WTC II/19 in A major - Prelude

II/19.1.1 The prelude-type

This is a composition in three-part texture. All three voices take an active part in the melodic flow. Although rudimentary imitation is used, parallel motion and complementary interplay is so frequent that one would not speak of a strictly polyphonic piece.

The predominant feature of the prelude is its very even rhythmic organization. The twelve-eight time manifests itself in a constant flow of eighth-notes. These appear either in straight-forward three-eighth-note groups (see e.g. bars 1/2, upper and middle voices), in long - short - long - short patterns (see e.g. bars 1/2, lower voice) or, less frequently, in an accentuation of the compound beats (see e.g. bars 4m-5m, lower voice). All apparent syncopations form part of complementary patterns. This, together with the fact that the flow of eighth-notes is not ever interrupted during the entire composition, gives the prelude a very calm and soothing atmosphere. The general effect thus classifies this prelude as a composition determined by its metric swing.


II/19.1.2 The overall design of the prelude

In a prelude which unfolds so smoothly, very obvious cadential closes might constitute undesirable interruption of the mood. This prelude consequently presents itself with very few harmonic closes. These, and the additional imperfect cadences, appear almost perfectly integrated into the flow of the piece.

The home key of A major is first confirmed in bar 3. Both the suspension in the upper voice and the fact that no subdominant has yet appeared make this cadence not eligible as a structural caesura. Bar 6 reaches E major which, however, appears here in an imperfect cadence, still referring to A major. The secondary key is not truly established until the middle beat of bar 9 - yet even here, the simultaneous beginning of a new line in a higher register does not allow any feeling of melodic closure to arise.

There is one significant structural analogy in this prelude:

bars 1-9

recur in
bars 22-30 (transposed and varied)

The prelude contains five sections, three of them with sub-divisions:

I bars 1-9m modulation to the dominant (E major)
    (bar 6m: imperfect cadence in A major)
II bars 9m-16d modulation to the relative minor key (F# minor)
III bars 16-22d modulation to the subdominant (D major)
    (bar 19: imperfect cadence in A major)
IV bars 22-31d return to the home key (A major)
    (bar 27m: imperfect cadence in D major)
V bars 31-33 tonic confirmed (A major)

II/19.1.3 Practical considerations for performers

This is a metrically determined prelude in rather calm basic character. The effect of tranquility is enhanced by a detail in the pitch pattern which is extremely important for an adequate understanding: almost all flowing eighth-note lines consist of a succession of written-out inverted mordents (or, later, mordents). The A-G#-A and C#-B-C# in the upper voice of bar 1 are pre-beat ornaments decorating the notes of a broken A major chord. The initial bars could thus be imagined as given in the example below (ex. 9):

(It is interesting that besides these pre-beat ornaments, on-beat ornaments also occur. They are also spelled out and involve, in contrast to the ones mentioned above, the only sixteenth-notes in the prelude. In bar 9 beat 2, the upper voice is in fact a dotted quarter-note F#, ornamented with appoggiatura and inverted mordent; and in bar 21, the downbeat is a G natural with a slide.)

On the basis of this understanding it becomes obvious that it would be misleading to describe the pitch pattern in this piece as consisting of alternating steps and skips, since these actually unfold on different levels of the melodic process: the skips in the "background" pattern, the steps within the ornamental "surface".

The tempo of this prelude is calm but flowing; calm enough to avoid any hurried impression (which might be caused particularly due to finger shifting necessary for perfect legato) and flowing enough to convey the feeling of gently swinging compound four-four time - rather than creeping eighth-notes.

The appropriate articulation is legato throughout in the upper and middle voices. The lower voice is also legato most of the time, with the exception of large jumps after a quarter-note (see bars 2, 5m, 15, 23, 26m) and a cadential-bass pattern (see bar 30: F#-D-E-A) which should be gently detached.


II/19.1.4 What is happening in this prelude

Although it is certainly possible to describe the initial melodic figure of the prelude (interpreted above as an ornamented broken chord) and to state its recurrences throughout the prelude*, such a listing does not truly facilitate an approach to the piece.

*This figure appears in its original version in:

U b. 1 2 3      
  22 23 27 28 31 32/33
M b. 1 2
6 7
11 12
  22 23 24   32
L b.
6 7
  11 12/13 16     27 28 32

In inversion, it further occurs in:

U b.   9 10  
M b.  
L b.
9 10 17

Much more simply, what Bach presents here are general pitch lines, elaborately decorated but basically simple. They are:
Section I                


1-4d (see U: 4-6d (see U: 6-8d (see 8-9m (all

rising C#F#)


F#B) rising M+L) falling voices)

Section II                


9m-13d   13-15d   15-16d      
  falling   rising   falling      


Section III

bars 16-20d   20-21d   21-22d      


  rising   falling      


Section IV

bars 22-25d   25-27d   27-29d   29-31d  


  rising   falling  


Section V

bars 31-33              



In terms of structure, it is easy to identify section IV as a recapitulation of section I and section V as the coda. Yet whether it is meaningful, or even necessary, to declare sections II and III as development, remains arguable. Structure, just like thematic material, seems but a secondary issue in this piece.

The dynamic realization can follow the essential pitch lines traced above; thus rising lines would be expressed in gentle crescendo and falling lines in diminuendo. The basic tone color, however, remains the same throughout the prelude. There are no contrasts and no moments of dramatic tension, as already implied by the very first "calm and soothing" impression this piece gives.


WTC II/19 in A major - Fugue

II/19.2.1 The subject

The subject spans one-and-a-half bars in four-four time. Beginning after a eighth-note rest on the keynote A, it concludes on the middle beat of bar 2 where C# represents the resolution of the preceding dominant into the tonic.

While the pitch pattern of the subject displays a number of small curves, a closer scrutiny reveals them as arabesques around a single larger curve. Understanding this is important for two reasons. Perceiving the large-scale curve helps in interpreting the phrase structure which is that of an indivisible unit, and comprehending the ornamental character of the notes which embellish this curve is essential for a correct evaluation of the many chromatic alterations suffered by the subject in the course of the fugue.

The rhythmic pattern, both in the subject itself and in the fugue as a whole, is simple. The basic features are running sixteenth-notes and dotted-note groups. These two frequently combine sometimes in such a way that the sixteenth-note pulse appears as the result of a complementary rhythmic pattern. (See e.g. bars 5, 9, 20, 24, 28 where the effect of uninterrupted sixteenth-notes is achieved by the interplay of, on the one hand, the dotted rhythm in the accompanying voices and, on the other hand, the subject in which just these beats are missing due to syncopation).

The harmonic background to the subject is basically simple, although the ornamental curves and their syncopations add momentary flavor and tension. The example shows (a) the subject as Bach presents it in the opening of the fugue, and (b) the underlying large-scale curve; both are marked with an interpretation of the main harmonic steps (ex. 10):



The dynamic design follows the very simple phrase structure with an increase through-out the first bar, a climax on the second syncopation and a subsequent relaxation. The syncopation on the last eighth-note of bar 1 captures the highest amount of tension: (1) metrically it stands for the only downbeat in this subject - an important fact in a composition where meter, due to the simple rhythmic pattern, plays a decisive role; (2) harmonically it represents the subdominant, i.e. the most active step in the simple cadence.


II/19.2.2 The statements of the subject

There are ten subject statements in this fugue.

1. bars 1 -2m L 6. bars 12-13m M
2. bars 2m-4d M 7. bars 16-17m L
3. bars 5 -6m U 8. bars 20-21m U
4. bars 7 -8m L 9. bars 23m-25d M
5. bars 9m-11d U 10. bars 27m-29d U

(ex. 11)

The subject suffers only two kinds of modifications in the course of the fugue: extensions at the phrase beginning and chromatic alteration in the ornamental sixteenth-notes. The two-sixteenth-note group which initially launches the subject is extended, from bar 9 onwards, to three notes. The additional sixteenth-note precedes the original beginning either by a leading-note (see in bars 9, 20, 27) or by a rising fourth interval (see in bars 12, 16, 23). Alterations within the sixteenth-notes, other than those required by transposition (see in bars 12/13), involve the third degree (see bars 23/24: G#/G/G#) and the fourth degree (see bar 28: D/D/D#/D and bars 20/21: G/G/G#/G) of the scale.

No inversions, strettos or parallel statements occur.


II/19.2.3 The counter-subjects

Bach invents no regular companion to the subject that would display a minimal degree of independence. Instead, the subject comes accompanied by several kinds of rhythmically varied parallels. The most frequent pattern doubles the notes of the simplified curve in thirds below (see M: bars 5/6, 9/10, 20/21, 27/28) or sixths above (see U: bars 23/24). The quarter-note values are broken into dotted-note groups which split the pitch into note repetitions (see bars 5/6, 9/10, 27/28) or add chromatic semitones (bars 20/21, 23/24). It may be worth noticing that these parallels exclusively occur between the upper and middle voices. Among the lower-voice entries, only one incites a parallel. Yet this is even more explicit than the previously mentioned ones as it involves more fractions of the ornamental pattern in the subject (see bar 7: L/M).

In four of the previously identified cases (see bars 5/6, 9/10, 20/21, 27/28), the lower voice adds a further double-third parallel to the quarter-notes on beats 3, 4 and 1 of the subject, so that this stretch sounds in parallel triads - certainly an extremely rare phenomenon in a genre that is renowned for complex polyphony. This further parallel also comes with dotted-note rhythm; the splitting may appear as note repetition, octave displacement or chromatic semitone. The following comparison of one of the excerpts with its simplified version shows these parallels very clearly (ex. 12):


II/19.2.4 The episodes

The fugue encompasses nine subject-free passages.

E1   bars 4-5d E6 bars 17m-20d


bars 6m-7d E7 bars 21m-23m
E3 bars 8m-9m E8

bars 25m-27m

E4 bars 11-12d E9 bar 29
E5 bars 13m-16d    

All episodes feature the ending of the subject prominently as their main motive (which will be referred to as Ms here). It is by observing the patterns Bach builds from this motive that one can gain an insight into some structural details.

a) E1 features two descending sequences of Ms (see the subject's ending in M: bars 3m-4d, sequences in bars 4-4m, 4m-5d). The lower voice accompanies with a motive (M1: bar 4 B-D) which is also sequenced.
The same combination recurs, with small modifications, in
  E4 where the Ms sequences appear as an imitation between the upper and middle voices and in transposition, and M1 contains an octave displacement of its final note.
      Due to their descending motions, both episodes express decreasing tension.

b) E2

introduces the inversion of Ms (see U: bars 6m-7d). It is accompanied by a three-eighth-note ascent in the lower voice, which in turn is partially paralleled in the middle voice.
This combination recurs in

  E5a (see bars 13m-14d) where the three-eighth-note ascent appears in the middle voice while the lower voice sustains a short pedal.
      As both the Ms inversion and the eighth-note-figure express an active gesture, the tension in these two episodes rises slightly.

c) E3 combines descending sequences of Ms (see L: bars 8m-9m) with a pattern of rhythmically interlocking, descending dotted-note groups. This pattern commences early, already anticipating the episode as an accompaniment to the ending of the subject (see U/M: bars 8-9m).
The same combination recurs in
  E6a (see bars 17m-18m; M/U voices inverted).
      The straight-forward three-part descent in these episodes creates considerable dynamic decline. A complete relaxation is thwarted only by the harmonic ending in a dominant-seventh chord.

d) E7

introduces the parallel motion of Ms. The pattern merges descending sequences in one voice (see L: bars 21m-23m; every other sequence slightly varied) with an imitative pattern in the other two parts (see M/U: bars 21m-23m).
A modification of this combination can be found in

  E8 where the descending sequences alternate Ms with its inversion (see U: bars 25-27d). The two imitating voices (M/L) also interchange Ms with its inversion. This is done in such a way that each of the Ms parallels created between the upper voice and one of its companions features contrary motion.
      The overall descent in these two episode creates, again, a dynamic decline.

Of the three remaining episodes, E5b (bars 14-16d) displays a certain relationship to E1 or its variant E4. The cadential close that it brings forward is ingeniously wrapped in the previously established material. Similarly, E6b (bars 18m-20d) is remotely related to E7 and E8 as it displays (strongly varied) parallel and contrary-motion statements of Ms. Finally, E9 consists of nothing but a concise cadential formula.

Dynamically, E5b extends the progressing tendency of E5a only a little before it approaches the cadential relaxation. E6b, however, prepares the subsequent subject statement in an unimpeded upward thrust.


II/19.2.5 Character, tempo, articulation, ornament realization

The simplicity of the rhythmic pattern, combined with the strong ornamental component in the sixteenth-notes of this fugue, indicate a rather lively basic character. The tempo should be fairly swift - certainly fast enough not to invite listeners to hum with the sixteenth-notes. As for the relative tempo of the prelude to the fugue, there are two very different solutions .

(a) For performers who emphasize the "flowing" quality of the prelude and choose a rather fluent pace for its compound beats, it is possible to set the larger metric values in proportion. This interpretation emphasizes the ornamental character of both pieces, i.e. it stresses the similarities rather than the contrast between them:
one dotted quarter-note
in the prelude
corresponds with
one quarter-note
in the fugue
(b) For performers whose interpretation focuses on the notion of "calm" for the prelude, it is better to establish a metric rapport between the smaller values of both compositions. This interpretation enhances the contrast between prelude and fugue:
one eighth-note
in the prelude
corresponds with
one eighth-note
in the fugue

(Approximate metronome setting:
fugue beats = 90, dotted quarter-notes in the prelude (a) = 90, (b) = 60.)

The appropriate articulation encompasses legato in the sixteenth-notes and a very merrily bouncing non legato in the eighth-notes and dotted eighth-notes. The only exception from the non legato occurs in the closing-formula that accompanies the end of the answer statement (see L: bars 3/4 where E-D#-E must be played legato).

The fugue features only one ornament, the cadential trill in the final bar. It is a point d'arrêt-trill which begins on the upper note, shakes in four thirty-second-notes the last of which is tied over (or a thirty-second-note triplet followed by a eighth-note syncopation) and resolves (legato) onto the anticipated key note. (The fact that this ornament appears in brackets should not induce us to think it is optional. This kind of cadential trill was so commonplace in Bach's time that performers would automatically play it even if it was not explicitly stated. Its appearance against running sixteenth-notes, and the alleged technical problem arising hereof, is no reason for omitting the ornament either. Those who can play this fugue in all its required rhythmical accuracy will certainly be able to tackle this trill, particularly if two of the final thirty-second-notes in the middle voice (D-C#) are taken over by the left hand.)

II/19.2.6 The design of the fugue

The entering order of the subject statements, together with the harmonic argument in the fugue, provides a clear picture of the structural layout.

The first section comprises four entries: the basic round L M U and a redundant statement in L. All represent the tonic and dominant respectively of the home key. The section ends with an imperfect cadence, i.e. a dominant-seventh of the forthcoming F# minor key, on the middle beat of bar 9.

The second section encompasses two subject statements: U and M. Both appear in minor mode, in the relative keys to the tonic and dominant respectively (see bars 9m-11d: F# minor; bars 12-13m: C# minor). As the two episodes E4 and E5a are conceived in analogy to the first two episodes of section I, a strong impression of structural correspondence arises. This section concludes on the downbeat of bar 16 with a perfect cadence which marks the return to the home key.

The third section contains once more four statements; these represent all steps of the simple cadence (L U M U = tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic). The episodes in this section support the structure in two ways. On the one hand, the initial episode of section III, E6a, picks up on the final episode of section I, E3; the two corresponding episodes thus create a formal bracket around the minor-mode middle section. On the other hand, the three remaining longer episodes display a gradual development of the Ms parallel: from the somewhat unruly patterns in E6b via the very orderly, only slightly varied parallels in E7, up to the complex pattern of E8 with parallels in contrary motion.

For a sketch showing the design of the fugue in A major, see the next page (ex. 13).


II/19.2.7 The overall dynamic outline of the fugue

In the absence of tension-enhancing developments in the subject statements, no dramatic climaxes are built up. By the same token, the close thematic relationship of the episodes and the subject discourages explicit color contrasts of primary and secondary material. Instead, the only large-scale shading occurs in the minor-mode middle section which should sound slightly less brilliant than the surrounding major-mode sections. In other words, this is a playful, virtuoso fugue in which joyfulness rather than dramatic developments are at issue.