May: Barley Break
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
The G Sequence in Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Klavier is up. I'm planning to record the 4 in each set (Major Prelude & Fugue, Minor Prelude & Fugue) each month - last month (April) was F# Major. This month it's May, which means all the pieces in G. Please take a listen - they were a beast to get right. Click on the music below for the link.
Now is the month of Maying / When merry lads are playing...
Each with his bonny lass / Upon the greeny grass...
Say dainty nymphs and speak / Shall we play barley break...
Fie then why sit we musing / Youth's sweet delight refusing...
Fa-la-la. La. La.
Or so said Thomas Morley. I miss madrigals - I don't think anyone sings them any more. Though the airwaves are full of Bach enthusiasts, you never hear a stranded group of madrigalists in quarantine making their way through "The Silver Swan." "Never weatherbeaten sail more willing bent to shore" - what a lovely set of vowels that starts with. Thomas Weelkes's "O Wretched Man." At the World Bank, when I was a temp in the East Africa division, I started a madrigal group that contained some of the most diverse singers anywhere. Tita Acupanda was the most unlikely Phyllis imaginable: a lovely woman from Polynesia who always came to practice in full regalia. Tita came to my 23rd birthday party: I remember her name because the guests got together and gave me a copy of The Well-Tempered Klavier for the occasion, and signed it. That's the edition I'm playing from now.
As we move into the month of May, it's worth thanking the Gods that this plague happened in Spring. A Winter pandemic would be (will be?) unbearable. But it's Spring, and here in Columbus at least it has been beautiful. Teddy and I are making a treehouse for me to retire to when family comes to visit.
My pastoral literature class in Tampere wrote their final prompt on the permanent changes in the relationship of humans to their environment that can be reasonably expected as a result of the events of the past two months. Their conclusions: a lasting individual connection to nature, a respect for chaotic networks, the demise of the cruise ship industry (thank heavens), a new awareness of the differences between nations. One compared the pandemic to an eclipse. But the best answer said: "It is fortunate this is all happening in Spring. Green things sprout from earth, birds sing in the trees. There is life after all."
So, with Bach in G, we play at barley break. I've discussed the game and its importance for the pastoral earlier: it depends on the contrapuntal exchange of shepherd and shepherdess, on the symmetry of a dance. And the G Major Prelude certainly has that in abundance: the left and right hands explode in a riot of alternating triplets, racing towards a joyful conclusion. The fiendishly complicated G Major Fugue has a theme that is inverted several times: Bach on his flying trapeze. The G Minor Prelude, like the opening of Vivaldi's Summer, slows down the heartbeat until it nearly stops. And then, again as in Vivaldi, we take off. The Fugue in G Minor is one of those famous licks that Ebenezer Prout, the editor of the Novello Music Editions, set to words. I've always known it as "I Am So Sleepy" (sing along - it's simple). "Wha-a-t Shall I-I Do-o?" And then the top line comes in. And the next bar there's another - 5 times in the first 7 bars the theme is heard. Like a dog chasing its tail, or Sophie on a bike ride, it romps to a conclusion.
To hear my recordings of this month's pieces, or to hear my recordings of last month's pieces in F#, 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.