Of Preludes and Fugues: Program notes


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): From Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier:

Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp Major, BWV 848

Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B-flat Major, BWV 866

Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat Minor, BWV 867

Prelude and Fugue No. 12 in F Minor, BWV 857

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): From 6 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35:

No. 4 in A-flat Major

No. 1 in E Minor

Johann Sebastian Bach: From Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier:

Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major, BWV 870

Prelude and Fugue No. 6 in D Minor, BWV 875

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): From 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87

No. 5 in D Major

No. 6 in B Minor

No. 7 in A Major

No. 4 in E Minor

No. 15 in D-flat Major

The Prelude and Fugue presents a clear juxtaposition between strict counterpoint and freer composition, an opposition that, in Western music, can be traced at least as far back as the 12th century, with the alternation between discant style and florid organum found in the Notre Dame school of polyphony. With Das wohltemperirte Clavier ('The Well-Tempered Clavier'; or the ‘48’), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) solidified this pairing into a genre and left a legacy that finds contributions from composers as diverse as Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), with his two sets of three preludes and fugues each for organ (Opp. 99 and 109), and Nikolai Kapustin (b. 1937), with his set of 24 for piano (Op. 82, completed in 1997). This recital hones in on two responses to Bach from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with works by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). The 13 preludes and fugues on this program seek to show that, aside from the contrapuntal mastery required to write fugues, the real virtuosity of these composers lies in their ability to convey music of endless variety, great emotional depth, and even narrative drama within a concise and relatively strict formal procedure.

Das wohltemperirte Clavier is so named because it showcased the merits of tuning a keyboard instrument to a temperament suitable for all major and minor keys (it is debated what exactly this temperament was), as opposed to mean-tone temperament, which rendered the instrument unusable for certain keys. The title was found only on the first book of 24 preludes and fugues, the fair copy of which bears two dates: 1722 on the title-page, and 1732 at the end. Earlier drafts situate its composition during Bach’s time in Cöthen, where from 1717-1723 he served as Kapellmeister in the court of Prince Leopold, and wrote this and other works, such as the Inventions and Sinfonias and the Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach, for didactic purposes. (The Brandenburg Concertos, sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and suites for solo cello also date from the Cöthen period.) According to H.N. Gerber, a student of his, Bach taught composition in gradual stages, beginning with the Inventions and the French and English Suites, and ending with the ‘48’. He was not the first to write an extended set of preludes and fugues: the most significant precedent is by the German composer Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (1656-1746), who wrote 20 preludes and fugues as part of his collection for organ, Ariadne musica, dating from 1702. Fischer’s set winds its way upwards chromatically from C major to C minor (with a C major ending). Bach was influenced by this collection, and even used some of its themes, but there can be no doubt that his two sets of 24, each covering every key in ascending chromatic order of major-minor pairs, broke new ground in terms of its impressive proportions and contrapuntal complexity.

This program opens with the bright triple-time prelude in C-sharp major, accompanied by an equally lively and disjunct three-voice fugue; then comes the B-flat major-minor pair, a particularly stark juxtaposition of affects. The vivacious keyboard virtuosity of the major, whose prelude briefly evokes the noble French overture style amid florid improvisations and whose three-voice fugue exudes a youthful innocence, darkens to the lachrymose, orchestral prelude of the minor, with its ostinato pedal-point bass, and the ricercar-style fugue that follows, with its long note values and the plaintive leap of a minor ninth embedded in the subject. This is one of only two five-voice fugues throughout Das wohltemperirte Clavier, the other being the C-sharp minor fugue from Book I. Bach’s contrapuntal mastery displays itself particularly in the abundant use of stretti even while navigating this dense texture. Closing this group of selections from Book I is the F minor prelude and fugue, a deeply expressive and melancholic allemande-like movement followed by a boldly chromatic four-voice contribution, with its beautifully imitative sequential episodes.

“These fugues have much of Sebastian and might deceive the sharp-sighted reviewer, were it not for the melody, the finer bloom, which we recognize as modern; and here and there those little touches peculiar to Mendelssohn, which identify him among a hundred other composers.” Such were the words of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) as he reviewed Felix Mendelssohn’s 6 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35 (completed and published in 1837), drawing the connection to Bach while distinguishing his contemporary’s compositional voice. Credited for spurring the revival of the music of Bach in the nineteenth century, in particular with his performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, Mendelssohn’s ties to Bach are well-documented and easily traceable in the intricate part-writing that pervades his oeuvre. The first of the two preludes and fugues by Mendelssohn on today’s program (Op. 35, No. 4 in A-flat Major), however, bears traces of yet another of his influences: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). After the accompanied duet of the prelude, evoking the Lied ohne Worte ('song without words') texture so typical of Mendelssohn’s Romantic style, the ricercar-like double fugue, with its ascending fourth motif, relates not only to the melody of the prelude, but also to the fugal finale of Beethoven’s second-last piano sonata, Op. 110 (1821-22), also in A-flat major.

Mendelssohn’s set of six has a key scheme of alternating minor and major tonalities - E minor, D major, B minor, A-flat major, F minor, and B-flat major - that suggests his intent to create a united work: the Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd makes this argument by saying that not only does he employ the alternating-modality procedure used in other works, such as the Op. 30 Lieder ohne Worte, he also sought for symmetry in the tonal scheme, with Nos. 1 and 6, 2 and 4, and 3 and 5 being related by tritone, and with the tonal centers of the internal four pieces spelling out a descending minor third motion. Op. 35 took form over the course of a decade, with the fugues (all of them in four voices) written first, originally as independent pieces. In 1835, Mendelssohn formulated the idea of a cycle of etudes and fugues; this eventually became a set of preludes and fugues instead, connecting more closely with its Bachian roots, and with the decision perhaps inspired in part by Carl Czerny’s (1791-1857) dedication to Mendelssohn of his Schule des Fugenspiels ('The School of Playing Fugues'), Op. 400, a cycle of 12 preludes and fugues, in 1836. The stormy E minor prelude (written ca. 1836) retains the brilliance of an etude: spinning out the chromatic descent embedded within the subject of the following fugue, it employs the so-called three-hand technique popularized by the virtuoso pianist Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871) in the 1830s: a melodic line in the middle register played mostly by the thumbs, with swirling figuration above and around it, and a bass line below.

The first notes of Op. 35 to be written, however, belong to the E minor fugue, and were the work of the 18-year-old Mendelssohn, in the year 1827. This piece distances itself as far as possible from the stigma of dry, academic counterpoint, first with the fugue subject itself, a deeply expressive melody containing painful leaps of a tritone, and subsequently with the ever-escalating drama that it is put through, before reaching what can only adequately be described as salvation. The narrative arc of the piece was perhaps inspired by Mendelssohn’s real-life experience of the tragic loss of his friend August Hanstein. The pastor Julius Schubring (1806-1889), a friend of the Mendelssohn family, reminiscing in 1866 wrote:

When I recollect, however, with what a serious religious feeling he pursued his art, the exercise of it always being, as it were, a sacred duty; how the first page of every one of his compositions bears impressed on it the initial letter of a prayer; how he devoted the time, as he watched through the night by the bed of his dying friend, Hanstein, to marking in the first fugue, composed here, of the six he afterwards published - in E minor - the progress of the disease as it gradually destroyed the sufferer, until he made it culminate in the choral[e] of release in E major, …this was why his music possessed such a magic charm.

As with the final movement of his C minor Piano Trio, Op. 66 (1845), this E major chorale is a textless invention of Mendelssohn’s own. (This procedure also finds a precedent in Beethoven, with the Heiliger Dankgesang ['Hymn of thanksgiving to the divinity'] movement of his A minor String Quartet, Op. 132 [1825].) Mendelssohn thus draws a connection not only to Bach’s contrapuntal language, but to his religious inspiration as well.

The complete autograph of the second book of Das wohltemperirte Clavier does not survive, but it is known that the work was partly assembled from existing pieces (and transposed where necessary to fill out the key scheme; this probably happened in the composition of the first book as well). The newly composed pieces most likely originated from the late 1730s (during Bach’s time in Leipzig, from 1723 till his death), and the set of 24 was complete by 1744. The first prelude begins in a warm and open manner, with the first few notes of the melodic line evoking the overtone series of the C pedal point in the bass before outlining a brief visit to the subdominant. The harmonies only increase in complexity from then on, but, with typical Bachian genius, the music never loses its sense of elegance and poise; the three-voice fugue that follows then provides a buoyant contrast. The turbulence of the D minor prelude foreshadows perhaps the Sturm und Drang ('storm and stress') artistic movement that reached its peak in the 1770s; its accompanying fugue, also in three voices, conveys just as much emotional intensity, but of a more melancholic kind, through its intense chromaticism and juxtaposition of triplets and duple rhythms.

As part of the Bach bicentenary celebrations in the summer of 1950, the International Bach Competition was held in Leipzig, where the Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva (1924-1993), renowned for her tonal variety and colorful polyphony, emerged as the winner, with her performance including a selection from Das wohltemperirte Clavier. Among the jury was Dmitri Shostakovich, who then began work on his own set of 24 preludes and fugues in October that same year, finishing it in February 1951 (two and a half hours of music written in the span of five months) and dedicating it to Nikolayeva, who gave its first performance in December 1952, the month it was published as his Op. 87. Shostakovich himself had already played it in May 1951 at the Union of Composers, where it was severely criticized for being 'formalist', ostensibly meaning that it was too complicated and academic rather than representing the voice of the people, as the ideal of 'socialist realism' encapsulated. (It is worth noting that the meanings of both of these terms were so fluid that they essentially functioned as a catch-all for criticism or praise of whichever artist happened to be under fire or in favor.) Formalism was the accusation lobbed at Shostakovich and several other artists (including Sergei Prokofiev) in the Party Decree of February 1948, which marked his second fall from grace (the first having occurred in 1936); this involved his dismissal from teaching posts and essentially a blacklisting of his music. Between this denunciation and the Thaw (the period of gradual lifting of cultural oppression following Stalin’s death in 1953), most of Shostakovich’s music that made it into the public eye was to serve propaganda purposes (in his attempt to regain favor), such as his oratorio, The Song of the Forests, Op. 81, from 1949. This was a work that referenced Stalin’s campaign for reafforestation, and it won the Stalin Prize. The 24 Preludes and Fugues was the only significant serious instrumental composition to be published until the Thaw; other serious works, such as the First Violin Concerto, were kept in the drawer.

Shostakovich’s cycle of all the major and minor keys follows the key scheme of Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes, an ascending circle of fifths pattern with the relative minors along the way. He was well-acquainted with Bach’s work: it was said that he could play the entire Das wohltemperirte Clavier by the end of 1917, at the age of 11, after having only started piano lessons two years before that. In Shostakovich’s set, there are obvious connections to specific pieces by Bach: for example, Shostakovich’s first prelude starts with the exact voicing of Bach’s first prelude from Book I, but in block chords instead of arpeggiations, and Shostakovich’s C-sharp minor prelude is an homage to the two-part imitation of Bach’s E-flat major prelude from Book I. Harmonically, Shostakovich’s music emerges from the exploration of chromatic mediant modulations and common-tone relationships that flourished in the nineteenth century (the last page of the A major fugue could practically be a Tonnetz exercise). But Op. 87 looks both to the past and to the future: the work has been seen to prefigure the Tenth Symphony (composed mostly in 1953) in terms of gestures and motifs, as well as textures (particularly those seen in the D minor prelude and fugue, the last of the set). One of the motifs that plays a role in the finale of the Tenth Symphony is a melodic contour of 1-5-6-5 (in terms of scale degrees); this motif actually derives from the opening tenor solo of The Song of the Forests, the words to which are “The war came to an end with victory.” This motif binds Op. 87 together, surfacing in many different forms throughout; its most obvious presentation on today’s program is as the second subject of the E minor double fugue. Shostakovich also achieves a natural flow through the cycle that gives it unity: there is an attacca direction at the end of every prelude to reinforce the connection between prelude and fugue; from one key to the next, Shostakovich strikes contrasts, but somehow of a complementary nature; and the use of the circle-of-fifths key scheme allows for a more diatonic connection than Bach’s chromatic organization.

The first three of the five pieces by Shostakovich on this program showcase this sense of an organic progression. The D major prelude recalls the stile brisé ('broken style'), arpeggiated texture popular in the Baroque era, and the three-voice fugue is a playful take on the 1-5-6-5 contour. The music then slips into the relative minor: the B minor prelude is a dramatic evocation of the dotted-rhythm, French overture style, while its four-voice fugue harks back to even earlier music, with the use of the Aeolian mode. After a series of beautiful stretti that conjure up the image of chants echoing through a cathedral, the piece dies away on a B minor chord; this then functions as the supertonic of the following piece, where, entering on a tonic pedal point, the A major prelude emerges from the mist, with a texture reminiscent of both the C major and D major preludes from Book II of Das wohltemperirte Clavier. The subject of the three-voice fugue is a single chord arpeggiated, so diatonic as to almost be 'over-diatonic', the most pure and innocent version of tonality in the cycle (despite the pan-triadic harmonic motion during the episodes), perhaps evoking the sound of multiple church bells ringing simultaneously.

The last two preludes and fugues on the program display essential characteristics of Shostakovich’s style. The bleak desolation of the E minor prelude is followed by the melancholic, folk-like first subject of the four-voice double fugue (also using the Aeolian mode), eventually reaching its heart-rending culmination (with the Tierce de Picardie ending striking a vastly different effect than Mendelssohn’s major-mode turn in his E minor fugue). The D-flat major prelude is an ironic, sardonic take on a dance; one can perhaps imagine a marionette, with its awkward, unnatural, and oppressed movements. The four-voice fugue that follows, the most intensely chromatic in the cycle, was singled out at the Union of Composers as being “‘ugly’ and a ‘caricature’ of Soviet reality;” it bears an unmistakably angry and acerbic quality. After the subject is presented in augmentation mid-way through the piece, the prelude makes a reappearance, with the return of its opening chords and closing cadential figure; it is as if it makes ever more desperate attempts to assert tonality and homophony and save us from the ongoing dissonant contrapuntal insanity; and it eventually succeeds in slamming the door shut.

(Watch the recital on YouTube here, or listen to it on SoundCloud here.)

(Poster: {{PD-signature}} https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shostakovich_signature.svg)

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