A Day at the Races
Updated: Nov 9, 2021
One of the many blessings of this quarantine season is the discovery of virtual musicianship - the sight of 69 members of the Royal Choral Society crushing The Hallelujah Chorus is a balm for the soul. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (calling themselves the BSO, if you please) came in with a rousing rendition of the end of Mahler's 3rd. And my little project, which was meant to take everyone through the doldrums of February 2020, has opened up into a great becalming. When I recorded the first 24 pieces of the first book of the Well-Tempered Klavier in what ended up as WTF: The Album, I did it in the full expectation of the coming of Spring. Which did in fact arrive - the cherry tree at 130 Mithoff St. (above) has never been so beautiful. But now everywhere there is no wind; nerves are fraying like sail ropes. And we are all playing music.
In the state of Ohio we are visited by an angel in white at two o'clock every afternoon, accompanied by a small troll and his bot, the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor. The angel, Dr. Amy Acton, is one of the very few public figures outside of Neil DeGrasse Tyson who can clearly articulate the idea of an Event Horizon, comparing a single case of COVID-19 in Ohio to a star whose light has yet to reach us. She has single-handedly brought the Ohio curve to a stop, such that it was the only state in the Midwest not projected to run out of ventilators. And her message is "keep on keeping on." And so I decided to keep the project going, one key at a time. Who knows where we will end up. But Bach will be as good a guide as any.
Album #1: A Night at the Opera
WTF: The Album ended with the Fugue in F minor, at the exact halfway point of Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Klavier. There remain 6 keys: F#, G, A-flat, A, B-flat, and B. Each key has a major and a minor set of preludes and fugues, for a total of 4 for each key. This month I've recorded the 4 in F#: Prelude in F# Major, Fugue in F# Major, Prelude in F# Minor, Fugue in F# Minor. They can be found on the new album, to which will be added the 4 in G (in May), the 4 in A-flat (in June), the 4 in A (in July), the 4 in B-flat (in August), and the 4 in B (in September). If we get that far. This is unknown territory, and Bach is the one to chart it for us. Every month, expect a transmission from me. Download them and listen to what Bach is telling you. This month, he is saying one important thing: we are all in this together.
Album #2: A Day at the Races
Like the first set in C, these two preludes and fugues complement one another. As C major and C minor are two things of opposite nature that depend upon one another, so it is for F# major and F# minor. F# major gives us a jaunty gigue in 12/16 and a 3-part fugue with sequences cascading like a pinball machine through a riot of sharps and double sharps. F# minor gives us a watery lilt and then one of the great religious fugues. The Fugue in F# minor (#4 on the Album) is in 6/4, and a very slow 6 beats they are. Time and again the theme fails to register, appearing in its fourth voice only when you've completely given up on the top line ever coming in. It reaches a climax in a statement that is both triumphant and despairing, and then closes on some of the spaciest harmonies Bach ever allowed himself to write. There are 3 great religious fugues in the first book, the one in C# minor, the one in D# minor, and this one. (There is another great fugue to end the whole set, but it is deeply secular, and I won't record it until September.) This is the quietest of them, the one with the most distanced voice. It is monastic and resigned, but it lives happily in its own silence. It is the quarantine fugue.
To hear my recordings of this month's pieces, please click here. To hear the full set of 24 pieces in the first half of Book I (recorded during the month of February 2020 as The Well-Tempered February), please click here. To sign up to receive the next set of recordings automatically and subscribe to the blog, please click here.