Joe's Blog

Bach: Well Tempered Klavier: Book One: Prelude in C# Major

January 10, 2021

A.B.’s lesson from several weeks ago.

Confusing the student…the “feel” of what key is under a finger
versus the name given that key in the score:

When a harpist wants to make the sound of a C-natural, they have the
choice of playing B-sharp on the string whose purpose in life is to
handle all types of “B-s” (B-flat, B-Natural, B-Sharp), or to play
C-natural on the string whose purpose is to handle all sorts of “C-s”
(C-flat, C-Natural, C-Sharp).  Which they choose at a given moment has
less to do with the harmonic and musical structure of the piece, and
more to do with what other harp strings need to be physically sounded
in the same vicinity of how the piece is unfolding in time.  This
latter is the overriding necessity on the modern, so-called, ‘chromatic’
harp where there are fewer individual strings than there are notes to
play with those strings, and thus limiting the combinations of pitches
that can sound at one and the same time.

A personal digression:

As a pianist and composer, I was born a “sharp” person rather than a
“flat” person.  In an atonal piece, I’m more apt to choose to “spell” a
note, for example, as an F# rather than as a Gb.  I have absolute
pitch, and sharps have always sounded different than flats in terms of
the emotional world they evoke.  When I play a piece by another
composer, I feel no need, however, to think of flats as sharps.  That would make me too much of an iconoclast.

The C# Major Prelude from book One of the Well-Tempered Klavier is

challenging to my student because of the ramifications of their being
such a large number of sharps in the key signature (7), especially when
Bach moves briefly into a different region, which then requires adding,
at times, a substantial number of double sharps.  He has to first notice
the double sharp sign, then pause and ‘translate’ the double sharp in his
head into an enharmonically equivalent sharp or natural.  He may need
the more ‘familiar’ denomination of the note for his fingers to find their way quickly onto the correct keys on the piano keyboard.  For instance, he
works on convincing himself that a Cx is really a D.

Things get gnarly in the measures that contain excerpts from scales
during modulatory passages.  In his case, if confronted, for example,
with part of a B# major scale (B#, Cx, Dx), he might tell his fingers
that they are playing C D E from a C Major scale rather than B# Cx Dx
from a B sharp major scale.  This system has its drawbacks.  One
cannot easily see what the harmonic structure of the work is which
denies the piece its comprehensibility to the ear.

It is as if somewhere in the collective unconscious of pianists,
stemming from their first experiences at the piano, there is the archetype of the white key also being a ‘natural’ key.  In the attempt to simplify things for the young student, the teacher delays introducing the concept that white notes can also be double sharps, double flats,

as well as sometimes sharps and flats.  The student may often find
themselves in the situation of, not actually saying out loud, but thinking

confusedly: “I thought you told me thus and thus, and I dutifully
learned it as such, but now you want to tell me that the stability of
the truths you told me are in fact variable.  What should I rely on?
Am I going against obeying the truth you told me by now accepting this other truth, that you have told me later in time?  Has the world now become more complicated than you first taught me, where truth has become something relative rather than reliable and fixed?  Why was such information denied for so long until it was too late for me to reconcile the two?”.

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