The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #24
Dark Brown
Fugue in f, BWV 857
00:00 / 04:54

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 1 (measures 1-4)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 2 (measures 4-6)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 3 (measure 7)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 4 (measure 13)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 5 (measure 19)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 6 (measures 27-28)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857

T-A-B-S.   T-B-A-T.  S-B.

Tenor-Alto-Bass-Soprano.  Those are the first four entrances of the fugal subject.  Tenor-Bass-Alto-Tenor.  Those are the next four.  Soprano-Bass.  Those are the final two.


It has always been a source of quiet amusement to me that the four voices in a choir (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) can be anagrammed as S-T-A-B.  These are also the four voices in a 4-voice fugue, and this is one heck of a 4-voice fugue.  It's the second longest in the set (only the one in D# Minor is longer).  Oddly (and completely unexpectedly), I got it right on the first take:  if you'll forgive a stab in the dark at measure 14, the rest does pretty much what I wanted it to.  That's a relief, because if you play this too many times, it starts taking things from you.  Let's look at the entrances in order (you can listen along if you like).

Entrance #1:  Tenor












T.  That's the tenor line.  You wouldn't know it at the beginning, unless you were reading the music, but it starts in the right hand, moving down to the left after the sixth note  As with the Prelude in F Minor, it's chromatic snakes again.

Entrance #2:  Alto





A.  And now the Alto answers the Tenor, which has moved down to the left hand.  You can follow the numbers of the subject entrances as we go.  But this Fugue, unlike its Prelude, has ladders.  The countersubject keeps rolling the music up the hill.  You can come down all you like, Mr. Snake, says the B-subject in the Tenor, while the Alto sings the theme, but I'll keep putting you back at the top of the Ladder where you started.

Entrance #3:  Bass
























B.  You hear the Bass line rumbling away on the theme.  That's to be expected.  But where is the Soprano voice?  A curious 3-bar sequence seems to take us nowhere, and you could be excused for thinking that this was a 3-voice Fugue, like the one in F Major before it.  But you would be wrong.

Entrance #4:  Soprano










S.  Ah - so there you are.  This is the statement of the theme that in this performance has an unusually protracted search for the high F - I like to think that it suggests the frailty of man, but it was just me blanking out for a second.

And then that sequence again, only this time with a set of sustained notes in the Soprano, taking us back up the ladder.  We've gone round each voice once, heard two sequences, and are beginning to get the hang of this.

Entrance #5:  Tenor
















T.  Did I mention that this is a particularly chromatic theme?  10 beats, on 9 different notes.  A fumble in the dark.  A struggle to reach the end.  Bach, the great believer, has given us a vision of life on earth.  And it's not pretty.

There's that sequence again, with a downward cascade now of sustained notes, now in the Alto.  It goes on longer than before, with a sequence of four - no, five notes, as the other voices noodle about in their sequential way.  Time for another entrance.

Entrance #6:  Bass






















B.  All four voices are moving now - the Tenor has the countersubject, the Alto and the Soprano are chiming in, but you can hear the theme clear as mud in the bottom.

PAUSE FOR PAGE TURN.  You may have noticed that I don't have a page turner - some of the turns in the faster pieces have been epic.  This one is like a serrated knife.  And it's in the middle of another of those sequences again - is it me, or are these sequences getting more melodic, more gentle?  They seem to stand against the harsh reality of the theme's quarter notes, to protect us against the storm.

Entrance #7:  Alto




















A.  "I'm cold, I'm cold."  You can barely hear this one, tucked away in the bottom of the right hand.  The Fool has lost his father on the heath.  The elements overwhelm.  But the tune can still be heard.  It's not like we're going to give up, not when we're over halfway.

There are 58 measures in this piece, one for each year that I have been alive.  Bach himself was 57 when he wrote the second book in the Well-Tempered Klavier; he's a relatively Mozartean 37 now.  And we have just reached the 37th measure when the sequence has its longest interruption, with closer sustained notes in the Soprano, who you really expect at this point to take over again.  After all, the last sequence was T-B-A-S.  We've had T-B-A.  What possible other voice could ruin the symmetry?

Entrance #8:  Tenor























T.  Again, this entrance is barely heard in the storm.  "I'm cold, nuncle."  The Fool pleads to find shelter.  But we have to go on.

And then, light begins to shine on this dark earth.  The sequence that follows the 8th entrance of the fugal subject in the 12th Fugue of the 1st Book of the Well-Tempered Klavier (BWV 857, measures 44-46) is one of the loveliest in music.  All four voices in harmony, all soldiering onward together.  A massive ritard (not in the music - Bach doesn't do those), and it's time for the 9th statement of the theme.

Entrance #9:  Soprano





S.  High in the winds, screaming defiance, the Soprano sings the theme.  Only this time it doesn't sound like resignation or defeat.  It is Victory.  And for Bach, that can only mean one thing.  Victory Over Death.  This isn't a voice, so much as it is a soaring expression of universal longing.

Entrance #10:  Bass








B.  But because it's Bach, that cannot be the last word.  We have to climb down off our pedestal, take off our hats, and kneel, here where prayer has been valid.  The Bass has one barely perceptible final statement of the theme.  The Tenor and the Alto, unbelievably, sustain and syncopate a new trailing subject that stands in uneasy relation with the hesitancy of the hidden Bass line.  The Soprano, only just a second ago a Valkyrie calling in the storm, has gone deathly quiet.    "Let me wipe that hand," says Bach.  "It smells of mortality."  We have to come to an end. 


And we end, because it's Bach, with the final reassurance of a major chord.  An A natural insists on the return to the bright green key of F Major.   "There, there," says Yossarian.  "Speak what we feel / Not what we ought to say," says Edgar.  Hans Castorp marches into No Man's Land whistling "Der Lindenbaum."  In the apartment next to mine, someone is playing the ukelele.

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 7 (measures 34-35)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 8 (measures 40-41)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 9 (measures 47-48)

Fugue in F Minor, BWV 857, Subject Entrance 10 (measures 53-55)











©2019 by Sebastian Knowles