Melinda Coffey Armstead, piano
Prelude to Worship
Well Tempered Clavier Book I: Prelude in E-flat Major, BWV 852 . . . J. S. Bach
St. Columba . . . ancient Irish hymn tune; arr. by Penny Rodriguez
Immortal God, yet mortal man, with men He makes His dwelling,
And we behold His glory here, in grace beyond all telling.
Incarnate God, embrace me now, and by your Spirit’s art,
Enflesh the Word of God anew within my yielded heart.
— Neil Barham
WTC I: Fugue in E-flat Major . . . J. S. Bach
Today’s program includes Bach’s prelude in Eb major (three flats, in the service of the Trinity, always central to his music, Soli Deo Gloria), and is remarkable in that it contains a fugue within ITSELF, of a more complex architecture than many of the (“actual”) fugues of his Well Tempered Clavier. The pair (i.e. the prelude and the following fugue) thus really consists of two fugues. The “normal” fugue (in THREE voices) following the prelude is straightforward and jubilant.
The ten graceful measures that open the Prelude are like the sun rising on a new day, awakening expectations of light and pleasure. But some days are more complicated than you expect from their beginnings, and sure enough we are led from sunrise grace and simplicity into a more complex, short, chorale-like fugato (“fugue-like”) subject, like the muted sunshine of early morning, suggesting that the day might turn more interesting.
Magically, a full double fugue (two different themes worked out in four voices) then springs to life! It represents a tribute to the richness of creation, and to the realization that nothing will be simple, including the fingering. (I picture J.S. playing it with an impish grin that says to future keyboard players, “See how you like this!”) This double fugue, which is built upon both the introductory ten measures AND the fugato is a work of pure genius, relentless and demanding to play and to listen to. This is a day that delights you in retrospect, reflecting its lyrical beginning, unexpected shadows, and excitement of a high order leading finally to a warm sunset after the turbulence of effort and accomplishment, well beyond your early expectations.
The following somewhat conventional but jubilant three part fugue invites you to face the calm of the evening, perhaps with a smile and a glass of wine, well-pleased.
ps: For extra credit there is an excellent, thorough analysis of this Bach Prelude and Fugue and comparisons of recordings at:
pps: As bipedal creatures in a world of bilateral symmetry, the number three has magical properties. It represents the Trinity. It is also The Triad, being the number of the whole as it contains the beginning, a middle and an end. The power of three is universal and is the tripartite nature of the world as land, sea and sky. It is human as body, mind and spirit, or id, ego and super ego. Three is the smallest number we need to create a pattern, the perfect combination of brevity and rhythm. It’s a principle captured neatly in the Latin phrase omne trium perfectum: everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete.