Bach: Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major, BWV 870
Among the chores assigned to the prelude in the time of Bach were those of catching the listener’s attention, establishing the tonality of the following (presumably more important) piece, and in the process, warming up the player’s hands with a bit of free-form noodling. All this the Prelude in C major that opens Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (1744) accomplishes with ease.
Anyone doubting that this piece is in C has obviously missed the resounding octave pedal on that note that begins the work, held sonorously for two full bars as the right hand outlines a filigree of filled-in harmonies heavily imprinted with the two motives that will recur constantly as the piece progresses: a short rising scale figure in 16th notes, and its inversion, a descending scale fragment in 32nds. The sonic fullness provided by the piece’s four active voices gives it a stately grandeur reminiscent of organ music.
The following three-voice fugue is spritely and cheerful, thanks mainly to the joyful leap of a 6th, crowned with a chirpy mordent, in its opening subject, and the train of chattering 16ths that follows it everywhere. Bach declines to use arcane contrapuntal devices in this fugue, creating variety instead by variations in texture, including a long stretch in two voices alone, and by changes of register.
Bach: French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816
Bach’s French Suites date from the early 1720s straddling his time as Kapellmeister in the secular court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen and his first years as Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. The name ‘French’ did not originate with Bach and only appeared after his death, but the set is distinguished from the socalled ‘English’ Suites (also a misnomer) by their lack of an initial prelude, their tighter more compact construction, and by an emphasis on stylistic elegance and singable melody typical of the French style galant.
The French Suite No. 5 is representative of the collection as a whole in its avoidance of imitative counterpoint and of thick keyboard textures in general. It has a joyousness and directness of appeal that derives in large part from the rhythmic buoyancy of its faster-paced movements, a quality that makes them seem less stylized and more genuinely dancelike.
The Allemande is not one of these, however. This dance of German origin is moderate in tempo, conversational (but not light) in tone, with irregular phrase lengths and a texture much influenced by the ‘broken style’ (style brisé) of French lute-playing.
The following Courante, so-named for its free-flowing character, is much more pronounced in rhythm, especially in this Italian corrente variant, with its propulsive forward drive and rushing surges of runs.
The gravely dignified Sarabande slows down the pace considerably. This courtly dance in triple metre has really only two beats, of different lengths: the first beat, and the second and third combined, giving an end-weighted quality to each bar. Bach’s use of an ascetically spare texture here allows for fulsome ornamentation to be added by the performer.
As galanteries, the optional movements between the sarabande and the gigue, Bach adds a gavotte, a bourrée and a rare loure. The strutting Gavotte is so rhythmically compelling as to be almost a goose-step. The Bourée, by contrast, is fleet-footed and driven, despite its many hops. The Loure is a kind of slow French gigue with dotted rhythms heavily accenting the strong beats of the bar.
Bach’s concluding Gigue is of the Italian variety, a whirlwind romp of triadic figures echoing through each voice in a constant chatter with clear, regular phrasing and convincing forward momentum. Listeners can be forgiven for wanting to yell yee-haw! at the end of each section, as this is as close as Baroque music gets to a stomping hoedown.
Bach: 15 Sinfonias, BWV 787-801
Bach’s Clavier-Büchlein (1723), a collection of keyboard pieces compiled for the musical education of his son Wilhelm Friedrich, includes 15 two-part inventions (fantasy pieces developing a single ‘invented’ musical idea) and 15 in three parts, called sinfonias. The aim of these teaching pieces is not only to develop the digital dexterity required to play polyphonic keyboard works, but also to encourage the imagination by demonstrating the various ways in which musical ideas can be treated compositionally, with special emphasis on the use of invertible counterpoint, i.e., writing melodies that sound equally good whether played above or below other melodies.
For the most part, it is the upper two voices in the three-part sinfonias where contrapuntal activity is most intense. The bass line is treated in a much freer manner than the other voices, to create an overall texture similar to that of the Baroque trio sonata. Each sinfonia begins in a quasi-fugal manner, with two voices starting off together, subsequently joined by the third.
Among these pieces, some stand out for their unusual character. The fifth in E flat makes little use of imitation, being simply a gracious duet between the two upper voices over a repeated figure in the bass. The ninth in F minor is an astonishingly emotional depiction of grief beginning with a chromatically descending ‘lament’ bass in the style of a passacaglia and featuring many sigh motives and smaller figures of a pleading character. The last in B minor features a whirlwind of florid passagework requiring a high degree of fancy fingerwork.
Bach: Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F major, BWV 880
The pairing of specific preludes with the fugues that follow them in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier has often been thought casual, a mix-and-match affair that even Glenn Gould said he didn’t always find convincing. Not so the Prelude and Fugue in F major from Book II, a balanced set of compositional studies in widely divergent styles linked by a significant musical motive in common.
Surprisingly, it is the prelude that is the more thickly textured and contrapuntally involved of the two. Written as a free fantasy in the improvisatory style of the French unmeasured prelude (but without the elaborate ornamentation), it presents a continuous flow of 8th notes emerging from various voices in turn, circling in short groups around the constituent notes of its slow-moving harmonic pattern. Echoing throughout is the melodic curve of rising and falling scale notes announced in the opening bar. With as many as five, and never fewer than three, voices active at a time, this prelude is designed to fill a room with sound and has prompted organists to adopt it into their repertoire.
The fugue, by contrast, is a much less turgid affair. ‘Nimble,’ in fact, would suffice to describe it, with a segmented subject comprising two merry leaping figures, separated by rests, followed by a trailing patter of scale notes in the up-and-down shape of the Prelude’s opening melody. This is not a ‘learned’ fugue by any means but more of a ‘dance’ fugue. The arcane devices of contrapuntal manipulation are virtually ignored in favour of emphasizing the rollicking rhythm and propulsive forward motion that make this fugue a sibling to the French Suite No. 5’s final gigue.
Bach: Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826
From 1726 to 1731 Bach published six partitas (another name for suite) at a rate of one per year as the first part of a collection that he called Clavierübung , i.e., ‘keyboard exercise’. And a good deal of exercise they provided to the middle-class amateur musicians that were their target audience. Remarkable for the extreme technical demands they place on the performer, these partitas also differ from Bach’s previous ‘English’ and ‘French’ suites in the choice of movements they add to the traditional sequence of dances: the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.
The second of the set, the Partita in C minor, is among the most eccentric in this regard. It begins in a tone of high seriousness with a Sinfonia (in the sense of overture) in three sections, moving from an austere and highly dissonant French overture-type introduction to a more congenial Andante section featuring a highly decorative melody over a walking bass line, and concluding with a lively and animated two-part fugue—an astonishing progression of moods that defines the ambitious scope of this suite.
The moderately paced Allemande that follows is much less dramatic. More akin to a civilized conversation between two (occasionally three) musical voices, it proceeds in an even flow of 16th notes, making much of its initial motive, a rising scale figure.
The Courante is more emphatic and assertive but at the same time much harder to pin down rhythmically, due to an intricate web of restlessly roaming melodic lines that keep you guessing where the strong first beat of the bar is. The Sarabande, while simpler in texture, is similarly slippery, its normal emphasis on the second beat of the bar being effectively masked by a continuous, soothing flow of 16th notes.
The Rondeau is structured in a succession of couplets, like the verses of a strophic poem. The first of these, with its characteristic bold leaping intervals, is used as a recurring refrain. To conclude, Bach gives us a Capriccio, so named, perhaps, for its whimsical emphasis on leaps, although much of the texture is fugal in character. Like the traditional gigue that it replaces in this position, it is laid out in two clear halves, with its principal motives inverted in the second half.
Bach: Italian Concerto, BWV 971
Baroque music was all about national styles and Bach learned the Italian style by copying out and transcribing the works of composers such as Vivaldi, Albinoni and Torelli during his early years of employment in Weimar (1708-1717). It was this knowledge that he applied in composing his Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto (Concerto after the Italian Taste) included in the second part of his Clavierübung published in 1735.
To compose a ‘concerto’ for a solo instrument meant reproducing in some way the textural contrast between solo instrument and orchestral tutti on which the ritornello form of the Italian concerto relied for its forward progress. It was for this reason that Clavierübung II was written exclusively for the two-manual harpsichord, with its possibility of creating dynamic contrasts by means of hopping up and down between keyboards—with both hands at once, or one hand at a time, allowing for a wide range of effects to be achieved.
The two protagonists in Bach’s Italian Concerto are clearly audible in the first movement, in which the ‘orchestra’ which opens the movement is given a fuller more resonant texture by dint of block chords and a wider range in the bass while the part of the ‘soloist’ is written in a smaller range, higher up, peppered with smaller note values and occasional ornamentation.
The distinction is even clearer still in the slow movement in which the role of the orchestra is given entirely to the left hand, its ostinato pattern of repeated thirds and long pedal notes a strangely austere accompaniment to a right-hand soloist spinning out long strands of highly ornamented melody.
The Presto finale returns to the ritornello form of alternation between the louder, fuller texture of the orchestra, obsessed with a theme comprised of a dramatic leap and swift follow-up run, in continual dialogue with a more nimble soloist more occupied with broken chord passagework and harmonic sequences.
Donald G. Gíslason