Prelude and Fugue in E Major, BWV 854 from WTC I

Vidas Pinkevicius

Prelude

This Prelude is 24 measures long and almost always features constant three-voice texture in triplets. The entire Prelude can be considered to be in ABA form. In mm. 1 and 2, Bach establishes the key of E major and in mm. 3-8 moves to B major (Dominant). In mm. 6-8, the composer unexpectedly moves to B minor where before the cadence, the soprano part features descending chromatic line which sounds very dramatic.

Part A ends in m. 8. Measures 9-14 serve as part B and move from F# minor (ii scale degree) to A major (Subdominant). Proportionally, m. 13 is very significant because it marks exact halfway of the Prelude and features melodic motive from the beginning of the piece in F# minor. Measures 13 and 14 which lead to the A major are the only places where sixteenth-note passages are employed.

Part C starts in m. 15 with exact transposition of part A to the Subdominant. This procedure is very common in Bach’s works and reveals his architectural thinking. The Prelude ends with two measures of plagal extension.  It is symbolical, that overall proportions of the Prelude have mathematical ratios: Part A – 8 measures (1/3), Part B – 6 measures (1/4), Part C – 8 (1/3) + 2 measures (plagal extension). These proportions provide a link with the worldview of ancient Greece (adopted by Christianity) which in the dawn of the modern era was still very much appealing to Bach.

Fugue

This fugue is for three voices which for our purposes will be called Soprano, Tenor, and Bass. The structure of the fugue is somewhat complicated because in many instances, the subject entries are canonic and it is not entirely clear where the subject ends. It might be that the fugue starts with a stretto but since it is somewhat less orthodox, the subject can be considered shorter. If one refers to the beginning of the fugue as a canonic stretto, then second half of the fugue serves as countersubject.

The first three subjects in the tenor, soprano and bass can be considered as exposition which ends in m. 5 (for a list of subject entries refer to Appendix). After that, Bach writes a counter exposition for different voice combinations (soprano, tenor, and bass) which ends in m. 10. Measures 11-16 serve as episode involving C# minor, G# minor, F# minor and leading to the subject entry in the tenor in the relative minor key (C# minor, m. 16). This entry is very significant because it marks almost exact halfway point out of total number of 29 measures of the fugue (1/2 proportion).

For the episode, the composer uses melodic material taken from the second half of the original subject entry. In m. 19, Bach writes two subject entries which mark return to E major through B major. In the last entry of the subject in the soprano (m. 25) the fugue reaches its climactic point because of the range (b”, m. 26). Bach concludes the fugue with an attempt to imitate the beginning of the subject in the bass during the final cadence.

The relationship between the Prelude and the Fugue might be somewhat complicated to notice. Possible link can be seen in the beginning of the Prelude which features descending tetrachord c#” b’ a’ g#’. Interestingly, this tetrachord produces parallel tenths with the left hand (to be seen every half measure, see attached score).

Although short (only 11 subject entries), this fugue is evidence of Bach’s mastery in counterpoint and canon and demands from the performer exceptional keyboard technique. Finally, the Prelude proves Bach’s genius as musical architect who is able to achieve remarkable symmetry and proportions by means of transposing the beginning episode (leading from E major to B major) to the final episode (leading from A major to E major).

Appendix: Subject Entries

No.

Measure No.

Voice

Beginning Pitch

1

1

T

e’

2

2

S

b’

3

3

B

E

4

6

S

e”

5

7

T

b’

6

9

B

B

7

16

T

c#’

8

19

B

E

9

20

S

b’ (implied beginning of the subject) or c#” (actual beginning of the subject)

10

21

T

e’

11

25

S

e”

One Response to Prelude and Fugue in E Major, BWV 854 from WTC I

  1. parentsong says:

    Hello Vidas,
    The discussions you and your wife have provided on this blog are truely incredible! I recognized both of your names when I stumbled upon this site, and realized our connection. I was studying piano with Dady Mehta at EMU while you were studying organ.

    A few former studio-mates and I have recently returned to self-study and peer masters classes online to keep our music-playing active. Several of us are working on Preludes and Fugues. While I came to your site with hopes of finding study notes for the one in F# major, I am pleasantly surprised to find the depth of material you have covered. I will look forward to more analyses! Thank you!

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