The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #8
Fugue in C# minor, BWV 849
Ladies and gentlemen, this is war. The C# minor Fugue is one of Bach's epic pieces, and one of the three best fugues in the first book. (The others are the E-flat minor fugue, coming up, and the B minor fugue, which will have to wait for another time.) The war, put simply, is between you and your demons. The fugue begins innocuously enough, with a cat walking across the keyboard, hitting mostly black keys. This is the theme:
Nothing to it, really: C# for a bar on its own, down a half-step, up two whole steps, down a half-step, back to C#. Those 4 notes show up over and over through 5 voices. To get a sense of Bach's ingenuity, check out this animated version of the piece (played far too fast), where each statement of the subject and countersubjects (there are several) is neatly illustrated. It is nearly impossible to play 5 voices with 2 hands - even with each hand doing 2 voices each, there's an extra one that has to plucked out of the air. This is a juggling trick, 5 plates spinning for 4 minutes, and not one note can be dropped. Because this is also one of Bach's great pieces, an incredible canvas that builds until an organ pipe at 32' comes in halfway through (at 2'39"), just to remind you how difficult it is to fight for your life.
From the quiet opening we crash towards dissonance after dissonance, building until you can't imagine there can be any more tension, and then on measure 112 there is:
This is a dissonance out of Ives or Shostakovich, an A in the top LH against a G# in the middle RH that has been held over two measures, bracketed by a C# in the bottom LH and the top RH to give us our home key, and then an audacious F natural in the bottom RH - all five voices speaking at once, all screaming in unison, in rage, in fear, in terrifying disharmony. Try it on the piano: C# in the bass, A in the tenor, F above middle C, G# in the alto, and a C# on soprano. Play it loud and it sounds like something out of a Hollywood B-movie. And then listen to it resolve. One more statement of the theme (F#-E#-A-G#) and we have slain the dragon. If the Prelude in C# minor is the Point, this is the Counterpoint: the answer to the awful question posed by the first piece (can I survive this?) is clear. Yes, you can and must survive. But the night will be long and full of terrors. And you will have to be braver than you can imagine.
Fugue in C# Minor, BWV 849, opening theme
Fugue in C# Minor, BWV 849, measures 111-112