It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. My attempt to whiz through some Thomas Pynchon has been about as successful my brief affair with Infinite Jest. I don’t particularly want to read Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides either. Around midnight, while I was going back through scores and registration sticky notes, Netflix won out over Amazon Prime in the competition for mindless distraction. It’s got The Godfather readily available for streaming.
I admit a certain amount of dread about my recital here in Charleston. Once again, I’ve rather stupidly programmed BWV 532, the “Little” Prelude and Fugue in D Major. Though not particularly famous among the Bach keyboard oeuvres overall, the D Major maintains a Herculean status in the organist’s canon for no other reason than that it places some incredible technical demands on its performer. From the opening bar, the work is a sink or swim test.
The Prelude starts with a quick upward scale from the pedals, followed by an intricate descending pattern in the hands. Backwards and forwards the hands and feet play around with scales and arpeggios until it all of sudden, Bach slams the brakes.
As if to oppose the preceding stratospheric virtuosity, wide angular intervals and a jagged rhythmic pattern jerk everything back down to earth. Though not as technically complex as the opening, the stark contrast of these bars poses a problem of how they should relate to the preceding material, if at all. One could make specific inquiries into matters of tempo, rhythm or articulation, but the overriding question is one of affect or exaggeration. Is the music substantively different enough to be played straight? Or does it ask the performer for something more? It’s all too easy to assume that this is a snippet of a baroque overture, or something regal. But the key of F-sharp minor doesn’t really lend itself to huge amount of dignity or determination, but rather to fear or uncertainty. It’s as if Icarus made it to the sun all too quickly, and the prospect of his doomed descent has made time stand still.
Gear shift (again). A sweeping scale spanning two octaves gives way to a subdued, lengthier polyphonic section. Marked Alla breve, the new section looks more like 16th-century consort music, stoic and stable, a far cry from the impression one might get that the opening was made up on the spot. All the tension, the excitement and angst seems to have been for nothing, but was rather just an improvisatory introduction – a prelude within the prelude.
What’s funny is that the most interesting section of the 532 is the least written about. Just as as Bach is about to tidy up the polyphonic section, it all stops again (surprise!). Everything slows down by about half, the texture expands dramatically and some whacky harmonies come out. First you think you’re going to E minor, then to A minor, then to E major… and even to E-flat major… before it settles back suddenly into D Major, the home key.
The polarization can be tricky to keep track of. Which affect is the “real” essence of the prelude? Was the polyphonic section just a ruse, leading us into a false sense of security? Or are all these crunchy harmonies just a distraction from the solemnity of the Alla breve?
Ok, you got me. The tonal scheme of the final section isn’t all that unusual for Bach. Impassioned chromaticism is considered one of his stylistic hallmarks. But these bars are still strange, emotive, stirring. If you’re a Mario Puzo fan, you’ll recognize the music from the revenge scene from The Godfather. As Michael Corleone stands to witness the baptism of his godson Michael Rizzi, bosses of the families Barzini, Tattaglia, Curneo and Stracci are executed. He stands and tells the priest he will renounce evil and serve as an example to his godson. With every vow, a different boss is shot in line with a different diminished-seventh chord from the organ. Michael’s baptism alibi keeps him safe. It’s all part of the drama in that he has commenced his life as mafioso by decisively going to the mattresses. He has become a godfather.
It’s an important scene for Michael, and possibly the most climactic point of the entire movie. Having spent nearly two and a half hours trying to deny to you the necessity of redemptive violence (a metaphor for Corleone family values), he fully ascends the family throne, killing the bosses of the four families in vengeance for his brother Sonny’s death.
Of course, it is this very internal conflict that makes The Godfather a masterwork, and not a mindless litany of violence. Without the struggle between Michael’s dual life as a mobster and an Ivy-Leaguer-army hero, there wouldn’t be a great deal of dramatic content. By the end of the film, you’re left wondering about the nature of his transformation: has Michael undergone metamorphosis or apotheosis? Is he now victor or a victim?
While Bach’s “Little” prelude ends in the same key as it started, the journey has arguably been frought. Such is the intensity of the dissonance at the piece’s closing that the D major chord can be heard more as a sigh of relief than an herald of victory. There’s no doubt that there’s a sense of finality, but knowing how to feel about it is thrown into flux by a musical device called the Picardy third. By raising the middle note of a chord to make it more joyful in a place where one might expect it to be mournful or pained, the Picardy third thrives on the ambiguity of a single note on a staff. By simply placing a sharp sign in front of it, an F is no longer just an F, but a question.
Mired in the Byzantine chaos that is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Daysits perhaps one of the best metaphorical descriptions of the effect of the Picardy third on the soul. As the protagonist Lew sits in Chicago, listening to the songs of a group of populist-era radicals, he remembers the lines:
Love never spared a sinner,
Hate never cured a saint,
Soon is the night of reckoning,
Then let no heart be faint.
“. . . moving from the minor mode it had been throughout into the major, ending with a Picardy third cadence that, if it did break Lew’s heart exactly, did leave a fine crack that in time would prove unmendable. . . Here, they were expressing the most subversive thoughts, as ordinary folks might discuss crops, or last night’s ball game. Lew understood that this business would not end with him walking out the door tonight and on to some next assignment.”
As Mario Puzo’s own protagonist comes to terms with what he has wrought, he lies to his WASP-y wife about whether or not he has murdered not only four mob bosses, but his own brother-in-law, leaving his newly baptized godchild an orphan. He lies with ease, so as to spare his family anymore pain than he has already been wrought. The ghost of Sonny Corleone’s temper and Vito Corleone’s cautiousness remain so ever-present, that clearing up the family’s collateral damage is the only option for allowing the family to move on, to mourn, to grieve.
The Picardy third in a way is a small lie, a way of tying up something cluttered with tension, ultimately giving it a false sense of finality. In writing on Joni Mitchell’s music, James Bennighof might have been the most damning about the effect of this ancient musical device: “Replacing an expected final minor chord with a major chord in this way is a centuries-old technique, first dubbed a ‘Picardy third’ in print by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1797 … to express [the idea that] hopefulness might seem unremarkable, or even clichéd.” It’s a sweep under the rug; a sudden, cheap emotional machination.
As with any story, what comes after alters the context or narrative. For Puzo, Michael’s Picardy third is prescient of the Corleone’s eventual inability to overcome their violent inheritance. Pynchon’s protagonist continually witnesses the changing 20th century through a lens of heartbreak. With Bach, however, there is hope. There is a fugue: a difficult, lengthy, yet ultimately joyous reconciliation of all of the prelude’s angst and complexity. But whatever the outcome, the Picardy third is a reminder that life’s baptisms of fire – ultimately periods of discomfort and stress – are ultimately short-lived. What comes next is what really matters.