by Joseph Kerman
© 2005 by The Regents of the University of California, Open Access edition © 2015.
Fugue in B Major
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2
An entrée to the Fugue in B Major, one of Bach’s most beautiful fugues, can be gained from a composer who learned The Well-Tempered Clavier as a boy and at the end of his life found himself drawing on it again and again. When Beethoven took the subject of the B Major Fugue as the model for that of the Große Fuge, the fugal finale of the Quartet no. 13 in B-flat Major, Opus 130, he turned Bach on his head. The upward corkscrew thrust of the Große Fuge subject generates an emphatic climax, driven home by a characteristic late-Beethoven trill (example 21).
Bach’s aesthetic does not allow for a climax of this boisterous kind. Throughout the B Major Fugue one can see him working to tamp down excess energies inherent in the very unusual trajectory of his material. A melody that moves up an octave, from low tonic to high tonic, needs to recoup and find a safe resting place. The special quality of this work comes from a dialectic of aspiration and restraint, soaring upward and holding down.
Thus in the opening exposition, the slow, measured tread of the subject reaches up to its climax just in time to break off and cede to a graceful tumble of shorter, weaker steps reclaiming the entire octave. In addition, as soon as possible—that is, after the first subject/answer pair—Bach softens the next pair harmonically, by underpinning their peak notes with submediants (G♯ under B in bar 13, D♯ under F♯ in bar 17). The successive notes of the subject, grouped as diads—B + D♯, E + G♯, A♯ + C♯—form themselves into the cadential progression I–IV–V–I; in bars 13 and 17 these cadences turn deceptive (I–IV–V–vi).
At this early point in the composition, Bach introduces the softening notes in such a way as to cause the mildest of interruptions to the suave harmonic flow—mild, though with a hint of ceremony, even austerity. A little later, in the fugue’s second section, he brings the same subject/answer pair (same voices, same pitch levels) and undercuts the peaks with the same submediants [bars 38, 45]. Restraint of the climax now requires chromatic alterations and diminished-seventh sounds. These obviously foretell modulation. The different treatment of these submediants epitomizes the difference between the two sections of this fugue—the first ostensibly simple, the second obviously richer and much more fully developed.
Section 1: Bars 1–27
In its sectional form, the Fugue in B Major resembles the Fugue in B-flat Major, a few pages earlier in the WTC, at least at first blush, but the differences between them are revealing. In B-flat Major, after the central cadence two serious countersubjects are unleashed—adding up to three contrapuntal lines with just three voices to cope with them. B Major deals its subject two countersubjects in section 1 but only one in section 2, an easy enough hand for a composer with four voices at his disposal. No wonder (since the composer is Bach) the piece can flow in such effortless, stately periods.
He designed the intricate patterns of the first countersubject to offset the explicit rhythmic and implicit harmonic simplicities of the subject. It tracks the subject’s risky upward course, twining around it like a vine, then untwining and descending in the closest conjunction with its sequel, so that the syncopations and dissonances all drop away. This quite marvelous two-part counterpoint casts a pensive gray light evenly over the opening page, as I hear it—pace Hugo Riemann, who admired the B-Major Fugue for its contrasts, for the subject’s “steps of iron fate” and the countersubject’s “passionate wringing of hands.” However this may be or may be felt, the first section of this fugue certainly counts for a good deal more than a launching pad for the second.
Yet section 1 of the B-Major Fugue bests B-flat Major for simplicity, with barely perceptible links between entries, rather than episodes. (Note how smoothly Bach overlaps linking and episodic material with the upcoming entries, here and elsewhere.) After the exposition the countersubject breaks free at last and rises serenely to high G♯, the highest pitch yet [bar 21].
Two bars later G♯ is touched again—as though to remind us of the sensitivity of this note within the original subject. Entry 5 opens into a brief, relaxed passage preparing for the first big cadence, where a new figure appears in the lower voices—a softly-moving slow trill [bars 22, 23, 24]. It is rather distinctive, and we will not miss it when it returns.
Section 2: Bars 27–60
How fresh section 2 sounds; a gust of air blows through the texture as it starts, and the new countersubject (or second subject) could not contrast with the first more elegantly: flowing rather than spurting, headed down, not up, wide open, not entwined. Introduced along with the main subject, it is in fact the typical continuously moving member of Bach’s contrapuntal combinations, if more shapely than most because of its contour and the syncopated braking at the end. Syncopation ties it in with the first countersubject, which it now completely displaces—lest there be any mistake about this, the next few bars busy themselves with a mini-exposition for the second subject all on its own.
This leads to an extended passage devoted to various thematic combinations and modulations. The strong tonic peaks tend to be softened, as we have seen; the submediant ploy makes for fluidity and ease in modulation. Except for the way it ends, this passage resembles the corresponding passage (directly after the central cadence) in the Fugue in B-flat Major, but things feel more lucid here, due mainly, no doubt, to the distinction in material between the episodes and the entries. All episodes (except the last) employ the same idea, as in section 1, but here it is a subsidiary idea: an almost routine scale figure gliding up and down the interval of a fourth in eighth notes. This figure can perhaps be traced back to bars 22–24 (or even to bar 4), and it stays with the piece until the final cadence.
One entry stands out because the subject’s peak note is not softened by undercutting of its tonic. Entry 9, in G-sharp minor, proclaims its submediant tonality [bars 48–51]. Entry 11 will proclaim submediant authority. After visiting the submediant key twice we can hardly be surprised that this fugue will be even more extensive, intricate, and magnificent than at first we would have anticipated.
Hearty, almost Handelian right-hand chords prepare the important E-major cadence in bar 60. They may already warn of bumps ahead in what has been a very smooth ride up to now.
Entry 11 suddenly claims a higher register, and a higher adrenaline level: the soprano bursts in at the top of its range with the countersubject a bar ahead of time (triggered by a flashback in the alto to the syncopations of the earlier countersubject: bars 60–64). The subject itself starts in E major but on G♯, so that it ends in the submediant, for the second time, as already noted. Now there is space for a substantial episode, at long last, moving down, up—high up—and down again in three distinct segments [bars 63–74]. With a growing sense of exhilaration and release, sixteenth notes and leaping dotted figures renew the aspiration inherent in the original subject.
Entry 12 [bars 75–78]: one can see why commentators refer to a climax at this juncture—Schulenberg even speaks of a “sonata-style return”—for both the tonic key and the four-part texture are restored, after a long absence (example 22). Yet again there is a sense of restraint; this return is nothing like a Beethoven recapitulation. The tonic at bar 75 is prepared very weakly, and the commanding soprano line picks out notes of the submediant triad, once again (D♯, B, G♯, D♯), rather than those of the tonic. The energy generated by those submediant proclamations seems still not to have dissipated. In fact G♯ receives its strongest articulation yet within this very entry, appearing first in the bass with the luminous support of a secondary dominant, a D-sharp-major chord [bars 75–76], and then at the top of the soprano melody .
And G sharp seems still strong enough to deflect the harmony back to its cohort, the mediant D-sharp minor, site of the next strong cadence [bar 85]. In a strange way the tonic area of entry 12 feels like a parenthesis between the keys of G-sharp minor and D-sharp minor to come, a major-mode area trapped between two minor-mode ones. It is hard enough to describe what happens here in technical terms, let alone characterize the feeling: stable and unstable, warm and distant, new and old—old, since entry 12 resonates with another bass entry in the tonic, entry 5,
from the end of section 1 [bars 19–21]. The gliding scale figure that was broached there emerges from the shadows for a gesture of unexpected eloquence [bars 77–78].
The cadence in D-sharp minor balances the previous cadence in E major [bar 60] in solidity and also in function—though not in texture: like the upcoming entry and episode, it is in three parts only. The function is to set up a deceptive staging area for a new entry. Just as E major masked a launch from G♯, the submediant, D-sharp minor masks a launch from F♯, the dominant; and the function of the dominant entry is to stabilize the final tonic entry. The short trio episode that comes in between [bars 89–92] might be thought too naive for a place in this composition, just as the earlier long episode might be thought too rhapsodic, but Bach knits both styles seamlessly and beautifully into a continuum.
The saga of the submediants ends in entry 14 [bar 93], the final tonic entry, which, unlike the previous tonic entry, entry 12, has been fully prepared. (That was the simple function of the simple episode.) G♯ still underpins bar 1 of the subject, as well as resonating subtly in bar 2. But the coloration is now not submediant but subdominant; the E-major harmony implied in the original subject (bar 2) comes through clearly for the first time (and the long E in the bass clarifies the subject’s metric shape—bars 1 and 3 weak, 2 and 4 strong—also for the first time).
All this is valedictory, yet the subject now scales heights it never risked before. The soprano reaches up to high B. How will it climb down?
With the greatest of dignity and calm. With no harmonic undercutting and no tumble of faster notes, as in section 1 of the fugue. The harmony under the peak note B is tonic harmony blurred by a suspended A♯ in the tenor—an incredible sound: acquiescent, sheltered, pacific—and this A♯, as it resolves to G♯seems to draw the upper voice down with it. The soprano response feels like a slow, deep bow . . . touched with something like regret, though feelings are blurred by another suspended note, D♯ in the bass. Even as the fugue quietly gives up aspirations for the heights, it moots confident new possibilities, even now, for breadth. The ritual of measured half notes in the subject builds up from the original seven notes to eight.
The evocation of binary structuring that Bach makes so much of in the Fugue in B-flat Major fades in B Major into a mere suggestion, but an unmistakable suggestion, when the slow trill figure from the end of section 1 is heard again in the soprano, sustained by the tenor [bars 98–99]. The counterpoint begins to coalesce into chords, until the second subject returns for the last time, not in its role as a wellspring of counterpoint, but as harmony: a single diminished-seventh chord spreads out under the fingers of both hands, a keyboard player’s loose arpeggiation [bars 100–101]. To me this is an utterly poignant moment, though like so much else in this work, the poignancy is restrained. The last two bars are pure grace.
It was Riemann’s insight that a “turning point” occurs in the fugue after the cadence in bar 60, a turning away from counterpoint toward melody—toward melody and harmony. The turn can be followed bar by bar in the fugue’s coda, in bars 97–109.
Of course this is a relative matter; counterpoint is always present. But whereas at first we hear the fugue flex contrapuntal muscle to engage the subject with one countersubject after another, later—after the breach imposed by the long episode—countersubjects are either absent (entry 12), obscured by voice crossing (entry 13), or simply subsidiary, hemmed in by very strong outer voices (entry 14). In the long episode, the soprano pulls away from the lower voices and sings its own song; the cantilena of its whole notes and the bravura of its dotted rhythms are both new to the fugue and expansive. For all the choice details of voice-leading in entry 12, it is the free melodic sequence D♯ C♯ | B . . . ∫ G♯ G♯ F♯ E | D♯ in the soprano that moves us, I think, a melodic shape that is also half-new, a benediction from without (see example 22). To this melody the subject itself becomes a compliant bass.
Stunning moments in this fugue are the outcome of harmonic thinking—bars 75–78, 94–95—and harmony controls more humble passages too, such as the trio-style episode. Friends of this writer will be invited to remember him while listening to this piece, along with the great tranquil Prelude in B-flat Major that belongs with another fugue, the one examined in the previous chapter. The Fugue in B Major will be transposed in honor of its new prelude, even as the moonlighting prelude will hallow its new fugue.
A prelude of quite special warmth, and full of youthful fire! and a double fugue which forms one of the noblest numbers in the work, and one which has, above all, a soft elegiacal character showing itself more and more in the second half, and giving to it the appearance of an epilogue (somewhat after the manner of Schumann’s “The Poet Speaks”); so that one almost regrets that it is not the last number of the second book. . . .
In truth this fugue is the real epilogue of The Well-Tempered Clavier!
There is a good deal to interrogate, as today’s critics like to say, in this assertion. Hugo Riemann was so committed to the idea of the organic work of art that he elected to post a dream of The Well-Tempered Clavier as a “work,” a coherent cycle—like Schumann’s Kinderszenen, like Dichterliebe, like (perhaps) the Chopin Preludes—with a carefully calculated termination, though of course he knew perfectly well it was not. What he did know was that the deft, low-key Fugue in B Minor, next in order and the last in The Well-Tempered Clavier, refused to round it out with any kind of definitive gesture of closure.The notion of a misplaced epilogue to the WTC seems wrong-headed to musicians and listeners today, not many of whom will want to associate the mood of the Fugue in B Major with “Der Dichter spricht,” the meditative, nostalgic, half-improvisatory final number of Kinderszenen, either. The nobility of fugues may also present a problem. Yet Riemann’s characterization of the second half of the fugue as “softly elegiacal” would probably gain more assent. I hope so, having characterized the passage as “valedictory” myself.
The correlation of aesthetic effects with data analyzed from the scores themselves was, I believe, the bottom line in Riemann’s method, as it is in mine, though given his other concerns he might not have wanted to put it that way. This was the payoff line for Riemann because it was here that he engaged with the work of art as art, as a variety of human experience rather than a text to analyze.
The analytical plays in to the aesthetic. One premise for a musical criticism that distances itself from the impressionistic is that specific passages, progressions, notes, and harmonies in the score provoke our experience of music. The important clarifying phrase here is “rather than the musical flow in general,” for a lot of writing about Bach fugues enthuses about the manipulation of the subjects and answers, analyzes the episodes, and then seems to take it for granted that the piece will run along on its own, or at any rate without further commentary. No account is taken of the varied, subtle, essential ways in which the matter is deployed in time.
When Donald Tovey made his well-known distinction between Baroque music as “architectural” and music in the Classical style as “dramatic,” he was acknowledging ambiguity in the concept of musical form; most music has form of some kind, in the sense of a significant ordering of events in time, but form means something very different for Haydn than it does for Bach. The music moves through time in different ways, epitomized for Tovey by differences in the process of tonal modulation. Unfortunately his formulation carries the implication that Baroque music is static, or at least relatively static, and that vertical relationships are the ones that really matter in contrapuntal music, not horizontal, temporal ones. Tovey sometimes came close to saying just this—as when on one occasion he advised listeners to expect no more from Bach than “a noble flow of fugue texture.” I don’t recall such advice in connection with Bach keyboard fugues, of which he seldom published analyses, and when he did, as in his Companion to “The Art of Fugue,” he didn’t always act on that implication. In any case, while this book follows Tovey’s lead in some obvious ways, there is a deep level on which it runs counter to Tovey. I also part company with Laurence Dreyfus when he reads Bach’s fugues as “relatively static rather than dynamic.”
Another premise for criticism is that music’s character is somehow accessible to words. No one believes that the technical information put forth by critics and analysts can explain music’s affective quality, only that it can offer support for assertions—verbal constructions—that they make about quality. And almost everything about the project has always been fragile. Skeptics will not believe that aesthetic effects are more than subjective “impressions.” While “data” can presumably be verified objectively, one self-appointed authority selects particular data from the mass available in any situation and unilaterally affirms its salience. And it hardly needs saying (though perhaps it does, once in a while) that response to music depends on more than just the score: on performance, tradition, audience psychology, ideology, and so on.
Small wonder this kind of criticism isn’t widely practiced. Over the years, its practitioners do so with clearer eyes and lower expectations. That there is something more than personal whim in judgments about art we infer from small facts such as this: a critic writing around 1900 could find a passage in a WTC fugue “elegiacal” and point to that as a primary feature of the work (“above all”), while another critic writing around 2000 experiences it as valedictory—and just as primary. The two adjectives brush against a common nexus of feeling. I am sure that Bach’s own contemporaries sensed something of the same kind in this music, and that if they had written about it, which they did not, since they did not consider it primary, they would have found other adjectives for it, adjectives of their own and of their own time.
Riemann adduced data analyzed from the text of the WTC to support what he said about the character of the fugue, and I have done the same. He knew, I know, and everyone knows that prose cannot track the immediacy of aesthetic experience. But prose can cozy up to it, suggest it, create an aura about it that heightens sensitivity. Such writing depends on simile (“like a deep bow”), metaphor (“a gust of air”), the pathetic fallacy (a figure “emerges from the shadows”), logorrhea (music that is “acquiescent, sheltered, pacific”). We accept that words will often fall flat, if sometimes they can provide light, insight.
The reader who glances back at the essay on the Fugue in B Major with these questions in mind will find all the samples of verbiage just cited, as well as sentences containing no special words at all, only technical description. It may seem like dry analysis. Yet these submissions too, or most of them, are meant to function directly as criticism—even as they continually expose another of criticism’s notorious fragilities. A critic may intuit but fail to find figurative language to register issues of aesthetic import. (The situation can be dire when the issues are important enough.) “Two bars later G♯ is touched again”; this matters, but why—to what aesthetic end? Often one cannot say, but best put it in, alert the musician-reader, and maybe energize his or her own response.
I spoke of two premises above. A third and deepest premise is that music’s grip on our inner life is tied up with our other feelings, not predicated, as used to be argued, on some special “aesthetic emotion.” This premise is not too fragile. It will seem self-evident to many. Talk mediates, differentiates, elucidates, and consoles; we use words, however imprecisely, to talk about love and death because talk, it seems, we must. We also use and surely must use words to talk about music.