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The Art of FugueBach Fugues for Keyboard, 1715-1750$

Joseph Kerman

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780520243583

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520243583.001.0001

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Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major

Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

(p.65) Chapter 8 Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major
The Art of Fugue

Joseph Kerman

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

A terminological point: a toccata, for the seventeenth century, was a segmented composition consisting of a number of free improvisatory sections and contrapuntal ones that may or may not count as actual “fugues.” The Prelude in E-flat Major also belongs in this genre. It has one improvisatory section with two short subsections—known as toccata fragments—and a large double fugue exhibiting so many free, improvisatory, “irregular” features that it could never have found its way into the Well-Tempered Clavier as a “fugue,” only as part of a special prelude. A highly developed double fugue is brought into being by two distinct toccata fragments, remnants or evocations of keyboard improvisations in which the fugue's two subjects are adumbrated, one by one.

Keywords:   fugues, prelude, E-flat Major, toccata fragments, keyboard improvisations

“This Prelude is nothing less than a Toccata and Double Fugue,” Tovey states at the beginning of his annotation to the Prelude in E-flat Major from book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier and later, on the fugue that occupies bars 25–70 of the Prelude: “The only theoretical irregularity in this four-part Double Fugue is the extra semiquaver figure in the soprano of bar 26 which anticipates the genuine answer in bar 27.” Tovey's instinct was to defend this fugue from unspecified charges or suspicions that it lacked theoretical “regularity”—this from a writer who campaigned tirelessly against false premises in the music theory of his day. But he was off the mark in this case. Also troublesome is David Schulenberg's hearty reference to “full-fledged fugue subjects” in this work (though he should be taken seriously, I think, when he says it may be the greatest prelude in book 1 of the WTC).

A terminological point: a toccata, for the seventeenth century, was a segmented composition consisting of a number of free improvisatory sections and contrapuntal ones that may or may (p.66) not count, from our standpoint, as actual “fugues.” Bach in his early years wrote eight or nine such toccatas, large-scale pieces for clavier and organ, which generally include two free sections and two fugues. By the eighteenth century the genre had coalesced into the toccata and fugue: a single introductory movement, often free-standing, and a single fugue. In Bach's “Dorian” Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, there is little that is improvisatory in the concerto-form first movement or in the exceptionally rigorous fugue.

The other so-called Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a stormy piece once well known in Stokowski's orchestral transcription (but quietly dropped out of the 2000 remake of Fantasia), is a toccata—its actual title—in the seventeenth-century tradition, consisting of three big sections, all of them improvisatory and flamboyant: introduction, fugue, and conclusion. The Prelude in E-flat Major also belongs in this genre. It has one improvisatory section with two short subsections—I shall call them toccata fragments—and a large double fugue exhibiting so many free, improvisatory, “irregular” features that it could never have found its way into the WTC as a “fugue,” only as part of a special prelude. (David Ledbetter, in his recent book Bach's Well-tempered Clavier, reminds us that toccata was an alternative name in the seventeenth century for one kind of prelude. The “Dorian” Toccata and Fugue is called Prelude and Fugue in some early sources.)

If we are ever to imagine what actually happened when Bach improvised a fugue, it will be with the help of the Prelude in E-flat Major, which I take to be a (brilliantly) enhanced record of keyboard improvisation. Whereas the subject of another improvisatory fugue, the Chromatic Fugue in D Minor, responds (p.67) uniquely to a unique fantasia, the main subject of this one partakes of the commonest of clay, endlessly remolded. Bach generated fugues with this material at the keyboard over and over again, I would assume, and when he came to put together The Well-Tempered Clavier decided it was time to write down his latest version. Even after segregating it from the twenty-four official fugues, he must also have disciplined it carefully to accord with its new canonic status.


Toccata Fragments:Bars 1–25

Bach is tracing a myth of genesis, the emergence of order from inchoate, improvisatory stirrings. A highly developed double fugue will be brought into being by two distinct toccata fragments, remnants or evocations of keyboard improvisations in which the fugue's two subjects are adumbrated, one by one. Thematic relations between segments of a toccata are a typical feature of the genre, not a special innovation or refinement by Bach.

Yet as written down in the first toccata fragment, the improvisatory gestures freeze [bars 1–10]. The counterpoint is of the sort that lies under the keyboard player's hand—a flowing figure in sixteenth notes repeating itself insistently—until the figure suddenly accelerates strictly, without any change in its shape. It is on the point of becoming dangerously rigid when a flourish leads to an abrupt cadence; the whole thing lasts only ten bars. (The passage was less rigid, incidentally, in an earlier version of the prelude.)

The second toccata fragment brings to mind Bach's fame as an (p.68) organist and the many calls he received to test out and vet new instruments. The first thing he did on these occasions, according to his early biographer, Forkel, was to draw out all the stops and play with the full organ. “He used to say in jest that he must first of all know whether the instrument had good lungs.” One can associate this routine with the slow-moving, dense, pensive style of this music, which indeed sounds a lot better on the organ than on harpsichord or clavichord.

However, all of the organ stops are surely not pulled out. And this meandering search for rich sonorities conceals (or embraces) a purposeful motivic process. The counterpoint at the start formulates the main stretto that will be used in the double fugue—a primitive motif involving an upward leap of a fourth in close stretto at the lower fourth or upper fifth [bars 10, 11–12, 16–17]. The bass expands this motif into foreshadowings of the main fugue subject [bars 12–13, 16–17, 18–20].

Both toccata fragments come to the same formal half cadence on the dominant, B♭. The fugue's opening subject entry is in the dominant. From the second fragment Bach derives the main, slow subject of the upcoming double fugue, and from the first—from its insistent motif—he spins the other, faster subject, stiffening the end of it to provide more distinct rhythmic definition. Even the one minor-mode tonality hinted at in the toccata [bar 16] proves to be prophetic, when C minor emerges as the most prominent secondary area in the double fugue.

Double Fugue:Bars 25–70

This fugue should not really be construed structurally apart from its improvisatory attendants. Almost the whole composition (p.69) seems driven by much the same melodic idea, presented again and again starting from the same pitch, B♭: the primitive motif B♭↗E♭ D | C (B♭) of the second toccata fragment, or its expansion as the main fugue subject B♭↗E♭ D ↗| G (F).

Both melodic configurations also appear starting from other pitches, of course. But most of the entries starting from B♭—ten of them in all—stand out for one reason or another and so can be experienced as structural:

  • Bars 10, 25, and 49: Entries start up again after parallel half cadences that settle heavily—and, at bar 49, somberly—on B♭, the dominant of E-flat major.

  • Bar 42: The entry stands out because the countersubject returns after a fairly long absence.

  • Bar 61: Organ music is evoked, once again, in particular a climactic device well known from the “St. Anne” Fugue—a thinning of texture toward the end of an organ fugue, with slowly descending high voices that set off a grand subject entry low in the pedals, an entry that reintroduces and supports the full texture.

  • Bar 64: Here the subject stands out because it is in the soprano, expands further to become G↗| C B♭↗E♭ D↗G♭ | F E♭D | E♭, and is at the same time normalized, in that it finally comes to rest on the tonic note, E♭.

There is special point to the word “finally” in this situation. Both subjects of this fugue are treated very freely. Both (to put it another way) are very unstable. The main subject as it appears in the tonic, in the form E♭↗A♭ G ↗| C B♭, asserts the tonality weakly because it ends on the dominant and on a weak beat—and even this much definition is denied to it much of the time, for although the beginning entry (B♭↗E♭ D↗| G F) promises that F is destined to sink to E♭ [bar 27], this closure is usually evaded. (p.70) The tonality vacillates; the big bass entry near the end simply hangs on to its penultimate note, G, skipping (or skidding past) F altogether [bars 62–63]. Only after this does an extended soprano entry guide the subject down from G♭ and F to E♭—a clear tonic at long last.

The tonal equivocation in this work becomes a nice problem for the music theorist who might wish to engage with its network of nuances. In broader terms it matters to any player or listener, for it is probably the equivocal, open-ended subject that contributes more strongly than anything else to a sense that the rambling, improvisatory quality of the second toccata fragment lasts throughout the rest of the composition. In this “free” quality the E-flat Prelude fugue is quite unlike the WTC's labeled fugues, as has already been noted.

Equally unstable, the second, faster subject of this fugue appears as many times freely as strictly (five) and drops out of the composition well before the end. Yet the fugue is permeated by the toccata's short flowing figure in its original, undeveloped form. This appears in nearly every bar, often more than once. (The figure even elbows its way an extra time into the initial fugal exposition—this was Tovey's “theoretical irregularity.”) Rigor that bordered on the obsessive in the 10-bar first toccata fragment makes good sense in the 45-bar fugue, or so it seems to me—a compositional feat to reckon with.

Strict and free. The fugue's opening exposition is another free feature, in the deepest sense: the main subject appears in only three of the four voices, the second subject in only two [bars 25–34]. And immediately after this the fugue plunges unexpectedly toward the mediant, G minor [bar 35]. From here on ruminative strettos in minor keys stamp this music with unusual gravity. (p.71)

Prelude and Fugue in E-flat MajorThe Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1

Example 12

Almost every entry of the main subject appears as part of a stretto—typically in the form first heard in the second toccata fragment—and the more intense junctures also involve false strettos. Thus the concatenation of upward fourths in bars 41–44 builds up such pressure that counterpoint loses hold and the voices coalesce into a singular outburst of regal passion. This is an amazing moment, more like the opening chorus of a cantata of penitence or supplication than a keyboard fugue. Doesn't this count as an “irregularity”? One feels an aftershock in bar 52.

The free flow of this fugue allows for scarcely any strong cadences; the half cadence in bar 49 marks the point where Bach sights the tonic and begins a long buildup to a sustained climax. Characteristically, the tonality is deflected, and the strettos proceed (p.72) in a discursive, rolling motion, almost somnolent, like a blind giant (though the four entries in bars 53–59 march in strict order, at successive intervals of a bar and a half). The most intense stretto of all comes in the highest register, a de facto one-bar stretto at the unison: see example 12.

Another pileup of strettos achieves resolution, this time by gestures not of passion but pain [bars 64–70]. The climactic soprano entry clutches up and up but cannot reach G, only G♭. Supported by C♭ a moment later, this echoes that somber G♭ lodged in our memory from the half cadence at bar 49, the fugue's central cadence.


At one time many musicians were disturbed by the mood sequence from the Prelude in E-flat with its four-part double fugue to the much lighter, three-voiced Fugue in E-flat that comes next. Riemann in his book on the WTC dismissed the latter as superfluous, a “harmless merry postlude,” and Keller practically begged readers of his book to approach the two pieces individually, not as a pair. Busoni heartlessly replaced this book 1 fugue with the weightier Fugue in E-flat Major from book 2—thus joining one fugue to another fugue “vaguely but distressingly similar in theme,” as Tovey noted sourly. For Tovey it was axiomatic that Bach valued clear contrasts between preludes and fugues more than “casual resemblances” of thematic content.

Certainly the contrast between the fugue and the prelude is more than a matter of mood or tone. Whereas the prelude is exceptional in never modulating to the dominant, the fugue hits the dominant hard as early as bar 2. (This is one of the few fugues (p.73) in the WTC with a modulating subject.) Likewise, the tidy A B A structure of the fugue contrasts with the at first discursive, then heavily climax-oriented trajectory of the prelude.

Yet there is a good deal more than “casual resemblance” between the main subject of the double fugue of the prelude and the subject of the “official” fugue; the first half of the latter subject, which is so clearly (pointedly?) demarcated from the second half, is little more than an ornamentation of the former. There is also an obvious echo of the end of the prelude in the fugue's last subject entry, in the alteration of G to G♭ [bar 34]. C♭ comes not long after. I also experience clearly the parallelism between strong submediant (C-minor) areas in both works.

Ledbetter points to the subtle role of chromaticism in this work, starting with the (piquant, if not adjacent) clash between A♭ and A♮ at the very beginning and culminating in the alteration of G to G♭ near the end, as just mentioned. This culmination is also a witticism, I think, hinting at a rhetorical or improvisatory flourish muffled before its time. “Fugue in the seventeenth century was regarded as a play of wit, not pedantry, and as with Haydn, so with Bach, the tradition continued.” For a witty place in the otherwise sober prelude, see bar 67, where Bach brings the ever-present flowing figure from the toccata once—just once—in inversion. (p.74)