Sunday, October 01, 2006

"Music" -> The Well Tempered Clavier

Das Wohltemperieterte Klavier (or the Well Tempered Clavier for those that don't like to speak German) has won me over. For many years, I've said that I would like to play the WTC (as some call it), and now in my 40's, I have decided that I would embark on this path.

The first Prelude of the book is a gentle nudging in C major. Easy to recognize because it is often played in the background during documentaries or perhaps you've heard the version that underpins Gounod's Ave Maria. (Gounod version, as the story goes, came out one night while improvising with friends after dinner.) The C Major Prelude is easy and quick. However, the beauty lingers every time that I play it.

However, it is the first Fugue—better known as the Fugue in C major, although Bach could hardly stay in this key and he wildly modulates through several-- that is a bit of a torturous love affair. Ah, I am sorely plugging through measure 17 of 27 measures, and I wonder what Bach ever meant me to do with my left hand. Bach composed in a style that has been forgotten with the chordal based styles of today. Yet, once you’ve embarked on the musical journey of what he was doing, you can understand that God had touched him with a gift that points to supernatural power. Is it any wonder that he wrote Soli Deo Gloria on each piece of music that he composed? He must have recognized that his gift did not lie within himself, but came from a power not of his own.

Listening to his music is dichotomous: it is easy to hear, but not easy to hear.

However, playing it is not dichotomous. It is simply hard.

A bit of analysis will help you understand him, and a wonderful technical analysis can be found here. The whole of this website is a wonderful resource.

While the website above does a wonderful job, and I mean truly wonderful job, I don’t think that you can get the gentle nuance of Bach’s work until you play it. I have sat down at the piano and as I’ve gotten the first 15 or so measure nailed, I will laugh from time to time. Bach weaves four separate lines together—which is called contrapuntal. If you have no idea of music theory, this will simply not make a lot of sense. However, trust me, it is a magical thing that he does.

The piece, in many senses, is beyond my ability, so the going is slow. However, because as I bust it apart—five measures left hand only, then 5 measures right hand only—I can hear the melody and phrasing clear in both hands separate. The weaving of the voices does something happen that you don’t find in other composers, each hand—as you play it—represents a whole song. The first time as I did this, I was amazed. Listening to me practice just the left hand was not “boring.” It did not support the melody; it carried a version of the melody.

Douglas Hofstadter brought up Bach’s ability in Gödel, Escher, Bach, which you must read. This music is recursive in nature and mathematical in fact. For sophistication, it cannot be beat. And that the humble musician from the early 1700’s could derive work that I find sorely lacking in music today, is only the more amazing.

It simply points to the idea that we’ve de-evolved.

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