AVA225: What makes a good free theme
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 225 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Steven, and we are continuing our discussion about what makes a good free theme, let’s say for a prelude, because in a previous podcast we talked about the fugal theme. So let’s look at our example of BWV 541, Prelude and Fugue in G Major by Bach (and we discussed the fugue in the previous conversation). And the theme, of course, doesn’t start right from the beginning, right? It’s a flourish--it’s like a passagio, right Ausra?
A: Yes, and you know, in terms of talking about preludes, it’s so distant from the fugue.
A: It’s completely different, because the main purpose of the prelude is to set up the key for the fugue. So it very often has a more improvisatory character.
A: Or, you know, more virtuoso character. It can be like a toccata.
A: And I don’t think you have to create a specific subject to the prelude, because it’s not a fugue.
V: Maybe you could use several rhythmic elements to create certain episodes. Because with Bach--later in his life, when he matured and studied works of not only German composers like Buxtehude, but also Italian composers, like Vivaldi--he created what we call ritornello prelude. Remember, this recurring melodic idea which could be found throughout the prelude in various shapes: in the original key, in other related keys, in shortened or expanded version--it works as concert material for the entire prelude.
A: Yes, but you are now talking about more sophisticated preludes, more complex preludes.
A: And I’m talking about simpler ones.
A: You know, I’m not talking about what you just meant, like Prelude in E♭ Major!
V: With 3 episodes!
A: Yes, with the 3 episodes. But in terms of when I’m thinking about preludes: just imagine that you come to a strange instrument, that you see for the first time--a strange organ; and you sit down on the organ bench, and you want to…
V: Try it out.
A: To try it out.
A: For me, that’s what a prelude is about.
V: It’s an introduction to the fugue.
V: In this case, then, what you need to think about is a tonal plan.
A: Sure, sure.
V: Maybe one--just one--melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic idea which you could use in various keys. Right? For example, let’s take the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. The fugue is very complex--
A: Yes, it’s one of the most complex pieces.
V: With 4 parts, and many canons; but the prelude is so simple that it starts like arpeggiated chordal action.
A: It’s like basically a long cadence.
V: With the cadence in G Major, which means in the dominant key?
V: Then, I think it goes to d minor--to what, the second scale degree chord or key; it might touch, of course, the relative minor, which is a minor; and towards the end, it has what--dominant pedal point.
A: True, and then it resolves to tonic.
V: Tonic pedal point at the end, with an excursion to the subdominant key, and plagal cadence.
A: But it has all the same figures over and over again, throughout the entire piece.
V: Yes. That’s plenty for an entire prelude. It is, of course, a shorter prelude; for more sophisticated writing, this could be just the first episode, right?
A: Could be, yes.
V: Maybe a little bit long, but half of it could be for the first episode, and you could actually...actually, you could take 3 of Bach’s Preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier with the same meter and use the same figures in alternation to create something similar to E♭ Major Prelude by Bach, BWV 552/1.
A: True, and of course, when you select your key for your prelude, you could also think about the message that that key brings to you or to the musical world
A: Because I’m thinking about the same C Major Prelude, and then the c minor Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I---how different they are. Remember the second, that c minor prelude, how dramatic it is?
V: Well, yes; it’s like a toccata.
A: Yes. It’s definitely like a toccata. Fast motion all the time, very virtuosic.
V: But also no imitations, no fugal elements--
A: True, true.
V: Just simply arpeggiating those chords between 2 hands. And the same is with d minor, probably. Some of the preludes I remember from Well-Tempered Clavier, like E♭ Major, it already has imitations, so it’s more advanced writing. And Bach loved to create imitation episodes within the prelude, too.
V: Like in c minor Prelude and Fugue for the organ, BWV 546.
A: Because that’s a good technique to develop your piece, to make it longer.
V: And more interesting.
V: Because when you write imitations, it’s like a dialogue between the 3 parts.
A: Plus, all those imitations come with sequences, too. Sequential episodes.
V: Yes. So, sequence is what? It’s a technique to connect various keys, basically.
V: To bridge the gap between C Major and G Major, you add a sequence going downward and adding somewhere F sharp.
A: That’s right.
V: The new accidental of the new key. So things like that comprise a prelude, or basic prelude type of writing. It could be called sometimes Fantasia...
A: Sometimes Toccata...
V: Sometimes Toccata, if it’s a motoric piece...But mostly, it’s one and the same: free writing, not based on a fugal theme. If you have your fugal theme ready for you, and you created the fugue, you could simply select the key of the same fugue and maybe create a different meter: if your fugue was in 4/4 meter, maybe the prelude could have 3/4 meter, and vice versa. Or the same meter, could be.
A: Yes, I think.
V: But maybe different tempo.
V: And then think, sometimes, how the tempo relates to the prelude and fugue. What is the relationship between the tempo--sometimes there is...
V: And most of the time there is.
A: And it’s the sort of subject that always makes so many discussions and arguments, because everybody has their own truth.
V: Yes, yes. So for starters, avoid complex metrical relationships; maybe use the same meter for the beginning, right? For your first 10 fugues and preludes.
A: That’s what I would do.
V: Excellent. And to make it more interesting, use excursions into related keys. In a major key, you could modulate to the second scale degree minor, third scale degree minor, fourth scale degree major, fifth scale degree major...What else? Sixth scale degree minor.
V: That’s the most common type. What about a minor starting point?
A: That’d be just the other way around.
V: For example?
A: You would have third scale degree major, and sixth scale degree major. Then, of course, fifth degree would be major, too, but the first scale degree would be minor.
V: You said major fifth scale degree?
A: Because the fifth scale degree is mostly major in both minor and major keys.
V: So if a starting point is a minor, the fifth scale degree would be…?
A: E Major.
V: E Major. Can you use e minor, then?
A: Well, yes, you could. This wouldn’t be so common, but you could do it. Of course, it would have a different meaning.
V: So the same as with first scale degree minor?
A: Yes, because you know, if you use the minor dominant in a minor key, it means that you don’t have a dominant chord. It means that you have a subdominant.
V: But I’m not talking about the chords. I’m talking about the episodes.
A: But these are all related, too, with the harmony. Don’t you agree?
V: What about… harmonic subdominant? Remember, a minor first scale degree chord--in a major key. Can it be used?
A: Yes, I think...
V: It is related.
A: Yes, it is related.
V: Just like a major dominant in a minor key...
V: Then minor subdominant in a major key.
A: Yes, because you know, what I’m thinking is: for example, in a minor key, if you would use the episode in E Major, then you could have the tonic straightaway after the dominant episode.
A: E Major episode. If you would use an e minor episode, then probably you wouldn’t go back to the tonic episode. You would probably have to use something from the subdominant material.
V: Okay, guys. This was our discussion about creating a prelude; and as you see, the most important thing is to choose a fun rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic figure, and keep it throughout. And by the way, I teach this technique in my Prelude Improvisation Formula, which is based on the Klavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the preludes that Johann Sebastian Bach created for his eldest son. So people who want to learn to improvise like that, in a free style--they can train from this collection as well. Okay. And please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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