Baroque Instrumental Music: The Prelude and Fugue

We left off last time with several examples of the trio sonata and the concerto grosso, both classic genres of Baroque instrumental music.

If I wanted to give you a representative image of the Baroque period, I’d have to spend about ten more entries talking about the concerto and the concerto grosso. Handel wrote ten organ concerti, six trumpet concerti and twelve concerti grossi, among others. Bach wrote six concerti grossi (the “Brandenburg” concerti), several harpsichord concerti and still more concerti for violin, two violins and others. Vivaldi wrote over five hundred concerti, a lot more than just the Four Seasons, for nearly every orchestral instrument (even the bassoon has not just one, but several!). Composers you’ve probably never heard of wrote masterpieces for oboe, trumpet, viola and other instruments that are still part of those instruments’ core repertoire today. You can’t take a step without tripping over Baroque concerti and I feel that, with the music theory terms we discussed in the last entry, you are equipped to actively listen to as many as you desire without any more analysis from me. I will, though, provide some suggestions to get you started. Paste these titles into your favorite music streaming search bar and enjoy.

  • George Frederick Handel: Organ Concerto in g minor
  • Allessandro Marcello: Oboe Concerto in d minor
  • Georg Philipp Telemann: Viola Concerto in G Major
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerti, Concerto for two Violins

You’ll soon discover just how much there is to listen to in the sub-genre of Baroque concerti. Enjoy, and use the terms we talked about last week. In the mean time, I will move on to the sub-genre to which I really want to dedicate this entry.

The Prelude and Fugue: J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier

Ask my close colleagues and friends “What does Jill like to listen to in her spare time?” and among their first responses will be preludes and fugues. I’m probably more excited about Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues than most anything else, music or not, and if I wan’t afraid of boring you to death I’d probably do a blog post for each of Bach’s, and Shostakovich’s, preludes and fugues individually, and love every second of it. We all have our vices.

I will refrain from that now. No promises for when we get to Shostakovich though.

J.S. Bach’s two-book collection of preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Klavier, is arguably the most influential work of his output, and Bach composed 1,128 pieces of music in his lifetime. You might even say that The Well-Tempered Klavier is the most influential thing to come out of the entire Baroque era, the most prolific era of composition the Western world has ever seen.

So what makes The Well-Tempered Klavier such a superlative work? First, it’s the height of Bach’s contrapuntal (polyphonic) writing, and Bach himself was already the height of contrapuntal writing. It’s the best of the best. It also introduces a new compositional model in which a two-movement work explores a particular key, the first movement being freely structured and the second movement contrasting with a highly detailed set of rules. Many composers wold use this format, and would study Bach’s work in order to refine their own fugue writing. Although the piano wasn’t yet in Germany at the time of Bach’s writing, he titled this work intending for it to be played on any keyboard instrument, such as the clavichord or harpsichord. By doing this, Bach brought the keyboard out of the continuo section and into the soloist’s spotlight. From this point forward the keyboard, especially the piano, would be a dominant solo instrument in the West.

Structure of the Prelude and Fugue

There are 24 diatonic keys in Western music, 12 Major and 12 minor. Bach wrote one prelude and fugue set for each key. With twelve keys in each mode it takes a genius to make them sound truly distinct from one another; the twelve major keys can’t all just be “happy,” and the twelve minor keys can’t just be “sad” either. Luckily, Bach was more than fit for the job and all 24 of these are unique and interesting.

One of the elements that makes the prelude and fugue structure so satisfying is the contrast between the two halves while still being unified by being in the same key.

The prelude will be the first thing the audience hears in the particular key, so its main purpose is to establish which of the 24 keys we are exploring. Bach followed the Baroque era conventions of harmony which help the listener’s ear to understand which pitch is the most important, but beyond that, he did whatever he wanted. The prelude had no specified format. His preludes range from grand fanfares to rhapsodic melodies and spritely dances, brooding meditations to anxious wandering. This free definition of “prelude” will hold true for future eras as well.

The fugue, by contrast, had incredibly struct rules for its format. It is is the culmination of imitative polyphony. It uses strict counterpoint rules to avoid displeasing harmonies, but also aims to have three, four or even five voices state a melody, explore it independently, and somehow make it back to the home key without breaking any counterpoint rules. A fugue will always begin with one voice by itself, stating a melody, called a subject. You’ll then hear another voice come in with the subject, but at a different pitch (there are strict rules about this pitch relationship too). The voices will seem to be playing catch-up with each other, and then yet another voice will come in with the subject too. This can go up to four, even five voices at a time. Once each voice states the subject, a development phase starts in which all the voices individually explore other keys and different variations of the subject. You’ll want to remember the tune of the subject, because with a genius like Bach, despite all the rules of harmony and counterpoint, it can shapeshift into all sorts of disguises:

  • twice as fast
  • twice as slow, usually in the bass
  • in parallel between two voice
  • backwards!

Subjects are also woven into harmonies and cadences so that all of this activity sounds miraculously cohesive and purposeful. You can listen to a good fugue a hundred times and still find another place that the subject was hiding all along!

The truly amazing aspect of a good fugue is that, just like preludes, fugues have unique moods and musical trajectories despite all the rules. They even have an overarching form in which they start in a home key, leave, and find their way back. This return to the home key can be made as climactic, or intentionally not so, as fits the mood of that particular fugue, but the narrative value of wandering and finally finding one’s way home again will be of profound influence in later eras.

I promised earlier not to put you through each of the prelude and fugue sets in The Well Tempered Klavier individually, so I will leave you from here to listen. I particularly like a live recording of Keith Jarrett, but he is known mostly as a jazz pianist, so you may choose to find a more traditional interpretation by another pianist. There are endless recordings of such a cornerstone work in the piano repertoire. Regardless of your favorite performer, the attributes we’ve discussed will help you listen actively, and take special notes of the fugue subjects which will be stated right at the start of each fugue. Notice how different they are, what emotions they each inspire, and where they wander off to before coming back to the home key. And of course, enjoy!

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