Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude C sharp minor

''artistic'' analysis of Johann Sebastian Bach's Praeludium IV from WTC I, BWV 849

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Thursday, October 24, 2002

"Artistic analysis" of Johann Sebastian Bach's Praeludium (Prelude) IV from WTC I, BWV 849

by Rolf-Peter Wille

(dedicated to my student Ying-Chien Lin)

[Any analysis of music, even an analysis that pretends to be "scientific" (whatever that may be), uses preconceived models, mind-maps or metaphors that are not derived from the music but projected onto it. In my opinion the quality (or "validity") of such a model, mind-map or metaphor depends entirely on the sense which the projection is able to make, and it is from experience that I dare to state: Dry rational systems usually make less sense than interesting metaphors. This "artistic analysis" tries to replace dry systems with more poetic metaphor (I hope this will be understood as an artistic analogue rather than an attempt at "illustrating" Bach, though - if I had the choice - I would prefer illustrations to petrifications). It should be read together with the score and it may take some time to digest.]

A mournful, elegiac song in the dark, mysterious key of c# minor. The archaic character of the hollow opening sound is echoed by the warmer more mellow reply in the left hand (bar 2), stirring up memories of a lost romance. Though no lute accompaniment (as in Prelude VIII) relieves the severe gravity of the single bass note, the dialogue of the doomed lovers is supported by an epic, ballad like 6/4 meter, illuminating its lonely declamation with a melancholic hue. The gentle intensity of this dialogue strikes us as especially touching exactly because of this tragic contrast with its archaic "environment," like an image of two lovers lost in a desolate landscape or two angels in a gothic cathedral.

Their elegiac chant intensifies in a higher register (bar 3), when the dominant is reached and both themes enter with more urgent upbeats. The upbeat to bar 5 implies a resolution of the tonic, but a strong answer to its challenge is gracefully renounced by an (almost) deceptive digression to A Major. "Almost," because the purity of A Major is veiled by the held over g# in the bass and the changing note b#’. The three graceful sequences, floating tenderly downwards to the relative Major (bar 8), are imbued with noble generosity, offering angelic consolation and sympathy with our mournful lovers. The suspended character of the right hand is rhythmically balanced by the left, whose "syncopated" entries overlap with the "appoggiatura"-like harmonic progression.

Consoled by the angels, the lovers resume their dialogue in the warmer key of E Major, bar 8, with the lower voice opening. This contrasts with the beginning and also offers more room for development. That the argument is becoming more urgent now, can be guessed from the "too early" entry of the right hand, opposing the left in contradictory motion at the end of bar 8. This mood of impatience is further enhanced by the b# in bar 9, reconfirming our presentiment of not staying in E Major. The three short thematic sequences of the top voice (bars 9-10) combine their emphatic declamation with the dotted rhythm of the left hand (the two sections of the theme sounding together) to refute the former "angelic" sequences. The climax note a’’ (bar 10) stands in dramatic contrast to the graceful a’’ of bar 5. But this sudden upsurge rushed over its climax too soon and exhausted its outward energy, which now appears repressed as a shadow of its morbidly subdued agitation (bar11), reaching a low point in bar 12. But at this suspended moment of diminished twilight, a memory of the theme is offered, to show our disturbed lovers a mirror of their soul and thus provide them with some courage to face the ensuing g# minor cadence with an air of stoic composure.

The low register and arpeggio make the g# minor entry more compliant than expected; a relief, that is transformed into anticipatory excitement about the lovers eloping to the seductively shining light of B Major (bar 16). That this sojourn - unfortunately - proves to be an illusion, becomes apparent, when a painfully declamated bridge (reminding us of bar 10) leads back to the more shadowy realm of c# minor. Not content with such a shadowy existence, the lovers try to rise high above their shadows, but having reached the climax in bar 19, they renounce higher ambitions and content themselves with the less dramatic subdominant. Being accustomed by now to a life of pilgrimage, our travelers continue their journey through the harmonies in sequences, reminding us of bars 5-7 (though more humanly agitated because of the more independent left hand). This journey should eventually lead them back to the home key. Starting with the f# in bar 20, we expect the bass line to lead to a low c# in bar 23. When instead a higher c#’ is given with the voices in their most narrow position, we feel slightly misled. But a new attempt to reach a strong tonic is immediately undertaken in the emphatically declamated manner of bars 9-10, this time even more dramatic because of the Neapolitan sixth chord (bar 24). We are indeed taken to the more dramatic high b#’’ in bar 25, but when we expect to hear a stoic conclusion in c# minor (like g# minor, bar 13), the harmony lingers again on the subdominant instead (bar 27). The tonic in bar 28 is again of a transitory nature.

But finally the dominant is stated with more authoritative gesture (bar 29). It expands throughout the measure apparently in order to gather momentum. Nevertheless, when we reach the low register, a deceptive A in the bass is the start of yet another series of emphatically declamated sequences in the fashion of bars 9-19 (or 24-25), this time most dramatic and concentrated with only two voices (stripped of accompanying harmony notes) in clear opposition. The contra B# in the bass (bar 31) is the strong counter weight to the high b#’’ of bar 25. In bars 32-33 the declamatory character of the voices is intensified. They seem to lecture against each other with strong rhetorical arguments until they finally gather their forces (bar 34) for the conclusive cadence - or so it seems.

The deception at this point (bar 35) is more powerful and not yielding. We do not have another A Major (a being the note that functioned as the alter ego of c# in this piece). The personalities of the lovers have finally decided to rebel against their fate and stem all their dissonant energy against the tonic. This ultimate expression of personality is surely the dramatic climax of this story, but (as in Greek tragedy) the heroes destroy themselves with their energy and bring about their own demise exactly through the act of rebelling. Three times do we hear the strong statement (bars 35-37), its concentrated impact being the result of counter movement in united rhythm.

In bar 37 it finally becomes apparent, that this dramatically stated diminished chord will just be transformed to become double dominant to c# minor. The bass is withdrawn at this point. All the willpower melts away like a wilting flower. The essence of life passes through our inner eye as an indescribable mixture of infinite regret and yet infinite forgiveness. The descending fifth in the top voice (37-38) is a reminder of the graceful deception of bars 4-5 and a divine answer to the upward fourth g#’-c#’ of bar 1, which is finally and conclusively stated in the bass (38-39). The final C# Major (Picardy third) seems to transfigure the elegy, while the ensuing fugue starts like an archaic funeral song for our lovers, whose life now appears to have been just a prelude to death. Its theme could be seen as the retrograde statement (now with "dies irae" gravity) of the top melody, bars 35-36. God’s answer to the struggle of man.

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