The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #25
Prelude in C Major, BWV 846 (2nd Version)
In the first Prelude, you can see for ever: there's not a cloud in the horizon. What I now know, having played through the sequence, is that you can see both forwards and backwards.
Bach's first prelude of the first book of the Well-Tempered Klavier is something of a miracle. The first few bars sound like the dawn of a newly created universe. 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.
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 Klavier. The grand architecture of the whole is mirrored in these opening four bars. And anyone can play them.
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.
The prelude has the systole/diastole movement of the human heart, or a hurdy-gurdy. It reaches up, and returns. It folds out, and back in. "All life is figure and ground," says Beckett, who knew the truth of this better than most. And it is in Beckett's next line 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 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, 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. To begin the journey with this piece is to take flight. I wrote about that some time ago, long before I knew I was going to spend the year of quarantine making these 48 recordings (these remarks are adapted from a blog post called "Taking Flight" written in November 2019). To end the journey is to land.
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 go back to the place where you started and know the place for the first time. The difference in the two recordings is the record of the distance traveled between them.
This completes the journey home.
To continue to hear all the works recorded for this project, beginning with the original version of the Prelude in C Major, click "Next." To move to a playlist of the first 24 recordings, click the top left button marked "WTF: The Album." To move to the second playlist of recordings, click the top right button marked "Vol. 2: F#-B."