The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #12
Fugue in D Minor, BWV 851
Ochre is the color of earth. And for all the bright reds and blues and greens in Bach's pencil box, the main color, the one he always goes back to, is earth. Sometimes it's the earth of burial - that's in F minor, coming up. Sometimes it's the earth of renewal - that's when he cultivates his garden, to quote from Candide a second time. But sometimes it's just earthy because he's playing in the dirt. Bach the peasant with his big old boots, stomping around like someone out of Brueghel.
Yes, there are codpieces in Bach - do you think just because there's only one known picture of him that he's completely humorless? How do you think he had so many children? Would a quicksilver temperament that can manifest itself in so many ways, producing so many colored handkerchiefs out of the one black-and-white hat, not have room for the coarse brown humor of his Saxon friends? What do you think he did on the way to Luneberg as a teenager?
So this is secular Bach, clomping along in a cart, watching the world with his ear to the ground. Musically, the interest is provided by the trill in the last beat of 17 of the 44 bars of this piece. I've decided to do them all the same, from the one mordent that actually indicates which notes to play:
There are three different indicators in this one piece for the trill movement - to do them differently seems fussy. If you do them the same (note-up-note-down-note), you start to hear that movement in other pieces. It's the final mordent in the D major fugue as well:
And I put it in in the Adagio of the Prelude in C minor, just to make a connection between all the pieces. There, it sounds like a rifleshot. In each case (and there are 17 of them in this short Fugue), it's a delayed resolution that forces the other hand to acknowledge its presence, and to slot in in exact time.
That's one interesting thing about this comparatively straightforward piece. The other is the last note in the top right hand. It's a D, of course, but it's held across two bars, according to the Urtext edition, where the D in the bottom left hand is not. The low one repeats, to play the bass note of the D major chord again in the final bar. The high D in the right, though, carries through. Sounding alone for less than a 16th of second, it rings uneasily against all the peasant rumblings, against the codpieces and the big dancing feet of the rest of the piece. It says that we need more than earth. That maybe, just maybe, there's a heaven. Which happens to be coming up: the key of E-flat major.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger,
Peasant Wedding Dance (1623)
Prelude in C Minor, BWV 847, measure 34
Fugue in D Major, BWV 850, measures 26-27
Fugue in D Minor, BWV 851, measure 29