Updated: Nov 9, 2021
It's June, and the A-flat/G# Sequence in Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Klavier is up. I'm recording four pieces each month - last month (May) was G Major. This month it's the Prelude and Fugue in A-flat Major, and the Prelude and Fugue in G# Minor. Please take a listen as you read this. Click on the picture of the treehouse above for the link to the music.
So first you have to know about the Picardy Third. Rousseau coined the term "Tierce de Picardie" in his Dictionnaire de musique (1767), and though Grove is uncertain of its origin ("no explanation for its name is known"), it's one of the few moments in music when the performer gets a choice about what they play. There's a French hymn tune called Picardy ("Let all mortal flesh keep silence") which ends with a final raised third, to the satisfaction of church organists everywhere: it's a way of transforming the minor into the major, neatly goosing the congregation into their happy place. Here's that original Picardy Third, from my old church hymnal:
Like curry powder, the success of the Picardy Third lies in the moderation with which it is used. (I got that line from The Joy of Cooking.) Picardy is a region in France, but it is also the word for "sharp" (picart), and the raised note adds sharpness, both literally and figuratively, every time it is used. Do it too often, or all the time, and it loses its value, and becomes a cheap party trick, turning the resurrection into a rabbit. It has to be earned.
Three times in the first book of the Well-Tempered Klavier, an editor has casually thrown one in as a possibility in brackets, as if it's a matter of personal taste. Here they are (watch for the final chord):
So the E Minor Prelude can end in E Major - IF YOU LIKE. The F Minor Prelude can end in F Major - IF YOU'RE FEELING IT TODAY. The G# Minor Fugue can end in G# Major - ONLY IN YOUR DREAMS. This is the work of not just any editor: the decision to suggest the raised third in brackets is made by Otto von Irmer. He's the editor for Henle Verlag, which is always the definitive edition in classical music, so he must know what he's talking about. But the end of the E minor Prelude (click link for my recording) makes no sense if it ends in E major. That key has not been present at any time in the piece, and the power of the Presto (con fuoco, in my reading) that precedes it doesn't allow for the possibility of redemption. The end of the F minor Prelude (click link for my recording) is an atrocity in F major. That chromatic sinuous piece of devilish artistry can never find its way into the sunlight.
What kind of an editor leaves this kind of thing up to the performer? What kind of a piece can flip a switch from dark to light, and still be the same piece? No art curator would get away with hanging the Mona Lisa upside down, but the editor of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier is acting as if we are given a choice between right way up or the other way. It's like putting a smiley face on one of Goya's Black Paintings, or one of those "please rate your visit" buttons on Auschwitz. It's an abomination.
You can see that I'm worked up about this. But the proposed happy ending of the G# Minor Fugue (Meretricious Picardy Third #3) is the most egregious of them all. Today's commentary is intended for all the pieces in A-flat, which comes between G and A, but it's the last one, the G# Minor Fugue, that I want to focus on here. We may notice an immediate difficulty in that what was supposed to be the A-flat Minor Fugue is actually in G-sharp, which is already an indicator that things are a little off. (Same notes, different key signature. 5 sharps instead of 4 flats, if you're counting.) This happened before in E-flat Minor, when the Prelude was in E-flat and the Fugue was in D-sharp, and in that case the whole meaning of the piece hinged on the move from one key to another. The D# Minor Fugue is about the sacred world behind the veil, an etching that revealed in negative space what Bach could see and feel about the world behind the tapestry of the real. In this, as I've said before, he anticipates Lewis Carroll and Cardinal Newman, writers who so profoundly influenced the mirror view of Finnegans Wake. (For more on this, see Joyce's Rare View: The Nature of Things in Finnegans Wake, by Richard Beckman. It's brilliant.)
So in the earlier case (the two pieces from the first book of the Well-Tempered Klavier in E-flat/D-sharp Minor), the Prelude was in one key (E-flat Minor, a yearning harp strum meandering through key after key, at one point breathtakingly modulating to E Major) and the Fugue was in another (D-sharp Minor, with 6 sharps instead of 6 flats). Bach was clearly telling us something about flats and sharps and sounds and moods and throwing the whole "Well-Tempered" bit up for grabs. In this case (the two pieces from the first book of the Well-Tempered Klavier in A-flat/G-sharp Minor), both the Prelude and Fugue are in the mirror key of G-sharp Minor, after two happy little (and surprisingly hard) numbers in A-flat Major. The innocence of A-flat Major has gone into full Margaret mode, and Bach is grieving over Goldengrove unleaving. G# Minor is the key where worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie, and at the end of the Fugue, we will all weep and know why.
I refer, of course, to "Spring and Fall," which has the finest minor ending of any work of art:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)
This is music: Hopkins springs 11 syllables for particular stress (not given here), and the accent on "will" sounds clearly in italics. "Worlds of wanwood" is a delicious mouthful, and the rhyme of "man, you / can you" is sound before it is sense. It is also written in a minor key from beginning to end. I have actually been to Goldengrove - it is an old house high in the Welsh mountains where Hopkins used to visit in happier days. After some attempts to reclaim it as an artists' colony, it was given over to the state to redevelop as a park site. We visited it a week before the Brexit referundum, in what would end up being the last happy week in the Western Hemisphere. The day I was there it had been left to rot in the rain after a village Easter Egg hunt: someone had stolen all the lead from the windows and gutters and now it's a ruin.
It's about a miserable place as can be imagined. But, for the sake of argument, and to satisfy Otto von Irmer and his ilk, let us imagine Gerard Manley Hopkins's brutal poem with a Picardy Third tacked on at the end:
Original ending (minor key):
It is the blight man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Happy ending (major key):
It is Margaret now who is clever as clever
She will be six for ever and ever.
Now do you see why the Picardy Third is wrong? It's an escape hatch, a resolution designed by Hollywood to satisfy the preview audience. In the original French version of the not-very-good film The Vanishing, the husband of his missing wife tracks down her killer, and says "I want you to do to me what you did to her." The killer obliges, and the last scene is of a man unable to see as a coffin lid is placed over his body. Earth is piled on the coffin and we pull away to two garden beds next to one another, one with freshly dug earth, and other with leaves beginning to sprout. That ending terrified the snot out of me when I was in graduate school. Apparently the remake ends with Brad Pitt saying exactly the same thing, fighting his way out of the coffin, and killing the man who killed his wife. Picardy Third.
So let's look at why it's as wrong for Bach's G# Minor Fugue as it is for the E Minor Prelude and the F Minor Prelude (Meretricious Picardy Third #1 and #2). Wronger, in fact. As with the D# Minor Fugue, Bach is entering a dark space. This piece is dead slow. And it is again about negative space, but not in this case the world beyond the veil, with all of its philosophical and noumenal overtones, a world guessed at by Plato and Kant, and given to everyone to play with by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians ("For now we see through a glass darkly..."). This time the negative space is in the silence. This is the first of the pieces in Book 1 to really make something of the rests. Every fugue has a subject and a countersubject, and the countersubject (the thing that you hear when another voice is playing the subject) in this fugue looks like this:
You'll see (and hear at 0'22") that the fugue's countersubject has two eighth notes in it which are actually four notes: a sounded eighth and an eighth note rest, followed by a sounded eighth and an eighth note rest:
The sounded notes are a minor third apart, and they sound 16 times in the piece, in each of the four voices. In every case the rest must sound for exactly as long as the note. There is a delicate and deliberate placement of each rest beside the voices that sound with it. Each time the countersubject appears, the rests are heard in sound contexts where they must be heard negatively, as if silence had been inscribed. Which it has been. Just take a look at the eighth note rests in the four beats below - I count nine of them.
At the end of this astonishing (and quite terrifying) piece, after some glorious cadences into extraterrestrial sounds (3'00"!), Bach breaks up the sound into silence. (This comes at 3'36" in the recording.) The two middle voices play the familiar falling notes with their two rests, and then a pair of notes that sound at the beginning of the next bar, only to stop after that first eighth note is played (see the rests in blue and green below).
The bass voice sounds over the barline, but stops after a quarter note, one eighth note later (in yellow below).
The top voice holds over the eighth note in the alto and the tenor and the quarter note in the bass. And stops dead on a B# (C), ascending very slowly to a C# that carries through as the other voices rejoin the piece.
After that visit into negative space, the only possible resolution is in the quiet dark of the minor key. To give that minor third a twist, and play a B-sharp (C) instead of a B, wrenching the end into the light of G-sharp Major (A-flat Major) is an act of thoughtless violence. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, and been blinded by the computer screen? This is the sonic equivalent: the ear's retinas can't dilate that quickly. A major resolution at the end of the G# Minor Fugue in Book I (BWV 863) is a Cheshire Cat grin, the House at Pooh Corner coming to the rescue of Margaret in "Spring and Fall," Dorothy's house from Kansas falling on the Wicked Witch of the West. Any editor who puts the Picardy Third in parentheses at the end of the G# Minor Fugue as if to say "whatever, this is your call" has failed in the first and last obligation of their craft.
Or perhaps they haven't. Music is both particle and wave. Manuscripts vary for both books of the Well-Tempered Klavier, showing it one way and then the other (which is almost certainly why our friend Otto was so conflicted). In Book II Bach ends far more pieces with minor thirds or open fifths; in Book I the G# Minor Fugue is the only one that allows for any kind of ambiguity, all of the other minor fugues ending emphatically in the major key. Possibly Bach was himself conflicted on the matter. The Picardy Third is the musical equivalent of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Once you've heard a piece with a Picardy Third, you can't hear it the other way. Try it my way - maybe you'll like it. And then try pretty much any other performance. The ending will change depending on which box the performer decides to open. In this sense, Bach's Fugue in G-sharp Minor becomes Schrodinger's Cat. Scarlatti famously wrote a Fugue that imitated a Cat climbing up the keyboard (he was meant to have been inspired by his own cat, Pulcinella, who liked to walk up the harpischord). Have a listen by clicking on the cat:
That's Scarlatti. In Bach's G# Minor Fugue, the Cat climbs in, and refuses to come out.
To hear my recordings of this month's pieces, or to hear the 12 recordings from April, May, and June 2020, 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 WTF: The Well-Tempered February), please click here. To read commentary on all the pieces, please click here and here. To sign up to receive the next set of recordings automatically and subscribe to the blog, please click here.