Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rediscovering Bach

Like most pianists, I have spent many hours studying the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).  From the simple works contained in Anna Magdalena's Notebook and the two-part inventions to the preludes and fugues in the Well Tempered Clavier, I have done my fair share of works by this Baroque master.

When I performed my last graduate recital, I played the Italian Concerto and swore that I would never play another Bach piece as long as I lived.  It's not that I don't respect the composer.  Neither do I adhere to the philosophy that Baroque music should only be played on period instruments.  (In a perfect situation, period instruments are ideal, but we have to play on the instrument that is available.)  I just simply did not enjoy the music.  I'm speaking heresy to many of you now, I know.  It's just a personal preference.  I would much rather play a lovely melody of Beethoven or Faure than fight my way through the thick textures of Bach's polyphony.

This opinion was formed in childhood.  A very well-meaning teacher had me plow through all the inventions despite my complaints that I "hated this dumb music."  With a twinkle in her eye, she declared that when I got older I would finally understand just how beautiful this music is.  (She then had a gleefully wicked grin as she told me that I WOULD play the inventions now and survive!  Oh how I miss her sometimes!)

Now that I don't have a teacher sitting over my shoulder constantly lauding the glory of Bach, I am finding myself drawn to his brilliance again.  As I teach my music appreciation students, we take a look at the fugue and begin to see how intelligent a composer had to be to conceive of a well-wrought composition in this form.  So I decided that it was time to take a journey through the Well Tempered Clavier on my own and give this composer a fresh look.

I have decided to start at the very beginning (you know.....it's "a very good place to start").  The C major and C minor preludes and fugues were very familiar to me, so it didn't take very long to get through them.  They aren't performance ready, but I was anxious to get to some material with which I wasn't familiar.  Where did I find myself?  You guessed it -- face to face with the third prelude in the volume -- in C# major!  After a few deep breaths and talking myself out of quickly running away and finding another work in a more appropriate key, I dove in and began to learn this beautiful prelude.  I grumbled for a few days as I continued to miss E#'s and B#'s, but the frustration quickly passed as I began to be swept away by the harmonic beauty.  The progressions are not mind shattering on paper, but in Bach's hands the music moves to the next tonal center at the perfect moment, creating tension and release.

I'm finding myself anxious to spend some more time with Mr. Bach now.  Will I get through all the preludes and fugues this year?  I'm not sure about that......I don't want to be TOO radical.....but I do plan to spend some quality time with this composer and let the beauty of his sounds wash over my ears with a fresh attitude and approach.

Now, I really must get back to the piano......time to start learning some notes in the C# major fugue!