The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #3
Prelude in C minor, BWV 848
Of all the pieces in the set, the C minor Prelude is the most astonishing. If white is the combination of all colors (as Dante and H.D. both knew, scientists both), then black is its negation, and the C minor Prelude is a fierce negation of the two pieces that precede it. I've said earlier that it's foolish to think of the Well-Tempered Klavier as an Old Testament, but here's where they got the idea: Bach gives us a Flood to wipe the world clean, a river that has no parting. All the greenery (in my color scheme, blue skies and seas) of Eden has been washed away in a torrent of black notes. Just look at them:
When I was a teenager in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I used sometimes to be forced to play 4-hand music with the older Coolidge Hill set, people with names like Melba and Jock, who usually had two concert grands side by side in an alcove to prevent us actually touching one another. I remember noodling away at this one while Melba finished with something, and she suddenly stopped what she was doing, her aged eyes brightening. "So that's the way to play it," she said. "I've never been able to make that one work." And it's true, a lightning speed is the only speed for this piece. Bach puts his only Presto of the entire set (I'm guessing, but it's probably one of less than five in the entirety of his work) at measure 28, and most performances wait for this moment and grind ponderously through the chord changes until you get there, so that the piece begins to sound like grinding corn between enormous mill stones. But you have to play the whole thing Presto, until you get to measure 28, when you play it faster still. This is Lucifer falling, this is the sound of the Archangel St. Michael with his sword. Adam and Eve have been playing around in the fantasy land of C major for far too long. C minor, as both Mozart and Beethoven knew, is the key of death.
There's a wonderful poem by Alfred Brendel about Beethoven disguising himself as Salieri and tiptoeing towards Mozart on his death bed, to steal the key of C minor. For Bach, the demonic reason for the 3 flats must be its inversion of the Trinity that is E-flat major: all of his E-flat pieces are saturated with the Trinity (so, for that matter, is Mozart's Magic Flute Overture, for different Masonic reasons). Beethoven's great Choral Fantasy, so rarely performed, is in C minor, as his most performed symphony, #5. All composers know, I think, that C minor is its own prison. And there is no way out.