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The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #23
Light Brown
Prelude in f, BWV 857
00:00 / 02:44

Prelude in F Minor, BWV 857

Well, we all knew it:  there was a snake in the garden.  This is where the pastoral bites back.  F minor is the color of burial.  Not the color of earth--that was ochre--or the color of death--that was black.  But for the auditory equivalent of worms in the grave, you can't do better than this little beauty.


Watch the line on measure 12 snake down from an E-flat to an E-natural, hitting 8 of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale along the way.  







Listen to the sinuous lines of the opening four beats, with its parallel minor sixths ascending in the top of the LH and the bottom of the RH.  These are tendrils, snaking towards the light.  We are underground, and this is our nekyia, our journey to the underworld.  Held notes help us keep our balance, but we are probing in the darkness, using our fingers to reach out because we can no longer see.  As a pianist, you cannot play this with pedal:  every one of your 10 fingers is summoned to hold every note its exact length, sometimes requiring two or three silent finger shifts along the way.   You literally play like a snake.


All the light of the Prelude in C Major, all the greenness of the world of the Prelude in F Major, has become dimmed.  And we must follow these creeping vines into the dark.  At the end of the piece, there is an imaginary note, a C that is held for 16 long beats, 64 sixteenths, and then impossibly for one beat more, bringing the total length to 17: 

























By the end of the note, this C cannot possibly be heard, something that would be even more true on a keyboard in Bach's time.  But it must be played.  Every note of the chromatic scale is played over this bass C.  Bach is working with partials and overtones, ensuring that the C against the B natural at the end of measure 20 is a felt idea, a hidden resonance, a lost chord.  He has taken us to the edge of sound, and dropped us further down.


In Tampere's magnificent cathedral, there is a painting of Death's gardeners tending the souls of the living.  One death's head has decided to pluck a flower and keep it for his own (it looks to be a periwinkle).  His face is wreathed in a ghastly smile.  Another on the left steps forward, skeletal metatarsals arched, to water another soul.  A hidden figure in the back bends to attend to some important gardening issue.   Called "The Garden of Death," it was painted by the Finnish painter Hugo Simberg in 1905:




























It's a creepy and astonishing painting, and not by any means the most unusual work in the church.  Two Finnish boys hold a wounded angel on a stretcher in the gallery, and at the top of the cathedral, in the space where the oculus would be, there is of course a snake.  It can fly, which is why it is up there.  In its open mouth is a flower:

This is Strong Pastoral, as defined in the previous section; a pastoral world that is aware of its own ironies, and aware of the presence of death.  Recent work by Karen Russell ("Bad Graft") and Nicholson Baker ("Subsoil") have followed the line of Octavia Butler ("Bloodchild") and H. P. Lovecraft ("Colour Out of Space") to show us a world out of balance, where plants prey on humans and seawalls fail to protect the land.  In contemporary pastoral literature, nature controls man rather than the other way around.  Works such as Richard Powers's The Overstory and Max Porter's Lanny reflect a fundamental change in the way that fiction presents the natural world.  The trees are alive, and they are fighting back.  Research on plant neurobiology suggests that this is not entirely fiction.  As Nature becomes more menacing in the age of the Anthropocene, writers have taught us to fear the assumptions of human dominance over what we casually and inaccurately refer to as "our" world.  

In Lovecraft's "Colour Out of Space," the color is not specified.  The recent film version, which is not recommended for the faint-hearted, follows Goethe and Spielberg to go with the uncanny violet as the alien color.  The plants take over, people give birth to alpacas, it's the regular drill.  But if you look underground, you will find fungi doing exactly this, without extraterrestrial assistance.  Our modern networks, from the internet to the politicization of social media, from the fungi underground to the wood wide web, are all a form of pastoral knowing.  They are chaotic, disordered, entropic.  Bach's fumbling chromatics in the Prelude in F Minor are fungal.  They know the world in a different way.  It will take one heck of a Fugue to get us out of here.


Prelude in F Minor, BWV 857, measure 12

Held C.jpg

Prelude in F Minor, BWV 857, measures 16-22.  Note the impossible Picardy Third recommended by the editor in the final bar (the A natural):  there is no way out from F minor here.


Hugh Simberg, "The Garden of Death" (1905-1906)

Simberg Snake.jpg

Hugh Simberg, Ceiling Fresco, Tampere Cathedral

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