Bach J.S. - Fugue in C BWV 952
J S Bach lived from 1685 to 1750, working as an organist, violinist, violist and composer of works for choir, orchestra and solo instruments. J S Bach is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, revered by subsequent composers throughout history.
Bach’s keyboard works epitomise the very best of German Baroque music and no student’s piano education is complete without a study of several of Bach’s pieces.
The pieces comprising BWV 952 were written for harpsichord or clavichord, probably with a view to them being used for teaching purposes.
Pupil Match & Suitability
The fugue is such an important form of keyboard music that it should eventually be in the repertoire of all piano students. Ideally, the student will already have played some of Bach’s easier contrapuntal pieces, such as the two-part inventions, or at least have
encountered the style of Bach in the Six Little Preludes for Beginners.
Assuming a suitable background, this fugue would be an ideal piece to further the student’s understanding of keyboard counterpoint and it is appealing enough to be enjoyed at a public performance.
Small hands are at no disadvantage here – indeed slim, nimble fingers are ideal for this piece. The student does need to be able to define linear textures with independence of hands.
Style & Tempo
Bach’s style was probably at its inventive best when composing keyboard music, as he was extraordinarily fluent in improvisation and in developing motifs through complex contrapuntal textures with frequent, if often brief, references to related keys.
Bach’s notation was detailed and precise, unlike many Baroque composers who expected the performers to fill in a lot of detail themselves, so we have a fairly clear idea of how he expected his music to be played.
Phrasing & Articulation
With regard to phrasing and articulation, we should encourage the student to listen to how Baroque music of the time was interpreted on a range of instruments.
Bach himself was apparently not overly concerned about which instrument his music was played on, as shown by his leaving the instrumentation of some of his major works, including The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering, open to the choice of the performer.
Tone & Texture
The knowledge that the harpsichord was unable to make gradation in tone may inform our understanding of the music, but it is not possible, necessary nor desirable to try to imitate the actual sound of these earlier instruments on the modern piano.
On the piano, we can employ means suited to that instrument of making the interpretation musically satisfying.
The most significant technical demand made in this piece is the ability to define the textures successfully.
This technique is so closely bound up with aural perception and musical understanding that it would be a mistake to view it as a purely physical matter.
The student needs to develop the ability to hold in consciousness more than one melodic line and to think in a linear way as well as being aware of the harmonic implications.
Good teaching, in which the student is guided in learning each part as a melody in its own right, followed by some analysis of the keys and harmonic progressions explored within the piece will make it much easier to physically bring out any of the parts.
The student will then need to be reminded - or taught - to distribute the weight in favour of those fingers that carry the most important melodic lines at any time. Very slow, thoughtful practice is essential.
This is a piece that falls quite naturally under the fingers, so fingering presents few difficulties.
The most important considerations are:
1/ whether the chosen fingering is suitable for the hand shape and size of individual students
2/ the fingering must work up to speed as well as slowly
3/ the agreed fingering is used consistently.
Pedalling is not necessary in this piece.
A very advanced pianist may choose to use a little, subtle pedalling to enhance the tone. Extensive use of the pedal for sustaining purposes would be inappropriate for the style.
It is important to formulate a clear teaching strategy before beginning the first lesson on this piece.
First familiarise yourself with the particular feel of the piece.
McEwen and Long (in Eighteen Little Preludes, ABRSM, 1932) categorise Bach's Keyboard works as being in three idioms or styles -
a) connected with vocal composition
b) derived from dance and gesture
c) related to the physical reaction of the hand to the keyboard instrument itself.
We might say that this work relates to the vocal idiom in that it has three clear lines in the texture, but also that it is very idiomatic writing for the keyboard of the time.
We can therefore focus our teaching on
a) the textures and and shaping of the musical lines
b) the way in which we articulate the notes.
Practice needs to be purposeful and structured, so give the student a very clear idea of exactly what to do.
Meticulous attention should be paid to correct, consistent fingering during practice - not just note learning.
It is equally important for the student to practise the articulation agreed on in the lesson. Deciding on articulation after the notes have been learned without that detail will never produce a fluent, intuitive performance.
The problems in performing Baroque music that are consistently noticed by adjudicators and examiners are:
1) The RH is known securely but the LH is not sufficiently well known for fluency to be maintained.
2) The notes and rhythms are well known but the playing needs much more stylistic awareness.
An excellent performance will be fluent and accurate. The style of Bach will be communicated persuasively in sensitive textural awareness, musical shaping of phrase and appropriate articulation detail. The pace will be convincing and effortlessly maintained.
A good performance will have confident continuity with reliable accuracy. There will be some awareness of the need to show the textures although this might be confined to the obvious, rather than achieving subtle interplay between the three melodic lines. There will be some variation in dynamics indicating a developing sense of structure.
A sound performance will show steady continuity at a sustained, if rather cautious pace, or the pace may be suitable but some small stumbles or uneven control of semiquavers might give a few anxious moments.There will be some variety in tone but the ability to bring out a melodic line in an inner part or bass part may not yet be evident.