Friday, February 14, 2020

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, Nos. 19-24

Both books of The Well Tempered Clavier contain 24 preludes and 24 fugues. That's a total of 96 pieces in both books combined. There have been some live performances of the complete Book I or Book II, but none to my knowledge that had them both on the same program.  That would be far too much of a good thing for anyone but a musical masochist.

With the music of Bach, the listener is confronted by multi-levels of creativity. There is the visceral pleasure of hearing it, as Bach's counterpoint can be so smooth and flowing that one forgets about it. He is far from being pedantic, and knows how to write a good tune and not just fugue subjects, and he is well aquainted with music in the different styles of his era. And of course he was a master crasftsman of music, with evidence that abounds in the Well Tempered Clavier. The interlacing of voices and textures is fascinating. and there is something about the fugues that make sense, whether the listener knows anything theoretical about harmony or counterpoint.

But this is music of over 250 years ago. For me at least, too big of a chunk at one time makes my ears go a little numb and my brain to get overtaxed. With all that has happened in the art of music since the death of Bach, it's no wonder that many listeners have a limit to what they can absorb at one time. That is why I broke down The Well Tempered Clavier into six preludes and fugues in a post, and sometimes  that still pushes the limits of the modern ear.

Prelude and Fugue No. 19 in A Major, BWV 864 - This prelude is essentially in three voices that flow together to form a quite satisfying piece. There are no cadences that stand out to disrupt the calm atmosphere as a constant pulse of eighth notes continues to the end.

The 3-voiced fugue is in contrast to the prelude as there is more agitation, but with no sense of tension within it. Things move at a different pulse than the prelude, but for all the differencesd between the two they complent one another.

Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A Minor, BWV 865 - The prelude begins with short notes in the right hand played over longer notes in the left, a feature that changes in the hands through the piece.This is a prelude that is in two voices. Sycopated eighth notes are sprinkled throughout the piece. The prelude is in two repeating sections, of similar length.
The abrupt two-measure subject consists of but 7 notes. But the accompanying material is not as much. as small note values make their way through the piece. Of interest is the final cadence which is in A minor, unlike the fugues in Book One (and some in Book II) that end with a Picardy third, that is a chord in the parallel major of the minor key.

Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B-flat Major, BWV 866 - Another prelude in two sections with the second section longer than the first. The time signature of 12/16 hints at it being a gigue, a dance that is found at the end of a Baroque dance suite. The stylized dance forms were just that; many of them written by baroque composers were not meant to be danced to, any more than some of the stylized minuets of Haydn and Mozart. The obligatory repeats of this prelude make it one of the longer ones, and the mood is lively, if not in actual tempo then in feeling. There is a grand pause three lines from the end of the second section, after which each hand plays a 5-measure run of sixteenth notes with the final six bars summing up the section before the simple ending a B-flat an octave apart in eachhand.

The subject of the fugue is four bars long with the distinction of eigth notes being slurred in pairs in the 2nd and 3rd beat of the 3rd and 4th measure. A good performance of this fuge has these slurs repeated with every appearance of the subject.

Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat Minor, BWV 867 -  The texture of this prelude is polyphonic, in three voices. It isn't obsessively slow in tempo as the movement of the voices need a certain amount of reined-in velocity. There are moments of major key sounds, and it ends in B-flat major.

With a subject more than 4 bars long and with two rests in its first two measures, this fugue takes some time to release the 4 voices. It winds its way with voices entering with repeats of the subject as well as other material, and the 4th bar from the end has all 4 voices speaking at once in eighth notes. The fugue ends in B-flat major.

Prelude and Fugue No. 23 in B Major, BWV 868 - A quite lively prelude that bristles with virtuoso toccata passages. It moves at a brisk pace with a steady rush of sixteenth notes, and ends before you know it.
A fugue with a four bar subject that is in marked contrast to the prelude.  The tempo is more andante. Any slower and the fugue doesn't hold together very well. Bach's lack of tempo indications have given rise to all manner of interpretive suggestions by editors, some good and some not so much. The right tempo for a prelude and fugue has to be discoverred by the performer. A tempo that allows the accentuation of voices and textures first and foremost.

Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B Minor, BWV 869 - A rarity with this prelude is a tempo designation given by Bach himself. The short notes within the prelude are written out ornaments, so Bach must have had certain definite ideas about this prelude. The prelude has the pieces of a sonata in form, and it ends in the minor.

This 3-voiced fugue has a subject 5 and a half measures long. There are many appearances of the subject as well as other non-subject material.  The tempo can be fairly moderate, but the workings of the voice makes it seem like it goes faster. To round out the final fugue of the '48', Bach ends it with a Picardy third in B major.