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The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #17
Emerald Green
Prelude in E, BWV 854
00:00 / 01:09

Prelude in E Major, BWV 854

Color Theory Part 1


This is without any question Bach's happiest piece in the Well-Tempered Klavier.  It's short, shorter even than the Prelude in C Major, clocking in at 1'08", and that's at a leisurely pace (the one in F is the only one that's shorter).  The Prelude in C minor I took at a blistering pace and still ended up 5 seconds longer, at 1'13".  My grandfather, Kenneth Knowles, used to play this one, at an even more leisurely pace.  It's the one that everyone likes.


It's also emerald green.  But why?

And here I have to bring in two very important artists, L. Frank Baum and Wassily Kandinsky.  When Baum's extended metaphor of the silver standard, The Wizard of Oz, was published, nobody realized its extraordinary potential as a colorist icon - nobody except MGM, who turned the Emerald City, the Yellow Brick Road, and the Ruby Slippers into a narrative of a rainbow world.  For a nation fed on black-and-white newsreels in 1939, and not yet saturated with color, it was ... well, it was a complete non-event.  Released 10 days before the European Declaration of War, it made 200 times less than Gone with the Wind.  But I think we can accept that emerald is the color of jaunty expectation, and this piece is surprisingly like "We're Off to See the Wizard" in several respects.  I have a friend who insists that E Major must be the color of gold, but that is because he is a violinist, and the E Major Violin Concerto is in fact gold.  As in Baum's Emerald City, the two colors belong together.  Let's see if Kandinsky can help us.


In 1910, Kandinsky determined that colors moved in a wheel very much as music did.  The musical cycle of fifths is well known - Shostakovich arranges his 24 Preludes and Fugues by moving through the cycle, starting with C (no sharps), moving to G (one sharp), and then to D (two sharps), and then A (three sharps), and so on, until he comes back, as Maria would say, to C (via all the other keys).  Here's a diagram:












And here's Kandinsky's circular color diagram, from the first English translation of "On the Spiritual in Art":

With white and black standing for birth and death, "As a great circle, or a serpent biting its own tail [...] these six colours stand before us."  This isn't the color wheel you learned about at school, but one closely connected to music.  For Kandinsky, each color had a timbre, a voice, a musical analogue.  Red was the trumpet, green the violin.  Gray is "immovability which is hopeless," (as in the granite depths of the Fugue in C# Minor); violet is "morbid, extinguished" (cue the Fugue in C minor).  Kandinsky's work cannot be understood without hearing what you are seeing:  it takes place in time.  Just listen to this:












All of the great paintings (Guernica; The Garden of Earthly Delights; Las Meninas; Rail, Steam, and Speed) take place in time.  There is a rhythm to their discovery.

In the Well-Tempered Klavier, the four pieces in E major are all fairly straightforward, except for one unexpected moment in the Prelude in E minor.  So I want to take this opportunity to lay out, while we go through the key of E, what color has to do with music.  What music has to do with color is beyond me - that's for Kandinsky and others to explain.  But those of us who learn kinesthetically, who respond to visual and aural cues at the same time, will appreciate perhaps what this project is about.  It's not just about bringing color to the month of February, or the country of Finland, or the world in 2020, though God knows we need all of that.  It's about explaining why the Prelude in E major is emerald, the Fugue in E Major is teal, the Prelude in E minor is dark blue, and the Fugue in E minor is light purple.  I'll try to start that discussion next time.

Spiritual in Art.jpg
Cycle of Fifths.jpg
Kandinsky 1.jpg
Composition VII.jpg

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII (1913)

Wassily Kandinsky, "On the Spiritual in Art" (1910)

The Cycle of Fifths

Wassily Kandinsky, "On the Spiritual in Art," first complete English translation (Guggenheim, 1946), 72-73

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