The Passion and Joy of J. S. Bach Week Three: The Well Tempered Clavier
The Well Tempered Clavier is surely one of the most off-putting titles in all of music history. Personally, I think the collection should be re-named The Encyclopedia of Human Emotion, for that is surely what these alchemical masterpieces are, interweaving darkness and light, grief and joy in a profound embrace of what it means to be completely human. Written two and a half years after the unexpected death of his first wife, Maria Barbara, and in the year following his marriage to Anna Magdalena, they are beacons of inspiration, inviting us to the full range of earthly experience.
Terminology: Major key- a bright or light color sound palette (think white wine or champagne)
Minor key- a darker, often more somber or passionate sound palette (think red wine)
Clavier- any of the keyboard instruments of Bach’s time: organ, harpsichord, clavichord or the emerging (forte) piano
Polyphony- Literally, “many voices”: a style of composition with each part or voice having its own “melody”
Well-Tempered- a type of tuning system new in Bach's time that allowed the possibility of playing in every key. Bach became the first composer to take full advantage of this innovation and became the very first (and one of the only) composers to write music in every major and minor key.
Prelude- literally "before sounding", preludes were originally improvisatory pieces used to help the performer "warm up" and get the feeling for the keyboard. The form is open ended, though Bach tended to favor "figurated" preludes that "unbutton" a harmonic progression.
Fugue- a very strictly controlled form in which different voices state the "subject" (main musical theme) according to very specific musical rules. The astonishing thing is how much life, joy and dance-like ebullience Bach is able to bring into a very rigid structure.
Featured Works: The Well Tempered Clavier, Book One: Prelude in C Major ("unbuttoned" harmonies) Fugue in c minor (3 voices, jaunty and dance-like) Prelude in C# Major (ecstatic roller-coaster ride) Prelude in E Major (gentle, lyrical, flowing, calm) Fugue in F# Major (infectiously sunny) Prelude in Bb Major (giddy joy interspersed with pauses for reflection) Prelude in bb minor (dark, grief-stricken and funereal. Listen for the tolling bells)
The Well Tempered Clavier is a comprehensive collection of preludes and fugues, one in every major and minor key. Bach most likely played the great "48" (as they are sometimes called, since there are two books of 24 sets of pieces) on all of the keyboard instruments of the time: majestic organ, intimate clavichord, ornate harpsichords and the experimental and fledgling precursor to the piano, the fortepiano. Each instrument yields a very different perspective on the same piece, and when coupled with the staggering array of performance styles available, there is far more diversity in interpretation in these pieces than in anything else I can think of. See for yourself, in the youtube clips below of the Prelude and Fugue in c minor, WTC I (the accepted shorthand for Well Tempered Clavier, Book I). Three examples are on modern piano, and there is one each on harpsichord and organ.
What to listen for: Notice how the opening prelude begins with a regular and rhythmic working out of a predictable pattern. Just when you have figured out what you think comes next ( this is in the "figurated" style, after all!), Bach increases the harmonic dissonance ( also known as tension) and then he totally disrupts the regular sense of rhythm to create a wild, thoroughly unpredictable and improvisatory section that is akin to a soliloquy in Shakespeare: a moment of more interior reflection. Enjoy the juicy contrast of how after Bach has "unbuttoned" both the harmonies and our expectation with this prelude, he returns to strict control with the ensuing fugue. Based on one idea, the musical"subject" is iterated in three voices: middle, high and low in order of entrance.
Piccardy Third- This is a very technical term for one of Bach's favorite techniques. After emphasizing the minor (harmonically dark) aspect of both the prelude and the fugue, he comes to rest in the final measures on a C Major instead of c minor chord. The effect is like the sun coming out at long last after a rainy day.
Notes on the interpretations:
Andras Schiff (first example) is one of the most thoughtful, reflective performers of Bach around. However, he falls clearly on the "Apollonian" end of the performance spectrum, and he is likely to appeal far more to your head than your heart or your gut. His is a very intelligent, reasoned interpretation, but he is rather timid and almost apologetic when it comes to the wild "fantasia" section of the prelude. I do so appreciate his light and clear touch with the fugue, however.
Glenn Gould (second and third examples) is on the opposite end of the spectrum. His prelude begins slow and poky and then throws off all of its clothes in the unbuttoned section. His Fugue is breathlessly rapid, and yes, that is him singing (or is grunting?) along in the background. Gould was always the cranky eccentric, and he tends to invokes extreme passion in his listeners, both love and hate. See how you feel about him, and if you find him intriguing, I recommend the 1993 documentary, " 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould", a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of a man intimately connected with Bach for his entire life.
In my opinion, Diane Hidy' s interpretation of the prelude (fourth clip) is more faithful to Bach's spirit. She conveys the difficult balance of technical and intellectual control with a deep emotion and physical passion that is the essence of Bach's music. I wish she had brought a more playful spirit to the fugue, however- after all, it is such a jaunty (even dance-like) subject! Here she errs on the side of sobriety.
Kenneth Gilbert's rendition of these works evokes the clangorous, decadent soundscape of the harpsichord ("like skeletons copulating on a tin roof" said one uncharitable critic about the instrument). Notice what a different timbre the harpsichord has: the thin and tiny strings are plucked with quills rather than struck with hammers, so the sound is sharp at first but evaporates almost immediately.
Finally, the organ offers the opportunity for the most dramatic rendering of these works, as the sound is sustained through pipes and pedals in such a way that the moments of profound dissonance are maximized. I appreciate Philip Goeth's blend of structure and freedom, and find myself very drawn to this performance, appreciative of his choice of tempi and registration. I love the "tumbling" sensation at the conclusion of the Prelude.