Celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach // Bach Wettbewerb Leipzig 2014
Up until the 18th century, music was considered a disposable commodity, as composers were constantly writing new music to suit the changing tastes of the times. No one ever thought to revisit old music of past seasons, nor did they think to continue supporting music that had long since fallen out of fashion. Thus, an unusual thing happened in the case of the German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685 and died in 1750, Bach would somehow manage to develop a cult following. His music would continue to be taught, studied, and passed on, for centuries after his style of composition had fallen into obsolution. Thus, when we speak of the classical canon, we always begin with Bach. Because it really did begin with Bach! History owes the hagiography of classical music to this very special phenomenon that happened around Bach and his music.
The defining characteristic of Bach’s music was his mastery of counterpoint, which is an old, Baroque style of composing, in which melodies, or “voices”, are layered one over the other. Bach only ever wrote in counterpoint, and among his most well-known contrapuntal works are his two sets of 24 Preludes and Fugues. The first, completed in 1722, came with the highly descriptive title:
The Well-tempered Clavier, or preludes and fugues in all the tones and semitones, both with the major third, or ‘Ut, Re, Mi’ and with the minor third or ‘Re, Mi, Fa’. For the use and profit of young musicians who are eager to learn, as well as for the entertainment of those who are already expert in the art
At the time that this first set of preludes and fugues were completed, we had developed what would become our modern tuning system. Instruments were not always tuned the way that we tune them today, and it was in the 18th century that a “well-tempered” way of tuning came into vogue. It was fashionable for composers of the time to write music in every available key, in order to show off the unique properties of the new system. Thus, Bach was simply following the fashion of the time, in completing a set of Preludes and Fugues in all 24 keys.
Bach so enjoyed composing in this form that in 1742 he would complete a second set of Preludes and Fugues. This one came with the much simpler title of “24 Preludes and Fugues.”
Overtime, these two sets of Preludes and Fugues would develop nicknames. One often hears them referred to as WTC I & II, WTC being short for “Well-Tempered Clavier”. Another common nickname refers to the two sets collectively as “The Forty-Eight”.
Das Wohltemperierte Clavier II: BWV 877 by Johann Sebastian Bach
These WTC books were teaching pieces, aims of which involved not only performance technique, but also different types of keyboard composition. BWV 877 was written in the rarest and most uncomfortable keys of d# minor. In the Prelude, Bach is showing us how to write in the style of an Invention, or a composition that involves two voices. In Bach’s Inventions, one can expect to hear melodic ideas passed back and forth between the two voices.
877’s Fugue is a four voice fugue that is modeled entirely around a single melodic idea, known as “the subject”. The subject for this fugue consists of three repeated notes that gradually climb up to the fifth, and then trail back down. The repeated notes at the opening of the subject are what music theorists have called a “hammer head” opening. This is a compositional device that has been used throughout the ages. It is a popular way to begin a melody, because if the listener has missed the first note, s/he still has a second and third chance to catch it. The repetitions serve as a herald, letting the listener know that the melodic idea has entered the scene (once more).
Bach composed forty-eight of these Preludes and Fugues, each an exquisite and intricate puzzle piece, so masterfully done. Thus, it is not difficult to imagine how Bach’s music could continue to acquire admirers over time. His manuscripts would reach the hands of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who all studied and admired Bach’s work. They would even reach the hands of the much later Romantics, including those of Felix Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn would become a super fan of Bach’s music. Mendelssohn’s family had acquired a large collection of Bach’s manuscripts, so Mendelssohn himself had access to a wide array of Bach’s work. He developed a profound respect for Bach’s contrapuntal writing, and in the 1830s was inspired to compose some preludes and fugues of his own.
Six Preludes and Fugues for Piano Op. 35, No. 5 by Felix Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn’s Six Preludes and Fugues for Piano were composed between the years 1832 and 1837, with the Prelude and Fugue No. 5 completed in 1836 and 1834, respectively. The set was originally conceived as a series of “Etudes and Fugues”, but later became a set of “Preludes and Fugues”.
Though he decided to go with the title of “Preludes”, all of these Preludes retain Etude elements, each focusing on a particular aspect of piano technique. The Fifth Prelude is focused on voicing, or finger independence. It is chordal in texture, with melodic lines embedded in the chords. Sometimes the melody is in the upper portion of the chord, sometimes in the middle, and there is also a moment where the bass is given a melodic solo. Thus, throughout the piece, certain notes/fingers are required to play out more, and this is a special piano technique.
The fugue is a three-voice fugue.. sort of. Mendelssohn adopted elements of contrapuntal technique, but did not following them in a strictly Baroque way. Interestingly, like the subject for Bach’s fugue described above, the subject for Mendelssohn’s Fifth Fugue also features a hammer head opening: it begins with six repeated notes that are followed by a descending scale plus an ascending arpeggio, and ends with a curly tale that spirals upwards in pitch. If it was difficult to miss the entrance of Bach’s subject, missing Mendelssohn’s subject entrance is an impossibility. The head note is repeated six times; seven if one counts the octave appoggiatura that precedes it all.
In 1950, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, the inaugural International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition was held in Leipzig, Germany. A well-known Soviet composer of the time, Dmitri Shostakovich, was invited to sit on the judging panel for the competition, and his experience there so inspired him that he decided to write a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues himself, and immediately set out to do so.
Shostakovich’s gumption is something to be admired. When Bach set out to complete his Preludes and Fugues, he took a period of years to compile the pieces, sometimes inserting and transposing other works into the keys that he required. Not so, for Shostakovich. He began composing his set of Preludes and Fugues in October of 1950, and by February of the following year it was complete! All twenty-four!
24 Praludien und Fugen Op. 87, Nr. 15 by Dmitri Schostakowitsch
The 15th Prelude and Fugue is a stark juxtaposition of a “scherzo” Prelude with a sinuous Fugue. By this time, harmonic language had transformed dramatically, and could at times be very dissonant. The fugue is especially cacophonic, and has an uncomfortably nervous quality to it.
Thus, we see how Bach’s work has been continuously passed on and studied by centuries of musicians, further inspiring the creation of yet more remarkable works. However, Bach would live to see the style of composition that he so adored and had so mastered — he would live to see Counterpoint grow out of fashion in his lifetime. By the time of Bach’s last job in Leipzig, in 1723, contrapuntal music was already considered “last season’s stuff”. Tastes were moving away from the multi-layered cake of the Baroque towards more Classical sensibilities, where one’s attention would be focused on just one melody, while the rest occupied an accompanimental background. The layers of music that Bach so enjoyed and was so good at composing had become pedantic and unnatural in the ears of a public who began to crave lighter, less complicated fare.
Franzosischen Suiten: BWV 815 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach was aware of this shift in taste, and did compose pieces that exhibit aspects of the new style. With the French Suites, Bach made a turn towards a simpler, more popular, more accessible style of composing. Here one finds Bach at perhaps his most lyrical. However, at no point did Bach completely abandon the distinctive element of his style: the fiercely contrapuntal component that is Bach.