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donderdag, 04 december 2014 17:34

A study in polyphony based on Preludium und Fuge in h BWV 869

by Johann Sebastian Bach,
in a transcription with enhanced counterpoint
for eight wind instruments
by Marien Abspoel

When studying ‘Das Wohltemperiertes Klavier’ (WTK), the last ‘Preludium und Fuge in h’ from the first book stands out as an extraordinary work. It makes a combination of what has become almost the classical example of counterpoint by Bach, and above all the Fugue is famous because it is the first twelve-tone row in musical history. It is not a real twelve tone row in the sense that notes are repeated, but nonetheless. This does not remain a pure intellectual toy for Bach himself. Bach combines this theoretical device with his familiar sighs, so nicely called with an onomatopoeia Seufzer in German, giving this work also a very dramatic and emotional, and in my opinion consolation quality.
When I studied the WTK it became clear to me that Bach in many works constructs his themes as if they are build out of two voices. This results in a kind of question and answer interplay and symmetry within the theme. For me the theme of this Fugue in B-minor  can be better understood by conceiving it as build out of two voices. This is why the idea was born to make a transcription of the fugue not for four but for eight voices. Not only in the main subject these two voices can be discerned, but also in the countersubject a remarkable jump can be seen as two-voiced. Here I saw possibilities to enhance the counterpoint with a split voice that adds in many places attractive dissonance and resolution.
I choose the instrumentation for the classical octet. The Fugue is in four, and the voices are mostly paired, so the oboes playing voice 1, clarinets playing voice 2, horns voice 3 and bassoons voice 4. Only in some places musical lines are interchanged, to allow playing enhanced counterpoint or to correct for proper use of instrument registers and colours.
When I studied the polyphony and counterpoint of the Prelude and Fugue it stroke me that although these phrases appear as the classical example of Bach’s’ counterpoint, there are many places where dissonants do not simply resolve. Just at the moment the resolving is expected, the voice jumps to another note. And in many occasions (not only when in a performance the sound is sustained by a highly acoustic concert room, the listener is almost certain to hear the resolution. Here the understanding mind fills in with expectation what is not completely heard.

Departing from this analysis it came into my mind to try my hand at completing the play of dissonance and resolution. In principle my process was very easy. At all places where a dissonance occurs, the proper resolution is sought for. The most remarkable sections appear to be the sequences that Bach composed three times in the fugue (bar 17-20; bar 26-29 and bar 65 -68). Although the fugue is in four voices, these sections are in three voices. But when completing the counterpoint resulting from the dissonances, these section unfold into an eight-part polyphony. What a coincidence that I planned already eight players!
For me orchestration or transcription is also a matter of playing. In the setting of the Prelude it came into my mind that the additional counterpoint works excellent if the interchanging voices play only downward vocal lines. There are only a few exceptions when Bach intentionally reverses the theme. I hope this procedure will prove as an appropriate structure, and audible for the audience as an expressive means. This procedure reminds of the typical ‘durchbrochene Arbeit’ as it was popular in the Second Viennese School. I think my way of using the interplay of voices, also when intertwined, can feel as logical in its own way. Primarily because the voices become and remain logical, but also because the rhythmic addition of all instruments adds some dynamics to the transcription. Though, it might be not easy to rehearse and perform with all the rhythmic patterns and interplay on the right spot. I hope that the principle holds in this case, that it is nice to study complex music, if the results adds some real meaning to the performance. On the other hand the notes themselves nor the slow tempo will cause any worry to experienced musicians. I also hope that the transcription in eight voices makes the music more suitable for winds, because the interplay offers many points to take a breath where the long lines of the original fugue à 4 is really breath-taking.

Finally I would like to add some instructions on reading the score.
As usual in baroque music a slur can be interpreted as a well-defined or slightly accentuated start of the first note, and with a relaxation of the sound following with the notes under the same slur.
I added some diminuendo signs at places where the additional counterpoint notes require a shifting dynamic balance. These diminuendo signs  are intended to indicate a diminuendo over the indicated notes, but should not influence the dynamics of the following notes. Thus after a diminuendo the first following note is in principle louder.
As with the original score by Bach, there are no dynamic marks. So this is up to the musicians and bandleader. Clearly there is a flow in tension and relaxation that can guide for dynamic interpretation.
There are not many Preludes in the WTK that have a repeat sign at the end of the Prelude. Because of the balance in weight and time between the impressive Fugue and the Prelude I think that a repeat is not only an ad libitum but certainly required.
It is remarkable though that this Fugue stands alone (with the P&F in cis BWV 872) in having any tempo indication: Andante for the Prelude and Largo for the Fugue. The Andante is quite obvious, the Largo is important because we should respect this tempo. Also Largo might not only be a tempo indication but also gives us a hint at the musical character, like solemn, dignified. Choosing a tempo between 50 and 60 beats a minute for the quarter note gives time to play the sighing notes properly.
For me this transcription is correctly called a study. If it will be well received by musicians and especially if it will work out effectively in performance the future will show.  I hope this study will add something to the repertory for this classical octet ensemble.
Marien Abspoel, june 2013