The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #10
Fugue in D Major, BWV 850
Crimson, then. If you haven't heard the story of this key and its competition with C major for the key of rejoicing, go back to the Prelude. That was a very Harvard story in its way, so I suppose that this background is in keeping with the university theme. The Fugue in D major is a pompous little number, but I think we can call it simply "happy." When Bach is happy he has fun, and when he has fun he does little riffs and mordents and carried notes and flourishes that make you think you're actually an orchestra. Start with the cellos in the opening theme. It's a four-voice fugue, so give the second entrance to the violas. 2nd violins in measure 4, and the 1sts in measure 5.
But then the color changes. The brass take over in measures 6 and 7, and just when you think they are going to resolve, a plantive woodwind in measure 8 holds a C# out of nowhere. This is a beautiful note, like a face looking out at you in a procession painted by Fra Lippo Lippi:
That beauty is not repeatable - we're on to the flutes and the clarinets, staccato in measures 9 and 10, with a nice well-tuned pair of thirds in sequence on beats 3 and 4. These notes are given to the bassoons in measures 17-19, and back to the high winds on measure 21. And so we move on through the orchestra until the final flourish, when you really need a conductor to give it its due. Trumpets sound the alarm in 32nd notes, the piece stops, and chords take the piece away. A pedal helps to provide the resonance that Bach is looking for, but the chords in measure 25 and 26 are meant to be orchestral, straight from the Overture to one of Bach's Orchestral Suites (say #4, also in D major). Aside from the plangent summons of the oboe at 0'29", there is nothing to indicate that all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But that is where you would be wrong.