‘To live is to suffer. ‘1 Spitta claims that this idea is persistent throughout the b minor fugue no. 24 from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 and that it was Bach’s purpose to ‘produce a picture of human misery. ‘2 By looking at this fugue, particularly Bach’s use of subject and counter-subject, this essay will aim to discover how justified Spitta’s opinions are. ‘The direction Largo is Bach’s own’ and comparing it to the other fugues in the Tovey edition, this fugue is unique in being given such a direction by the composer himself.
3 The emotion poured into its composition may have been why Bach felt a performance direction meaning slowly and stately was necessary. 4 The fugue is the longest in the book perhaps because it was the final piece in the book, possibly because b minor was, according to Spitta, Bach’s ‘favourite key,’ but more likely in order to convey suffering and misery effectively. 5 The subject shown in figure 1 contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale and is described by Spitta as ‘sighing, saddened and pain stricken. ‘6 Upon listening to it there is a general feeling of unease.
The six pairs of quavers, slurring the interval of a minor second are described by Keller as a ‘sigh-motive. ‘ 7 Each pair gives the listener a feel of resolution but followed by immediate continuation, building up tension in the subject alone and as a whole the subject depicts the feeling of misery to the listener. The subject and its tonal answer both enter in full a number of times. In order to increase tension further Bach uses small fragments of the subject, teasing the listener into thinking that the subject has returned but then cutting it short. This further enhances the idea of suffering and misery.
Figure 2 shows this used on two separate occasions when only the first three notes of the subject are heard. These notes give a feeling of foreboding and sound sombre against the light, bouncy, sequential patterns of the first episode that precede and follow it. This device is also used in the only complete stretto passage of the piece shown in figure 3. 8 Bach uses the first 9 notes of the subject in the first 3 entries and then finally the subject in full. It begins in the soprano in b. 41 followed by the alto in b. 42 then bass in b. 43 and finally in b. 44 the full subject begins in the tenor.
This stretto builds tension through its use of repetition. The counter-subject in this fugue is quite difficult to categorise. In his analysis, Iliffe categorises the counter-subject as beginning on the second note of b. 4 to the first not of b. 7. 9 As the fugue progresses, however, the counter-subject is broken up into various segments which are used in different voices, in varying orders and in inversion. Keller’s analysis of the counter-subject is shown in figure 4 and is preferable as it breaks it down into a bridge (a), the counter-subject (b) and a continuation passage (c).
10 The counter-subject in particular is ‘the chief cause of discords’ and Keller says it has ‘relentless harshness’ further adding to the misery and suffering depicted in the piece. 11 Bach’s manipulation of the counter-subject is another analogy to life. Things are not always as expected and Bach plays with convention. He uses motifs from the counter subject in the third voice shown in figure 5. Firstly the bridge section is sounded in inversion (a) and then Bach inverts the first three notes of the counter subject (b). The sequences between bars 17 – 21 are classed, by Iliffe, as the first episode, but form part of an extended exposition.
Typically the first episode of a fugue marks the start of the development but here, to prolong the ‘suffering,’ Bach stays in the tonic and a redundant entry of the subject in b. 21 completes the exposition. 12 Splitting the counter-subject up and tricking the listener by extending the exposition means the fugue never sounds resolved until its end. This makes the fugue unique listening when compared to the others in the book. Although beautiful to listen to this unrelenting continuation is in a way suffering for the listener until the fugue ends. This can be likened to the way Bach viewed life as constant suffering.
There are some wonderful but frustrating moments in the fugue where the listener expects a resolution but the fugue just continues. In figure 6 the exposition is coming to an end and as the first chord of b. 24 is sounded the listener can almost breathe a sigh of relief at the sound of a perfect cadence. Bach doesn’t allow this to last long though as the second episode continues on the next semi-quaver and the exposition is complete, the listener barely having time to take in what has been heard previously in much the same way that life continues relentlessly.
From the examples shown it is clear that Spitta’s opinions are valid. A uniquely chromatic subject with unusual minor second intervals creates the ‘human misery. ‘ The use of three counter-subject motifs in different voices, inversions and orders mean the listener, as in life, never knows what to expect. The exposition and ‘suffering’ is extended by including the first episode within it and following it with a redundant entry of the subject in the tonic. Being the only fugue which the composer added a tempo and expressive marking to Bach clearly felt strongly about its content and impact on the listener.
The fugue being in his favourite key can only have helped Bach create such strong emotive qualities, really express misery through music and convey the idea that ‘to live is to suffer’.
Bibliography: Bach, J. S. ed. Donald Francis Tovey, Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues Book I (London: The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 1951) Iliffe, Frederick, Analysis of Bach’s 48 Preludes & Fugues Book 1 (London: Novell, n. d. ) Keller, Hermann, The Well Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach (London: Gorge, Allen & Unwin, 1976) Spitta, Philipp, Johann Sebastian Bach Volume II (New York: Dover Publications, 1951)
Taylor, Eric, The AB Guide To Music Theory (London: The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 1989) Discography: Bach, J. S. The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, Robert Levin (2000. Compact Disc. Hi?? nssler CD92116) 1 Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach Volume II (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), p. 176. 2 Spitta, Bach, p. 176. 3 J S Bach ed. Donald Francis Tovey, Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues Book I (London: The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 1951), p. 176. 4 Eric Taylor, The AB Guide To Music Theory (London: The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 1989), Glossary p.xviii. 5 Spitta, Bach, p. 176. 6 Spitta, Bach, p. 176.
7 Hermann Keller, The Well Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach (London: Gorge, Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 126. 8 Frederick Iliffe, Analysis of Bach’s 48 Preludes & Fugues Book 1 (London: Novell, n. d. ), p. 82-3 9 Iliffe, Analysis, p. 82 10 Keller, Well-Tempered Clavier, p. 126-7 11 Bach ed. Tovey, Forty Eight Preludes & Fugues, p. 176 and Keller, Well-Tempered Clavier, p. 126 12 Iliffe, Analysis, p. 82 History A: Assignment 1 Bach Fugue No. 24 Pete Town 20243270.