Hidden Gems: J.S. Bach – Four Duets, BWV 802-805

I’m still taking some time to sort out all the riches of The Etude magazine, but in the meantime here’s some straight-up repertoire discussion.

Don’t confused by the title “duet” – these are for one player, but the title comes from the fact that they are written in two voices. I became interested in these pieces when a friend was going to perform an organ recital of Bach’s Clavier-Übung III, also known as the German Organ Mass for its literal and symbolic sacred elements. The complete work includes a prelude and fugue as bookends, with several chorale preludes and these four uets in the middle. I had no prior knowledge of this work, so in anticipation of a concert that was sure to blow my mind, I did some listening. The duets immediately caught my attention, partially because they were written for manuals only and could be played on any keyboard instrument. Indeed, the first results that popped up on YouTube were piano performances. I started to get some ideas.

Alas, my friend did not include the duets in his recital (admittedly, their inclusion in Clavier-Übung III is somewhat of a topic of debate), but the rest of the music was sublime and I would highly recommend seeking it out.

It’s astonishing to see how far Bach can take his contrapuntal art within the limitations of two voices. These pieces might be of interest to pianists who have graduated beyond Bach’s Inventions but love the purity of two-voice counterpoint. I would also say that they train basic hand agility more than some traditional four-part writing, because the hands traverse very wide registers in short durations to fill out the harmonic space.

Since these amazing pieces have been omitted from both of the repertoire-leveling books I use, I’ll apply my own levels from the system we use for classical piano at Hal Leonard.

Duetto No. 1 in E minor, BWV 802

Of the four, this one most evokes an actual duet between other instruments; say, a violin and cello. Lots of leaping gestures, scales, and a feeling of the instruments trading soloistic lines. The whole construction is very chromatic and has a sneaky, spidery quality. But there’s also a catchiness about some of the main licks. I can’t get them out of my head. Some of the left hand’s lines, burbling up from the bass, have that wonderful Bach solemnity and elegance. Level: Upper Intermediate.

Duetto No. 2 in F major, BWV 803

The opening recalls the popular F major Invention, announcing a happy mood and a clear imitation between hands. Broken chords fly by, and when Bach reaches the first real cadence (about 40 seconds in) it feels like all the previous music has come in one breath. The B section is a real surprise, treading way more chromatic and dissonant territory. Eventually he throws us a minor-mode statement of the opening subject, but now with tighter canons between the hands that adds to the complexity. Other motives from the A section start to appear, but we’re still stuck in this thorny, dissonant maze. The A section does finally return, happy as ever, as if nothing has happened. I love scholar David Yearsley’s take on this piece, quoted from his book Bach and the meanings of counterpoint: “Without the B section the Duetto is the perfect work of 1739…In its entirety however the piece is a perfect blasphemy – a powerful refutation indeed of the progressive shibboleths of naturalness and transparency.” Level: Upper Intermediate/Early Advanced.

Duetto No. 3 in G major, BWV 804

Time to put on your best Baroque outfit and sway to the music! Bach is great at these flowing compound-meter things, and the uncomplicated key of G major fits it well. With only two voices, it sounds less busy than this kind of piece might in one of the English Suites or Partitas. I don’t have a lot to say about the music. It’s a bit predictable in its unfolding, not too harmonically adventurous, but still quite pleasant and still, you know, Bach. Level: Early Advanced.

Duetto No. 4 in A minor, BWV 805

OK, so there’s a pretty wide range of tempo interpretations for this one. To give you an idea, Evgeni Koroliov’s rendition is 6:03, while Andràs Schiff clocks in at 1:59. I have to say…I prefer it slow. The opening states a stern fugue subject that contains some Alberti-esque figures. The development of this material in two voices leads to some tortured, winding lines and a really melancholy mood. One reason I find the slow tempo more compelling is that you hear every turn of Bach’s harmonic clockwork and have time to process how amazing it is. An episode developing the Alberti figure at 3:27 (in Koroliov’s recording), then again at 4:39, just makes my jaw drop. I would apply a descriptor that my friend used for some of the other music in Clavier-Übung III: desperately beautiful. Level: Intermediate (if using a slow tempo).

Even by Bach’s standards, this music is very, very cool. Listen through the whole set and you’ll find something stimulating, something you’ll want to hear again. And this is as close as I’ll get to being a salesman, but if you’re interested in playing any of the duets, you’ll probably want to take your journey with a pristine, high-quality Henle edition and just revel in the excellence and German-ness of it all.

Henle (edition with fingering) | Henle (edition without fingering)

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