My approach to Bach. Discussion of the piano cycles.
by Michael Heise
An entertaining and thoughtful treatise for pianists and Bach lovers - based on an intensive study of the sources and on many years of practical musical experience.
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"If all musical masterpieces were to be lost and only the Well Tempered Clavier would survive, we could reconstruct the entire musical literature from this one work."
Hans von Bülow
"Whenever I became bogged down during the act of composing, I would return to the Well Tempered Clavier and immediately new musical ideas would begin to grow out of me."
Ludwig van Beethoven
These are only two famous citations about the Well Tempered Clavier. They are representative of what many accomplished and famous musicians and pianists consider the most important works for the piano, in the following sequence: The Well Tempered Clavier, the Beethoven piano sonatas and the Chopin piano works.
The Well Tempered Clavier however is the virtual stem cell of all these important works because it contains, in addition to the almost inconceiveble miracles in contra point, all the building blocks of virtuoso piano playing which were used by later composers. However, we hear and feel this only as a side effect, because we are uplifted and elated by the formal element, the building blocks of Bach's musical universe. Bach gives us the gift of the vision and hope to overcome the finality of our earthly existance.
However, how Bach's music based on the origin of all things and on the basic law of all being? This is so because this law is the same as the law of counter point: the law of physics, of gravity, of nature as experienced by us. Through our ear we experience this harmony - harmony with the universe.
Pythagoras, born 580 B.C. was the first human who was able to mathematically fix the natural scale of tones. He man not have been the first one who discovered this, because others had blown into reeds and experimented on empty strings. However, Pythagoras gave them a mathematical value and discovered that physical phenomenon which we today call the "Pythagoras' comma".
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Anyone who is beginning a serious study the Goldberg Variantions, even if he or she considers himself an already advanced student, will soon discover the difficulties in trying to create a well balanced but also a masterly sound image.
My approach has been to adapt the following method or scheme: to play the short notes longer and the long notes shorter, i.e. the semiquaver as detache and the quaver as staccato. This leads to a substantial increase in transparency, and already at a tempo of ¼ = 100 an effect of great fluency may be achieved.
In earlier chapters of my book I already mentioned that there is a tendency to neglect the issue of tempi in playing Bach (with the exception of the Partitas and Suites) because this music is the most absolute. Nonetheless, in this instance I would suggest a tempo which lies between the two extremes, as has been exemplified by Glenn Gould, the famous Bach interpreter and one who I greatly admire. For my own purposes, I simplified the crossover of the hands at bar 13 and 14, as follows:
In the absence of a second manual it is necessary to occasionally resort to this kind of a solution. A mordent on the closing quarter notes in Takt 16 and 32 is particularly fortuitous if the preceding phrases have been successfully executed.