The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #16
Fugue in D# Minor, BWV 853
To play this one, you need special gloves. Not just bicycling gloves, though that might have helped: this fugue is in a separate category, like those mountain stages in the Tour de France that are marked "Hors de Categorie." You need the gloves that Heurtebise gave Orpheus to go through the mirror:
D# Minor is the enharmonic equivalent of E-flat Minor. Instead of the 6 flats we began to feel comfortable with by the end of the Prelude, we are now thrown into a world of 6 sharps. Bach isn't just being difficult; he has a point to make. And the point is that we have gone behind the mirror, through the looking-glass. What was an E-flat is now a D-sharp, what was the sixth rotation of fifths from the left (taking the minor keys in order, and adding a flat each time: A minor / D minor / G minor / C minor / F minor / Bb minor / Eb minor) is now the sixth rotation of fifths from the right (again taking the minor keys in order, and adding a sharp each time: A minor / E minor / B minor / F# minor / C# minor / G# minor / D# minor). They meet in the middle. Musically, this is a crux.
Why would Bach do this? Because, I think, we've left the world of reality behind, and entered into the world of art. Just as a divine world hides behind the tapestry of the real, so Bach becomes a noumenalist in the style of Plato, Kant, and Cardinal Newman, reaching to the other side of reality. When Dr. Behrens shows Hans Castorp his X-Ray in The Magic Mountain, Castorp cries "My God, I See It!" This is that X-Ray. God famously only shows us the world through a glass darkly: it's time to see him face to face.
And through 7 heart-stopping minutes, you cannot make a mistake. One false note, and the illusion is broken. This would be fine, if you take it slowly, except that you're in 6 sharps. And there is a strangeness to the texture of this piece, so that you can get lost at any time. I have marked some passages with road signs, like "YIELD" and "SLOW" so that the driver doesn't lose their way.
And you do feel like a passenger, like this isn't happening to you. Practicing this is impossible unless you reach a kind of trance state, where time disappears. When the recording was done, and I knew I had done it, I collapsed on the sofa and poured myself some aquavit. It was time to return to reality.
"Full fathom five thy father lies." Shakespeare knew this, of course: The Tempest goes behind that tapestry, finds the world of art. "Of his bones are coral made." From the reality of our skeletons, coral comes: that is the meaning of art. It comes from life, but it is far richer and stranger than life. "Those are pearls that were his eyes." To enter the world of art is transformative: your eyes become pearls, the beauty of the world is made permanent, perception is real. "Nothing of him but doth fade." And so it is with our lives: we must fade, entropy is a given. Death is certain. But not in the coral world. "But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange." This is the moment of entering the mirror, the sea change, the time of coral. Ariel is singing to Ferdinand of his father's death. But his father lives: the song is a lie. It is the lie of art.
There is nothing richer or stranger than these 7 minutes. The piece is trying to make a statement. It hesitates. It fails. It speaks in canon. It speaks in a three-voiced canon with only one beat between each voice:
It starts the theme and drops it, picks it up in the middle and loses it again. It tries it in a celestial version in C# major (measures 25-26), and tries it in the Bach cascade that falls in sequence (measures 60-61). But nothing works. We start on a fourth instead of a fifth (measure 67). Still nothing. We slow down. And slow down. And become chromatic, and the text disintegrates (measures 72-76: this is the section marked "SLOW"). But then Bach has an idea.
"Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell." What if, instead of a stretto, where a theme is taken twice as fast, I reversed it, and took the theme twice as slowly? What if I suspended that augmented theme over seven long agonizing bars?
This is the moment that reaches the apex of art. The only comparison I can think to make is not with Shakespeare but with Dante, who also wrote in 3 voices, and takes 100 cantos to revolve an answer to the same questions. Dante's terza rima is probably the closest literary equivalent to the technical difficulty of a three-part canon separated by only one beat. And like Bach, Dante ends each cantica with the same word: "stelle." Bach is reaching, as he usually does, for the stars.
"Hark, now I hear them. Ding dong, bell."
Jean Cocteau, Orpheus (1950)
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Prelude in E-flat Minor, BWV 853
Fugue in D# Minor, BWV 853
Road Signs on the Way to Emmaeus
Fugue in D# Minor, BWV 853, Final Statement of Theme (measures 80-82)
Fugue in D# Minor, BWV 853, 3 Voiced Canon separated by a single beat