The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #5
Prelude in C# Major, BWV 848
Listening to the Prelude in C minor, one of my younger piano students said yesterday that "it sounds like a car going really really fast." No, Caspian - this is the one that sounds like a car. Or a bobsled. Playing it, I imagine Telly Savalas behind me grinning maniacally from behind a ski mobile equipped with a machine gun, as I desperately try to maneuver the hairpin turns while hurtling down a bobsled run at 132 beats per minute.
OK, I'm probably the first person in musical history to associate this piece with On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but I've watched a lot of James Bond films in my life, probably more than is good for me. The sheet ice in this case is provided by 7 sharps, one for each note, so that even the sharps are white notes. That's partly why this one is colored white: it's a slalom run on very difficult terrain. The number of sharps always terrified me so I only learned it now, in time for this recording. It turned out all right, but I wouldn't want to risk another take - I'd end up in a snowblower like one of Blofeld's henchmen.
This one works best on a harpsichord: you have two clear lines until the last two bars, when the performer gets out of the safety harness and stands up, shaking the snow out of their eyes. And the fugue that follows it works best on a piano: you have such lush harmonic sequences that they are crying out for a pedal that hadn't been invented yet. Sometimes there really is a reason that Bach's music got send out on the Voyager probe: it's as if his music hadn't yet found the instrument for which it was intended. In the prelude, I hear the schuss of the ski pole; in the fugue, it's a peal of bells from a church somewhere in an English village. These pieces are like metaphors, tenors for separate vehicles. (If you are imagining Pavarotti in a Peugeot, stop - the terms "tenor" and "vehicle" are technical ones for the signifying symbol and the range of possibilities for the signified.) You can take them wherever you want to go.
More on signs, since it's an important subject in Bach. In a classic misprint, my first attempt at posting these recordings listed the catalogue number as "BMV" (Bureau of Motor Vehicles) rather than "BWV" (Bach Werke Verzeichnis). A delightful error - I must have been thinking of checking my driver's license before I started making these recordings. "Verzeichnis," though, is an interesting word in German: meaning "register," it comes from "Zeichen," the German for symbol, or sign. This signs on a white field can really mean anything you want them to mean, as Dedalus said to Humpty Dumpty.
Anyway, I think I actually meant BMW. Vroom...