The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #20
Fugue in E Minor, BWV 855
Color Theory Part 4
The last in a 4-part series to take us through the key of E. The three previous commentaries in the set centered around the color theories of three 20th century artists: Wassily Kandinsky, Georges Cuisenaire, and Alexander Scriabin. This fourth and final entry will look at the optical theory of someone very different from them all: Sir Isaac Newton.
There is something endearing daffy about Newton's contribution to the color wheel argument. Not only does it spell "blue" wrong, it's asymmetrical. With its weird signs, it looks more like something about of the kabbalah than a physics textbook. It appeared in 1704, in the promisingly titled Opticks: or, A Treatise upon the Reflexions, Reflections, Inflexions, and Colours of Light. The reason it's asymmetrical has something to do with music: each slice of the Newton optical pie is connected to a note in Dorian mode. That's why there are musical notes around the edges of his diagram, and why it's a wheel: Newton thought that red and violet were connected, the way that a D is connected to its octave. And thus the color wheel was born. (The reason it's in Dorian mode, the mode that begins on the key of D, goes back to the Music of the Spheres, something that astronomers have been going on about since Pythagoras.)
Once again, music and color come together, in what Joyce called a "collideorscape" (FW 143.28). In Finnegans Wake, the answer to the riddle in the Children's Games is the word heliotrope. Heliotrope is the color of this background. It's also called Fuchsia, which is the name of Mervyn Peake's immortal heroine in Gormenghast. It comes from murex, a predatory sea snail known to Aristotle, which appears in a celebrated poem by Robert Browning:
The color you are looking at is also called magenta, which has the distinction of being the only color named after a battlefield. Magenta is not technically a color, having no specific wavelength of its own. Its origins are wholly artificial: it was a dye invented in the mid-19th century by a French chemist, who first called it fuchsine after the flower and then renamed it to celebrate the Italian-French victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Magenta. This canny piece of product placement obviously worked: it's one of the four colors in your printer, along with cyan, yellow, and black. Goethe, who was deeply confused about color (he took Newton on - never a good thing), could not have known magenta when he published his theories on the physiological effects of color in 1810, but his word "Purpur" probably describes magenta. Goethe praised "Purpur" for its noble qualities, and famously detested the color violet, calling it "unnecessary." The German word "Purpur," like the French word "pourpre," refers to a more reddish purple than the one English people imagine, which is a combination of blue and red. It's mind-blowing to think that across the Channel throughout the 17th and 18th centuries people were using the word purple and describing a different color.
Which is why it's the color of this piece. Here two different wavelengths do battle with one another, two warring ideas. This is the only fugue for 2 voices in the book, though it sounds like a lot more of them. It's deeply chromatic, with a falling set of accidentals in the theme, which repeats rapidly in both hands. The idea that music has a chromatic scale (the twelve tones, all in order going up or down) is a nice coincidence - the word "chroma" of course means color, but the term originally referred to the heightened emotions, or coloration, that a scale with tightened half-steps could provide. And at the end of the piece, Bach turns out the lights, literally pulling the switch (the last bar, with its three upward semi-quavers, looks like a dangling light pull):
Perhaps I should end this meditation on music and color with another great thinker along these lines, Norton Juster. He has a lovely description of a sunset conducted by Chroma the Great, "conductor of color, maestro of pigment, and director of the entire spectrum."
"The last colors slowly faded from the western sky, and, as they did, one by one the instruments stopped, until only the bass fiddles, in their somber slow movement, were left to play the night and a single set of silver bells, brightened the constellations. The conductor let his arms fall imply at his sides and stood quite still as darkness claimed the forest."
Newton's Color Circle (1704). Note the musical notes A-G around the circle's circumference
"Who fished the murex up?"
Chroma the Great conducting the sunset (Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth)
Fugue in E Minor, BWV 855, measure 42