Bach: the E Major Prelude and Fugue from Book Two
November 5, 2021
A.B.’s lesson on 11/4/21
The two hands spread out like a puddle of water on concrete.
The hands are like amoebas constantly oozing around and changing shape.
Whatever finger in whichever hand “shows up for duty” by being located at that moment over a key that is meant to be played next, plays that key.
Another thing that occurs due to the natural amoeba like motion of the hands is that a key under under hand at one moment may find itself under the other hand moment or two later.
It is almost like the hands are lava flowing down a hillside, at one moment it may form two distinct streams, at another the two streams may converge into one molten mass.
What has no shape definable shape at one moment can have any shape at any moment.
Fingering confession: I can barely go more than a few notes in a piece without unconsciously using a finger substitution. These substitutions occur as the PASSIVE reflex of the fingers in response to a general movement laterally by the entire hand (rather than an intentional motion on the part of the fingers). It is the result of the same ‘amoeba’ like motion of the hands, which can expand and contract as a whole while at the same time changing shape.
The mood of a harmony and how far does it extend in time.
While the prelude bears one key signature, E Major, there are moments which ruffle the surface of that harmony for a note or two, and there are longer sections which different ‘regions’ of the key (B Major, G# Minor, etc.).
Whether ephemeral or longer lasting, try to “evoke” or conjure out of the notes, the ‘mood’ of the current harmony, and not let your ear proceed on the inertia of the previous harmony. When the original theme comes in in B Major, try to see each note played in terms of how it fits in the emotional nexus of B Major, which is different than that of E Major. An ‘E’ for example in the landscape of overtones and their beats in B Major, is a different sound, with a different color and shine, than that of the same ‘E’ in the surroundings of E Major.
Try to stay in the mood of the world of B Major for as long as is harmonically justifiable, and banish the emotional association of what those notes say in the key of E Major. Let the listener make their own surmise that they are hearing the same ‘theme’, consisting o f the same melodic intervals, as occurred in the first entrance of the theme at the beginning of the Prelude. Don’t worry about the constancy of the theme as an entity, let Bach take care of that for you. Know when to share responsibilities between you and the composer.
A technical issue affecting A.B’s playing is that his hands are always ‘itching’ to get to the next note while the current note is still sounding. I would rather he wait until the time has arrived for the new before making any commitment to a gesture that will “get him to the next note”, help situate or predispose his fingers to being already in the new location.
The connections, note to note, in this prelude are sometimes physically difficult to realize. Imagine the frog who remains motionless for an indefinite amount of time until a fly is within several feet of its mouth, at which point its tongue extends itself in one, seemingly instantaneous gesture, to grab the fly. “The frog fires the tongue towards its prey at an astounding 4 meters per second.” (Google).
The frog knows how to wait for the right moment to act, and gets to the target without our even knowing exactly how it did it. Not knowing, nescience, is an important way of permitting the body to make gestures naturally, smoothly and seamlessly. Forethought prevents this naturalness in motion, by predisposing only certain components of the motion to occur and suppressing many others from occurring.
My concept of maintaining the nobility of the sound of this fugue.
While there are a myriad of three and four note chords constellated around the general key of E major. I want them to share the same underlying nobility of sound.
How do I achieve this oneness in spite of constant variety? First I produce a ‘model’ for this sonority on the piano. My choice of model for today is the chord: e2-b2-e3–gs3-b3-e4-gs4. I imagine it being played not by the piano but by the low brass of the Chicago Symphony orchestra in the late fifties and early sixties (of the 20th century). My imagination doesn’t really need the tuba, but I definitely need the bass trombone.
I play that model over and over, until the waves of its sound submerge all other sounds and thoughts. Then it is up to a vivid imagination and memory recall to play the written chords as if each were awash with this sound, was permeated through and through and through with this sound. The evenly spaced waves of the impact of the model wash onto the shore of conscious hearing. I imagine each iteration of that chord as a stand-in for the actual written chord that would have been played next.
I found my singing voice helpful in affecting the transmutation of Chicago brass to Steinway piano. With each iteration of the model chord, I sang and sustained the next note of the opening statement of the theme. I felt the chord reinforce my voice, as if from within, until my voice bore a complete resemblance to the chord.
Another variation was to alternate playing “the” chord then playing the next note(s) in the score, and so on back and forth. The chord was still vivid in my memory and so the next chord in the piece was automatically infected by it. If at any time I lost the “Nobilissima Visione”* of the sound of the written notes I would simply lapse back into play just the chord at least a few times in a row. These latter could be a placeholder (or ‘warm-ups’) until I wanted to go further with the written note, or a stand-ins for a certain number of the written chords. “Warm” is an apt verb. We are aiming to ‘warm up’ resonance of each written chord until it radiates at a high color temperature.
Every note gives up its life in the service of allowing the next note to come to life.
A technical matter the pertains to just one hand, when it is holding one note down while articulating a series of more rapid notes.
When one finger holds a note down, while other fingers in the same hand, and at the same time, articulate two or more notes, often the shape of the hand distorts to the point that the fingers articulating the passing latter notes feel awkward and cramped and cannot clearly enunciate their notes. The paradoxical fix for this issue is to shift more of the weight of the hand onto the finger that is doing the holding down of the sustained note, rather than devoting more care and energy to the moving notes. Moreover the finger that is holding one pitch ‘enacts’ the same physical motions that the other fingers would are doing to play the changing notes. almost doing them in their stead. This includes bending and flexing and in general changing its stance on the key surface. The sensation is that the holding finger is actually playing the shorter notes.
Making a smooth and instantaneous transition to connect, in the left hand alone, the bass and tenor voices, from gs2-es3 to a2-fs3. The ergonomic issue, that requires careful time-coordination in small fractions of a second, is that in the bass voice, you are on a black note to start with and have to slide down the vertical side of that black note in order to end up on a white note. The reverse is true (at the same moment) in the tenor voice, where you are on a white note to start with and have to travel up the vertical side of a black note and end up on the top of that black note. There is a sort of see-saw motion involved, both fingers gliding smoothly on the vertical
surface of a black key, at the same time, but in opposite directions in a vertical plane.
I applied gentle downward pressure from one of my hands to cause A.B.’s hand to flatten out its palm against the key surfaces. The purpose was the opposite of trying limit the mobility of his hand but rather to encourgae the mutability of the hand changing shape constantly. It was to foster the plasticity of his hands in changing shape, that I applied an ‘external force’ (I.E. a force not created by his own muscles) to the top of his hand, pressing it mildly downwards towards the keys. It encouraged a more fluid consistency in the sound going from note to note.
All the notes, within the framework of the fugue, feel like they are connections made within one and the same matrix or pitch-framework, regardless of the momentary specific choice of pitch and pitch direction.
There are magical moment in Bach fugues, when three or more voices start their sounds simultaneously (and are not too widely spread apart pitch-wise). Try to hear the event as a momentary confluence among the voices, rather than the result of an intentional forming of a chord.
* Nobilissima Visione is a ballet in six scenes by Paul Hindemith, originally choreographed by Léonide Massine for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The libretto by Hindemith and Massine depicts episodes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (Wikipedia).