Bach J.S. - Prelude in F minor BWV881 (Well Tempered Clavier Book 2)
The Well Tempered Clavier consists in its entirety of two books, each of 24 preludes and fugues, in which there is one for each major and minor key.
Book 1 was written in 1722 towards the end of Bach's period as capellmeister at Cöthen and book 2 appeared some twenty two years later in 1744. At least one driving force for this large scale group of preludes and fugues was the need for pedagogical material with which to educate and inform the playing of his pupils.
The capacity to play in all twelve major and minor keys was still something of an experimental venture, rather than an established practice at the time.
It was made possible as a consequence of changes to, and developments in, the mean tone tuning system, previously a feature of Baroque keyboard tuning systems.
Pupil Match & Suitability
The prelude should be a relatively straightforward piece for students around this level of playing. It poses few particular difficulties overall, despite some of the more detailed three part textures in places.
This prelude should suit a sensitive student who is capable of developing detail and subtlety in their playing, but it can also be effective for students who might not yet possess that degree of suppleness.
Style & Tempo
This particular prelude is centered around the feature of melodic suspensions. The momentary tension created is an expressive device central to the performance here and does indicate a particular type of tempo.
The danger may be to take it too quickly and, as a consequence, for the performance to become rather flippant and not capable of expressive poignancy.
Choice of tempo should take into account not only the desired musical outcome, which is largely a matter of subjective choice, but also the capability of the student in realizing the artistic outcome.
It is unlikely, for example, that any ordinary student could achieve the beauty of line and successful musical outcome bestowed by Rosalyn Tureck's very slow tempo performance.
Phrasing & Articulation
The lines in Baroque music do not comprise a long series of unbroken legato lines for the most part.
Even in a more obviously sustained prelude, such as the preceding F major one (Bk 2), the line is clearly made up from repeated smaller motifs. Listen, here, to how Andras Schiff articulates the line:
This is the essence of language of Baroque music. Its articulation emanates largely from the way in which articulation exists for wind and string players. These will be subtle nuances.
Tone & Texture
The texture fluctuates between the two part texture of the opening bars to a more contrapuntal, three part texture, as at bars 20 – 28. Occasionally there are four parts in operation (e.g. bars 27/28).
Choice of dynamic is at the performer’s discretion. Whether the prelude is played quite strongly (f) or in a more subtle and lyrical way is a subjective consideration, so long as artistic skills are brought to bear and the effect is one which does work, musically. Lack of textural awareness, whatever the interpretation, will not bring pleasing results nor good marks.
The most challenging aspect of this piece lies in the need to bring about a clear sense of counterpoint and shifts of musical and tonal emphasis with articulation detail.
Whilst this is essentially a question of listening and musical awareness, it nonetheless demands a certain technique. This is the technique of doing different things between the two hands – be that different dynamic levels or articulation lengths and control. At times this detail occurs in one hand.
Gaining control of this nature should have started right at the beginning where early pieces have a simple melody and accompaniment.
If you have a student learning this prelude who has not previously done much study in this sort of technique then you should not make this the starting point. Better to defer starting on this piece until simpler and shorter passages and examples have been tried out.
As a general rule, it is useful to sort out fingering before the student learns it in a way that possibly needs later correction.
Another important point to bear in mind is that not only is it unnecessary to expect a completely unbroken legato line, but that this is often counterproductive in terms of its effect upon tone quality and evenness of line.
For example, it is better to go for stronger finger control and detach one of the notes than to insist upon perfect legato in both parts where this might result in stretching and thereby less easy control of tone.
If you are insistent upon a perfect legato, then careful, detailed use of pedal can supply that and smooth over the edges.
Ornamentation should never get in the way of fluency. It should add detail and expressive refinement to the line.
Where there is doubt it may be better to leave it out, and where there is awkwardness it is best to check that the appropriate number of notes and the placing of those notes are suitable for the context.
Some teachers advocate including any ornamentation right form the start of learning a piece, whilst others prefer to add only once the piece is fluent. There are good arguments for both. However the bottom line should be that any ornamentation should enhance and not detract from the musical effect.
Audience members, examiners and adjudicators would much rather hear a fluent and confident performance with less ornamentation than one that struggles to contextualize this detail.
A complete lack of ornamentation would be out of place but should not adversely affect the result.
In this prelude, the use of the pedal should essentially be to add subtlety to the legato where desired and to warm any texture which could be musically enhanced as a consequence.
Even in bar 69, the final spread chord could sound good with pedal, but note where it is depressed – later rather than earlier.
It is worth remembering that a performance today will take place on a modern piano and not on an original Baroque instrument. Therefore the argument about not using any pedal whatsoever is only a very small part of the whole debate.
More importantly, what is the overall effect, and does the end result sound musical ?
Consider what is likely to achieve the best results for the time spent on your input and the time spent in practice.
Organization is the key ! So, don’t be afraid to take time out before the lesson and plan (especially when starting a new piece) how you will go about teaching it, what your limitations (on the amount of work done in the lesson) will be as well as your expectations.
It can be helpful, particularly in a piece such as this, to work, analyse and think harmonically. Any method which helps the student to get away from merely thinking and relying on a visual way of working (i.e. looking at the printed page) will help to quicken and strenthen the learning and playing process.
Clear setting of homework with smaller achievable goals will win above simply a directive to practise a certain section.
Always insist on fluency with individual parts and lines ahead of more complex work with hands together. It is better to wait and put hands together when there is real confidence in the musical aspects with hands separately.
By this stage in their piano playing life, students should have a good sense of self responsibility for the practice they do, so do not be reluctant to spend time checking the quality of what they have done, encouraging them week by week to analyze how they have spent their practice time, what has worked and what has been ineffective.
The most common fault in contrapuntal music is often lack of detail and carelessness in the texture.
The most difficult areas of this piece are likely to be the three part texture bars 20 – 28, bars 32 – 36 and 48 – 52.
Make sure that you go over the LH (20 – 28) in careful detail, playing one of the parts whilst the student plays the other and then getting the student to practise the LH part with both RH & LH so that they can appreciate the different nature of the upper and the lower parts when combined.
The final stage will be to put this together in the LH alone. However, this should be done very slowly without any loss of individual clarity in the two parts.
Similar procedures should be followed for the other sections mentioned.
An excellent performance will demonstrate a confident and supple musical flow without undue or unnecessary accentuation. There will be a good underlying feel for the harmonic movement, with sensitivity to the moments of tension and relaxation in the phrasing. There will be a subtle rubato but it will not be misconstrued as romantic nor amount to anything more than what is probably an instinctive sense of line. The textures will be very sensitively graded with a keen sense of independence of parts.
In a good performance there will be a sense of character in the playing and also a good overall grasp of the contrapuntal aspects of the piece. Tonal refinement may well have some way to go and it will be fairly clear that there are a few rougher edges to the playing from time to time. It may well be that more time is needed to boost the performance to a higher level or even that the student is not yet at the stage of being capable of refining their playing further. Nonetheless you will certainly be able to give them credit for what they have achieved.
Whilst even some of the best performances may have the odd less than perfect moment, and sometimes even a brief lapse, confident continuity is very important as the starting point from to which to build better performances.
A sound performance may be one in which continuity and accuracy are excellent, but there is little to stimulate the musical interest of the audience and tonal control is lacking in any meaningful variety, or it could be a performance which has its promise and expressive qualities but becomes anxious and untidy or has lapses in continuity.
There comes a point where lapses in continuity impinge on the overall account of the piece to the extent that it would adversely affect the result of the performance in terms of its success, pass or fail. Hopefully a sensitive teacher will be able to steer the student away from a bad experience – either by withdrawal or deferral – since that does nothing for the confidence.