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Starry Night

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

The View from Van Gogh's Asylum Room, Saint-Remy de Provence, 1889

At the end of Ulysses, Stephen and Bloom go outside to take a leak. This is the moment in "Ithaca" of homecoming, when the personal, political, and philosophical pressures of the past 18 hours are finally released. They have had different experiences throughout the June day, and their separate urinations (one higher, more sibilant, one longer, less irruent) reflect those differences. Before they begin, their eyes sweep up to the Dublin sky. The spectacle that confronts them is, in Joyce's most memorable phrase,"the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit."

At the end of The Well-Tempered Klavier, Bach takes his eyes off the keyboard and gazes upward. Over the course of 24 Preludes and Fugues, one major and one minor for each of the 12 keys in the circle of fifths, we have been given a kaleidoscope of colors. Bach has given us in the C Major Prelude the blue skies of a September morning, "severe clear" in the parlance of the pilots who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. He has given us the motorized venom of the C Minor Prelude, each note black as pitch. In the chromatic snakes of the F Minor Fugue we know decay and death; in the D# Minor Fugue we have torn the veil between this world and the next. We have known ecstasy in the E-flat Minor Prelude and satirized that same emotion in E Minor. The full spectrum of the musical palette has been made open to us. There doesn't seem to be anywhere else to go.

The Golden Record, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, August 23, 1977

So we journey to a Nebula where no one else has ever been. 250 years before his music was inscribed on a golden plate and sent to Jupiter (along with "Johnny B. Goode" and the "Melancholy Blues"), Bach goes there himself. This is his last voyage. It begins with a wrong note, a broken O-ring that warns the listener that we are about to slip the surly bonds of earth. And then, for six pages and as many minutes, it goes and goes and goes. Like the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are trapped in a spaceship, seeing and barely understanding a world both strangely familiar and terribly strange, a child lost in the stars. Bach hangs his world with humid, night-blue fruit.

There's really nothing to say about this Fugue, except to gaze upward at it in wonder. I performed it at the Toronto Joyce Symposium in 2017, because I was fed up with people talking about the fugal structure of the "Sirens' episode with zero idea of what a fugue actually was. As Ezra Pound said of W. B. Yeats, "if Yeats knew a fugue from a frog [...] Mah!" "Sirens," for those of you who have not been paying attention, is the eleventh episode of Joyce's Ulysses. It begins with a litter of leitmotifs extricated from the coming episode, each one a musical cue. The two pages that begin "Sirens" are little bits of sound, snatches of song, whistles, farts, scraps of Wagner. So far so good, except that Joyce's post hoc schema of Ulysses refers to the technique of the episode as "fuga per canonem" (a fugue according to rule). This little bit of musicological grandstanding is a characteristically empty flourish; woe betide the critic who tries to take it literally. There is no fugue according to any rule in "Sirens." Trust me - there's a 70-page chapter on this in At Fault.

Or, just listen to the six minutes of the Fugue in B Minor and pay attention. [PLAY CUT #24 NOW.] That's what I did in Toronto, playing the fugue and reading parts of "Sirens' over the top of it at the same time. A fugue has a subject and a countersubject: you can hear both very clearly at the beginning. The subject begins with the three-note arpeggio that starts off the Well-Tempered Klavier: the fifth, the third, and the tonic. F#, D natural, B.

Opening of Fugal Subject (B Minor Triad), Fugue in B Minor, BWV 869
Opening of Prelude Subject (C Major Triad), Prelude in C Major, BWV 846

The Prelude in C starts with the same three notes (tonic, third, fifth), in the normal order of any triad. The example given in purple above is both inverted and in a minor key from the triad in blue, but the effect is the same. We are home, and happy there. After the theme navigates the way to its close, wandering over the keyboard in search of home, another voice picks it up. And this is where the wrong note is (0'23"). Spectacularly wrong, not even close to right. It's so wrong that I would sometimes play it for complete strangers in the hopes of getting them to hear how wrong it is. I once played it on Van Naumann's piano for a Canadian Reverend. I took a graduate student (the best one I ever had) to the music building across the street to hear it. It's wrong not in the sense of an editorial blunder, but in the deliberate jarring out of time and space that comes from the bassoon playing out of its normal register at the beginning of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (another piece sent up on The Voyager). The dissonance is unheimlich, uncanny: we are taken away both from our home and from our ken.

Wrong note, final sixteenth of third beat, measure 4

While the sound of this gloriously dissonant C natural (marked in red) is fading away, the counter-subject is heard for the first time (0'24"-0'32"). It's a dying chromatic fall, easy to spot every time it appears. Against the metronomic unwinding of the eighth notes in the fugue's subject, the countersubject is tightly focused: four quarter notes moving inexorably down the scale (marked in green below).

Countersubject, measure 5, Fugue in B Minor

According to rule, every entrance of the fugue's subject is paired with its countersubject. In "Sirens," the bronze-haired siren Lydia Douce is paired with the golden-haired siren Mina Kennedy. Bronze by gold.

The boots to them, them in the bar, them barmaids came. For them unheeding him he banged on the counter his tray of chattering china. And

--There's your teas, he said.

Miss Kennedy with manners transposed the teatray down [...] She poured in a teacup tea, then back in the teapot tea. They cowered under their reef of counter, waiting on footstools, crates upturned, waiting for their teas to draw. [...]

Yes, bronze from anear, by gold from afar, heard steel from anear, hoofs ring from afar, and heard steelhoofs ringhoof ringsteel. (U-61, 258)

Joyce can sometimes be as good as Bach. But back to the B Minor Fugue. Entrance after entrance of the fugue establishes the four voices in SATB form: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass. You first hear the Alto, then the Tenor, then the Bass, and finally the Soprano at 1'09". And then Bach casts a spell over the text that freezes the fugue in motion (and "fugue" of course means flight), bringing us to a moment of stasis (1'30"). In music, this is called "an episode," which nicely dovetails with the term that Joyce used for the eighteen separate sections of Ulysses. In a song that you would hear on the radio, this would be called a "bridge." The episode is a moment in the fugue when the intricacies of subject and countersubject are left behind. The voices speak together to sing an entirely different melody, usually in a sequence (with the same notes repeating in a downward or upward pattern). The episode to the B Minor Fugue in Book I, BWV 869, is simplicity itself: a five-note lullaby. I used to put words to it, because they exactly described, when I was a graduate student, my yearning at the time. I still remember what the words are, and cannot stop myself thinking them each time I hear the sequence from 1'31"-1'38". This is a recognized neurological property of music, that it can exactly recall ineradicable moments in space and time. A song on the radio or in the supermarket stops you in your tracks, and you are taken directly to a red Fiat Spyder on a country road outside Princeton, as surely and unerringly as Proust is taken to tea with his aunt by a biscuit. I used to tell my students that I cannot hear Phil Collins's "One More Night" without being immediately catapulted into 1985. And they would always respond with unassailable musical memories of their own. As Leonard Bernstein said, sometimes an F# is a direct hit. We all have our madeleines.

The ghost in the machine: Measure 19, Fugue in B Minor

Underneath this episode, Bach unleashes his secret weapon (1'39" - see gray notes marked in example above). While the noodling is going on, the fugue attempts to play. Not in the top voice, which is busy being beautiful, or in the bottom voice, which is busy providing the key changes. Somewhere in the middle, divided between the Alto and the Tenor voices, are three shocking life-changing world-altering notes (that's Shocking. Life-Changing. World-Altering). F#, D#, B. The opening triad of the fugue is trying to voice itself. And then, just as quickly as it starts, the subject is erased. It's a tentative expression of the fugal subject that is heartbreaking in its ineffectiveness, a deliberate failure. You can play this piece a thousand times and not notice it. Since the last two notes of the triad fall to your two thumbs, and you're focusing on the sentimental outpouring that Bach is allowing to your other pedal extremities, you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that this is filler. But it isn't. You're wrong. It's a failed expression of the only thing that matters, an abortive attempt at a connection, a missed meaning. A leitmotif. A scrap of meaning that is too slight to be interpreted. Nothing could be more Joycean. Nothing could be more human. This is a holy moment in music. Here it is again.

The ghost returns: measure 28, Fugue in B Minor

Bach, of course, has done this on purpose. The episode returns in all its loveliness, in a new key, and halfway through the sequence the broken triad shows up, hidden in the waterfall, again (2'22", given in white above). Maybe you won't hear it - it's nearly impossible to bring out, and I don't think Bach doesn't want you hear it directly anyway. It's more subliminal than that. Like a Cheshire Cat grin, it appears and disappears. Art historians call this kind of tracing a pentimento, a thought regretted, an overwritten idea. You will find pentimenti through x-rays: museum curators are always excitedly reporting that Van Gogh originally painted Dr. Gachet on top of a bowl of onions. There's an overlay of a skull onto the face of Anthony Perkins at the end of Psycho when he says "I wouldn't hurt a fly." That's a pentimento. It's a secret signal, a lost chord.

Why is it there? Because it allows the fugue to start up, on exactly the same notes, the next time round (1'50", 2'31"). Think of this as a car with a crankcase, and the broken triad as a first pull of the starter. Bach is telling us that we have to fail before we succeed. That false starts are important. That the first match you drop into the bonfire will always go out. That the lawnmower will always need two pulls to start. That you will first fail and be forgotten. That in order to see Christ we must first see the veronica placed upon his dead face. And then, if all the stars are aligned, you will sound the subject you were born to sing. Think of the opening three notes as a comet streaking across the sky, disappearing so quickly that you can't be sure you actually saw anything. And then there is light.

Horsehead Nebula South of Orion (1350 LY away)

Now we're a third of the way through this extraordinary fugue. During the statement of the subject that has been inferred in the second ghost triad and then made explicit two bars later, there is a break in the sixteenth notes (measure 31, 2'36"). It's imperceptible, and unimportant at the time. It is, however, the last moment before the final chord, over 3 minutes later, that the piece stops for even a sixteenth note. From here on there will be an unbroken string of sixteen notes per bar, divided among the four voices, a driving rhythm that takes us out to the outer arm of the Orion Nebula. The engine never stops. Voices cascade and multiply. Arithmetic cuts capers.

And at the end - well, listen for yourself (5'34"-5'47"):

Final Chord, Book I of The Well-Tempered Klavier

It turns out that my Fitbit mistakenly registers piano playing as steps, so that I can measure piano practice in terms of miles walked. This is very useful for getting my 10,000 steps in, though Sophie, who bought me the Fitbit to encourage better cardio for her overweight father, rightly thinks of this as cheating. Be that as it may, I spent the morning of my 59th birthday playing the whole of Book I, from C Major Prelude to B Minor Fugue. It took 1 hour and 56 minutes, though I made what my father would call a pig's breakfast of some of the fugues. My Fitbit recorded a journey of 5,826 steps, which Teddy tells me is approximately 3 miles. So I can say with some certainty that I have traveled at least three miles in my musical exploration of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier.

At the end of any journey, there is only one place to go.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Is to go back where we started

And know the place for the first time.

I first read those lines, I think unattributed, in John Fowles's The Magus, and they transported me. As a boy from a village outside Oxford, reading a book checked out from the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts, they had a particular resonance, as they do for all immigrants, all displaced people, all people who have left the place where they began. T. S. Eliot, who wrote them, was a boy in St. Louis before he captured England's suffering in Four Quartets. "Little Gidding" begins the ending of the poem with these lines. I think I know the rest by heart.

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always--

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well

And all manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

What T. S. Eliot is telling us is that A=A'. A equals A prime: the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. The only way to end eight months' worth of recordings of the 24 Preludes and Fugues in Book I of The Well-Tempered Klavier is to return to where I started and know the place for the first time. So I have recorded one more piece. The Prelude in C Major, recorded for the first time on February 1, 2020, has also now been recorded as a completion of the circle on August 14, 2020. [PLAY CUT #25 NOW.] Back in November of last year, I wrote some comments about the first Prelude, not realizing that they would open a world of musical reflection to me. Those comments are reproduced in shorter form here, attached as a stand-alone musical commentary for the second iteration of the first fugue. The difference in the two recordings will be the record of the distance traveled between them. And now the cycle is complete.

I have done.


To listen to the recordings of this month's pieces, or to listen to all 24 recordings from April, May, June, July, August and September 2020, please click here. To listen to the first 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. All pieces are available as a free download: to request a 2-CD set for $20, write to me at or leave a message in the comments. To read commentary on all the pieces, please click here for Volume 1 and here for Volume 2. To subscribe to the blog, please click here. We will begin in October with something completely different.

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1 comentário

02 de set. de 2020

Bravo! Well done.

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