Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Learning the B-Minor

I began working recently on the B-minor fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, the last fugue in the book and possibly the strangest. I had played through this a number of times over the years, but recently I started paying a little closer attention. The accompanying prelude caught my eye first. Beautiful and relatively easy to play, it reminds me of the writing in Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, a work that was an important influence on later composers--a simple bass line of running eighth notes and a melodic duet with chains of suspensions. Those suspensions, and the slippery harmony of final few bars of the prelude, are the only hints of what is to come in the fugue. Otherwise, this is simply a beautiful little duet.

The fugue subject uses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale. It opens and closes predictably, with the outline of a B-minor triad and a modulation to the key of the dominant, F# minor. But the stuff in between, six descending half-steps connected by wide leaps, is downright bizarre. That strangeness means the harmony implied is ambiguous, allowing Bach to try out all sorts of different approaches during the fugue. It also means the chord successions are going to be consistently unusual, making it harder to learn. In a word, it's less like a standard Baroque score and more like Schoenberg.

Right away there are also fingering challenges--the writing throughout requires odd substitutions, stretches and leaps. The subject is stated more than once woven between the pitches of the other voices--more difficult to make sound independent and clear. The range moves up to the high side of the keyboard for a very long time before bringing the left hand back to Earth. Rare treatments of dissonances are exalted; standard ones are contorted. The predictable is deliberately sidestepped.

It's as if he is trying to do everything he's always been told not to do, all in one piece, just to show that yes, it is possible and, in the right context, even musically necessary. In the finale of this collection of preludes and fugues in all keys, he's displaying a culminating mastery of fugue form with a highly chromatic subject and wildly independent lines. He is pointing to the future--if not to Schoenberg, than at least toward more sophisticated, complex chromaticism.

The fugue is long--six pages in my edition (Peters Urtext). Only the A-minor fugue in this volume is as long; all the rest are between two and four pages. It is also the only fugue in the book with a tempo marking, "Largo"--very slow. The slowness is helpful, both in playing and in listening, as it allows a better appreciation for the complexity of the music--and more time to decide which finger goes where!

Not all of the B-minor is hard to play. There are long stretches of fairly conventional fingering. But the weirdness always comes back. It's a gloriously strange piece of work and I'm eager to get the whole thing under my fingers. But it will take some time.

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*NOTE: I originally had included a passing remark in the first paragraph that implied the Stabat Mater was an influence on the WTC Book I. That's impossible since the WTC was written earlier. I realized my mistake and took the remark out.

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