Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier

Where can anyone possibly start when it comes to so-called "classical music," or "serious music," or, even just "music" (as if everything else somehow isn't)?  Not only is the chronology extensive, but the arbitrary periods and genres (Early, Baroque, Romantic, Atonal,, Musique Concrete, Minimalist, etc.) are many and vast.

For this fundamentally untutored listener, though, perhaps the earliest experience that had a major impact on my enjoyment of "classical" was Johann Sebastian Bach, first through his violin works, then violcello (cello) pieces, next the organ, and then finally the cembalo or harpsichord.  Bach (1685-1750) was actually best known as an organist in his lifetime and his compositions were not given their due until his musical descendants, principally Mozart and Haydn in the later 1700s and then Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and others, began to use his contrapuntal (counterpoint being the use of two or more harmonically independent voices--the last point, for example, touched upon the polyphony of the Bulgarian female choir music) methods and Bach's reputation as a composer was forever established.

One of Bach's most important works (and there are many, many of them) from the standpoint of the history of music, as well as study and listening enjoyment is The Well-Tempered Clavier, a series two-dozen preludes and fugues ranging from  2 1/2 to over 8 minutes in length.  The composer issued his first edition of these pioneering works in 1722, stating that they were "for the advantage and use of all studious ad musical youth as well as for those already attending a university, set up for their special diversion . . ."  Though the intent was clearly academic, at least for the publishing of the series, the "special diversion" also falls to untold numbers of listeners, including laypersons like YHB, who simply enjoy the pieces for their beauty, harmonic complexity, and range of styles.

The "well tempered" aspect concerns the tuning of the instrument (harpsichord in Bach's time, the piano in ours) so that the twelve notes contained in an octave are tuned to allow for the playing of all 24 major and minor keys.  This greatly expanded the palette of the keyboard for composers and, though Bach was not the first to investigate "pantonal" ideas, his system became paramount for anyone following him, at least until modern (early 20th century) music brought such developments as atonal composition, where keys were jettisoned completely, from such compsoers as Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky, and twelve-tone serial work by Arnold Schoenberg and others, and the highly esoteric, but fascinating work of Harry Partch, who had his own notation system based on 43 notes played on his own custom instruments--truly amazing stuff!

Those with limited understandings (such as YHB) can, at least, listen to "early music" first and then that of Bach to hear the greater richness, variety and depth that his contrapuntal ideas generated relative to harmony, usually with three or four voicings in the pieces in The Well-Tempered Clavier, without having to be extensively schooled in the finer technical points.

At any rate, Bach's music is always an excellent place to start, as was the case here, with exploring the world of "classical music."  Listening to Bach and other Baroque composers like Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Telemann and Georg Handel and then continuing to later composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and others is an opportunity to see how the early ideas of counterpoint are developed and extended through the 19th century.  Then, the explosive contrasts with "modern" 20th-century music becomes, at least for this listener, more understandable, as earlier notions of tuning, modulation, counterpoint, harmony and other aspects are challenged.  Even with the limited range of listening of YHB, the journey through the varied aspects of "classical music" has been and continues to be exciting and educational and you don't have to be a music snob to enjoy the trip.

The image shows the cover of a two-CD issue of The Well-Tempered Clavier (or, in this case, The Well-Tempered Piano, even though a harpsichord or cembalo is played) by the German budget label Pilz (love those Pilz and Naxos releases!) in 1989.  It's not Glenn Gould or Andras Schiff, but Christiane Jaccottet (1937-1999), a Swiss harpsichordist and professor at the Geneva Conservatory of Music, whose playing is outstanding.

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