Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 846 from WTC I

Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene

Prelude

The Prelude and Fugue in C major from the WTC I are a very complex set of two pieces which reveals Bach’s mastery of harmonic and contrapuntal writing.  Prelude is thirty five measures long. Although Bach keeps the arpeggio texture throughout the piece, the Prelude is written in five voice texture with a smooth voice leading. The Bass and Tenor voices are holding notes for a half of measure which gives a solid bass foundation. Bach changes one harmonic progression per measure. The range is from low C to a” (total range of almost four octaves). Tension is created by using seventh chords and their inversions.

In the first third of the Prelude, Bach alternates seventh chords (or inversions) with the resolution; therefore the tension is going slightly up and down every two measures. In the first five measures, Bach establishes the Tonic key and after that he moves to the Dominant. The first cadence in the Tonic key is in mm. 3-4. The next cadence in the Dominant key (G Major) is in the mm. 9-10. The next imperfect authentic cadence, in the Tonic key (C major) is in the mm. 18-19, which is the halfway of the piece and is proportionally important. The m. 19 is an exact repetition of the first measure, only the octave lower.

From this point, music goes into a climactic point. Bach writes five seventh chords in a row with no resolutions; therefore harmony gets very tense. I think that the most intense chords are two diminished seventh chords in the mm. 22-23. Interestingly, the top voice reaches the lowest point in the section of the culmination. Bach forms a cadence in the mm. 24-25. But instead of resolving it in to the C major triad, he writes the Tonic 4/6 chord with G in the Bass.

This beginning of the pedal point marks the last third of the Prelude. This last episode is the calming down after the storm. Bach uses the plagal extension in the mm. 32-34 before resolution into the final Tonic chord. In conclusion, the first third of the prelude establishes the Tonic key and moves to the Dominant. The second third of the piece moves toward the climax. The last third of the Prelude, goes back to the Tonic key, and resolves the tension. The entire Prelude shows Bach’s mastery of vertical thinking.

Relationship between Prelude and Fugue

Prelude and Fugue complements each other, because Bach uses contrasting techniques in each of them. While Prelude is more vertical thinking based on harmonic functions, Fugue is an example of extremely complex contrapuntal writing. There is a connection between the Prelude and the Fugue subject. The upper notes from the mm. 1-7 of the Prelude obviously correspond with the subject of the Fugue. Especially important are mm. 4-7 of the Prelude, because there are two fourths going up (e-a, d-g), exactly as in the Fugal subject. Moreover, the highest note of the Prelude is a” (m. 5). The note a’ is the highest point in the Fugal subject.

Fugue

This Fugue has four voices and is 27 measures long. In these 27 measures, Bach provides 23 full subjects. The subject itself is very vocal. The countersubject starts in measure two on the third beat in the Alto voice. Because of so many subject entries, the countersubject does not play such a significant role as in some other fugues. However, Bach still uses beginning (two beats) of the countersubject a lot.

The most interesting uses of the countersubject are in m. 4 and mm. 5-6 (in soprano), here the countersubject is inverted. Also in m. 25, there is a canon of countersubject and ending of the subject between Soprano and Alto voices. There are no episodes in this Fugue. The only measure in the Fugue which has three quarter notes without a subject is m. 23, but even here Bach makes an attempt to employ the subject in the soprano voice.

The structure of this Fugue is architectural. The subject itself introduces the key of C major horizontally. The first six measures are an exposition. From m.7 the extension of the exposition begins. Here Bach introduces the first two-voice Stretto (for complete subject entries and stretto look to the Appendixes) between soprano and tenor. Stretto is the most significant feature of this fugue. Bach uses eight two-voice Strettos, one three-voice Stretto, and one four-voice Stretto.

Bach exhausts all the Stretto possibilities. Stretto involves all four voices in all different combinations. Bach uses all pitches of the C major, except B which is the leading tone. The leading tone is also the only one pitch which is missing in the subject itself. Also Bach uses wide range of the time intervals in his Stretto from one to five quarter notes. The key to such a remarkable use of the Streeto is the interval construction of the subject. If we would just take notes of the subject which lay on the strong beats (of every quarter note) we would see that the interval structure is as following: m 3 upwards, m 2 downwards, M 2 downwards, m 3 upwards (this might be confusing, why it is the third and not the fourth going up, but this place has an exception because of the syncopation and suspension), and m 2 downwards.

The reason of the possibility to employ various kinds of canonic techniques with the subject is that the entire outline of this subject is the third going upwards and the second going downwards. Bach certainly knew these rules from studying works of the earlier composers, such as Frecobaldi, and treatises by theorists, such as Niedt and Fux.

The main cadences in this fugue are: m. 10 in G major (Dominant), mm. 13-14 in A minor (parallel minor), m. 19 in D major (Dominant key of the Dominant), and mm. 23-24 back to the Tonic. After this last cadence, Bach uses the plagal extension in the Subdominant key (he did the same in the Prelude). The first half of the fugue establishes the Tonic key, moves to the Dominant, introduces Dominant of the Dominant, and the parallel minor key. Right in the halfway measure of the fugue m.14, the subject in the Tonic key (entry no. 11) appears in the Alto voice (as was in the beginning).

Moreover, proportionally, it is not a coincidence that this subject is the central subject entry. This shows Bach’s architectural thinking and proves that nothing in his music happens accidentally. Right from the halfway of the fugue music goes into the climax. The three-voice Stretto is followed by the four-voice Stretto. In the mm. 15-19 texture is thick and harmony intensive. The Soprano voice stays in the upper register for a few measures. In the m. 17, the Bass has the subject in the D minor key. The following cadence in the m. 19 resolves into the D major chord.

The most skillfully, Bach incorporates the Stretto, between the Tenor and the Alto voices, while making the cadence at the same time. After this point in the piece harmonically tension goes down (To Dominant, Subdominant, and Tonic). However, the texture stays full until the end of the piece. The last Stretto starts in the m. 24 between the Tenor and the Alto (in the Tonic and the Subdominant keys). In the last measure, in the soprano voice, Bach writes the entire upward C major scale to the c”’ which is the highest point of the piece.

In conclusion, although, the Prelude and Fugue have enormous variety of musical ideas and sophisticated compositional techniques, the overall effect is graceful and esthetically pleasing.

Appendices

Subject Entries

Measure No.

Voice

Beginning Pitch

1

Alto

C

2

Soprano

G (real answer, in the Dominant key)

4

Tenor

G

5

Bass

C

7

Soprano

C

7

Tenor

G

9

Alto

G

10

Bass

G

10

Alto

D (the last two intervals changed)

12

Tenor

E (interval structure slightly changed to fit the A minor key)

14

Alto

C (the middle point of the piece, the same pitch and voice as was in the first entry)

14

Tenor

G (almost full subject with last quarter note changed)

15

Bass

G

15

Soprano

G (first half of the subject)

16

Soprano

C

16

Alto

G

17

Tenor

A (interval structure slightly changed to fit the D minor key)

17

Bass

D (entire subject in the D minor)

19

Tenor

A (interval structure changed)

19

Alto

E (interval structure changed)

20

Soprano

G

21

Tenor

B (interval structure changed)

24

Bass

C

24

Alto

F

Stretto

Measure No.

Voices

Pitch interval

Time interval

(in quarter notes)

Beginning pitch of the subject

(beginning pitch of the following entry)

7

S T (2v)

4↓

1

C (G)

10

B A (2v)

4↑

1

G (D)

10-12

A T (2v)

7↓

5

D (E)

14

A T (3v)

4↓

1

C (G)

14-15

A B

4↓

4

C (G)

14-15

T B

8↓

3

G (G)

15

B S (2v)

8↓

2

G (G)

15-16

B S (2v)

4↑

5

G (C)

16

S A (4v)

4↓

1

C (G)

16-17

S T

3↓

3

C (A)

16-17

S B

7↓

4, 5 (5)

C (D)

16-17

A T

7↓

2

G (A)

16-17

A B

4↓

3,5 (4)

G (D)

17

T B

5↓

2

A (G)

19

T A (2v)

5↑

1

A (E)

20-21

S T (2v)

6↓

3

G (B)

23

T A (2v)

4↑

2

C (F)

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