The Well-Tempered February
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Update: For the music and commentaries to this project, go here: "The Well-Tempered February" You'll find a recording of each piece and a further link to a short bit of color commentary. Click here for the completed Album.
Like many of you, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, brought on by the dark days and long nights of the winter. Growing up in England at a latitude of 51.75 (the same latitude as Calgary), the only recourse during the winter months was to take a bus to London and see the Christmas Lights, which we never did. So it was a particularly perverse choice to go to Finland for six months, which it is dark out when you wake up at 8:00, dark when you have breakfast at 9:00, and dark when you set off to work at 10:00. Here are some SAD Finns:
Here is why they are SAD:
Here is how SAD sufferers feel in Winter:
The solution, as I've said before (see "Top Ten Reasons to Live in Finland" and "The Colors of Tampere"), is color. From 9:30 to 10:00, after I've had my breakfast, I color pictures until the sun begins to rise.
It's standard therapy for SADs (was there ever a more perfect acronym?), and the Finns know it - when you ask for "coloring books for adults" they immediately show you where to find them, with a sympathetic look that says "you too?" Colored pencils, colored bus passes, the colored backs of bank cards: it's all part of the same philosophy that a spectrum a day keeps the blackness away.
At the same time, I have been playing Bach as a form of meditative exercise, annoying the neighbors by actually practicing the pieces for 2 hours every late afternoon and early evening. And suddenly the penny dropped: the Well-Tempered Klavier is color therapy too. For what is the F major Prelude but a Spring morning, clad in rising green? What is the Prelude in C if not a clear blue sky, the kind that perfect blue that became famous after 9/11 as "severe clear"? In the first Prelude, you can see for ever: there's not a cloud in the horizon. I've written about the piece elsewhere (see "Prelude in C"), so this is a good place to lay out the idea of the whole project. There are 24 hours in a day. There are 24 pencils in the box of Stabilo Watercolor pencils I have in front of me:
And there are 24 Preludes & Fugues in each book of the Well-Tempered Klavier. The 48 Preludes & Fugues of the Well-Tempered Klavier are actually 96 separate pieces: 24 Preludes x 24 Fugues x 2 books. I propose to play the first quarter of them, #1-24, over the month of February 2020. That will take me up to the Fugue in F minor in Book 1. [In April-September 2020, the remaining pieces in Book 1 were recorded - ed.] With an extra day for leap year, I have 29 chances to get this first set right. Some of them are easy, some are fiendishly hard; there will be days when I record nothing just to practice. And there will be mistakes, false starts, absurdly slow tempi, and far too much pedal. But the colors will shine through.
The CD liner notes for the Sviatoslav Richter performance of the Well-Tempered Klavier that I got from the amazing public library in Tampere says that there isn't much that readily identifies a connection between each Prelude and Fugue, except the shared opus number: "Although attempts have been made to discover motivic similarities between the two pieces, they are not very convincing, and today it is generally held that Bach could only have had a very loose connection in mind." Like most CD liner notes, this is dead wrong. They are connected by COLOR and MOOD. Just listening to Book I, the B minor Prelude is blue, and the B minor Fugue is darkest indigo. The E-flat Prelude is yellow, and the E-flat Fugue is dazzling gold. I have always heard keys in different colors: I don't know of a musician who doesn't. D major will always be red, E major emerald green, C minor is black: there is no escaping these connections. And the Prelude in C major is the dazzling blue of a September sky.
This exercise, which I am calling "The Well-Tempered February," is for all you Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers out there, to bring a brief band of color into our lives. We don't have to be like this:
We can be like this:
This musical journey will also be a way of paying the proper respect to the wonderful Grotrian Steinway upright in Johnny Riquet's apartment here in Pirkankatu 24, seen in the background below:
And finally, it will be a chance for me to pay homage to the composer after whom I was named, who has always been my chief inspiration, and my Virgilian guide. Bach was a genius with color.
Here's the lot of them:
Prelude in C major - Sky Blue
Fugue in C major - Ocean Blue
Prelude in C minor - Black
Fugue in C minor - Violet
Prelude in C# major - White
Fugue in C# major - Silver
Prelude in C# minor - Forest Green
Fugue in C# minor - Indigo
Prelude in D major - Red
Fugue in D major - Crimson
Prelude in D minor - Orange
Fugue in D minor - Ochre
Prelude in E-flat major - Yellow
Fugue in E-flat major - Gold
Prelude in E-flat minor - Peach
Fugue in E-flat minor - Coral
Prelude in E major - Emerald Green
Fugue in E major - Teal
Prelude in E minor - Dark Blue
Fugue in E minor - Magenta
Prelude in F major - Spring Green
Fugue in F major - Olive Green
Prelude in F minor - Light Brown
Fugue in F minor - Dark Brown
Oddly, these are exactly the 24 colors in my pencil set (go figure). On the main website (sebastianknowles.com), go to "The Well-Tempered February" (it's linked from the Home Page). You'll find a recording of each piece as soon as I make it, and a further link to a short bit of color commentary. When I was making my way through the old paper edition my father had with its falling-apart acid paper to see if there was one I could actually play, the best part was reading the editor's commentary for each set. I wanted to see if they loved what I loved. So read along, and take a listen to the first one.