Canons & Fugues Well-Tempered Clavier

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Character and Counterpoint: Performing the Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier on the Modern Piano
© 2003 David Korevaar
University of Colorado at Boulder

Every piece in the Well-Tempered Clavier can be thought of, as Schumann suggested, as a character piece--perhaps a romantic view, but an important point of departure nonetheless. Given that Bach wrote these pieces for single-manual instruments with limited shaping possibilities, it is important to consider how Bach sonically creates character.

Perhaps texture is the easiest way in here: Bach gives us, in each of the fugues, an accumulation of horizontal lines that creates a drama out of texture. Tension and resolution, in this context, are functions of textural intensity: how many voices are playing, how much rhythmic differentiation there is between the voices, how much articulative difference might be suggested between the voices. Each of the fugues presents a series of textural crescendi, beginning with the successive entrances of the individual voices in the exposition, and carried through to the end (where the climax is usually located) with a variety of devices. Texture is critical to this design because Bach wrote for instruments upon which more simultaneous notes equal more volume.

If these are "character pieces," then the character of the fugues is determined in large part by the subject itself, which serves not only as a springboard for counterpoint but also as a microcosm of the emotional trajectory of the piece. As a performer, I try to be sensitive to the scene-setting potential of the fugue subject. The intervallic smoothness or jumpiness and rhythmic variety or lack thereof in a fugue subject can imply a great deal about the nature of musical expression in the piece. The subject of the first fugue in the first book looks smooth on the page, with its opening and closing scalar gambits--an invitation to the contemplative world of old-fashioned north German counterpoint. The leaps of fourths in the middle of this subject can be compared to the leaps of sixths in the subject of the C-sharp major fugue--an implication, to my mind at least, of the playfulness inherent in the latter, a work redolent of Italian concerto-style writing.

Interpreting this music should result in the presentation of the intrinsic emotional content, while respecting the basic textural component. On the piano, it is important to avoid the temptation to neglect the whole texture in favor of over-voicing the subject (or any single voice). Schumann was the first to raise this issue when he praised Czerny's edition of the WTC for its ability to provide interpretive guidance that went beyond the prevailing tendency to just bring out the subject. Czerny's edition looks dated to the modern eye, exaggerated and dictatorial in its suggestions. The spareness and purity of Schumann's own later fugues for the piano seems to me to show his understanding of a more historically aware and sensitive approach to the genre and idiom of Bach than might be gleaned from his opinion of Czerny.

Beginning with Beethoven, the Well-Tempered Clavier formed an important part of many composers' learning process. The keyboard styles and compositional ideals of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms are (as has been pointed out by Charles Rosen, among others) necessarily rooted in their individual understandings of the WTC. The more obvious manifestations--Beethoven's keyboard fugues (especially op. 110 and op. 120), the fugues of Mendelssohn and Schumann, and the Preludes of Chopin--are complemented by the less obvious ones: the subtle infusion of Bachian counterpoint into works as various as Chopin's Ballades, Schumann's Eighth Novellette (the opening section is, in fact, a fugue), as well as Mendelssohn's and Brahms's extensive use of counterpoint in all of their music.

Bach's WTC stands as a canonical text for all of these composers because of its comprehensive nature, its variety, and because of Bach's consistent success in the integration of linear, harmonic, and contrapuntal strands into character pieces of the highest order.

Performing these pieces on the piano has led me to a greater understanding of how to clarify linear counterpoint on the piano. The most important aid in hearing the individual strands without over-voicing lines (that is, without "bringing out the melody") lies in the perception of the lengths of notes--the note-values. On the piano, notes of different lengths are created through a hierarchy of tonal values, where successively longer durations need successively more resonance: the voice-leading becomes clear when the tail ends of notes can be heard. This principle is especially obvious and necessary in the case of suspensions. If the performer has a basic understanding of the tonal hierarchy of durations, Bach's differentiation of voices through rhythmic values takes care of clarifying the various strands of the counterpoint. The E-flat-major and B-minor Preludes in Book I are particularly easy to hear examples of this technique. In both pieces, the basic melodic and rhythmic idea (rising fourth, descending second; quarter-half-quarter rhythm) is expressed contrapuntally. In order to hear the counterpoint, the half notes must sound longer than the quarters; in order for them to sound longer, they have to be given more tone than the quarters.

Articulation can help in characterizing not only the subject but also the counter material. Each individual line in the texture has its own imperative: understanding how the separate lines are shaped can help clarify vertical as well as horizontal events. All of these things together can help in realizing the pieces in light of their original conception for single-manual instruments on which the possibility of bringing out individual voices through tonal gradation is nonexistent or extremely limited. Bach also assists us by composing registral separations--a technique that clarifies counterpoint in his keyboard works. Many of the livelier fugues in Book I (C minor, C-sharp major, E major, etc.) clearly benefit from a clear sense of how to articulate the subject and counter material. And Bach's indicated two-note slurs in the grand and slow B-minor fugue in Book I suggest an important way to maintain the clarity of the long subject in spite of its unchanging rhythmic values.

In a conception where the voices are intrinsically equal, both in composition and in the medium of performance, control of texture becomes the most important aspect of dramatizing the work.

My choices of tempo and character are a function of intuition (based in stylistic understanding, I hope); an appreciation of the dance basis of many of the pieces; an appreciation of the Italian concerto style when it is used; observing Bach's choice of meter, register, and number of voices; observing the rare articulations and tempo indications; and returning to my intuition. The subject of the D-minor fugue in Book I includes a slur (over the four sixteenth notes of the second measure) and a staccato marking (over the quarter note on the second beat of the same measure) that indicate to me a dance rhythm that underlies the entire piece. That dance rhythm combined with the clear binary structure of the fugue makes me want to treat this piece as a dance movement in a suite, indicating perhaps a faster tempo and a more strongly rhythmic approach than is sometimes heard. The G-sharp minor fugue in Book II is, to my ear, a gigue, with its compound meter, leaping subject, and dance-like phrases. Here Bach creates a conundrum though: how to reconcile the dance-like language of the rhythm with the lament-like affective language of the chromatic second subject. I think that Bach's fugues contain many instances of paradox and humor and that reverence for him shouldn't prevent us from seeing these possibilities. Compare the Passepied-like B-minor fugue in the second Book with the intense sadness of the B-minor Largo that concludes the first. Incredibly, Bach connects these two by quoting a metrically transformed version of episodic material from the first Book's fugue in the second.

When I decided to record the Well-Tempered Clavier it was largely because I felt I had to. (I'm tempted to quote Sir Edmund Hillary here.) I'll confess that I had not played very many of the preludes and fugues, but in my listening to other performances I had found myself often dissatisfied with the way pianists projected the music. I had the arrogance to believe that I could do something somehow different: to combine beauty of tone (as in Richter's phenomenal recording), intellectual energy (perversely represented in Gould's), contrapuntal clarity (Martins' version, perhaps?), and a real sense of the emotional locus of each of the pieces. Now I can be dissatisfied with my own performances as well! But if I can bring the beauty and sincerity of these compositions to a few more people through my performances and recordings--if my approach can reach people and touch them--then I feel like I have succeeded. The first Book is intimidating: balanced, perfect, abstractly beautiful, but not at all detached. The second is less so--more about a kind of harpsichordy virtuosity, less about the pure value of music-as-devotion. This music is among Bach's most personal of statements, pervaded by his humility, his religious belief, and his unequalled mastery of counterpoint as a means to an expressive end, as well as by his own consummate keyboard ability. My own view of this work, paraphrasing Bach's: Only for the glory of music.

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