Monday, June 6, 2011

Understanding Bach: part I of ...

Perhaps to be more in tune with the times I should have titled this “Loving Bach!” with maybe an emoticon: 8^)  Or maybe not. I’ve been listening to Bach for over forty years starting with Glenn Gould on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the late 1960s. I've been playing him for nearly forty years. Bach is a composer that strikes you from the very beginning, but it can take a long time to really understand his music. But the great expressive power is right there from the first listening. He is the culmination, however, of a long development in music and so a more complete understanding requires knowledge of that development. Listening to a Bach fugue is a striking and immediate musical experience, but having an idea how he got there may take a while.

Bach came from a large family of musicians that had been instrumentalists and composers going back nearly two hundred years. He himself studied compositions going back as far as Palestrina and Frescobaldi as well as the music of other German, French and Italian composers. He was a great musical scholar, even though his formal study ended at seventeen when he won his first post as a professional musician. His musical language contains within it all the contrapuntal knowledge of his and earlier times and also the harmonic drive and clarity of Vivaldi and the expressive dance rhythms of French composers. So a better understanding of Bach would include becoming familiar with Baroque and pre-Baroque music by other composers. Only then will you start to see just how much more he did with the melodic and harmonic structures of the time.

Like Beethoven, a good deal of what is exceptional about Bach is that he got to the essence of things. Take the Prelude in C major from Bk I of the Well-Tempered Clavier (The "WTC" is a very famous collection of pieces in every key, the first successful attempt to show that ALL the keys were usable; the Prelude in C is the first piece). Here it is:

How about on harpsichord? (I couldn't find a good performance on harpsichord of just the prelude, so if you don't want to hear the fugue as well, just stop the player.)

The prelude as a genre began on the lute, largely because lutes have a lot of strings and when they are gut strings, as they were, they are VERY prone to going out of tune. It was said that a forty-year-old lutenist had spent twenty years tuning! So it was very prudent, before you started playing, to just check and see if your lute was still in tune. "Prelude" means "before playing". Soon composers and performers (they were the same people) started jotting down some favorite chord sequences. An interesting feature of the notation they used, lute tablature, is that while it tells you exactly where to put your fingers, it is a little less accurate when it comes to rhythm. In fact, as the rhythms are notated separately from the notes, you can even leave them out entirely, which is what they did. So the first preludes to be written down are without rhythms. The player plays the notes in a free manner--unmeasured--so these are known as unmeasured preludes. Here is one for lute:

And another for harpsichord:

Music for harpsichord was written in standard notation at this time, not tablature, so to indicate an 'unmeasured' prelude, they wrote all the notes in whole note values. The idea is by writing everything in big whole notes, with no bar lines, to give the player complete freedom. I suspect both of these performances above could have taken a lot more freedom with the notes. Here is what an unmeasured prelude by Louis Couperin looks like:

Now Bach didn't write any unmeasured preludes, but the C major prelude above is a development of the idea. One kind of unmeasured prelude consists simply of chords and, of course, most players would arpeggiate them, meaning spread the notes out in various ways. The C major prelude by Bach is simply a series of chords, spread out in a specific pattern. So what we have is pure harmony. There is no real melody and the rhythm never changes so all that is left is harmony.

Now go back and listen to that C major prelude again.

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