The Queen Stage
Updated: Feb 24
I've had occasion to compare Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier to the Tour de France before. Some stages of the Tour are so difficult that the race planners mark them "HC," for "Hors de Categorie" (beyond category). The Fugue in D# Minor from the first set of recordings was an "hors de categorie" piece, so difficult that I had to record it last. The A Minor Fugue (cut #16 of the 2.0 Album) in this second set, easily the hardest piece in the first 24 Preludes and Fugues, is another one. It's like one of those back-breaking stages in the middle of the bicycle race where you ride 160 km into a headwind, with two nasty climbs at the end, each at a gradient of 1 in 6. If Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier were the Tour de France, cyclists would call the A Minor Fugue "L'Etape Reine": the Queen Stage.
The Queen Stage separates the professionals from the amateurs. In the case of the A Minor Fugue, for nearly six gruelling minutes you are in the back of the peleton, desperately trying not to crack. There's no chance of a mountain jersey (you aren't good at these difficult stages); the yellow jersey has been claimed long ago by Gould on the Columbia team, who is cranking through the stage at a pace that must be steroid-enhanced (he clocks in, on my iPhone, at a ridiculous 3'27"). You just need to stay at a tempo that means you don't fall off your bike, or disqualify yourself for finishing more than 30% behind the top group. The pace is brutal, and the piece is long - it's the only one with two page turns before the B minor Fugue (and the second page turn is truly epic). Towards the end of the A Minor Fugue, Bach pulls out the stops (not literally - he's writing for a pedal clavichord) and allows a bass note to be played on the pedal keyboard. This is awkward, because the piano doesn't have a pedal keyboard - my solution was to use the middle pedal and let everything ring. So unlike in bicycling, in Bach we can actually use three pedals at the same time:
Bicycling, like piano playing, is a cruel sport. The main difference between the Tour de France and Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier is that in the Tour de France there are thousands of people cheering you on, waving your country's flag, setting off flares, willing you not to crack. So you carry on. In the age of COVID, they were going to hold the 2020 Tour de France without spectators, which would have seemed to make some sense, since the spectators appear to be just getting in the way. It was agreed, however, that doing so would destroy the whole point of the tour: without the spectators, there could be no race. Playing Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier, on the other hand, is always a solo sport. There are no fans to encourage you through the page turns, willing you through the fermatas, shouting the cadence from a team car, recommending a fingering change, giving you a new bike after a flat (see what I did there?). It's just you and the piano, just you and the bike. It's no accident that bike riding has taken off since the coronavirus throttled group activity: it's the perfect quarantine sport.
Like the Tour de France, the Fugue in A Minor begins with a preliminary stage. The Prelude in A Minor (cut #15 of the 2.0 Album) is a sprint in a wind tunnel: I've taken it as a sort of time trial, coming in at a minute flat (Gould, by comparison, sits on the back of the bike for the Prelude and waltzes in at 1'12"). Sprints are more my thing, I guess. We'll leave the Queen Stages to the professionals.
And if the A Minor Fugue is a long arduous killer stage on a bicycle race that seems never to get to Paris, then the Fugue in A Major is its equal and opposite: the Formula 1 race. The A Major Fugue is a high-speed chase, with a leisurely pace lap to start off with in the Prelude in A Major (cut #13 of the 2.0 Album). And what a race the A Major Fugue is. Taking a cue from P.D.Q. Bach's immortal commentary on Beethoven's 5th Symphony, done as a sports event ("Bobby Corno has a flub percentage of .945, which is pretty darn low for a first-chair man"), I thought we could listen to this as if we were at the racetrack. To listen along, go to cut #14 of the 2.0 Album in a different browser.
WTK SPORTS ANNOUNCER: "And they're off, with a one-note theme. Not sure where the driver's going with this one - most themes have at least two notes. Oh - there's the rest of the subject. That's going to be a hard theme to follow for the cars behind. And yes, the alto line stumbles out of the gate as well, with a slipped clutch in the second statement of the theme. It's as if this Fugue can't find the right gear. Let's see if the tenor line can do any better - no, it staggers as well [0'11]. Always the one-note knock before the triplets get going - even the bass voice, now finally coming into earshot, makes the same false start [0'17"]. A disappointing beginning to a race that we've all been looking forward to for months. But we're moving along nicely now, with some nice counterpoint in the middle lanes. What's this? A hemiola [0'38"]? On the third lap? It seems too early to be pulling out the party tricks, but the crowd loves it. And we seem to be cruising along to our first pit stop - but wait! The soprano car has taken off into semiquavers [1'05"]! After that hesitant start, she's flying all over the keyboard! An alarm sounds [this is actually my clock, chiming 12 times - Ed.] and the other voices scramble out of the pits to give chase. There's burning rubber all over the page - something is going to have to give. And CRASH! there it is: a page turn that nobody saw coming [1'17"]. That's settled things down a bit as the brakes were applied by all voices simultaneously. But we're soon back up to speed, and it sounds as if the bass voice is really taking over. It overtakes the tenor, and smashes through the guardrails to burst past the altos and into the lead! Everyone's hanging on, drafting off one of the most extraordinary bass lines in the Well-Tempered Klavier [1'41"]! He's really motoring along, and at this pace he's either going to crash or lap the field. The race official waves the checkered flag, everyone applies the brakes for a final time, and it looks like we're going to end the piece in F# Major [1'56"].
BUT WHAT'S THIS?? I CAN'T BELIEVE MY EARS!!! The pianist has put the damper pedal on, and is going into overdrive [2'00"]. Somebody tell the pianist the race is over - it's time for a victory lap! But all the voices are still going, and - I think I can just hear it - that theme from the beginning is back, with the sound of the broken muffler at the start of the subject again [2'07"]. It's as if they don't know what the checkered flag means - now the soprano has taken the second subject up [2'22"], and the bass has gone into one of his rolling sequences again. It's pandemonium down there. But that sounds like it might be it - the piece has come to a stop [2'40"]. Is that it? I'm looking to the race official for confirmation and yes - that is the end of the piece. What a race! I have to say I never expected such a dynamic and complex composition from such a minimalist subject. Have you heard anything like it, Bob?"
WTK COLOR COMMENTATOR: "Never heard anything like it, Pete. It's like Connie Kay doing an entire drum solo on the cymbal, or Vincenzo Nibali going up the Alpe D'Huez in a single gear."
The note which Bach begins the subject, of course, is an A. An A above middle C, such as the one you see here, clocks in at 440 vibrations per second, or 440 Hz, which is coincidentally the same number as the yards around an athletic track. It's the tuning note that starts every modern orchestra performance. And in the A Major Fugue, the A just hangs there at the beginning for four ninths of a bar, a note in space. From that opening note, everything in the piece follows. But we can go further. From the idea of the A itself, all music follows. As Mallarme writes in "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune," "Je tiens la reine!" This literally means "I hold the queen," but it can also mean"I hold la to be the queen of all." This is not just a fanciful misreading of a baffling bit of 19th century French symbolist poetry: earlier in Mallarme's poem, the faun announces himself to be someone "Qui cherche le la" ("who looks for the la": Mallarme's italics). Mallarme, who is speaking for himself through the faun, is searching for something that is both the sound of a poetic syllable (la: the crucial importance of text) and the sixth note of a solfa scale (la: the crucial importance of music). La, or A, is both music and text. And the sixth note of the solfa scale, of course, is la (Do re mi fa so LA). La, then, is the "Etape Reine," the Queen Stage, the crowning step, where Mallarme reaches both "la reine" and "la, reine." Maria, take it away....
To listen to my recordings of this month's pieces, or to listen to all 16 recordings from April, May, June, and July 2020, please click here. To listen to 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. All pieces are available as a free download. To read my commentary on all the pieces, please click here for Volume 1 and here for Volume 2. To sign up to receive the next set of recordings automatically and subscribe to the blog, please click here. There are two more sets of recordings that complete the journey: the four pieces in B-flat recorded in August (#17-20) and the four pieces in B recorded in September (#21-24).