Prelude in C
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
The first of a series of short essays based on the 24 Preludes and Fugues in Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. The rest are available here.
"It sounds like a beach." The eight-year-old understands the game immediately. Her five-year-old brother is willing to play: "It sounds like our old apartment." We are listening to the first bars of Bach's Prelude in C played on my spinet, and trying to describe what we see.
"Did you like your old apartment?" "Yes - it was my favorite place." "Was there a lot of sunlight there?" "Yes" (in unison).
Bach's first prelude of the first book of the WTC is something of a miracle. The first few bars sound like the dawn of a newly created universe. Gounod knew this when he blocked them out in his "Ave Maria." We are given a glimpse of heaven, or of earth turning in its orbit. First the C major chord, unambiguous, well-tempered. Then every finger on the right hand moves up one key, to the neighboring white notes, and the left hand closes in. We are in a new world. Then both hands drop one note: A to G in the right, C to B in the left. It's a dominant seventh, the most incomplete chord in the set, the one that longs for return. And so we do return, back to where we started, to the home key of C major. Bar 1 and Bar 4 are exactly the same, but we have traveled light years to get there. The planets realign.
Teaching the piano to eight children ages 4-7 has been a revelation. There is so much to get wrong. The hands, for one thing, aren't the same, so a C in the left hand has to be played by the little finger and a C in the right is played by the thumb. Reverse symmetry is a tough thing for a child to pick up. If you start at middle C with both thumbs and work out, then the F is played by the 5 finger in the left hand and the 4 finger in the right, and the G is the same but backwards. I already have a headache trying to explain this to you.
And then there's the question of semantics. If the words of a song begin "See the clouds," and "See" begins on an A, there is a better than even chance that the student will mistake the word (See) for the note (C). If "Go and Tell Aunt Rhodie" begins on a E, there is a slight but statistically significant chance that the student will put the E and the Go together and say in delight and bewilderment: "Ego!"
Bach, at the end of his life, allows for this ambiguity. But not yet, not in the first four bars of Prelude #1. So far, there have been no accidentals in the notes on the keyboard played in the epic drama of departure and return that journeys through all the twelve keys of the chromatic scale in both major and minor modes twice over through the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The grand architecture of the whole is mirrored in these opening four bars. And anyone can play them.
That's the astonishing thing about Bach. This first prelude will be within the reach of some of my students by 2022. By that time they will have learned mathematics (four quarter notes =one whole note), rhythm (60 beats per minute is your pulse rate at rest, and the perfect tempo for the first prelude), reading (A-B-C-D-E-F-G are the letters of the musical alphabet), and something far more important, something that is otherwise unteachable. They will have learned representation.
For seven years after writing my tenure book I wanted to write something about Music and Modernism (Tintin listening to Bianca Castafiore was going to be the cover). But I kept getting stuck on the question of meaning. "Why is that a C?" Sophie asked me that when she was 5 and I knew right away that music lessons with Dad wouldn't go well. "Because it is." "Just because you tell me so?" "No. Because it is." Why does music mean what it does? Which part of the cortex does an F# hit? How can these flat unprepossessing symbols be so variously interpreted, like the images on Lyra's alethiometer? At its most primal level, music is semiotics. This is a hard thing to teach to five-year-olds, or to explain to their parents. A child must learn that a symbol on a page, a written note on its own line between two staves, connects directly to a sound. That is a C. At the same time, the child must learn that the letter C, which normally would begin their name (in the case of one of the eight students, who is named after a character in an Oxford fantasy novel), is connected directly not only to that same sound, but also to the note they are seeing on the staff.
In an old jigsaw puzzle of the animal alphabet, there is a C shaped like a crocodile. After completing the first seven pieces of the puzzle, students must take the C piece and go over to the piano and hit the C key with it. You have to turn the piece on its end to give it a good whack. The Crocodile, which is unquestionably real, passes its energy from the C of its first letter to the C key pressed down by the puzzle piece, so that the note, too, becomes a real thing. This is a basic principle of representation that will allow a student not just to read music but to understand the world, to think symbolically, to reach for meaning, to take any ordinary object (a basket, a bottle of Bass) and find a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.
Which is where they will meet Bach. After the first four bars, the chords unfold like a rose petal, and then refurl. They do this twice. In measures 9-11, something unthinkable happens. The Prelude in C is 35 measures long, one less than it should be. This is because the piece is in 4-bar units except this once, when it resolves to the dominant (G) in three quick moves. A gap has been made in the universe. Bach then explores the gap, moving chromatically down (watch the left hand), and comes out right with a nice tight C major chord at measure 19, the mirror image of the one that started the piece. We are a little more than halfway through, and might just as well end there. But Bach has miles to go before we sleep.
So far, the prelude has had the systole/diastole movement of the human heart, or a hurdy-gurdy. It reaches up, and returns. It folds out, and back in. "Murphy, all life is figure and ground," says Neary in Samuel Beckett's Murphy, and Beckett, who was a consummate chess player, knew the truth of this better than most. But it is in Murphy's response that we find Bach's answer: "But a wandering to find home." For the rest of the prelude, we wander. The piece reaches its maximum centrifugal force at measure 21, with a chord straight out of Debussy. The Archimedean screw tightens in measure 22, with both outside notes moving up a half step, making a diminished chord. A further ratcheting of the tension in measure 23, with the right hand pinched on itself playing B-C-D with fingers 2, 3, and 4. Bach has discovered the principle of lift. And then we fall.
Measures 24 to 32 of Bach's Prelude in C is one of those great moments in musical history, like Queen's performance at Live Aid in 1985, or the first crescendo at Mannheim that had the audience stomping their feet. It is a simple pedal point over which the cosmos whirls. Dominant, tonic. Two bars to a seventh, a chromatic crank, and the tonic again. The same two bars leading to the dominant seventh as before. Like the cascade that everybody learns to love in the Gigue at the end of the B-flat Partita (on the recording, 1'27"-1'41"), Bach opens his parachute just in time. We glide down, halfway between Da Vinci's dream of flight in 1505 and the Wright Brothers at Huffman Prairie Field in 1905, back to C.
But Bach hasn't quite completed his landing. The C in the bass, generating all the partials that will give the final chord its full well-tempered resonance for an entire bar, announces the same chord we started our flight pattern with. We must cycle to F major, where we have never been, in order to get home. The systole-diastole movement collapses into a long arpeggiated line, as we trail our parachute behind us. The legs stagger, the interval that is so nearly an octave (C-B) widens the left hand, a small mordent graces our landing, and we return to C, having taken flight.
That all this should be within the hands of small children hearing the sound of their old apartment in a broken C major chord is truly remarkable. On December 8, the first recital of the students in Mr. Sebastian's Music Studio (the children chose the name) will end in a flurry of lingonberry juice and matchbox cars. I very much hope it won't be the last. It's the best thing I've ever done.
Correction: in an earlier version of this post, Gounod's "Ave Maria" was attributed to Schubert. This is because the author is an idiot.