Compare and contrast four preludes ‘The Well Tempered Clavier’ Essay

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Well Tempered Clavier’, which consists of Prelude No 1 book 1, Prelude No 4 book 1, prelude No 8 book 1 and Prelude 22 book 1 which dates back to 1722 with four of Debussy’s prelude in book 1 which are ‘Voiles’, ‘La Fille aux chevaux de lin’, ‘La Cathedrale enloute’ and ‘Minstrels’ which were first published in 1910. In the 18th century the traditional concept of a Prelude was an improvised or notated instrumental work played before more substantial composition or performed as a piece to an item in a church service, for example preceding a fugue like J.S Bach’s ‘The Well Tempered Clavier’.

However in the 19th century the word prelude lost its original meaning and was now composed as independent instructional piece in any form or style. Most were one movement, fast in character for piano as demonstrated by Debussy’s preludes in his First book, but which appeared in 1910. These Preludes were shorter and had titles which suggested that they could even be programme music. In J.S Bach’s Preludes each prelude represents a distinct type of figuration, texture, form or technical problem. As was the case with Debussy where he established a unique identity at the start through melody (La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin), texture, harmonics (Voiles), ornaments (minstrels) or rhythm.

Bach was writing during the Baroque period where he was a practical musician where he composed and performed. During the composing of the Well Tempered Clavier Bach lived in Cothen in 1717 where he worked as a chapel master and director of chamber music. He occupied himself with orchestral and smaller ensemble compositions, but also composed a number of keyboard works that served instructional purposes. When composing these pieces Bach kept in mind the needs and variety of abilities his pupils.

Thus, the musical note book ‘Klavien Buchen’ which he composed for his son Williem Friedman contained Choral preludes, two part inventions and nine easy preludes and 11 more difficult ones which later developed into what we hear today as the Well Tempered Clavier. Each part contains 24 Preludes and Fugues arranged in chromatic order as Bach had committed himself to the new equal temperament, abandoning the old tuning of the Clavier that restricted the composer to 15 keys thus Well Tempered means well tuned.

Debussy was composing at the beginning of the 19th century from 1862- 1918, and like his predecessor Bach he wrote twenty four Preludes. They were not written in a cycle of keys like Bach but were however influenced by the principle of Impressionism. Debussy lived in Paris in 1910 while he was composing his first book of preludes when impressionists and symbolist literature and poetry were at their peak.

The ideals and aims of impressionism and symbolism were brought into the field of music principally by Claude Debussy. He refused to accept the keyboard restrictions set up by his predecessors like Bach and so proceeded to imagine different concepts of pianistic techniques and colouristic devices. He treated harmonies as tone colours and used chords for their expressive colour effects, trusting his musical instinct rather than obeying rules.

Debussy’s preludes tend to be more melodic and have an active rhythm, rather than J.S Bach’s which are mainly harmonic and have a repetible rhythm. In Debussy’s melody we can hear that many times he preferred to construct melodies on modal scales. However, modality was only one of several melodic possibilities available to Debussy.

When he desired oriental moods he based his melodic ideas on pentatonic scales: a five-note sequence corresponding to the black notes of the piano found in the music of many eastern cultures. Elsewhere Debussy worked out a completely personalized scale the ‘whole tone’ scale. We can observe this in ‘Voiles’ where the piece is almost entirely built on the whole tone scale from bar 1-41 and 48-64. This scale lacks semitones and in effect gives the piece an entirely unstable feeling e.g. a boat rocking to and fro.

As well in Voiles a pentatonic scale is used in bars 42-47, where this is the only place in the piece where a key signature is appears, as you can see from Figure 1.

Figure 1

There is an example of his modal scales in ‘La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin’. It is G major however it is modal in character through out much of the piece. A modal scale is:

Debussy also uses many other harmonic devices with active rhythms. As we can see again in Voiles he uses the pentatonic scale in bars 42-7 with a cadenza containing glissando arpeggios. It has a vibrant rhythm as it contains many dotted notes for example in figure 1. He also uses a rocking ostinato at tres souple to establish the effects of sails and further more grace notes are used maybe imitating flung spray, for example in figure 2.

Figure 2

For much of Debussy’s ‘La Fille aux Cheveux’ de Lin he creates a melody which is continuous and unforced. It is based on a series of figures, which are held together in Binary form.

One of his main preludes where melodic and rhythmic features are evident is ‘Minstrels’ (which are the type of men with top hats, blackened faces and white tailed coats that were such a common scene fifty or more years ago). Debussy uses many melodic devices here as he was trying to be more impressionistic. This piece is played ‘nerveux at avec humour’ where humorous grace notes must be played in time. He changes the speed, style moods and key to help give the impression of minstrels. The piece is in G major and he begins with an imitation of a banjo. It consists of a staccato figure in the right hand over tonic and dominant chords as you can observe in figure 3. The plantation dance gets underway with a semi quaver figure unaccompanied. Syncopation is then used with descending chords to imitate a cornet. There are many harmonic devices used here as well.

Figure 3

In J.S Bach’s preludes there are fewer melodic devices and the rhythm is constant. However we may hear a number of melodic devices in Prelude No1 in C major which was conceived with some pedalogical aims such as figure 4. This piece employs harmonic rather than melodic phrases and consists mainly of C major arpeggios as illustrated by Figure 4. In prelude No 4 which is in C sharp minor the prelude is based on a motivic development at different level from faithful imitation and sequencing to partial quotation and rather free adaptation. The melodic features which are used here are appoggiaturas and mordents as in figure 5.

Figure 4

Figure 5

However the remainder of J.S Bach’s preludes I have chosen to look at are very much harmonic in structure and style. This is the case with prelude No 8 which consists of an expressive melody over a harmonic structure usually consisting of the same chord played three times in each bar such as in Figure 6. It contains a variety of tone graduations and could be played with a sustaining pedal if on piano however it was originally composed on a harpsichord. It is divided into three parts, according to the key plan, though it cannot be said to be in ternary form because the third part is not a repetition of the first. The second section starts at bar 16 in the dominant minor with the melodic figure from bar 1 in the bass. Bar 29 returns to the tonic key, though it starts in with an interrupted cadence and it makes more use of the melodic figure first heard in bar 5. The last four bars form a coda on the tonic pedal.

Figure 6

The next prelude No 22 in the key of B flat minor is very similar to prelude no 8, both preludes are harmonic in style, slow and sustained and full of deep feeling. The prelude grows from the germ of five notes of the melody over a reiterated bass note. The 5 note figure appears in both the bass rising and falling and is often inverted and the whole piece is polyphonic in texture. As you can see from Figure 7.

Figure 7

Debussy uses many harmonic concepts. He first used dissonance: sevenths, ninth and elevenths which appear on the dominant or other degrees of the scale, neither prepared nor resolved often a series used conseculatively. He also used various altered chords or else a sustained chord with superimposed foreign harmonics that lend a flavour of polytonality. In many instances he uses parallel series of perfect intervals fifths, forth and octaves.

Many harmonic figures are used in the prelude’ La Cathedrale engloutie’ it is based on legends of submerged forests, cathedrals and churches in various parts of the world such as Wales. This piece is very programmatic. First there is the effect of bells. A soft chord is struck at the extreme ends of the piano, and then intervening parallel chords are used adding to the natural effects of harmonics produced by first chords which are played with the sustaining pedal held down throughout for instance in Figure 8. The reinforcement of harmonics are repeated with parallel chords creating a linear harmony.

Figure 8

At bar 7 a slow moving melody begins, sounding like a choir in the distance, while the chord for the bell plays an E, when the melody disappears a wave like pattern of notes are played with opening figure again. The opening figure is repeated five times, which the placid opening phrases dying away. In this piece Debussy captures the misty atmosphere with his great understanding of harmonics. We can see some more of his harmonic features in La Fille aux Cheveux de lin, in bars 21-3 which is shown in Figure 9, which form the climax of the piece and provides a link back to the beginning, but when it recurs at bar 24 it is modified to and is played in a series of discords creating a linear harmony.

Figure 9

Additionally we can hear some more of his harmonic devices in Minstrels. Minstrels is in the Key of G major, but one of its chief features is a few bars in a remote key, followed by the wrenching of the music back to G again. In bar 16-15 he uses descending, chromatic accented chords in the left hand. A semi quaver A flat spread over 4 octaves leads to a chromatic discord at 40-1 for example in Figure 10. At bar 63 Debussy uses four bars of expressive chords producing a mock sentimental effect in G major. However to end the piece the last two chords are a forceful 5-1 thus making a perfect cadence in the tonic key as seen in figure 11.

Figure 10

Figure 11

In conclusion, my two chosen works share very few similarities and each clearly reflects the period in which it was composed. Over the years the prelude has grown from a piece which was intended to establish the key of a substantial composition from the 17th century to a more programmatic impressionistic composition as created by Debussy. Debussy’s innovations were chiefly exploiting the harmony and melody and he exploited the whole tone scale in ‘Voiles’. His treatment of chords were radical in his time as he arranged chords in such away as to weaken them rather than support the key signature.

For example in ‘Minstrels’ he arranges descending chromatic chords in the left hand to wrench the music away from its home key, rather than arrange them functionally as part of a traditional harmony like Bach. He rejected the traditional approach to composing on the piano and instead focused on emphasizing the piano’s capabilities for delicate expressiveness. However Bach’s Preludes are short with no obvious contrasts, preserved similar texture throughout, have similar figuration throughout e.g Prelude 1 and employing harmonic rather than melodic phrasing such as in Bach’s Prelude in C major which contains arpeggios and is supported by a sustained bass line.

As I have discovered from my research there are many musical features which are clearly different and link each composition to the period in which it was written. However both compositions were conceived as part of a set of 24. This is what inspired me to study these two piece as they are both preludes and a set of 24.

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