Thank you to Robert Costin for providing these notes:
The Prelude in C is one of the most celebrated pieces in Western classical music, subsequently made even more famous by Gounod's arrangement with an added melody into his Ave Maria. Its beauty lies in its simplicity: arpeggios embellish a chord sequence which is given shape and direction by the subtle rise and fall of harmonic tension. The Fugue in C is a model of clarity and design, concealing its intricacies behind a genial exterior. It is notable for its extensive use of stretto, a contrapuntal technique which overlaps fugal entries and is often used as a tension-building device at the end of a fugue. An earlier version of the two-voice Prelude in C minor is found in the notebook of WF Bach, a useful study for perfecting the ensemble of the two hands. As with the first Prelude, the figuration for each harmony is given twice. Unusual features are the tempo markings Presto/Adagio/Allegro towards the end. The Fugue in C minor's popularity is no doubt owing to the charm of its subject and its phrasing and transparency of form.
The two-voice Prelude in C# major is a nimble, virtuosic piece based on wave-like rising and falling figures. The Fugue is one of the most joyous in WTC, vivacious but not at the expense of gracefulness. The spacious Prelude in C# minor presents a meditative dialogue between the two hands reminiscent of Bach’s Passion music. The five-part Fugue in C# minor—with the B♭ minor, one of only two five-part fugues in the whole WTC—is one of the most imposing in the collection, based on three principal subjects introduced separately. The short four-note subject—notable for the dissonant interval of a diminished fourth (B# to E)—is the most constrained and obsessive in the entire WTC. The subsequent melodic lines and curves have been memorably compared to a Gothic cathedral, losing themselves in the half-light of distant arches and transepts.
After the tension and gravitas of the preceding pair, the D Major Prelude returns to a more playful mood—one can imagine the two voices being performed by a flute and cello. Towards the end it turns towards the minor and intensifies, leading to a declamatory close. In many ways the Fugue in D major is atypical of the form because the parts move mostly together harmonically rather than as individual voices. The extravagant opening flourish of the subject dominates the piece from beginning to end. The pervasive triplet figuration of the Prelude in D minor creates a shadowy, agitated mood, leading inexorably towards a chromatic cadenza at the end worthy of Liszt. The Fugue in D minor is spare and severe, and contrapuntally one of the strictest in WTC 1.
The opening of the majestic Prelude in E♭ is in reality a short preamble and it is followed by a double fugue. I play it here using an Organo Pleno (full organ) registration, as I would in the related ‘St Anne’ Fugue BWV 552ii for organ, also in E♭. The ‘real’ Fugue in E♭ has received criticism for being too lightweight following such a grand prelude; however, it is a work of considerable charm and wit and, I believe, fully worthy of its prelude. With the E♭ minor Prelude we are taken to an emotional level where words seem superfluous. As with the C# minor Prelude, one is reminded of Bach’s Passion music: this is music of a unique nobility and tragic grandeur. The Fugue’s construction is as complex as the Prelude’s was straightforward, and it possesses an almost abstract, otherworldly passion.
The Prelude in E is a pastorale in the traditional 12/8 rhythm, like the shepherds’ music in Handel’s Messiah. The spirited Fugue in E is one of the shortest in the WTC. The two opening notes are surely a joke, being left stranded on their own. The Prelude in E minor is cast in two sections. The first is written in the style of an orchestral Sinfonia, consisting of an ornamented melody above a moving bass. This glides into a presto section which develops the accompaniment figure. The dramatic Fugue in E minor is noteworthy for being the only one in the entire WTC for only two voices. If this limits the contrapuntal devices Bach can employ, its fiery and impetuous character is more than enough compensation.
The lively F major Prelude is another two-part invention, this time based on arpeggios. Taken over without alteration from WF Bach’s Clavierbüchlein, it is a useful study in finger technique and sustained trills. The Fugue in F has a superficial simplicity which belies its subtle and organic construction. The Prelude and Fugue in F minor make an imposing pair to round off the first half of the book. The Prelude expresses a deeply melancholic mood, not unlike the introductory chorus of Cantata BWV 12, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen. Both pieces share the same general tone and shape of material. At this halfway point in the collection, the Fugue subject is very chromatic, but Bach doesn’t employ all the notes of the chromatic scale – something he won’t do until the last Fugue.
The Prelude in F# major possesses a delicate and transparent two-part texture, with the left hand maintaining a steady rhythm against the right hand’s playful syncopations. The Fugue has a harmonious fluidity which is deeply engaging. In contrast to the previous pair, the Prelude in F# minor is restless and uneasy. The elegiac Fugue is vocal in inspiration, notable for its persistent ‘sighing’ motif.
G major is often a key for the expression of joy for Bach, and this Prelude and Fugue is no exception. The brilliant Prelude is built on broken chord figuration, and its youthful exuberance suggests an early date of composition. The Fugue retains the virtuoso character of the Prelude and has the feel of a concerto movement—it can be played with strength and fire. The most striking feature of the contemplative G minor Prelude is the recurrence of a long sustained trill over shifting harmonies. The concise Fugue in G minor has a solidity and rightness of structure which makes it deeply satisfying to play and to hear.
The festive A flat Prelude has the form of a small Baroque concerto movement, with alternating chief and subsidiary sections. The opening of the Prelude is linked to the noble Fugue subject by its chordal outline. The G# minor Prelude combines imitative textures with an arioso style, suggesting a cantabile performance in all voices. The Fugue subject is notable for the use of a tritone, the diabolus in musica, which is found in only one other subject in the ‘48’, the B♭ minor Fugue in Book 2.
The A major Prelude, like the E♭ Prelude, is really a fugue in disguise. Its three subjects form a triple counterpoint; that is, each of them can be placed with equal success at the top, middle or bottom of the texture. The Fugue subject, with its isolated first note, is strikingly original and witty, and the whole piece is notable for its metrical playfulness. The Prelude and Fugue in A minor has perplexed commentators, not least by the proportional imbalance between the two movements. The short Prelude is certainly not insignificant and provides a worthy introduction to the Fugue. The Fugue’s unusual length and style indicate that it is an early work, and it is one of the richest of the WTC in terms of contrapuntal artifice; for example, there are no fewer than 14 stretti. I play the closing pedal point on the organ pedals, enabling it to be sustained until the very end of the Fugue.
Like the D major Prelude, the short B♭ Prelude provides a striking and dramatic contrast to the preceding fugue. It is one of the most brilliant and vivacious of the Preludes and is the closest thing in the WTC to an improvised free fantasia. The Fugue in B♭ is structurally one of the most regular examples, but this in no way detracts from its capricious and humorous nature. Like the C# minor and E♭ minor examples, the Prelude and Fugue in B♭ minor are both works of exceptional expressive beauty and intellectual power. The ostinato quavers in the bass at the start of the Prelude give the impression of marching along in a funeral procession, reminiscent of the introduction to the Actus tragicus. The five-part Fugue seems to evolve effortlessly out of the Prelude, such is their inner unity. The subject is characterised by the interval of a minor 9th.
The Prelude in B is one of the shorter ones and appears to develop by formula, but as it progresses the piece transcends any fixed method of composition. The Fugue in B may not be one of the most profound examples in WTC but it is a point of repose between two high peaks. The Prelude and Fugue in B minor crown the whole cycle. It is clearly a key that Bach associated with special works such as the Kyrie from the Mass in B minor and the Flute Sonata BWV 1030. The Prelude, marked andante (no doubt so as not to be played too slowly), clearly owes a debt to the typical textures of Italian trio sonatas, with its walking bass and chains of suspensions. As has been mentioned before, the Fugue in B minor’s highly chromatic subject contains all 12 semitones, making it a highly apt closing work to WTC 1 and foreshadowing 20th century serialism. Like the Prelude, it also has a rare tempo indication, largo. As Cecil Grey wrote about the B minor Fugue in his book on the ‘48’: “Its emotional chromaticism links it up with the world of Wagner’s Tristan, while its harmonic clashes and frequently angular melodic writing have clearly influenced Schönberg.”