The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #2
Fugue in C Major, BWV 846
I've always felt the first fugue in the set to be a bit of a disappointment. After the life-affirming ecstasies of Bach's perfect 35 measures in the C major Prelude, this feels a bit trivial. But that's where I'm wrong.
There's a beautiful recording of this by the Modern Jazz Quartet in "Blues on Bach," the only reason I still have a cassette player. In it, the quartet break halfway for an improvisation on the theme (mostly from John Lewis, the brilliant pianist), and then return to play the rest of the piece note-for-note, ending with Milt Jackson on the vibraphone going up the C major scale. I've tried to imitate that ending here. What the MJQ teaches is the same thing every piano teacher has ever said to every student: slow down. You cannot play the Well-Tempered Klavier fast. (Well, you can, and if you're Glenn Gould you feel weirdly compelled to, but I'm talking about normal people.) Played right, this fugue should relax you better than any sauna. All urgency should slip away, as the simple theme works patiently and methodically through its 4 voices to its inevitable conclusion.
So in its way it's perfectly paired with its prelude. If the Prelude in C is an entrance into paradise, this is the hanging around in Eden before the Fall. It's quietly beautiful, pastoral, a peaceable kingdom. There will be a Fall to come - the C minor Prelude is as black as night - but for now, let's just enjoy the flowers.
I've marked this "Ocean Blue" because of the long-held idea that Bach's 48 Preludes & Fugues in the Well-Tempered Klavier and Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas are the pianist's Old and New Testament. This is a rubbish idea, mainly because it gives you no place to go afterwards (Chopin? Debussy?). But there is a grain of truth in it, if you think of BWV 846 as the Book of Genesis. In the beginning, God made the sky and the sea, and in the Prelude and Fugue we have first the birds of the air and then the fish of the sea. Perhaps if you listen to this piece while watching a goldfish in an aquarium you'll get the idea.
The Modern Jazz Quartet: Percy Heath (bass), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Lewis (piano), Connie Kay (drums)