Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Nos. 1-6

In the world of art and artists, The Well-Tempered Clavier of Johann Sebastian Bach occupies a lofty position of influence.  The work consists of two volumes, each containing 24 preludes and fugues written in all the major and minor keys.  Bach wrote a preface to the work that reveals he meant it to be used by students as well as an amusement for the already skilled keyboard player -
The Well-Tempered Clavier, or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa. For the Use and Profit of the Musical Youth Desirous of Learning as well as for the Pastime of those Already Skilled in this Study drawn up and written by Johann Sebastian Bach. p.t. Capellmeister to His Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, etc. and Director of His Chamber Music. Anno 1722.
What Bach meant exactly by his use of the term well-tempered is still being discussed almost 300 hundred years after it was written. The tuning of keyboard instruments was far from standardized in Bach's time. There were various methods and tuning systems in use that attempted to make it possible to play in tune in all the keys, which was not possible if the instrument was tuned exactly to pitch. For example, the key of C major has no sharps or flats, so if there was any change of key within a piece of music, it could only modulate to closely related keys. The further away from the home key, the more dissonant the sound became. Closely related keys for C major would be F major (one flat), G major (one sharp) A minor (no sharps or flats).

That's a very simplistic example, but the point is that whatever Bach's exact tuning method, his goal was to give examples of pieces that would be in tune on the keyboard in all the major and minor keys. The Well-Tempered Clavier had to wait until 1801 for its first publication, but there were hand written copies circulating among musicians during the 50 years between Bach's death and publication. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were profoundly influenced by The Well-Tempered Clavier as well as many other musicians.

The first six preludes and fugues of Book One -

Prelude and Fugue No. 1 In C Major BWV 846 -   The pedagogical nature of The Well-Tempered Clavier begins with the C major prelude which is comprised entirely of arpeggiated chords.
With the absence of any kind of theme, this prelude is an example of how a constant pattern of music can be made beautiful by shifting harmonic content. This is the simplest of preludes, but that doesn't mean that it is easy to play. This prelude is one of Bach's most well-known and many a piano student has played it.

The 4-voiced fugue flows along with many repetitions of the subject (the theme that begins a fugue and that returns in different keys and voices throughout it) or the answer (the repeat of the subject in a different key).  There are no episodes (a short section that does not contain either subject or answer) in this fugue, a feature that makes it a little easier to understand aurally, but not any easier to play.

Prelude and Fugue No. 2 In C Minor BWV 847 -  The beginning of this prelude was originally written in a notebook for Bach's oldest son Wilhelm Friedmann, with Bach adding material to the end of the original. The pastoral feeling of the first prelude is not to be heard in this agitated and tense prelude of running sixteenth notes in both hands.
A sense of dramatic tension builds over 24 measures until single line arpeggios play a section that ends on a low G in the bass. Bach then marks the next section with a rarity in any of the pieces of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a tempo designation. The tempo changes to presto (which gives an indication of what the tempo of the previous 24 measures should be) as the hands return to the running sixteenth notes of the beginning.  Then there is a one-measure cadenza and another tempo change, this time to adagio. The tempo changes yet again to allegro as the prelude winds down chromatically until it ends in C major.

A 3-voiced fugue follows with the subject played in the soprano register of the keyboard. The fugue develops and includes six episodes where the subject is not heard. A striking feature of this fugue occurs in the 28th measure. The three voices are occupied with the summing up of the fugue, all three voices are halted abruptly with the insertion of an eighth rest:

The voices then continue to move to the end of the fugue in C major.

Prelude and Fugue No. 3 In C-sharp Major BWV 848 - With all the notes in the C-sharp major scale being raised a semitone, the key signature of seven sharps must have been rather daunting to many musicians in Bach's time. C-sharp major was thought of as being more of a theoretically possible key than a practical one. But Bach continues his chromatic climb through the keys with this prelude that has a two-part structure, at least what on the surface appears to be a two part structure. The right hand plays a motive that is drenched in C-sharp major while the left hand plays a simple accompaniment. This motive is seven measures long, and after two measures of transition, the motive is taken up by the left hand in G-sharp major while the right hand takes up the simple accompaniment. Bach modulates through many of the sharp keys, major and minor in this prelude and creates interest and contrast. The magic of the piece occurs in the 87th measure as the two lines converge and transform into a section that has a syncopated feel to it. The music proceeds to arpeggios and the final cadence.

The 3-voiced fugue that follows begins with the two-measure subject. This subject is heard numerous times along with other counter-subjects (a secondary motive that is played in counterpoint with the subject) and episodes. Bach uses all of these in creating interest, tension, and resolution in all of the pieces in The Well-Tempered Clavier. How he uses them makes each of them a work of art.

Prelude and Fugue No. 4 In C-sharp Minor BWV 849 - Many editions of The Well-Tempered Clavier had tempo indications added by editors. Bach's use of them was very limited. He tended to use them when there was a marked contrast within a prelude that he wanted to make sure the player did not miss (as in the C minor prelude). The nature of music in Bach's time was such that a piece of music revealed the tempo it should be performed at when the player studied it. This interpretive skill was taught by Bach and other teachers, so tempo indications were not necessary within the style of the times. This prelude is an obvious example of a piece that contains the secret of the proper tempo within the music itself. Time signatures also gave a further clue to the tempo of a piece, and this prelude has a time signature of 6/4, which is a variant of two beats in a measure. Thus the tempo should not be too slow, but in a moderately slow tempo and a calmness of mood.

The 5-voiced fugue that follows is one of the most complex ones within The Well-Tempered Clavier. The subject consists of only 4 notes:
This subject appears in the fugue 29 times, according to  musicologists. Combine that with Bach's imagination, uses of episodes and counter-subjects, this piece would be amazing enough. But consider that this piece is also considered a triple fugue. That is, a fugue with three distinct subjects! This fugue is like an intricate, decorative knot with different colors and textures of thread woven through it, but Bach is a master weaver of notes instead of thread. I don't pretend to understand all of the intricate workings going on, but a good listener attuned to the art of music doesn't need a limitless understanding of the technical machinations of the art of fugue. Bach helps our ears, if they are keen enough, to make sense out of it all whether we can explain it or not.

Prelude and Fugue no. 5 In D Major BWV 850 -  Running sixteenth notes in the right hand are accompanied by a bass line of a repeating eighth note-eighth rest figure. The 2nd and 4th bass line eighth note can give the impression of combining with the fifth and thirteenth note in the right hand to make a two-note chord:
The music continues until it reaches the last line of the prelude. After a rapidly arpeggiated chord, the right hand plays a cadenza that increases the tension and leads to two large chords. The tension is finally releases with the final cadence and tonic chord.

The 4-voiced fugue that follows is in the French Overture style with a subject that is just a little over a measure long:
The impression given by the subject as well as Bach's treatment of the other components of the fugue suggest a stately tempo.

Prelude and Fugue No. 6 In D Minor BWV 851 -  Another prelude that is developed by harmonic means rather than melodic. There are snatches of motives that come through, but it is the harmonic shifting that gives this piece its drive. It sounds like a dramatic gigue to my ear as the relentless right hand continues right into a chromatic section that provides the final cadence in D major.
  The 4-voiced fugue has a subject that is two measures long. This subject is repeated many times throughout, and Bach manipulates this subject by inverting it, that is the notes of the subject go in the opposite direction as the original. When the notes go down in the original, they would go up an equal distance in the inversion. That is a very simplistic explanation and not exactly accurate in all cases, but it does give the listener a general idea of one of the many ways Bach created variety and interest within a fugue:


Subject D Minor Fugue


Inversion of Subject
In the next to the last measure of the fugue, dotted half note D's are held while thirds in contrary motion lead to the ending in D major.

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