper voices (A+S, bars 37-44), the two inner voices (T+A, bars 53-59) and the two outer voices (S+B, bars 59-66). In each of these pairs one entry is modified. An entry with an interval adjustment or any other significant variation carries less weight than one which sounds exactly like the original. The sequence of the leading voices of the four sets is as follows: TB, AS, TA, SB.

 

II/7.2.3 The counter-subjects

Proceeding in the traditional way, one should consider as a possible counter-subject what appears against the second subject statement (i.e. against the answer). Within the melodic progression introduced in the bass line in bars 7-13 two segments can be distinguished. Their different recurrence in the course of the fugue will tell whether or not both together, or only one of them, qualify as a proper companion to the subject.

The first segment commences (see bar 7, second quarter-note) with a descending sequence of the subject tail and extends this in the manner of a cadential close (see until bar 9 downbeat). This gesture recurs, with small variations at the end, three times – but never against the subject. Instead, it appears as an extension of preceding subject statements (see S: bars 27-30, A: bars 43-45, S: bars 44-46, B: bars 66-68; shortened also in T: bars 13/14). Having observed this one must conclude that it is in fact, as the sequential connection with the subject's tail might have revealed, an extension and not part of the counter-subject.

The second segment which is introduced against the answer (see from bar 9 middle) begins and ends with the keynote (here on the dominant this is Bb ). After an initial syncopation, the curve between the two Bb s resembles another familiar closing-formula (see particularly from the dotted note in bar 11 onwards). This melodic unit recurs twice, against the third and the fourth subject statements (see T: bars 16-19 and A: bars 23-26; see here also the parallel in the tenor). Each time, it appears in the voice which had last presented the subject – i.e. where the regular counter-subject should appear. We can thus safely speak of a counter-subject here. The fact that it does not reappear later may be excused by the grouping of all further subject statements in strettos.

Ex. 14 shows the phrase structure and dynamic outline of subject and counter-subject:

 

 

II/7.2.4 The episodes

The question regarding the number of subject-free passages in this fugue depends once again on the interpretation of the subject's length. The "tail" of the subject obviously poses a little problem. Without wishing to be confusing, one should try to be very precise. The table below is based on the following distinction: Those cases where the harmonic conclusion of one entry falls one bar before the beginning of the next statement – where, in other words, the subject's tail ends on the initial note of the following entry – are not considered as subject-free bars, although it is recognized that it is harmonically possible to hold this view. Wherever the tail is accompanied by a motive which plays a role in the further development of the episode, the bar is considered part of the episode.

E1

bars 12/13

E4

bars 43-53

E2

bars 19/20

E5

bars 65-70

E3

bars 26-30

Among these five episodes, four grow out of the end of the previous subject statement by extending the "tail" in sequences:

-

In E1, the tail and its sequence are accompanied by a four-note motive in the bass (Bb-Bb-Ab -G) which is also sequenced a third lower.

-

In E3, the same bass motive appears, albeit with a smaller initial interval, against the tail of the soprano entry and its sequence (see F- Bb -A-G in bars 26/27, sequenced again a third lower). After this variation of the first episode, E3 concludes with a cadential formula in Bb major.

-

In E2, the subject's tail and its descending sequence are accompanied by partial parallels in the tenor and (descending) cadential steps in the bass.

-

In E5, the descending sequence of the subject's tail is matched again by descending sequences in all other voices (see bars 65/66, 66/67). The conclusion follows here with an extended cadence.


The only longer episode is E4. It introduces a bass motive which, though not immediately related to the earlier ones, is also one bar long and also sequenced (twice) in descending thirds (see bars 43-46). Hereafter the two voices which had built the preceding stretto entry introduce two more substantial motives (see M1: alto bar 46 G - bar 48 Bb, M2: soprano bar 46 Eb - bar 48 E). These contrapuntally conceived motives are then three times exchanged in imitation. The overall motion is in descending direction, accompanied by a two-bar bass figure.

The role played by these episodes in the development of the fugue can easily be deduced from the observations made above. E1 and E2 link consecutive entries with a slight decline in tension each time; E3 and E5 conclude harmonic (as well as structural) progressions with full cadences; E4 also creates a gradual decrease of tension but does not spell out an explicit close (thus maintaining some connection with what follows).

 

II/7.2.5 Character, tempo, articulation, ornament realization

The basic character of this fugue is determined by the great variety in its rhythmic pattern which, particularly with its manifold syncopations, needs calm to unfold. At the same time, the time signature alla breve prevents too slow a motion but hints at a moderate flow. This calm but flowing style is also reflected in the interval pattern which requires an alternation of tight legato in all steps and single skips and non legato for the characteristic broken chords in the tail of the second and third subphrases of the subject.

As the contemplative mood of the prelude with its triplet motion is considerably differing from the duple meter in the fugue, the relative tempo of the prelude to the fugue can be chosen as simple:

one "beat" (= dotted quarter-note)

corresponds with

one "beat" (= half-note)

in the prelude

in the fugue

(Approximate metronome settings: 72 for the dotted quarter-notes in the prelude and the half-notes in the fugue.)

The subject with its distinct material pervades much of the fugue, and its articulation must therefore be very carefully studied. In the first subphrase, Eb-Bb and Ab-G are legato, and the interruption caused by the tension-sustaining rest should be very smooth, with a fully sustained half-note which "reaches silently across the rest" where the Ab picks up in almost equal tension. (A drop in tension after the rest – a mistake that occurs all too easily – completely destroys the expressive significance of this rest.) Thereafter, G and C are separated by phrasing (as are F and Bb two bars later). C-Bb-Ab (and Bb-Ab-G) are legato, followed by only a very soft break caused by the note repetition, and again legato through the inverted-mordent figure. Finally, there is a very gently detaching non legato in the broken chords Ab-C-F and G-Bb-Eb respectively. In this fugue, phrasing is extremely important – not only in the primary material but also between the episode motives. Ornaments do not occur in this piece.

 

II/7.2.4 The design of the fugue

The very obvious grouping of subject statements into three blocks makes it easy to determine the scope of the sections. There are, however, two slightly different views on the structure which are equally possible; they pertain to whether one should assume three sections, or whether there are only two (with the second and third linked to one large block). Here are the details.

The first round contains the initial statements in each of the four voices, connected by the short episodes E1 and E2 and closed with a perfect cadence on the dominant (Bb major) on the downbeat of bar 30.

In the following bars, the stretto of the subject is introduced. While it commences with the other two voices still present, there is a very audible reduction of the texture halfway through this stretto where the voices which carry the statements sound unaccompanied, thus giving the impression of a new beginning. This stretto leads without interruption into a second stretto which is followed by E4, the episode which stands out in the fugue both for the significance of its motivic material and for its length. Two more equally tightly linked strettos which are rounded up by the final episode close the fugue.

The symmetrical arrangement of two strettos + episode, two strettos + episode may lead one to assume a division into two sections, and the complete round of voices in each stretto-pair would support this if it were not for the lack of a harmonic close before the beginning of what would be the third section. In bar 53 where the tenor sets in on the middle beat, the other voices are thematically in the very midst of their motives, so that a structural break there seems quite impossible. Furthermore, the Bb-major harmony of bar 53 is changed significantly by the Db on the middle beat and, on the next downbeat, grows into an Eb7 chord which creates a longing for a resolution into Ab major, the subdominant. This is not an unusual harmonic step on which to begin the final section, but the expected close in Ab major materializes only in metrically weak position after the second quarter-note in bar 54. Even if this were accepted as harmonically convincing, there remains the fact that the tenor entry which we would like to regard as the beginning of the third section overlaps for an entire bar.

Another approach to this fugue's structure is therefore to assume a long second section which develops from the first by means of expansion. A table may clarify this best.

I

II

single entry

(B)

stretto

(T/B)

single entry

(T)

stretto

(A/S)

E1(linking)

E4 (linking)

single entry

(A)

stretto

(T/A)

E2 (linking)

single entry

(S)

stretto

(S/B)

E3 (closing)

E5 (closing)

For a sketch showing the design of the fugue in Eb major, see ex. 15.

 

 

 

II/7.2.7 The overall dynamic outline of the fugue

Within the first section, the tension rises very gradually, owing to the increasing number of voices and the rising order of entering voices. Yet as both the subject's tail and the links of E1 and E2 have an appeasing quality – with their descending sequences and retroactive harmonic steps – the buildup does not reach a high level, and the cadential close in bars 29/30 concludes almost as softly as the piece had begun.

If one adopts the view which assumes a large second section, the dynamic processes in this second half of the fugue repeat those of the first section on a heightened level of intensity. The rise of tension between the first and the second strettos is larger because of the increase in voices (from two to four in bar 37) and the more sudden and drastic rise in pitch level. E4 with its descending sequences causes a depletion of tension which is, however, very gradual, hampered mainly by the intensity upheld in the tight polyphonic interplay. The third stretto then enters with slightly reduced tension, a fact that is further supported by the texture (resting soprano) and the choice of subject-carrying voices (T+A form the least exposed combination). The final stretto brings the climax, with a brilliant combination of S+B and the additional enhancement which stems from the parallel design of the two inner voices (see bars 59-62: T/A moving mostly in double sixths). The final episode corresponds with the one at the end of the first section insofar as it also generates – with its stepwise descent in the soprano which uses the minor third and minor seventh of the scale – a complete relaxation.