Daniel Barenboim and the Well Tempered Clavier
He Takes Bach Personally
Barrymore Laurence Scherer/Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2007
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is possibly the most totemic of all classical composers: "the immortal god of harmony," for Beethoven; "a benevolent god," for Debussy, "to whom musicians should pray..., that they may be preserved from mediocrity."
Given such veneration, Bach and his music can seem daunting to those who feel themselves outside the charmed circle. Moreover, for many nonperformers, the overwhelming glare of Bach's symbolic stature can impede genuine intimacy with his music. His two-volume keyboard collection, "The Well-Tempered Clavier," is a work profoundly loved by its performers. But at the same time its sheer familiarity as a musical milestone can blur the wonders of the music itself. Like the Statue of Liberty, so familiar a symbol that the eye has been numbed to its significance as the most colossal example of 19th-century French academic sculpture, "The Well-Tempered Clavier" is often listened to without really being heard in all its inventive and emotional immediacy.
To the conductor Daniel Barenboim, however, the WTC is simply the foundation for his work as a pianist. "My father -- virtually my only teacher -- reared me on Bach's keyboard music," he says, "because he considered it to be crucial not only for its own musical values, but also crucial to performing all other piano literature." This coming weekend at Carnegie Hall, Mr. Barenboim is playing the complete WTC -- Book I on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Book II on Sunday at 2 p.m. -- and his performance promises to offer considerable insight into his deep personal connection with Bach.
"It is the foundation both musically and technically," he explains in a telephone interview. "Technically its counterpoint is essential to the development of the pianistic technique." Polyphonic counterpoint, a musical texture in which several independent melodic lines, or voices, weave together at once, is at the heart of Bach's writing. In keyboard music, counterpoint demands what Mr. Barenboim calls "the independence of the fingers: A pianist must be able to play with 10 individual fingers and be able to control the volumes and colors of each different line. Unless you have this lucid polyphonic capacity, you cannot play Bach. And in the end you cannot play anything else well."
Beyond technique, there is the rich tapestry of each of the 48 works constituting the two books of the WTC. Each book contains a series of 24 preludes (short pieces in a variety of styles) in all 24 major and minor keys, starting with C-major and moving chromatically up the scale -- C-major, C-minor, C-sharp major/minor, D-major/minor, etc. Each prelude is followed by its fugue -- a contrapuntal piece in which a subject, or theme, is stated by a solo voice, after which it is stated by the remaining voices one by one, amid an increasingly complex web of counterpoint. Thereafter the fugue develops the material with all three, four or five voices, with subsequent appearances of the theme.
Some of Bach's fugues have more than one subject: Among them, C-sharp minor in Book II has two subjects, F-sharp major in Book II has three. And into all the fugues Bach pours the inventive cream of his contrapuntal ingenuity, which makes listening to them a series of astounding musical surprises -- fragments of the subjects appear like meteor showers, subjects are played in augmentation (stretched out), diminution (miniaturized), inversion (played upside-down) or in invertible counterpoint (upper voices switching places with lower voices), or in stretto (overlapping statements like rapid breakers on a beach).
Bach manipulates dramatic tension with his use of chromatic harmony, taking the ear to unexpectedly distant places and returning to the home key for a welcome resolution. Thus, for Mr. Barenboim, Bach's tapestry "reveals the connection between the harmonic, melodic and rhythmical construction -- the essence of Western music of Bach's time and afterward. For example, the chromatic harmony of the C-sharp minor prelude in Book I seems to anticipate Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde,' while in the last pages of the B-minor fugue in Book I you can find Bach anticipating most of the elements of Schoenberg."
Despite their seemingly close-knit organization, these preludes and fugues were not composed as an integral set. Bach assembled them over a long span of time, compiling the first book in 1722 and the second in 1744. As with all his clavier (keyboard) music, Bach wrote with an educational purpose -- to show professional and amateur players not just how to use their fingers, but how to use their minds. His aim was, as he himself put it, to teach "lovers of the keyboard" to have "good ideas, to develop them well, and to obtain for themselves a vivid foretaste of composition."
"It is extraordinary," Mr. Barenboim observes, "that although these pieces were not conceived to be played together in concert, they achieve a fantastic context when you do play them all together. By the time you get to the fifth or sixth prelude and fugue, in D-minor or in E-flat, there is an incredible sense of accumulation. And accumulation is one of the strongest means of musical expression. This is why I like to play both books on successive days: The musical journey is huge."
Bach's music is often more emotionally moving than that of such contemporaries as the delightful Georg Philipp Telemann because of the strength of his harmony -- how his chords progress from one to another. The rate, or harmonic rhythm, of these chord changes is also linked to the tempos of each prelude and fugue -- and on record, and in concert, the notable flexibility with which Mr. Barenboim observes tempos can instill these harmonic progressions with the expressive immediacy of actual speech.
Mr. Barenboim feels that of the three elements in tonal music -- rhythm, melody, harmony -- harmony is by far the most powerful. "You can play unlimited expanses of rhythm, but unless the harmony changes you don't feel moved." Their rich harmonic underpinnings also give Bach's melodies their unique eloquence. Those of, say, the E-major prelude, Book II, or the subject of the F-sharp minor fugue, Book II, are not just beautiful in their own right, but also for their harmonic implications -- when in the third phrase of the E-major prelude, for instance, the melody turns to the minor mode, we sense a twinge of pathos.
This emotional quality isn't necessarily limited to pathos or to the pieces in minor keys. Exultation is another feeling we experience. For example, the C-major prelude of Book II opens with an arpeggiando (harp-like) figure that evokes a dazzling aureole of visual color.
Conversely, the implication of melody in the most famous of these preludes, the one in C-major that opens Book I, inspired the French composer Charles Gounod to add his own melody in 1859, resulting in one of the great musical hits of all time, the "Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Bach," or, more familiarly, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria.
Gounod's brand of Bach veneration aside, we owe an enormous debt to the academic community for our understanding of Bach's music, which had actually gone out of fashion after the composer's death -- and remained so until the mid-19th century. Nevertheless, as a performer, Mr. Barenboim views a purely academic approach to Bach performance with a jaundiced eye. On his WTC recordings (Warner Records), he approaches this music as a modern pianist -- and one of the world's finest colorists -- rather than a historian apologetically playing on the piano. Unabashedly he exploits the sonority of a concert grand, enriching the textures with pedal. In some passages, contrapuntal lines mesh in an almost impressionistic wash of sound; in others he enrobes Bach's keyboard polyphony with the majesty of a cathedral choir. This is hardly playing Bach by the rulebook, but it is intensely musical.
"Rules are necessary for order," he says. "But a performer must have the courage to take a personal viewpoint and go beyond decisions based on simple rules. Otherwise it's the same as fundamentalism, which gives you answers even when there are no questions."
After all, Bach, like all great composers, broke musical rules every day of his life.
Mr. Scherer writes about classical music for the Journal.