The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #7
Prelude in C# minor, BWV 849
Some pieces just get under your skin. When Bach is his most tender, his music is irresistible. We all have favorite bits of Bach: the Crucifixus in the B-minor Mass, the "Betrachte" from the St. John Passion, the 25th variation of the Goldbergs. Every now and then you find a new one, as Adam Hayward and I did playing through the Violin Sonatas, and stopping dead on something in F minor:
Bach has a way with an achingly beautiful line. The lines are fluid as a wave is fluid, ebbing and flowing, arcing in sequence, circling home. The best way to describe the circular movement of these perfect lines is through a visual analogy:
Like Rembrandt half a century before him, Bach fights depression by facing it head on. (How do I know they're depressed? In Rembrandt's case, it's well-attested; in Bach's case - just listen to the music, for Christ's sake.) The Prelude in C# minor is in 6/4, which gives 2 long beats of 6 notes each per bar. These sinuous six-note lines become more and more tangled, each new iteration set off by a mordent or an arpeggiated chord. But then, in a miraculous sequence towards the end (around 1'54"), they untangle themselves for four straight beat-less bars. As in his Sarabande from the 5th Cello Suite in C minor, you are meant to lose track of the downbeat, and you are lost. The undertow has taken you out to sea. But then Bach returns you, as always, to dry land.