©2019 by Sebastian Knowles

The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #6
24 Pencils.jpg

Fugue in C# Major, BWV 848

Grrr.  If I ever have to play anything again in 7 sharps it will be too soon.  Not that this isn't a lovely piece - it's just too long, and there are too many opportunities to make mistakes.  There's a reason they call them "accidentals"...

This isn't the color therapy I promised, I can hear you complaining.  And it's true that the keys in C#, both major and minor, don't generate any clear color images for me.  The colors of the pieces in D and E-flat are obvious: I could pick them out of a pencil set without hesitation (D major is the red tip two right of the yellow, E-flat is that yellow numbered 1600720 on the picture above).  But everything in C# comes out gray, which is exactly the opposite of the effect desired during this month of Well-Temperedness.

So it's a gray key - you'll certainly hear that when we get to the Prelude and Fugue in C# Minor, which are coming next.  What Bach gives you in his key pairings is always a parallel mood.  In C major, all is serene, in C minor all is demonic.  In D major we are royal, in D minor we are rustic, in E-flat we are blessed, in E minor we are doomed, in F minor we are dead.  But are we in C#?  Crap, pretty much.  Just crap.  Better stay under the covers.  If the singer in the Winterreise had stayed in bed he'd have been much better off.

But we can do better than this.  I've mentioned H.D. before, the badly anthologized poet who is known (wrongly) for her delicate imagist poems that she wrote under the influence of Ezra Pound.  Her really good poems are in response to the devastation of World War Two London, in "The Walls Do Not Fall."  Here's part of her last poem in that sequence:




And the point in the spectrum

where all lights become one,

is white and white is not no-colour,

as we were told as children,

but all-colour;

where the flames mingle


and the wings meet, when we gain

the arc of perfection,

we are satisfied, we are happy,

we begin again;

I John saw. I testify

to rainbow feathers, to the span of heaven,


and walls of colour,

the colonnades of jasper; [...]

In the language of colors, white jasper is an uplifting stone, bringing hope and new beginnings after a loss.  That's how I imagine this piece, which is full of the sound of bells ringing triumphantly on a Sunday morning.  Dorothy Sayers is very much the one person I would rather have been, and the single most obvious answer to the question "who would you invite to a dinner party?," partly because she translated Dante into rhyming terza rima (dying unfortunately before she got to the bit in the Paradiso which H.D. is riffing off above, Canto 33), but mostly because she wrote the best book of detective fiction in the 20th Century (the two greatest works of detective fiction, Bleak House and The Moonstone, were written in the 19th Century and don't count).  That work is The Nine Tailors, in which she reproduces the mathematical diagram by which a peal of bell-ringers can perform a Grandsire Triple.  Go on, have a listen.  (And if you were ever wanting to cheer yourself up, read the commentary to the video:  campanologists are a special breed.)  


So this one works best on a piano, with pedal.  I've tried to get the peal of the bells in around 2'45".  It is a silver peal, like the "Silver Jubilee" of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Let the chime of a rhyme
Utter Silver Jubilee.

That about sums this one up.