Every prelude and fugue has a different type of difficulty (almost making each one its own etude), but certain moments just stick out for their tedium. Even though I’m not very far into Book 2 (page 20 of ~140), measures 24-25 of the C# minor fugue are trouble!
Hand switching for the alto line (the penciled-in swoops representing when the left hand should take the notes written in the treble line)
Conceiving of a fingering that doesn’t require the hands to be crisscrossed or on top of one another. A good rule is thinking of the thumbs as barriers, even if they’re not being played––within a set hand position (which here change every measure) the lefthand thumb should not rise above the righthand thumb, vice versa.
Nontraditional fingerings for scalar passages that require the hand to be “scrunched.” Example: beat 4 of measure 24, above. The right hand plays the F# with the pointer finger, followed by an E with pinkie finger.
Henle’s recommended fingerings: This could be content for a separate post. In general, the editor’s fingerings do help out, but they forgo “better” fingerings for a strict adherence to pedagogical rules, namely don’t place the thumb on a black key. In almost all repertoire, I disregard this rule about 75% of the time because fingering decisions can become quite easy with that allowance. The other 25% of the time, there is, in fact, a good reason for the avoidance of thumb on a black key. In the case of the Henle Edition of the WTC, they’ve decided to be consistent (sometimes to a fault) on a fingering system, which may be best for younger students who may need the structure that fingering rules provide. In general, though, I feel their printed fingerings can crowd the page in those moments and force the pianist to change hand positions when it’s not necessary.
In my very first post about recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier, I stated reasons for my avoidance of one particular specialist of the work. I find myself now writing about that very specialist, Glenn Gould.
Like my process of learning the C Major Prelude, I surveyed the same three albums (Schiff, Tureck, and Papastefanou) for my study of Fugue No. 3 in Book 2. There are a couple of very specific elements of these pianists’ recordings that I love: Papastefanou’s cadenza-like close to the rhythmic build-up of the fugue, Tureck’s consistently nimble articulation throughout. In contrast, Gould’s rendition was off-putting: excessively slow, pedantic, still in its practice-stage. As heard in the video below, his articulations are inconsistent, differing from one phrase to the next.
Before I explain my change of heart, I should mention that I find this fugue among the most difficult for several reasons. First, the rests in the theme make it difficult to distinguish the intent of certain pitches––sometimes they seem meant to provide harmonic structure, other times they’re meant more literally as melody. Second, the overlapping of voices after the first three pitches, and the inverted countervoice in measure two, make it difficult to “stretch” your listening to hear the theme as inclusive of the somewhat-buried sixteenth notes. Third, the rhythmic build-up (eighths turn to sixteenths, which turn to thirtyseconds in the final page) implicates the tempo; start the movement too quickly and you’ll inevitably end up with a fast-rolling snowball. A slower tempo also plays into the difficulty of especially “stretched” listening.
It’s the embrace of the third difficulty that makes Gould’s recording striking. His final lines, in the compounding of the thirtysecond-note motive and in a slower stacking-up of thematic entrances (such as those beginning around 2:15 in the above video), give the entire build-up a sense of payoff that I don’t personally feel when the tempo is too quick. Papastefanou’s recording finds a way around this problem by creating cathartic, cadenza-like flourishes out of the running thirtyseconds in the penultimate line. Schiff accentuates the gravitas of the thematic entrance in the bass voice during the same line, which is also a work-around. Gould, in contrast, makes the working-out of thematic and motivic material the musical highlight, so much so that the running lines (ornament-like, the fastest rhythmic material of the piece) actually seem to act as a denouement to the movement.
Tempo-wise, craftsman Gould began with the end in mind; artist Gould allowed the compounding development of motives to be the apex of the movement’s essence (arguably the musical intention of every fugue). It’s in the careful synthesis of the two that makes his interpretation most compelling.
Overall, the C Minor Prelude & Fugue in Book 2 is quite straightforward; I found experimenting with various articulations, touches, and dynamics to be a rather easy and fun process. For example, in starting the piece, I tried out a few different versions simply by changing the articulation type in each hand. Here, you can hear staccato articulation in each hand (1), followed by full legato in each hand (2), followed by a lighter legato in the sixteenth notes with two-note slurs in the eighth notes (3). Use the small arrow on the right side of the video image below to cycle through each version. Press the center of the video to play/pause the recording before cycling to the next.
I chose option 3 because I think it best showcases the ability to play different articulations in each hand. During moments of similar intervallic content, I continue with this articulation throughout the piece; in other instances of eighth notes (usually instances of more stepwise motion), I use a more detached/staccato touch.
With the two-note slur for eighth notes, it can be difficult to taper the second note of the slur enough. Even if the second note is softer, it can still sound overbearing (especially since the second note of each beat is often the same pitch throughout the measure).
It’s also interesting to note that after measures 1 and 2, the Busoni Edition begins marking beats 2 and 4 with accents, with the off-beats as staccatos. Although I didn’t consult this edition until after I’d learned the movement, I think he’s on to something, as a fast tempo can give those beats a sense of propulsion into the larger beats of 1 and 3:
The C Minor Fugue is one of my favorites, as I’ve always felt Bach’s slow, minor movements are the most beneficial for building polyphonic ears. In the post about my process for learning fugues, I pointed out the importance of building muscle memory through the mindful stretching of the fingers to reach certain intervals (i.e. it’s not just learning that finger 5 goes to finger 2, for example. It’s about feeling that stretch, both physically and mentally). This is a great fugue for that kind of deliberate practice––it’s shorter, the theme doesn’t involve any extended stretches of “fast notes” (such as the C Major Fugue), and (theory-wise) the movement offers some interesting ways of stacking motives.
My biggest difficulty was in the latter of these three features. More specifically: moments of rhythmic augmentation––that is, stretching the theme into larger rhythmic values. Instead the theme’s standard eighth-note introduction, we can see it written in quarter notes in the left hand at the bottom of the first page. When the theme (which I also label the melody, at times) becomes wider in rhythmic value, it becomes difficult to hear it in the same way as I heard it when it was in eighth notes. Basically, my mind doesn’t seem to want to stretch that far, to hear it across two measures rather than one. Here is the first instance:
While a first-time listener might be able to hear the left hand as the theme, my goal is to first hear these theoretical features of the music, myself, as they’re happening. Second, I must find a way to broadcast those clever moments to the audience through technique. In general, it’s difficult to bring out a theme that is written in a middle voice (in this case, the tenor voice). However, I’ve found the true difficulty lies in the stubbornness and impatience of the ear.
Because I’m trying to learn each movement relatively quickly (one prelude and fugue per week is doable, though not at performance-level), I have one initial listen-through with a random recording and will begin noting the architecture of certain lines. In my score, I draw square brackets around fugal subject and rounded brackets (parenthesis) around lines that are strongly derived from the subject. This immediately draws my attention during a subsequent play-through. Although I could make the same markings by doing score study or by playing each voice alone, the process is speedier if I pencil in my “map” of fugal subjects while listening to Schiff, Gould, or Barenboim.
I learn large sections (half a page at a time, usually) with just a single hand. Honestly, I find it a bit pointless to learn each voice separately, as it is not conducive to planning my fingerings. I need as much context as possible to start writing in fingerings, and usually the two voices in a single hand are enough. There are certain moments, though, when even that isn’t enough context (moments when one hand has to dip into the other clef to play three voices), but planning that comes later in my process. I’m using the Henle Edition of Book 2, so I do attempt its editor’s fingering recommendations first. Sometimes they work, sometimes they just need small amends, and sometimes I don’t find their suggestion helpful at all. I try to be extremely conscious of the fingering markings I put into the score, which usually takes a few focused hours for a single page. I’ll cross out the editor’s suggestions so that they don’t mingle with my own; I’ll circle fingerings that are very important––the fugues are puzzle-like, so it helps to know those miss-it-and-you’ll-be-guaranteed-to-stop moments of getting the right finger; I’ll seek out very specific, quick moments that I’m unsure of which finger to use, which usually results in me writing in more fingering numbers than I need.
Repeat step two with the opposite hand. Usually the other hand goes quicker, as it may only have one voice for that half-page of music.
Playing extremely slow and legato, I put the hands together. I’m most concerned that I’m consistent with the fingerings I’ve written in, almost more so than correct notes. However, feeling the intervals between each finger is also extremely important in the process, so (obviously) it helps to play the correct notes. With that said, there are times I’ll play the wrong note, but with the correct finger. I’ll simply make a mental note and count that play-through as a success. Building a consistent fingering is ideal. I also make a mental note of parallel fingerings––moments when, usually on a larger beat, the same finger plays in both hands. Thumbs together! I think, and usually draw a tall circle around those instances.
After I get the tempo at more than a snail’s pace, I’ll start referring back to the notations I’ve made in the first step of the process (the “map” of brackets). Always paying attention to fingering, I’ll start bringing out the fugal subject. I’m really just hoping to learn the fugue “straight” first, even if it may sound pedantic or square.
If time permits, I’ll play each phrase with a different voice brought out and make some interpretative decisions based on what I like. Based on the fugue’s form, I’ll also note points that a primary voice isn’t necessarily important (sequential patterns between voices).
After I’m able to play through the entire thing (under tempo) and feel rather comfortable, I go back to a couple of recordings for ideas. Of course, not for the purpose of copying another pianist, but just for inspiration on how to make it more interesting with different voicing or ornamentation. This is also the point that I experiment with different articulations and touches. For example, in the C minor fugue, I will play passages staccato just for practicing sake. In the faster C Major fugue (Book 2, No. 1), however, I may start practicing staccato because I think it may be the correct detached touch needed for the style––I begin practicing for performance, per se.
In a future blog post, I’ll discuss those instances when a hand has to dip into the other clef (either to play three voices at once, or just general hand substitution). In the image above, those moments––commonplace in Bach––are shown with a long, curved or swooping line.