Book 1 - No. 24 - B minor - Fugue
music || notes || words || images prelude


The historical record shows that Bach was neither the first composer to celebrate the emerging technique of well-tempered tuning, nor the first to write a comprehensive set of contrapuntal keyboard works in many keys. It is fact, however, as pointed out by many astute commentators, that the craftsmanship, the diversity, the individuality and the utter beauty of Bach's compositions combine to make the Well-Tempered Claiver an enduring touchstone of musical genius. And it is, after all, a cumulative set built firmly on the Western tonal system of 12 semi-tones and 24 diatonic keys including major and minor modes. It is a comprehensive celebration of this remarkable flower of Western culture. And here we arrive at the final fugue in Book 1.

This fugue has a subject that uses exactly 24 eighth note pules to reach, in its compass, all 12 semi-tones. By building a major and minor diatonic (7 tones) scale from each of the 12 semi-tones, we arrive at 24 keys, the complete circle of fifths, and the number of prelude/fugue pairs in each book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. 12 and 24 are significant numbers. It is tempting to imagine that Bach chose these details as clever, creative constraints for the 24th fugue.

The subject is, naturally, highly chromatic, long, unmelodious, unpromising. The fugue is long. Very long. The tempo is slow, explicitly marked Largo by Bach himself. This fugue is a supreme challenge. To compose, surely, to play, undoubtedly, but even to listen. But it succeeds. It rewards the tenacious listener as Bach always seems to do. It is a great example of one of the fundamental miracles of musical experience: the power of repetition engendering familiarity, cultivating expectation, and finally sparking desire, the ultimate primal force behind tension and relaxation in musical rhetoric. It is an utter miracle that through the processes of fugue, Bach enables us to experience this subject as ultimately beautiful.

Among many more things that might be said about this fugue, there is curious bit of episode to consider. The highly chromatic subject and the predominant minor mode of this fugue create a long, dark and rather tense journey. But this atmosphere is broken 3 times by a simple, sweet and soothing canonic sequence creating this line:

Canonic Sequence (Episodes)

. The line contains 4 sustained notes, 4 little plateaus that bloom with major, diatonic harmony like tiny, tender flowers within a larger, darker expanse. The canon involves two voices, each of which gets to play the leader for one statement of the line during each of three episodes. 4 (notes) x 2 (voices) x 3 episodes = 24.

The intention is not to revel in some abstruse Bach numerology game (though Bach's work is full of number play of this sort). This canonic sequence is not earth shattering in originality or character, the numbers can seem a bit contrived, and even so, is this anything more that just some basic element of balance, symmetry, etc.? But still, this bit of music seems so important in its context. There is something nearly sacred about it.

There is more that just numbers to the apparent magic of this sequence. The motive is clearly quoted once, in passing, in the prelude to this fugue. It is presaged. The sequence is vivid and powerful when it appears in the fugue: the psychological experience of profound release is clear. With the repetition across episodes, it becomes a pattern, a familiar and expected release. From here, it seems to then jump across compositions, time and composers to appear again in another similar highly charged context. Beethoven's late string quartet Op 131 begins with a bittersweet fugue that blossoms multiple times into ecstatic release using this very same sequence as prominent counter material. And it appears again, at least once in Mendelssohn's double-fugue for string quartet Op 81.In each case (Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn), this modest sequence is featured prominently and it sings so poignantly. I am certain that these linkages are intentional and significant: a profound musical dialogue within the web of Western culture.