The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #22
Fugue in F Major, BWV 856
The comedy of the Prelude is fulfilled - this is a rumptious Gigue, a dance of shepherds in a green world. The argument that each Prelude and Fugue is connected by mood is here made incontrovertible: as the shepherdess runs to the dell, skirts flying in the Prelude, so here she is joined by Strephon, for a game of barley-break in the Fugue.
I actually studied barley-break as an undergraduate, and not because it was in the madrigal "Now Is the Month of Maying." It was part of a graduate seminar on the Pastoral that I was completely unqualified for, studying the form in Theocritus, Virgil, Sannazaro, Montemayor, Sidney's Arcadia (both versions), the Faerie Queene, and Cymbeline. I remember getting a wart on my finger and having to go to the clinic past the Business School to have liquid nitrogen applied every Monday, after which I would retire to the B-school Library to read Sidney: to this day, I associate The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia with throbbing pain in my left index finger. Barley-break, it turns out, is a metaphor for seeing God through the other, for exchanging light through the eye, and in doing so reaching not just the soul of the beloved but the idea of the soul itself. (Don't ask me, it's in Boethius.) It's not for nothing that the Finns don't make eye contact.
There are two kinds of pastoral, strong and weak. Weak pastoral is a celebration of the beautiful - think of your CD of The Lark Ascending, and its cover by John Constable.
Weak pastoral speaks of the locus amoenus, or lovely space: an Eden of comfort and simplicity, of equality and liberated expression, of Pan and Dionysus, of Darcy and the picturesque. That is the green world that is celebrated in the comedies of Shakespeare. Strong pastoral, on the other hand, recognizes the irony of all this (comfort and simplicity is an illusion, farming is a cultivation of nature, the garden is carefully tended, the idea of a still place is an illusion, and nature is actually out to kill you). That is the pastoral of Poussin, whose shepherds share the landscape with a memorial.
That is also the green world in the comedies of Shakespeare. In the pastoral world, death is present (Et in Arcadia Ego), because nature is a state of entropy rather than order, and its consolations include death. In a strong pastoral reading, we are aware of chaos, we communicate as fungi do, subterraneally and through a ramifying space. Pastoral knowledge is in direct opposition to the top-down systems of human order, and is a complex system that invites decay. That is the space of the key of F Minor. And you can be sure that Bach knows this.
Weak Pastoral: Your CD of Vaughan Williams
Strong Pastoral: Poussin's "Et in Arcadia Ego" (1637)
Strong Pastoral: The Lichens of Tampere