Prelude & Fugue

Johann Sebastian Bach

Prelude & Fugue in C major


About this work

Because the Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547, is known only from copies Bach made while in Leipzig, it is generally assumed to have been composed while Bach worked in that city. Some scholars, however, believe it originated early, in Weimar.

The 9/8 meter of the prelude is unusual, as are the repeated notes in the midst of the rising scale that begins the theme, allowing Bach to cover the range of an octave while playing ten notes. Its tame, pastoral atmosphere continues throughout, supported by masterful polyphony. The quasi-ostinato pedal part gives a constant reminder of the 9/8 meter and derives from the soprano voice in the second measure of the prelude. At times, the manual writing looks forward to some of the textures we hear in the Goldberg Variations.

From a single-measure subject, old-fashioned in its squareness, Bach creates a seventy-two-measure fugue. This results in a highly concentrated work that is intensely imitative. Because the last note of the subject itself initiates a push to the dominant, it becomes an active participant in the developmental passages. Thus the subject is part of both the harmonically straying and stable sections of the fugue. This makes it difficult for the listener to find a foothold in the piece, as an appearance of the subject is not necessarily a return to familiar territory. Unlike some of Bach's earlier fugues, the repetitions of the subject are not simply that--references to the opening material--but provide a subtle way of working through the fugal process. The harmony moves toward "flat" keys, finally resting on the tonic minor for a time. Bach delays the entry of the pedal until roughly two-thirds of the way through the fugue. When it does appear, it begins with the subject in augmentation and in stretto with both the primary version of the subject and its inversion. After this dramatic entry of the pedals, the path back to the tonic begins. As if to make up for the earlier harmonic peregrinations, the fugue closes over a sustained tonic pedal.