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There's no doubt about it, the Fugue in B Minor and I have been through a lot together. Between preludes and postludes, I've played it hundreds of times over the years. The two of us have brought people into the church as babies, joined them together as adults and, in the end, sent them on their way again. Through all sorts of tempos and all manner of registrations, I've always been able to rely on my old friend, the B Minor.
At one time or another, we've all had a friend who was a little "different." To tell the truth, I've always suspected that there was something a little "different" about the B Minor but until recently I'd never taken the time to figure out what it was. A closer look at it revealed that while on the surface it may look and sound like Bach's other fugues, the B Minor is not your typical Bach fugue.
Ex. 1: Fugue in B Minor (BWV 579)
To begin with, Bach uses for his fugue subject a theme by another composer. The B Minor's title usually includes "on a Theme by Corelli," said "theme" originating in the Vivace movement (see Exhibit 2) of Corelli's Trio Sonata Op. 3, No. 4 (1689). We'll never know specifically how Bach became acquainted with Corelli's piece for strings and organ but Arnold's "Organ Literature: A Comprehensive Survey" puts the composing of the B Minor Fugue in Bach's Weimar period (1708-1717) during which time "...Bach was able to study many scores by Italian composers such as Legrenzi, Corelli, Vivaldi and Frescobaldi." I like to imagine that he heard the piece performed or even participated in a performance of it himself.
Ex. 2: Opening Bars of Corelli's Trio Sonata Op. 3, No. 4 (1689)
I've spent a good chunk of time pondering why Bach chose this particular Corelli movement. At first, I leaned toward a practical explanation. Perhaps he found himself in need of a postlude and decided to improvise on a bit of the Corelli that had stayed in his head. Maybe one day he found himself playing it without even realizing at first what it was, improvised a postlude and wrote it down later. I propose these explanations without any evidence other than that the B Minor Fugue has an improvisatory feel. Not to take anything away from it, but it just doesn't strike me as something that Bach spent a lot of time working out in advance. Compare, for example, the B Minor's harmonic structure with the elaborate harmonic structure of the Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578).
After further study, I moved on toward another possible explanation for Bach's attraction to this movement. If you compare the B Minor to the Corelli, you'll notice that they begin with the exact same notes. (compare Exhibit 1 to Exhibit 2). When the two pieces diverge however, Bach's work doesn't veer off into a stylistically different kind of piece but continues on in an elaborating interpretation of Corelli's piece. The resulting homage reveals that Bach obviously liked Corelli's piece but felt he could do more with the material, adding a fourth voice, making it much more fugal, and enlarging it to 102 bars from Corelli's original 39. Bach expanded on the idea of the whole piece rather than just taking the theme and deriving his own piece from it.
The idea that perhaps Bach simply liked the Corelli movement, by itself, might be enough of an explanation for his treatment of it but, nevertheless, I kept digging. As I spent more time analyzing the piece I finally saw that in those opening measures, before the two pieces diverge, there was another divergence. In quoting Corelli for the first four bars of his B Minor Fugue, Bach had chosen a structure not typically found in his other fugues.
In most Bach fugues, after the first voice enters stating the fugue Subject, the second voice enters with the Answer, which is a fancy way of saying the Subject is restated in the dominant key, up a fifth or down a fourth. Meanwhile, during the Answer, the first voice continues on with the Counter-Subject, which is a fancy way of describing a contrasting melody that accompanies the Subject every time it makes an appearance in the fugue (See Exhibit 3).
Ex. 3: Typical Structure at the Beginning of a Bach Fugue
Exhibit 4 shows how the B Minor Fugue might have looked, had Bach composed it using this typical formula.
Ex. 4: The B Minor Fugue that Wasn't
Instead, the structure of the B Minor is significantly different. The Subject enters as it should; however, half way through the Subject, the second voice, while expectedly entering in the dominant F# Major, is not stating the Subject. Instead, it is stating a contrasting melody, which will be found to be the Counter-Subject (See Exhibit 5).
Ex. 5: Actual Opening Structure of the B Minor Fugue
The B Minor Fugue never produces an Answer but instead immediately restates the Subject (in the Tonic key) with the entrance of the third voice (See pedal entrance in Exhibit 6).
Ex. 6: Opening Bars of Fugue in B Minor (BWV 579)
Because the Counter-Subject is in the dominant key of F# Major like an Answer would be and because it enters in the second half of the Subject as Answers sometimes do, the Counter-Subject is able to function as a kind of Answer. A progression of i-V-i is achieved, allowing Bach to keep the harmonic ball rolling, just as he would with a Subject(i)-Answer(V)-Subject(i) structure. But, the fact is, this fugue has no Answer!
Now, finally, I felt that I might really have touched on Bach's motivation for choosing this particular Corelli movement. In his brilliance, Bach would certainly recognize the harmonic implications of the Corelli Vivace, seeing in it a problem-solving opportunity to work out a structurally-sound fugue that foregoes an Answer.
On the other hand, I've also mused that the B Minor Fugue may simply have been the result of a dare or even showing off at the organ. "Sure, I remember the Corelli and I'll even throw in a fourth voice." That also might explain the plagal cadence flourish at the end, as if, after playing Corelli's ending, Bach had to get in the last word with a bit of showmanship.
Ex. 7: Bach Gets the Last Word
The Peters Edition lists the B Minor Fugue in the Easy to Medium Difficult category, more toward the Medium Difficult end of the list. While it is not terribly hard, there are a few tricky places that will prevent it from being a straight sight read for most players. That being said, once you make friends with the B Minor, a more reliable friend, though a bit "different," will be hard to find.
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Related Sheet Music
Organ Literature by Corliss Richard Arnold
Volume I of this new edition is a basic textbook on the development of pipe organ composition in geographically diverse schools. Its nineteen chapters include charts of organ composers and a historical background of contemporary events and figures for each organ composition school. Chapter bibliographies are completely updated with corollary readings that have appeared since 1973. A listing of Bach organ compositions with pagination of various editions is also included. Volume II has been substantially revised and enlarged and gives biographical sketches of organ composers and an alphabetical list of each composer's works (including pagination in the major organ music anthologies), publisher, catalog number, and copyright date. A directory of organ music publishers is also provided. The combined set is an indispensable resource for organists, organ teachers, and music scholars everywhere.
Bach (Master Musicians Series) by Malcolm Boyd
Though he begins by bemoaning "the difficulty of writing anything on Bach remotely worthy of its subject," Malcolm Boyd goes on to do exactly that. This volume from the Master Musicians Series (which also includes Julian Budden on Verdi and Michael Kennedy on Richard Strauss) intermingles chapters on Bach's life with chapters on his music (also roughly chronological) in a delightfully clearheaded way. Boyd is perfectly willing to say whether he finds a piece of music to be substandard and freely takes issue with the scholarship of earlier analysts. Taking nothing for granted, Boyd disproves common assumptions about relative dates of compositions. The section on cantatas begins with brief notes on the genre, a few antecedents, and the subtypes of secular and sacred. Boyd then briskly reviews the surviving works, dwelling on a few for some enlightening and representative details. In "Canons and Counterpoint," he sorts out the Musical Offering in a remarkable few paragraphs before having a go at The Art of the Fugue. Boyd's charts are very easy to follow (appropriate for a composer whose music is often compared to architecture), and his musical examples--especially in the chapter titled "Orchestral, Instrumental, and Keyboard Music"--are spectacularly well chosen. There is room for a few choice incidental observations (e.g., cantatas for the winter months were shorter, sparing the choirboys time in the unheated organ lofts). A 22-page work list (revised in 1997), a life calendar, and a brief chapter on numerology round out a highly rewarding volume.
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