The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #13
Prelude in E-flat Major, BWV 852
These colors were there before the sun...
... or so Christopher Logue would have us believe, in his extraordinary translation of eight books of Homer's Iliad. The book is called War Music and has a picture of a Masai warrior on the cover.
In my first year at Ohio State, I taught this book, because Ned Sparrow's mother recommended it to me. It took the students a while to work out what was being described. It was of course Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn," except in Logue's version the dawn went through four different color phases: gray (Rat) to white (Pearl) to yellow (Onion) to gold (Honey). Even now, students from that class in 1987 will begin their e-mails to me with the phrase - it's become a kind of shibboleth.
This is the piece in the Well-Tempered Klavier where the sun comes up. For Bach, E-flat major is always the mother ship, always the home key. It's probably because of the three flats, each representing one part of his deeply felt Trinity. At the end of the St. John Passion, there is a staggering outpouring of belief in the final chorale: "Herr Jesu Christ, Erhöre mich, erhöre mich. / Ich will dich preisen ewiglich" (Christ hear me, hear me. I will praise you eternally). And of course it's in E-flat.
This beautifully flowing piece is Honey, then, but it is also the industry of a bee in its hive. Having said earlier that all fugues are centrifugal, you could be forgiven for thinking that beginning on measure 10 this was in fact a fugue: it's the most centrifugal prelude of the lot. After a droning start, like the sound of an electric organ cranking up, there is a rapid flourish and we settle down to 70 measures of 4-voiced counterpoint. That's a fugue in anyone's book, but here the movement is never flight away, but always returning home. It wanders about cheerfully, radiating contentment, and settling, as a bee does, on several simple cadences - one at measure 25 (B-flat), one at measure 35 (G minor), one in the third beat of measure 41 (C minor), one in the third beat of measure 49 (B-flat again), one in the third beat of measure 58 (A-flat), and then a particularly satisfying one 3 bars before the end:
This can only be called a false false cadence, a deceptive deceptive ending. Everything you know about Bach has trained you to expect a different resolution here - a move to C minor, or to some unexpected key. That's what happens in the fugues, and in every organ piece you know. But here Bach pulls a double bluff. Expecting you to expect him to go to the left, he goes to the right. The work resolves, for three glorious measures, all in E-flat. Resolution in every sense: the sun has risen.
Christopher Logue, War Music (1981)
Prelude in E-flat Major, BWV 852, measure 67, leading to an E-flat close
Bach, St. John Passion, BWV 245, "In Meines Herzens Grunde"