by Anitra Pavlico
Springtime always reminds me of Johann Sebastian Bach. When I was young, my father coaxed me to go to a concert celebrating Bach’s 300th birthday. I used to think it was arcane knowledge, Bach’s date of birth, but Google recently featured it on their homepage–he would have been 334 on March 21. He belongs to everyone, even if it feels as if he is communicating to you personally. His music speaks of emotion, vitality, and renewal, which makes it fitting that his birth rings in the spring. Scholars and performers have of course written much about Bach, so I mainly would like to write about my own experiences and to comment on his Well-Tempered Clavier, two volumes of preludes and fugues in each of the keys of the scale, meant at least in part for students learning keyboard. It is much more than exercises, though; as the critic Harold Schonberg wrote, “if music does have a Bible, it is Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.”
There is a terrific video on YouTube of András Schiff playing Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier live at The Proms in 2017. It is as good an accompaniment to this article as any. Even Schiff’s facial expressions tell a story about the emotion inherent in this music. Bach has sometimes been played in a dry, clinical, “sewing machine” style, as Schonberg described in his 1972 column for the New York Times to mark the Well-Tempered Clavier’s 250th anniversary. Schonberg notes, however, that Bach would not have played it that way himself: “His pupils testified that he was always interested in the emotional content of a piece — the Affekt.”
The conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven that “Bach’s keyboard works maintain a tension — born of restraint and obedience to self-set conventions — between form (which we might describe variously as cool, severe, unbending, narrow or complex) and content (passionate or intense) more palpably and obviously than does his texted music.” The Well-Tempered Clavier pieces reflect this tension, as beneath the orderly facade lies deep emotion. The first prelude of Book I, in C major, is celestial in its stillness and simplicity. At the same time, it contains near-constant striving: delicious, arpeggiated chords are ever-moving to the end goal of C major where they began. This is one to listen to when you want to believe that life is pure, simple, and good, but you suspect danger lurks under the surface. It is followed by the C minor prelude, in contrast, which is dangerous throughout. After that journey, the accompanying C minor fugue’s eventual arrival at C major is cathartic.
Gardiner also writes of Bach’s keyboard music that it “can give us a particular insight into the workings of his mind. As with all expert improvisers, Bach’s brain and fingers were connected with a febrile instantaneousness (working together literally extempore); we can readily believe that the keyboard music retains a charge of this ‘real-time’ creation, unmediated by the painful compositional process to which so many other composers have been subject – Bach’s habit of revising music notwithstanding.” J. S. Bach has been notoriously difficult for biographers to pin down, having left behind a relatively picayune amount of expository material such as letters or journals. What little remains often portrays a peevish, ambitious man who was complaining about particular working conditions, or playing the sycophant to gain employment. Gardiner’s purpose in writing was to elucidate Bach’s personality by analyzing his music, because “We yearn to know what kind of person was capable of composing music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then at other moments so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it, and then at others still so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being.” I can understand this desire, but I am in the other camp, inspired by Albert Einstein’s advice: “This is what I have to say about Bach’s life’s work: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.” I prefer this approach because even if the music does reveal the inner workings of Bach’s brain, its significance is so much greater than that.
Michael Steen writes in The Lives and Times of the Great Composers that Bach “may give much more pleasure to the performer who will be fascinated by his art, than to the audience disconcerted by his complexity.” At first blush, his music can be forbidding. The sheer amount of notes, as well as the sense of underlying order, structure, or logic–which at times is so complex as to be impossible to grasp–can be daunting. Steen’s comment made me think, because being a pianist, I may have played Bach’s keyboard music more than I have listened to it, and therefore my affinity to it. Throughout my younger years, I played classical music but rarely listened to it, preferring practically anything to classical. But I think there is nothing in his keyboard music that is inaccessible to someone who is “merely” listening. To listen to Bach is an active exercise. The music’s structure somehow shapes the brain mush into an organized, symmetrical cathedral. When the music stops, we feel fortified.
There are times when I have not felt that Bach is enjoyable for the performer at all, as recently as last week. I tried to sight-read Bach’s prelude in C sharp major from Book I. There are seven sharps in the key signature, which is tricky enough. But then when I came across a spate of double sharps, I had to give up the sight-reading for alleged pleasure. I also find that the fugues are particularly difficult to sight-read due to the main themes and counter-themes coming in over and over, in the left hand as well as right. It is difficult to get a sense of the overall structure or purpose until you practice it many times. Moreover, the left hand feels at times like a wet mop on the keyboard, instead of a muscular implement for music-making. It is not easy to play a fugue theme in the left hand when the right hand is playing its own complex patterns.
Usually, though, Bach’s music is some of the most gratifying to play. When I was younger I learned the prelude and fugue No. 21 in B flat major. The prelude in particular is just so much fun. A few years later when I had a job as a church organist I would play this prelude on the organ as a postlude after service. It wasn’t quite right on that instrument, especially because I had no technical training on the organ, but it came off as a pretty jubilant way to end service nonetheless. I would save it for Easter and similar occasions. In stark contrast to this joyful prelude and fugue are the ones which immediate follow in B flat minor, which are full of pathos.
Schonberg wrote that “as with any set of sacred writings, the WTC can be interpreted many ways. Some will worship it as pure form, the affirmation of sheer logic in music. Others will find in it an expressive genius that was to lead right into Wagner.” That Bach’s music contained all of these things is why its appeal is so great even today. We feel overcome by the complexity of the modern world and frustrated by its seeming lack of logic. An overflow of emotion shapes public discourse, but there is a shortage of beauty. The pace of life is rapid and unceasing, but often lacks a purpose or rhythm to make us want to drive ourselves onward. Our need for J. S. Bach, who at once embodied complexity, logic, emotion, beauty, rhythm, and purpose, is difficult to overstate.