No 01 in C major, BWV870. Movement 1: Prelude
No 01 in C major, BWV870. Movement 2: Fugue
No 02 in C minor, BWV871. Movement 1: Prelude
No 02 in C minor, BWV871. Movement 2: Fugue
No 03 in C sharp major, BWV872. Movement 1: Prelude
No 03 in C sharp major, BWV872. Movement 2: Fugue
No 04 in C sharp minor, BWV873. Movement 1: Prelude
No 04 in C sharp minor, BWV873. Movement 2: Fugue
No 05 in D major, BWV874. Movement 1: Prelude
No 05 in D major, BWV874. Movement 2: Fugue
No 06 in D minor, BWV875. Movement 1: Prelude
No 06 in D minor, BWV875. Movement 2: Fugue
No 07 in E flat major, BWV876. Movement 1: Prelude
No 07 in E flat major, BWV876. Movement 2: Fugue
No 08 in D sharp minor, BWV877. Movement 1: Prelude
No 08 in D sharp minor, BWV877. Movement 2: Fugue
No 09 in E major, BWV878. Movement 1: Prelude
No 09 in E major, BWV878. Movement 2: Fugue
No 10 in E minor, BWV879. Movement 1: Prelude
No 10 in E minor, BWV879. Movement 2: Fugue
No 11 in E major, BWV880. Movement 1: Prelude
No 11 in E major, BWV880. Movement 2: Fugue
No 11 in F major, BWV880. Movement 1: Prelude
No 11 in F major, BWV880. Movement 2: Fugue
No 12 in F minor, BWV881. Movement 1: Prelude
No 12 in F minor, BWV881. Movement 2: Fugue
No 13 in F sharp major, BWV882. Movement 1: Prelude
No 13 in F sharp major, BWV882. Movement 2: Fugue
No 14 in F sharp minor, BWV883. Movement 1: Prelude
No 14 in F sharp minor, BWV883. Movement 2: Fugue
No 15 in G major, BWV884. Movement 1: Prelude
No 15 in G major, BWV884. Movement 2: Fugue
No 16 in G minor, BWV885. Movement 1: Prelude
No 16 in G minor, BWV885. Movement 2: Fugue
No 17 in A flat major, BWV886. Movement 1: Prelude
No 17 in A flat major, BWV886. Movement 2: Fugue
No 18 in G sharp minor, BWV887. Movement 1: Prelude
No 18 in G sharp minor, BWV887. Movement 2: Fugue
No 19 in A major, BWV888. Movement 1: Prelude
No 19 in A major, BWV888. Movement 2: Fugue
No 20 in A minor, BWV889. Movement 1: Prelude
No 20 in A minor, BWV889. Movement 2: Fugue
No 21 in B flat major, BWV890. Movement 1: Prelude
No 21 in B flat major, BWV890. Movement 2: Fugue
No 22 in B flat minor, BWV891. Movement 1: Prelude
No 22 in B flat minor, BWV891. Movement 2: Fugue
No 23 in B major, BWV892. Movement 1: Prelude
No 23 in B major, BWV892. Movement 2: Fugue
No 24 in B minor, BWV893. Movement 1: Prelude
No 24 in B minor, BWV893. Movement 2: Fugue
No 5 in D major, BWV874. Movement 2: Fugue in D major
No 9 in E major, BWV878. Movement 2: Fugue
While an autograph of most of the preludes and fugues in The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II survives (in the British Library, one of the finest Bach manuscripts outside Germany) this does not present every pair in its most finished state. Rather it represents a relatively long process of compilation stretching from c1738 to 1742, one that was subsequently continued in later copies and (lost) autographs. Like the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier, there is a sense in which the work as a whole is open-ended and that Bach found it difficult to stop refining his work.
Several features of the London autograph are striking: it is laid out in large double-size sheets which accommodate the prelude on one side and the fugue on the other. This suggests that this manuscript (really a collection of individual sheets) was designed specifically to facilitate performance, so that the performer had only to turn the page between each prelude and fugue. Another notable feature of the manuscript is the fact that some pieces are written out by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. Sometimes (e.g. the F major Prelude), Bach takes over the copying half-way through, perhaps because her calligraphy was too broad to complete the piece on the same side of the sheet. More often than not, Bach seems to have delegated the copying of pieces that required the least compositional attention, those that he considered most finished in their basic structure (although he added details and revisions in his own hand). This gives a fascinating insight into the way Bach notated and copied some of his music: the husband-and-wife team often produced manuscripts as master copies, or even for sale (as in Anna Magdalena’s score of the violoncello suites), a sort of cottage-industry which allowed Bach to prioritize his work according to the degree of input required.
Perhaps the most interesting pieces with respect to the development of Bach’s composing career are the ten preludes cast in ‘binary form’ (i.e. in two halves, each of which can be repeated). While he had written binary pieces since his earliest years, most of these were dances with more-or-less predictable phrasing and rhythms appropriate to each type of dance. Less common in his earlier career was the concept of a ‘free’ (i.e. non-dance) texture in binary form: The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I contained only one such piece. But by the time he came to compile Book II his sons were already catching on to the newer idiom. Typically, the older Bach not only adopted the new format with gusto but also managed to demonstrate considerable variety in the form, as if he had been doing it for years. Some examples follow Bach’s typical ‘invention’ style, where the two hands constantly alternate with matching figuration (C minor, D sharp minor, E minor). The E major Prelude presents perhaps the most subtle texture of the binary movements; written largely in three voices, we sometimes hear the upper voices as a single line with certain notes sustained and, conversely, each voice sometimes implying more than one line of music. Herein lies the essence of Bach’s ‘cantabile’ style, a sure sense of direction or ‘line’ that cannot necessarily be pinned down to a single melody; perhaps this is what Debussy alluded to as Bach’s sense of the ‘Arabesque’.
The most ambitious binary prelude is that in D major, which presents a concerto-like—almost orchestral—texture, a ‘recapitulation’ of the opening in the last third of the piece, and a contrast of mood within the very first bars. This latter, not uncommon in Bach’s later pieces, represents a modification of the traditional Baroque idiom of exploring a single affect exhaustively in the course of each movement. The preludes in F minor and G sharp minor are among the most ‘modern’ pieces Bach ever composed (in the sense of being up-to-date within the tastes of Bach’s later years). The texture is simple, paired ‘sighing’ voices responding to a regular bass, alternating with repetitive motivic patterns. Here we have an even more overt sense of alternation of ideas (one reinforced by dynamic markings in the G sharp minor Prelude—a unique occurrence in the entire Well-Tempered Clavier). But—typically—Bach integrates these in the course of the piece, his urge for counterpoint working in the sense of combining various styles and allusions as well as actual musical lines. We could imagine the ambiguous reaction of a modish galant composer of Bach’s time: one might feel flattered by the old composer’s adoption of the new fashion; but was he perhaps sending it up? Or did he fundamentally miss its essence of airy simplicity? Or, perhaps worst of all, did he simply not care what anyone thought?
The interest in The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II lies hardly exclusively in its ‘sonata’ movements: from the very opening we get a sense that Bach was trying to encompass even more variety, to write on a grander scale, than he had in Book I. The C major pair went through several revisions, showing Bach attempting to increase the scale of the piece and extend the depth of musical argument. The Prelude, like its partner in the first collection, makes a striking opening, adopting a mood of untroubled confidence: yet here the writing is more ambitious, the part-writing more delineated. A similarly rich sonority occurs in the F major Prelude, which combines old-fashioned features—a four- or five-part texture, and the stile brisé of French harpsichord music—with the modern sonata and its recapitulation of the opening gestures. The arpeggiated ‘beginner’s style’ makes only the occasional appearance in the later collection. But the first example, the C sharp major Prelude, contains a surprise, when the texture breaks into a short, triple-time fughetta. These two parts originally formed a prelude and fugue in their own right, but in the context of the grander proportions of The Well-Tempered Clavier as a whole, they form a single prelude. The brilliant fingerwork of Bach’s youth also returns in the later collection: the D minor Prelude was one that Bach lengthened and elaborated in the course of compiling the collection. In direct contrast, Bach also adopts a lilting pastorale style in some preludes: the Preludes in C sharp minor and E flat major (in the relatively rare metre of 9/8), and the Prelude in A major.
The fugues, like the preludes, extend the variety already evident in the first collection. While there are fewer fugues in a large number of voices (three parts is more the norm), many of the fugues match the scale and complexity of those in Bach’s late contrapuntal collections (the early version of the Art of Fugue was actually being prepared at around the time Bach was finishing The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II). The subjects on which the fugues are based are often very characterful (e.g. the F major Fugue), and sometimes ‘modern’ in their contrast of motifs: the D minor Fugue couples easy-going triplet motion with a descending chromatic phrase (thus presenting an antithesis of moods in its opening gesture); likewise, the E minor Fugue presents a contrast of triplets with duple divisions and dotted rhythms. The A minor Fugue opens with a gesture that was common property in the eighteenth century (e.g. ‘And with his stripes’ from Handel’s Messiah and the ‘Kyrie’ from Mozart’s Requiem), yet Bach develops it in a way that would have been impossible in a choral setting: building on the intensification of movement in the subject, the countersubject introduces demisemiquavers that render this one of the most fiery pieces in the collection. Most enterprising in terms of compositional effort are the double and triple fugues (i.e. fugues which present more than one subject in succession, only to combine them later in the piece). In the C sharp minor Fugue we soon hear the subject presented in mirror inversion (usually more than enough to demonstrate a composer’s skill), but later on what sounds like a chromatic countermelody becomes a subject in its own right, one that effortlessly combines with the main subject. The F sharp minor Fugue presents the only triple-fugue in Book II; here the later subjects give the impression of increasingly light musical styles, until the entire texture is transformed by the continuous semiquavers of the third subject. What begins as a relatively solemn piece in ‘learned’ style thus progressively gains a narrative and dramatic character.
One particularly satisfying device in the fugues of Book II is augmentation, where we hear a subject sounding against itself at half speed: in the C minor Fugue it is readily audible, as if to remind us of the correspondences between different levels in the natural world, or in mathematics. Indeed, the more conservative thought of Bach’s age would have seen resemblances between things that we might consider quite distinct; part of fugal technique lay in developing and manipulating music in order to reveal these resemblances. Bach doubtless considered much of his compositional activity to be more a process of discovery than of entirely original invention.
Most strict of all in its adherence to quasi-Renaissance rules is the E major Fugue (Bach—ever the student—actually acquired Fux’s contrapuntal treatise in the late 1720s). This ‘late’ adoption of an ‘early’ idiom generates a sonorous, supremely vocal style that seems to transcend the qualities of any keyboard instrument. But by no means all the fugues capitalize on the seriousness connected with the genre: the C sharp major Fugue is an extremely light-hearted affair that seems almost to parody the technique of overlapping successive entries of the (brief and seemingly inconsequential) subject. Comedy and light-heartedness also play a large part in the F major Fugue, which, as Donald Francis Tovey observed, became the bane of textbook writers since it fulfills so few of the requirements demanded by ‘academic’ fugue. Other fugues, such as those in F minor and F sharp major adopt some of the sighing gestures of the galant, that idiom which was perhaps most antithetical to fugue in the 1740s. To Bach this was probably a demonstration that even the trivial and transitory can be rendered profound; to many of his contemporaries this would have been a lamentable show of bad taste, a total perversion of the ‘natural’.
from notes by John Butt © 2009