The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #4
Fugue in C Minor, BWV 847
This one makes absolutely no sense without the Prelude that precedes it. If you're listening to it without having first heard the Prelude in C minor, stop. Go back. Play the Prelude. Then you can listen to the Fugue.
Some Preludes and Fugues in the set can be played on different days, or even completely on their own - the C major Prelude, the E-flat minor Prelude and Fugue, the B minor Fugue. But a few of them depend upon each other - the B-flat Prelude and Fugue, and this set. Ideally, I would have recorded them together, but I tried that and failed spectacularly several times, and don't wish to test the patience of my neighbors.
Why do they belong together? Because without the black introduction that is the C minor prelude, the Banishment from Paradise, and the extraordinary energy of its guillotined close, this sounds like a cheerful piece of hurdy-gurdy music. With it, all its menace comes back, and you hear goblins walking the earth. (If all this sounds a bit like Helen Schlegel crossed with Tibby, where the hell have you been all this time?) The left hand pokes the theme out with its little finger, and another goblin answers. These are lesser demons, somewhere in the boring parts of hell, but the malice is unmistakable - listen for the ugly leaps of minor 9ths on measures 17-19:
The hostility, once you hear it, reminds you of Bach's great Turba-choruses from the St. John Passion - "Wir haben ein Gesetz, und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben" (We have a law, and by that law he should die). There is no reprieve here - as in the C minor Prelude, there is no way out. (Think of Mozart's great Fantasia in C minor for the piano, in which the performer does all he can to wriggle free from the key, but ends up back right where he started.) Just, at the very end, two breaths sighing for release. These little chords, plucked in the right hand on the first two beats of the last bar, sound like a prayer for release. An angel comes and blesses us with a major third, but it is too late.