Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Swing of a Heavy Bag Carried in the Hand

Right on the heels of Prelude No. 2 in C Minor, we get:

J. S. BACH "Prelude No. 11 in F Major" from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier

This probably won't be a particularly long post on the subject, since I've already gone over a lot of my thoughts about this kind of two-voiced Bach keyboard piece. Still, it did bring to mind some ideas that you, Reader, might find interesting.

First, I was struck by what a great difference in feel this prelude has just because it's in a meter based on 3 rather than 4. In the last prelude we looked at (No. 2 in C Minor), I struggled to find an appropriate mimetic action from Bach's world that would find a reflection in the mechanical rhythm of the music. By contrast, this prelude feels like it could be compared to any number of natural phenomena- a galloping horse, a churning river, a boat on the waves (pick whatever tired music cliche you want).

I think this is because tertiary rhythm feels implicit in the swing of a pendulum. Imagine a dense brass ball on a chain. Now, give it a push- beat 1 is the swing, and for beats 2 and 3 the sphere hangs arrested in the air before coming back toward you on beat 1 of the next measure. This sort of pendular motion, I think, pops up in our everyday lives in unexpected places- the rocking of a baby (or a boat), the swing of a heavy bag carried in the hand, maybe even with our steps as we swing our leg forward while rocking on the planted foot. This isn't a perfect idea, of course, but I thought it was worth putting forward.

As for the piece: the Prelude No. 11 in F Major is in two voices (only one bar asks for the topmost voice to be doubled at the fifth). It is a little like the Prelude No. 2 in C Minor, but less strict in its repetition of figures. It breaks down like this, motivically- there is a constant stream of apreggiating 16th notes in one voice or the other. A voice which is not, for that moment, maintaining the 16th note momentum is either arpeggiating 8th notes in counterpoint or playing a trilled dotted-half note (since the piece is 12/8, the trill lasts half a measure). There are tiny exceptions to this, for the sake of variety and interest, but that's a pretty good general description.

It fits in with the harmony like this: the 16th note arpeggios outline one chord for each beat, and usually include a passing or neighbor tone (often modified by an accidental) which often faintly tonicizes the chord in question (e.g. an F-sharp leading tone accidental for the key of G minor for the G chord in measure 7). The trills generate what you might call the 'conflict'- they're almost always modified by an accidental which brings them into sharp conflict with the prevailing harmony. So, you get these trills as sudden rude interruptions- they sort of 'drown out the melody' with their surprise accidentals and usually they're part of a diminished sonority which then resolves into a dominant sonority in a modulation to a new key. Although the piece stays mainly within the realms of F Major and its relative D Minor, there are surprising quasi-sequential modulations through A and G and B-flat (in measures 9-11). I am wary of calling these modulations, though, since the keys aren't every really established- in a short piece like this, it's all about the fireworks of unexpected chord arrivals. The most surprising of these is the transition from a dominant of D (an A dominant 7 chord) in measure 9 to a dimished vii of G (an F-sharp dimished chord) in measure ten. There are notes common to both chords, of course, but in context it feels like Bach has modulated from A to G (pretty far) quite suddenly without any niceties of progression.

And that's all that seems especially interesting about this prelude. The harmony of the first measure, I should point out, goes I V/IV IV vi6; which in a sense outlines most of the key areas that will be explored in the prelude. I was a little surprise to see that V/IV so early, since you'd expect (based on constant droning theory lectures) that Bach would carefully avoid the subdominant until the end of the piece (he does touch on the subdominant at the end, too). I guess general tendencies like that have their exceptions.

Next post: another prelude from the frickin' WTC.


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