Clara Schumann’s Prelude and Fugue, Op. 16 No. 2

Clara Schumann née Clara Wieck (1819 – 1896) was a German pianist, composer and sought-after piano teacher. A child prodigy trained and strictly supervised by her father, Friedrich Wieck, Clara became one of the 19th century’s foremost virtuosos and remained active for more than six decades. Before her teens she had already debuted at the Gewandhaus in her native Leipzig and toured to Paris, taking along some of her own compositions to include in her programmes. 

Robert first met Clara when he became a student of her father, and romance soon blossomed. However, Friedrich was set against their marrying and even waged a court battle to oppose their plans. He lost, and they wed in 1840. Before Robert was known to the world, Clara was already commanding an international reputation as a concert pianist, and her advocacy of her husband’s music certainly helped his work circulate. 

Clara had a difficult life, juggling her commitments as a pianist with raising seven children (an eighth died in infancy) and looking after her husband as his mental health waned. Clara more or less stopped composing after Robert’s early death in 1856 (he was 46 and she was only 37), thus her oeuvre is relatively small — just 23 published works. 

Among her compositions for piano are three Preludes and Fugues, op. 16, composed in Dresden in 1845. These pieces resulted from a joint undertaking between Clara and Robert to master the art of counterpoint. Robert felt he needed to improve his contrapuntal skills so the couple decided to tackle the project together.

The Prelude and Fugue in B flat, the second of the set, is currently on the syllabus for ABRSM Grade 8, and will be a good choice for those whose playing would benefit from the study of strict counterpoint but who prefer the Romantic idiom to the more customary Baroque examples. 

While the Prelude is certainly contrapuntal, the mood feels more like a Nocturne, with a singing right hand line against an arpeggiated accompaniment. The noble fugue, in four voices, presents many challenges to the player and will therefore need to be studied diligently.

While progress will feel slow this way, a “stepladder” approach yields the best results in the long term. This practice method involves taking each strand of counterpoint separately before bringing them together in all possible combinations of two and three voices. This works better if the section selected for a given practice session is short (a few bars only). Work out a good fingering as you go along, write it in the score and stick with it each time you practise!

My full video walk-through of this work is available on the Online Academy here. An index of walk-throughs for other pieces from the ABRSM 2021 & 2022 Grade 8 syllabus is available here. Please click here for all grades.


For more on the stepladder approach to contrapuntal playing, follow this link to my previous blog post.


How to Learn a Fugue

Learning a fugue can be highly rewarding but also frustrating and time-consuming. The good news is that there are systematic ways to approach learning complex, contrapuntal music that can make it absorbing, gratifying and less daunting.

JS Bach PRelude & Fugue
Bach’s autograph of Fugue No. 17 in A-Flat Major from Book II of Das Wohltemperierte Clavier

The Step-ladder Approach

While you’re probably aware and make use of hands separate practising, this is not all that useful for a fugue given that each hand might feature multiple voices (or parts thereof) at any time. Rather than practising a fugue hands separately, it makes more sense to approach it strands separately – learning each voice on it’s own with the fingering and articulation you will end up using when performing.

Once you’ve learnt each of the voices on it’s own, you can then start to combine two at a time e.g. Soprano and Alto, Alto and Bass, and Soprano and Bass for a three part fugue. When you do this, be sure to do it extraordinarily slowly at first with utmost concentration! You will need to start working in small sections, perhaps just a few bars at a time to begin with.

Excerpt from study edition of Bach Prelude & Fugue
Excerpt of the “step ladder” from our Study Edition for Bach’s Prelude & Fugue No. 2 in C Minor (Book 1)

The last step after combining pairs of voices is to practise all the voices together. For a fugue with three voices, the complete process looks like this (Soprano = S; Alto = A; Bass = B):

STEP 1 > S; A; B;

STEP 2 > SA; SB; AB;


After you have gone through this process, it may be of value to practise with each hand separately. However, because the middle voices are often shared between the two hands, the musical result will be strange and less than satisfactory.

A four-voice fugue has more combinations (T = Tenor): SA, ST, SB, AT, AB, TB, SAT, SAB, ATB, SATB.

Video Demonstration

In this video, I demonstrate the step-ladder process in detail using the Fugue section of the Toccata from Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E Minor (this video is from a collection of resources that will soon be published for this work – click here to sign-up to our mailing list for notifications!):

Baroque Day

Our second London Piano Course takes place on Saturday 22nd October and follows a similar format to our first event in September, but with a focus on Baroque music. In this day of workshops and presentations, Graham Fitch shows how repertoire from this period can be played stylistically and expressively on the piano.

Ticket options & prices

In-person tickets – Join us in-person as an observer (£125) or performer (£175) for the full day. This includes access to all sessions, refreshments, a light lunch and recordings after the event. Performer tickets also include a 30-minute performance or feedback slot in the performance workshop. Click here to book your place!

Online Tickets – If you can’t make it to London, you can still join us online for the day and obtain access to the recordings for the event afterwards. Tickets for the full day cost £80 (£48 for Online Academy subscribers) and can be purchased here.

Other Practice Tools

  • Bar by bar – Avoid overloading the working memory by learning a bar a a time, repeating two to three times mindfully to create a habit (click here for more suggestions on using bar by bar practice).
  • Slow practice – Already mentioned with the stepladder above, super slow practice with intense concentration is invaluable throughout the learning process. You might even want to use your metronome by retaining the tempo / value but changing the note durations e.g. quaver becomes a crotchet or minim (therefore halving or even quartering the speed).
  • Voicing – Play through the section as many times as there are voices, each time bringing out an assigned voice and putting the others in the background. In other words, play one voice forte, the others piano. This is incredibly useful for developing independence and the ability emphasise lines at will.
  • Miming – For more advanced players, it is great practice to mime one voice while playing the others out (touching the surface of the keys, or partially depressing the keys without sounding the notes). Again, exhaust the possibilities!
  • Singing – Especially difficult but worth trying: omit one voice, and instead of playing it, sing it (while playing the other voices).

Further Resources

The following are some further resources and links on learning fugues:

  • Study Edition (Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847) – Click here to purchase our study edition featuring video demonstrations and versions of the score with individual voices and combinations thereof for applying the step ladder.
  • Open Scores – Click here to download open scores for each of the fugues from the Well Tempered Klavier
  • Step into “The 48” – Click here to view our recently launched series in which Beate Toyka provides a guide to JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier starting with the easier works and ending with the most difficult. 

Lastly, for a more detailed demonstration of these and other practice tools, you might want to join me for my presentation on learning fugues on 22nd October. This session is part of a full day of events devoted to playing Baroque music on the piano. In addition to learning fugues, I’ll be giving presentations on various aspects of interpreting and performing music from this period, including articulation, ornamentation and tone. Click here to find out more!