Peter Donohoe
Sunday, June 8 at 8:00 p.m.
PepsiCo recital Hall, TCU

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book I

Thoughts on Volume 1 of Bach's Das Wohltempierte Klavier.

It has been said that if Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas form the New Testament of piano music, then the collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues by J. S. Bach forms the Old Testament. The point of view that with the two volumes that comprise the ‘48' Bach virtually created a system that became the background to all subsequent Western European keyboard music, right up to the time of the radical revolutionaries of the Twentieth Century, is indisputable.

As the title of this extraordinary collection suggests, Bach initially wrote Volume 1 of Das Wohltempierte Klavier as a way of demonstrating the newly discovered ‘well tempering' of the keyboard.

In short, this meant that, for the first time, all the 12 major and 12 minor tonalities were now available for composers of keyboard music. In this collection Bach wrote four pieces – a ‘Prelude' and a ‘Fugue' – in every one of the 24 keys available to us in the Western European diatonic system, producing them in two volumes, divided by several years.

It is widely known that hitherto, with keyboard instruments only capable of ‘mean temperament', the further away from C major music strayed, the more distorted its tonality sounded. What is not so commonly known is that such distortion is a matter of degree, and that the same principal continued to apply, albeit to a lesser extent, to the ‘well tempered' keyboard. In Bach's keyboard music, when played on the instruments of the time, it was the case that the key of F sharp minor – being the key furthest removed from C major – still sounded extraordinarily exotic. However, it was now a workable concept to write music in any key, even though the audible differences became much less during the 19 th Century with the development of ‘equal temperament'.

The reason for the previous impossibility of this was the differential between natural tuning, as set out famously by Pythagoras, and the distortions required by musical instruments that were tuned to more than one octave frequency of the same note. This anomaly is best illustrated by the ‘circle of fifths' – a phenomenon whereby if one begins on any low note, for example C, and then moves up in pitch in steps of a perfect fifth, when after 11 steps the sequence returns to C (i.e. C G D A E B F#(Gb) C#(Db) G#(Ab) D#(Eb) A# (Bb) F and finally C), the final interval needs to be considerably less than all the others. In other words, the universal law of nature stating that half of the length of a string vibrating produces a note exactly one fifth higher than if the whole string was vibrating produces an imperfect circle of fifths, and indeed the same principal applies to any other interval. In order to make the fifths equidistant, all of them needed to be slightly less than the universal law of nature demanded – hence the term ‘mean tempered'. As the keyboard provided the only circumstance in which more than one string had to be tuned to the same tonic, it was the development of the keyboard that was held up by this anomaly; essentially it could not exist in any practical form until the issue had been resolved. Thus, Medieval music was limited to voices, stringed and early wind instruments and percussion. When ‘mean temperament' was developed, it seemed that an answer had been found, but the problem of being limited to a small number of tonalities still beset the writing for the instruments before Bach. With the development of ‘well tempered' tuning, the way was set for the whole of modern Western European music, with its complex system of tonalities. This was achieved through the simultaneous distortion of all intervals to fit the circle of fifths, so that any of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale could be used as a tonic, giving rise to the possibility of writing in any of the 24 keys.

Interestingly, composers remained largely unwilling until well into the 19 th Century to use keys distant from C major, mainly because those keys had a strangeness to them that is impossible for modern ears to imagine. For example, Mozart never used as a basic tonality a key further away from C major than F minor. It is true that he modulated in his works to far and distant keys, which illustrates just how extraordinary this must have seemed to contemporary ears. An example of this is the second movement of his Piano Concerto K453, in which the slow movement is in C major; at one point he modulates to C# minor for a particularly anguished moment – the strangeness is felt very strongly even by modern ears; what must it have seemed like to the ears of the day?

That in the modern world we hear keyboard music in what is called ‘equal temperament', (a further distortion of all the intervals) all the tonalities actually sound the same to the listener, other than those with perfect pitch. This has diluted the effect of having pieces written in different keys. It explains why in music created up until the middle of the 19 th Century, the key in which the work was written was so important, and almost always included in the works' title. It also explains why the 24 different tonalities were associated with different moods to a degree not possible now, without reverting to the original instruments.

It is a demonstration also of the extent to which most composers thought of their music through the medium of a keyboard instrument - usually the piano – even when writing symphonic works or operas. With few exceptions this certainly applied up to an including the time of Stravinsky, and to some degree is explained by the fact that it is only on a keyboard that the concepts of different temperaments are relevant, as no other instruments encompass sufficient octaves for it to become an issue – this is the reason why orchestras, string quartets and wind ensembles have to tune their instruments when working with pianists!

Finally, it explains why Bach was motivated to write a Prelude and Fugue – not only once, but twice, the second volume being produced some years after the first – in every one of the 24 keys. The result is a collection of pieces so extraordinarily diverse in mood and sound world, that it is impossible to imagine until one hears them just how varied this music is, even when played on an ‘equal temperament' instrument, such as the modern grand piano.

However, albeit that the reason for writing these pieces is an interesting historical fact, the artistic, emotional, spiritual and intellectual content of what Bach actually produced is another subject altogether; it goes without saying that it is these qualities that make the music great, rather than the rationale behind it. In addition to the achievement of demonstrating the new tuning system, Bach thoroughly explored every possible aspect of fugue (a form that he did not invent, but perfected, and he remains the greatest exponent of fugue in history) – its perfection of shape, its emotional impact, and every conceivable variant and expansion of the basic format – 48 times over. He was dedicated to the idea of leaving collections of compositions for posterity, not only for performance, but also as models for future compositional techniques. He was one of the very few composers right up the Romantic Period of the 19 th Century – the other most obviously significant one being Beethoven - who considered it important, or even possible, that his music should be remembered after his own passing.

He was a deeply religious man, with profoundly held principals, and a healthy scepticism about the Church in which he was employed as music director in several different towns, enjoyed life to the full (the sheer volume of wine paid for on his business account was testament to this!), with a great sense of humour, a natural father figure towards those who worked under his care, an actual father to twenty one children, a philosopher, a mathematician, and possibly the most profoundly important and influential Western European composer of them all.

Serious issues stem from realising Bach's intentions in writing this collection regarding modern performance, Firstly, there is the perennial question of whether or not it is valid to perform any of his music on the modern grand piano – a complex question the answer to which is inevitably coloured by the profound effect on the overall musical insight gained by a pianist through the discipline of playing Bach. Secondly, the dilution by equal temperament of the originally extreme differences between the 24 tonalities, as described above, does reduce the variety of this music to modern ears. And thirdly, and most seriously, given that his reason for writing the works was largely educational, not only for performers, but also for composers it is undoubtedly true that Bach did not envisage complete performances of the ‘48', or even of half of it. It is even possible that the Preludes could individually be performed separately from the fugues. The possibility of playing pieces described as ‘Preludes' independently opens up the well-documented question of why the composer chose that name, with its obvious implied dichotomy that played separately they are not ‘preludes' to anything if the fugues are absent. This question applies to Chopin, Debussy, Shostakovich and many others, as does the same question regarding the title ‘Intermezzo' in the late piano works of Brahms. The process of grouping them all together is a modern idea, based on a desire to understand the origins of almost all keyboard music – a vision that was unfortunately denied to Bach himself.

The answer to the question, ‘should we be playing this music in this way?' must surely be that we definitely should, for so many reasons. Our insight into our own musical traditions must embrace a thorough exploration of the strongest single influence on our keyboard music. Certain of these short pieces are played many times over by young pianists, and used in competitions and examinations almost as etudes to develop a strong sense of harmony, polyphonic awareness and finger independence. However, although there is no greater way of developing these assets, this tends to underrate the greatness and importance - not to say the difficulty – of these pieces. In addition, the study of Bach tends to be limited to a very small number of works, and a majority of them – in particular of the ‘48' - do not get played at all. This means that, although they have proved the basis of so much subsequent music, we remain on the whole unaware of so many of them. By performing them in their entirety one can learn so much, as can the listener.

A comparison between the two volumes is also provides a fascinating insight into Bach's stylistic development. Several years, encompassing Bach's move from his court employment at Kurten to his music directorship at St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig, separate the two sets. The second volume is generally more consistent in terms of implied tempi, whilst the first volume has more emotional peaks and troughs. Both the two fugues that are written in five parts and the only one in two parts are in volume 1, as are the works that imply extremely slow tempi. However, volume 2 is characterised by an even more visionary view of tonality and a sense of timeless unequalled in the history of keyboard music.

Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major

The prelude is not only one of the most profoundly simple and beautiful pieces in the history of Western music, but it is also one of the best known. Its familiarity is largely as a result of Gounod's treatment of it in his famous setting of Ave Maria, but that he chose to use it so successfully in that context is testimony to its enduring greatness. It is also important to remember that in Mean Temperament C major is the purest key, so this work would actually sound even more harmonious and beautiful if played on a keyboard that was not ‘equal-tempered'.

The ensuing four-part fugue is equally beautiful, with that feeling of inner calm that characterises so much of Bach's music, and indeed many of these preludes and fugues. Unusually, this fugue is without episodes i.e. the whole work is based entirely on the subject (except for the coda). Note the use of the long pedal tonic at the end, very definitely re-affirming establishing the key well before the last bar – a device Bach used in many of the fugues (and indeed the preludes) and which serves to demonstrate the significance of the tonal system to which he contributed so much.

Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C minor

Of all the 48 preludes, this one is that which is generally regarded as, and most closely resembles, an etude. However, it would be a mistake for the performer to approach it in a dry fashion. The harmonies outlined in the continuous semi quavers become gradually more intense, until a pedal point on the dominant launches a presto like a catapult; there then follows a recitative that resolves by slowing onto the major key at the end of the prelude.

The three-part fugue is simple in concept and based on a subject of whose characteristic basic rhythm is a quaver and two semi quavers.

Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp major

Both prelude and fugue are happy in mood and virtuoso in style. The prelude - in 3/8 time and essentially a perpetuum mobile - precedes an extended three-part fugue with a jolly dance-like character. It is based on a strongly rhythmic subject built from wide skips, and explores hitherto distant and unheard of tonalities, including A sharp and E sharp minors. This prelude and fugue could just as easily have been written in D flat major – a key unrepresented in the ‘48' – and in fact had it been would have modulated to B flat minor and F minor instead of those above. This demonstrates, not only Bach's determination to show how the different keys were equally valid, but also how much he associated moods with certain keys – moods that communicate themselves in some intangible way via the performer to the listener, without necessarily having prior knowledge of the written tonality – see Prelude and Fugue No.8, in which the prelude is in a key that is enharmonically different to that of the fugue.

Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in C-sharp minor

Depending on one's approach, the prelude could have the style of a slow movement from one of Bach's instrumental sonatas. One can easily imagine a violin, harpsichord and cello continuo playing this work. It is possible that it is an extended aria built from flowing quavers, with a beauty and a sadness that belies the immense power of the five-part double fugue that follows. On the other hand, it could also be an Italian Corrante, with its Siciliano rhythms, if played lightly and fairly quickly, and this highlights one of the challenges of playing these works; that there is no way of knowing from the score what Bach intended in the way of a tempo, and that both completely different ways of approaching the music are valid, makes choice of interpretation extremely difficult.

One of the largest in scale, this fugue is one of two – the other being number 22 in B flat minor – to be notated in the ‘Stile Antico'. These two fugues are also the only ones of the collection of 48 to be written in five parts, which probably explains the use of ‘Stile Antico' – i.e. it is for the purpose of clarity of the extreme complexity of the music, rather than in any way connected with the intended tempi. The first part is based on a slow-moving subject in minims and crotchets. A secondary fugue emerges based on flowing quavers. As both fugues move together towards the main climax, the music moves through several distant keys. The third section is a huge stretto based on both subjects. After the anticipated moment of final arrival on the tonic is interrupted by a strong dissonance, the final four bars are traditionally played as a diminuendo to a pianissimo resolution in the major key. This tradition was begun by Beethoven, who played this prelude and fugue publicly many times, and declared it to be one of the greatest keyboard works in history. The influence of the fugue can be felt on Beethoven's late piano sonatas – particularly in the case of Opus 110 - both in atmosphere and fugal technique. However, it should be remembered that Bach gave none of the preludes and fugues any dynamic markings, so, although the diminuendo tradition at this point was started by one of the world's greatest composers, it was not intended by its original author, particularly as a diminuendo is impossible on a harpsichord.

Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D major

The prelude is one of the most challenging keyboard works in the whole keyboard repertoire; continuous semi quavers in the right hand are underpinned by a simple march-like four-in-a-bar single note accompaniment in the left hand. The difficulty stems from the evenness required from the right hand in disadvantageous awkward positions. The coda is a cadenza that very firmly re-establishes the tonic after many departures.

The four-part fugue is in the unexpected style of a French Overture, with its over-dotted rhythms. Again, there are many departures from the key of D major, but it is very strongly reasserted in the final cadence.

Prelude and Fugue No. 6 in D minor

The prelude is an exciting toccata in triplet semi quavers reaching its climax in the form of a sequential avalanche of diminished sevenths over an implied dominant pedal point followed by a very firm cadence in the tonic major.

The three-part fugue has a subject that is characterised by a strong accentuated crotchet on the second beat of its second bar. This is inevitably a recurring feature that dominates the whole work. Interestingly, Bach breaks his own rule of remaining in three parts for the last two bars, which are in a resoundingly harmonious six parts, concluding a very minor-sounding – in the harmonic sense – work in an unexpectedly warm major tonic.

Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E-flat major

The prelude is the most extended and substantial of all the 48. It is nothing less than a toccata and double fugue in itself, and possesses an atmosphere if joy and spiritual elevation reminiscent of the great St. Anne Prelude and Fugue for organ, with which it shares the same key. Opening with a great flourishing cadenza, a slow moving chorale at first disguises the fugal nature of the music, based on a rising fourth, over which the secondary fugue emerges in semi quavers. The music rises ever upwards, exploring a variety of keys, and reaching a climactic coda resembling peals of bells, which arrives, as always, very conclusively on the tonic for the last three bars. The scale, mood and technical brilliance of this prelude make it one of the greatest of all the 96 pieces that make up this collection.

By contrast, the four-part fugue is surprisingly light and brief, with a delicate and subtle dance-like character, suggesting a clavichord would be most suitable for its performance, rather than the great organ of its prelude.

Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E flat/D-sharp minor

The prelude is immediately redolent of the atmosphere of a tragic aria from one of the Passions. The intensity of the dissonances increases towards the end, before finally settling on the tonic major.

The three-part fugue is the first of the great slow fugues, reaching their pinnacle with the B minor that concludes volume 1 of this collection. One is immediately reminded of the sound of a distant choir in a vast cathedral. The work is one of the most beautiful utterances in the whole history of keyboard music.

This is the only example in the whole of the 48 of the prelude being in an enharmonically different key to the fugue – the parallel prelude and fugue in volume 2 are both in D sharp minor. Why Bach chose to give the key of E flat minor to the prelude and D sharp minor to the fugue, rather than give them both the same key (whichever of the two it may have been) is a most interesting question. However psychological may be the explanation, the character of the music seems transformed by the change. The more unusual key of the two – D sharp minor – renders the modulations extraordinary, and the music arrives in keys almost completely unused by composers right up to the present day. One of example of this is E sharp major, which is arrived at for the beginning of the second section. That technically this is the same as F major, at least on the keyboard, is beside the point that the process of performing or listening to the music is a psychological experience that takes us into a world of tonalities hardly explored in the history of music. Further than that, for any instrument other than those with a keyboard, there is an audible difference between F major and E sharp major, which highlights the fundamental reason for the very existence of these works.

Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E major

The prelude is in a pastoral rocking movement in 12/8 time, and in two sections in the same form as many of the Scarlatti sonatas – like sonata form without the development section. With its characteristic pedal points, it also has the sound of a musette.

The four-part fugue that follows is brilliant and festive in mood, and Italianate in style, is brief and requires virtuoso finger work, with a subject that makes important use of a silence after the first two notes. Again, the style and brilliance of Scarlatti's keyboards writing is recalled.

Prelude and Fugue No. 10 in E minor

Almost everything about these two works is unusual and unexpected. The prelude is in two sections, the first of which is a sad slow aria in the treble accompanied by continuous semi quavers in the left hand. The first surprise comes when the tempo suddenly changes to ‘presto' and the left hand accompaniment of the previous section is transformed into furious continuous semi quavers in both hands, leading to an avalanche of contrary motion scales before the abrupt ending in the major.

The fugue is turbulent and rather peremptory, with a two bar subject made up entirely of semi quavers. It is extremely rare to find a two-part fugue, but this is the greatest example of it – indeed the style of this fugue is more like that of a two-part invention. At two parallel moments in this work, Bach, in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion breaks one of his own strict rules of fugal writing; for one bar the two voices play identical lines two octaves apart, and these moments are so unlike any other in these pieces that the effect is startling.

Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F major

The prelude is another two-part invention, this time in 12/8 time, and including several long trills in both treble and bass. The mood is dance-like and jolly, and, interestingly, the piece ends on the 12 th quaver of the bar.

The fugue is also in a triple metre – this time 3/8. Again, dance-like, this three-part fugue is short but extremely energetic, reminiscent of many of Bach's orchestral works with a suggestion of the sound of oboes and trumpets.

Prelude and Fugue No. 12 in F minor

A flowing, melancholic and vocal prelude in the style of a three-part invention, and with a coda built over a long dominant pedal-point, prepares the way for the immense emotional edifice that is the four-part fugue.

One of the very greatest of the 48, this powerful work is not especially long, but has the impact of a piece of music of symphonic proportions. Built on a chromatically tortuous subject consisting of series of crotchets, and a countersubject largely built out of the combination of a quaver and two semi-quavers, the mood is tragic and yet extraordinarily strong. After journeying through many foreign keys, including E flat and A flat majors, the final page is anguished and climactic. There is an unstoppable sense of direction and movement, towards the almost unexpectedly triumphant final major chord.

Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F-sharp major

A gentle and flowing rocking motion characterises the prelude, which is written in an unusual 6/16 time. Again, the style is that of a two-part invention, and the harmonic progressions allow the music to alight on such extraordinary keys as A sharp minor. The effect is that of an amiable conversation between two friends.

The three-part fugue perhaps suggests the sound of oboes and trumpets, the mood celebratory and joyous. The counter subject's use of fast repeated notes makes the work very difficult to play, and, like the prelude, the music strays into far and distant keys.

Prelude and Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp minor

The prelude is again a two-part invention, with a suggestion of melancholic humour. The mood does not in any way anticipate the seriousness and beauty of the fugue that follows.

This four-part fugue is the second of the great slow ones of the collection, and one of the most memorable. It has a powerful tortuous beauty that stems both from the chromaticism of the main subject and from the anguished suspensions of the quaver movement in the countersubject – the ‘Baroque Sigh' as it became known from being used so often in the sad music of the period.

This particular prelude and fugue, given its key, is the one furthest removed from the purity of the C major of the ‘Well Tempered' keyboard. It is sad that the strangeness of the tonality cannot be reproduced on the modern piano, but the piece is no less beautiful for that.

Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in G major

A brilliant and bubbling prelude in semi quavers in 12/16 time prepares the way for one of the most relentlessly energetic works in the whole keyboard repertoire that is the three-part fugue. This consistently virtuoso work in 6/8 time almost makes one shout for joy at the end, and could be said to exhaust both performer and listener alike with its extraordinary intensity.

Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in G minor

A beautifully wistful aria-style prelude, based on the alternation of a flowing semi-quaver movement underneath a long trill, and an arabesque-like vocal line, heralds a strong four-part fugue in a choral-style, characterised by a downwards leap of a 6th. This work relies on the use of a tonal answer. One of the episodes of the great fugue of Beethoven's Sonata in A major Opus 101 is anticipated in a similar position in this fugue.

Prelude and Fugue No. 17 in A-flat major

An elegant allegretto prelude - a startling precursor of certain aspects of Haydn's keyboard style – precedes a particularly beautiful and benevolent-sounding fugue in four parts. As with several of the other fugues, it is very tempting to imagine this work being sung a cappella in a cathedral; although the notes would barely be possible to sing, the style is certainly vocal, and the mood that of a religious motet.

Prelude and Fugue No. 18 in G-sharp minor

The prelude is in a rocking 6/8 time and has a gentle melancholic style again reminiscent of a slow movement in an instrumental chamber work.

The mood changes completely for the fugue. Again, one could easily imagine this music sung by a choir, this time with orchestra, and in an angry style, reminiscent of the choral representations of the crowd in the Passions. An unusual feature is the use of a descending line of lone notes – implying a legato style – that contrasts sharply with the turbulent staccato style that continues around it throughout. Unusually there is no ‘Tierce de Picardi' and the work is the only one of this volume that does not conclude in the major key. It is conceivable that this was an oversight, and that Bach intended this one, along with all the others in Volume 1 to finish optimistically, but it is unlikely that the answer will ever be known. By contrast, if one includes those pieces in a minor key that finish on a bare tonic, there are eleven pieces in Volume 2 that remain in the minor at their conclusions. This is worth mentioning, as the compound effect when playing all these works together is that, with this single exception, none of them finish on a minor chord.

Prelude and Fugue No. 19 in A major

The prelude has such an infectious slow dance-like character that one could almost use the word ‘smoochy' to describe it. Of all these works, it is perhaps the one to lend itself most suitably to the sort of jazz treatment applied with deep love and understanding to so much Bach by such artists as Jacques Loussier and the Swingle Singers. However, it also has fugal aspirations – the countersubject beginning with a chromatic descending fourth, which was a very common motif in Baroque music, but is significant in that it is this device, along with a sequence of descending fifths, that was most frequently used my Haydn and Mozart in their more obviously Baroque-influenced music. That the descending chromatic scales are associated with sadness in Baroque music seems to be a contradiction of the overall mood of this piece, so one is left with a feeling of ambiguity.

The three-part fugue is perhaps the most unusual of all. The opening subject consists of a single note followed by a long silence and a series of quavers. This develops into an extraordinarily syncopated section, in which duplet crotchets are played against triple quavers, resulting in a rhythmic style that certainly directly inspired composers centuries later – one thinks of Stravinsky and Tippett in particular. The middle section, in which florid semi quavers decorate variants of the subject, is not actually fugal at all, but the fugue returns, starting this time in the relative minor, and the florid semi quavers return in the coda. The overall effect of this extraordinary work is of enigmatic, but beautiful benevolence. Because of its enigmatic impression, it is no surprise that these two works comprise the least frequently performed prelude and fugue. Despite that, it is one of the most striking, and an immense challenge to both performer and listener alike.

Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A minor

The prelude is in a quick 9/8 time, a rather furious dance and very brief in the context of the enormous fugue what follows.

This is the most extended and fully worked out fugue of them all. It is in four parts, with an avalanche of ideas, rising to a huge climax before the coda relaxes the music onto the tonic major. The pedal note in the coda indicates that it may have been written with a pedal harpsichord in mind – an instrument that was rarely used and which was played in a similar way to the organ. This work covers six pages of score, which along with the B minor, is two more than any other piece in the collection of 48, and has a relentless energy, similar to the G major, albeit this time with a more turbulent, rather than a joyful character.

Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B-flat major

The prelude is in the style of a toccata – in the earlier Baroque sense of a free fantasia. Its opening quick passage work gives way to a free recitative for the second half, during which very slow chordal progressions interrupt the running demi semi quavers, and the very end is a most unexpected flourish to a single B flat above the treble stave.

The fugue is a jolly, moderately paced three-part affair, with one of the most awkward passages in the whole collection in its last few bars. It has the feel of an orchestral work, which perhaps would explain its apparent trickiness on a keyboard. Another notable feature is a rather insistent use of the rhythmic motif of three semi quavers into the bar line.

Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat minor

Thought by many to be one of Bach's most profoundly inspired works, the prelude is tragic in mood, but with a contemplative beauty of melody and harmonic progression that is impossible to describe in words.

The fugue that follows is one of only two five-part fugues in the whole collection of 48, the other being number 4 in C sharp minor, with which it also shares the characteristic of being written in the Stile Antico. It has an extremely strong and majestic character, with the falling perfect fourth alternating with a perfect fifth – the ‘tonal answer' - of the first two notes of the subject striking one continuously throughout.

Prelude and Fugue No. 23 in B major

This is the only one of the 48 in which there is a direct thematic connection between the prelude and the fugue. The prelude is a simple and fresh three-part invention based on an arabesque-like motive in semi quavers, from which the fugue subject seems to stem. Another similarity is the use of the mediant in the last bars of both works. In the case of the prelude the melody line is in the tenor at that point, whereas it in the treble in the case of the fugue, but the effect is very similar, and unusual in these works. Both prelude and fugue have a gentle and almost naïve style, and the fugue seems to open with a tenor voice stating the subject with the atmosphere of a church anthem.

Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor

The final prelude and fugue of the first volume is longer and more substantial to a very considerable degree than any other in the collection of 48. The fugue is also unusual in that it is the only piece of the 96 to have a tempo indication - Largo - at the outset, suggesting a much stricter vision of how the music should be played on the part of the composer. The emotional impact of these two pieces is enormous, with a sense of finality far greater than that at the end of the second volume.

The prelude has the style of a slow trio sonata movement – one could imagine a flute, oboe and cello continuo. The harmonic suspensions and simple style throughout make this one of the most beautiful preludes of them all. There appears at one point what could be taken as a brief reference to the sequential episodes of the fugue, but this is probably a coincidence rather than a deliberate quote.

The fugue, marked Largo and in four parts, is immediately redolent of the huge opening Kyrie Eleison of Bach's Mass in B minor. The comparison is made not only because two works share the same key, but also through the immensity of the vision, the use of extreme chromaticism, and the appearances of simple sequences in the episodes to heighten the tension of the chromatic workings out of the fugue subject. It is the greatest of all the slow fugues of the collection, and as with almost all Bach's minor key works, the final moment is a colossal triumphant resolution onto the tonic major forming a wonderful conclusion to the first volume.

Copyright Peter Donohoe 2006