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The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #15
Prelude in e-flat, BWV 853
00:00 / 03:26

Prelude in E-flat Minor, BWV 853

This peach of a piece is a dangerously overripe fruit, the kind that Prufrock was afraid to eat.  Like Prufrock's peach, it contains an entire universe.


I really don't know where Bach was able to access this kind of lusciousness.  Jeremy Glazier bought me John Gardner's biography of Bach and it was mostly about how grumpy he was, and how zealously he prosecuted his debts.  I did learn that Bach would sign his manuscripts with the letters S.D.G., which gave me no small satisfaction, since those are my initials.  (Apparently the phrase means "Soli Deo Gloria" - I really don't think my parents did this deliberately.)  But what I really want to know, and what no biography will tell me, is whether Bach was a cat person.

T. S. Eliot obviously was, not just because of "Cats," but because of this immortal stanza in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Joyce was a cat person, I think (his dogs are all violent, Bloom's cat is quite lovely).  Virginia Woolf, I'm fairly certain, was a dog person (she wrote a biography of the Brownings' cocker spaniel).  But what was Bach?  Like the C-sharp Minor Prelude earlier, there is something feline about this piece; it rubs its back against the key of E-flat minor.  In measures 25-26, it rubs its muzzle against an astonishing modulation to what can only be described as F-flat major:
















Like Prufrock's imaginary cat, it lingers and falls, slips and leaps, curls around the keys.   At 2'05" it drops from a great height, with a downward arpeggio that isn't indicated in the score but I think is justified.  On measure 35 it lifts a lazy paw to bat at something, thinks better of it, and falls asleep, with an E-flat on each of the nine beats before the end of the piece, one for each of its nine lives (you can count them here, on the bass in measures 37-39):  

















We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Nine Lives.jpg

Prelude in E-flat Minor, BWV 853, measures 25-26

Prelude in E-flat Minor, BWV 853, measures 35-40.  Note the E-flats beginning on measure 37 in the left hand.

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