The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #1
Prelude in C Major, BWV 846
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. The solution, as I've said before, 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 paper, colored bus passes, 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: this 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 Prelude in C elsewhere, 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, purchased for €9.95 at Suomalainen Books. And there are 24 Preludes & Fugues in each book of the Well-Tempered Klavier (that's why it's called "The 48"). 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. Maybe in some later February I'll try the second 24 (F# major - B minor), and the third (C major - F minor in Book 2), and the fourth (you get the idea). 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, and far too much pedal. But the colors will shine through. 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. It 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. 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.
The CD liner notes for the Sviatoslav Richter performance of the Well-Tempered Klavier that I got from the amazing public library in Tampere (which also had Urtext editions of the late Beethoven Piano sonatas - several of them!) 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 looking at 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.
Here's the lot of them, with links to the commentaries as they come in:
Oddly, these are exactly the 24 colors in my pencil set. Go figure...