Category: Bach

Bach: the E Major Prelude and Fugue from Book Two

A.B.’s lesson on 11/4/21

The Prelude:

#1

Fingering.

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.

#2

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.

#3

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.

The Fugue:

#1

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.

#2

Every note gives up its life in the service of allowing the next note to come to life.

#3

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.

#4

measure 13

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.

#5

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.

#6

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).

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Bach: The Goldberg Variations: Variation no. 11

#1  Arpeggios: Variation 11 : measure 5

In the right hand play the b2 with 2, then d3 with 3, and then, for
practice in loosening up the joints, rotate the forearm one hundred
eighty degrees, which faces the palm upwards, and turns the thumb,
which is still on the g3, upside down, then the third finger plays b3
but like the thumb, the third finger is upside down, but re-rights
itself by one hundred eighty degrees while still on the b3. at which
point the arpeggio completes itself ordinarily through the g4.

#2  Physical Glue: Variation 11 : measure 13

There are two instances of physical glue in this measure. By
physical glue I mean a physical connection between two notes in
different hands, that is not readily noticed in the score, and whose
challenge is often not experienced until it is already happening.

There is a d5 starting at the beginning of the measure in the right hand,
which is usurped by the left hand playing the same note at the sixth sixteenth of the measure, which hands the same note back to the right hand just one sixteenth later.

in the third group of sixteenths in the measure, the left hand plays
fs4, but no sooner plays it but it is usurped by the right hand playing
fs4.

This suggests the creation of a separate rhythm that concerns only
repeat notes (where the hand is changed at the repeat).

rh:  .e = e__       e        s
lh:                    \s/{s} s/

By concentrating on this artificially formed rhythm composed solely of the iterations of the note d5 as it goes from right hand to left hand to right hand, and the iterations of the note fs4 as it goes from the left hand to the right hand, we have exposed the skeleton, which remains hidden under the surface of the written notes, which physocally holds the passage together.

#3 Crossing and uncrossing the hands: In the Goldberg Variations

Variation 11 : measure 1 :

Move the right hand up one octave and move the left hand down one
octave. The hands can now play their respective parts without crossing or
bunking into each other. This helps define a ‘potential’ for what the
piece should sound like were it not for sonic confusing from the
crossing voices as well as the physical confusion of the hands
crossing.

When we again play it, this time as written, see if we can keep the
same amount of empty “air” between the two voices in the two hands. This air separates things physically as well as sonically. No less so than when the hands didn’t cross at all. Each hand now speaks its own pitch-shape without the other hand diverting us, or pulling our attention away from one hand to the other.

#4  “Sculpting” small groups of notes

There are only so many pitch-shapes you can get four notes, and a smaller
number when dealing with only three notes

Pitch shapes for three notes:

1  up        2   up       3
1  up        2 down   3
1  down  2   up       3
1  down  2 down   3

Pitch shapes for four notes:

up up up
up up down
up down up
up down down

down down down
down down up
down up down
down up up

Become a master of shaping each of them in its own unique way. Polish
each till it sparkles like a gem and cannot be mistaken for any of the
other shapes.

As one plays through the Goldberg Variations, in particular the more
contrapuntal sections, notice, before each group of notes, which type it
is of the types shown above, and then ‘sculpt’ its shape, like an actual
sculptor working with a mass of pliable material, till it’s clearly one of the shapes and not any of the others.  This does not happen automatically just by playing the pitches but requires an expressivity that helps display to the listener’s ear the upward and downward motion of the pitches.

Further subdivisions of the basic types can be based on whether the
motion from one note to another in a group is a step or a skip.  For
instance in Variation 9, measure 6, the last four notes in the bottom
voice (c4 d4 e4 d4) is from the point of view of pitch sculpting “up
up down”, and from the point of view of sub-type “all steps”, while
the first four notes in the next measure (cs4 a3 d4 cs4) is an example
of the basic type “down up down”, but is of the sub-type “skip skip
step”.

Although this may seem like a trivial and obvious subject, each shape and each subtype has its own aesthetic quality which can be brought out to the
listener. And there is an aesthetic quality too of saying to the listener “I’ve just finished sculpting one shape and I’m about to start sculpting another shape”.  A piece made up of an endless series of permutations of pitches, as in the Goldberg, can become a smaller, more manageable set of statements of pitch-shape types and if one wishes, subtypes.  This simplifying gives order to the overall design of the piece, and on the most intimate level.

#5  Variation 11: measure 1 : first half of the measure, et. al.

alternative to sculpting a sextuplet

Treat the first six notes as two groups of identically shaped three-note groups (the type of shape identified as three notes in descending steps). From the sculpting point of view, there is something to be gained by suppressing attention to the  entity of a ‘scale’ formed by 6 or 7* descending notes, and revealing  the two elegantly sculpted smaller and primal groups of three descending notes.**

#6 Conclusion

We may be stretching things to speak of sculpting a group of notes as
if we were sculpting a material object. However, if we consider what
the body of the sculptor does while sculpting and what the body of the
pianist does while playing piano, and what their intents may be, there are similarities. And it is not beyond reason to say that a motion that we would do as a sculptor, can be transformed and transported into the actions we take as pianists.  It is then up to the pianist to use their aesthetic imagination to reveal the shape thus created.

As pianists, we can imagine notes as viscous objects capable of
responding to our hands as clay to the sculptor.  In making these analogies there is always allowances for great jumps in the imagination between what we are externally doing with our body and what we feel like inwardly as to what we are doing with our body.   In this manner relevance can be gotten out of taking a group of notes and “bending”  it into the shape of a phrase.

Or working on a small group of notes until it takes a shape we are trying to gradually bring out in its sounds.  We can put it on a potter’s wheel until the shape we want develops and is eminently clear to the onlooker.  It is like taking out the notes on a lathe until we have created the proper curves of the pitch shapes.

* It is 7 notes if one includes the first note of the second half of the measure.

** If one can’t quite get the sculptural shape of the three descending notes, try singing Figaro’s aria wherein he calls attention to himself by repeating the syllables Fi-Ga-Ro, over and over on the same three descending notes.

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The Goldberg Variations: in General and in Particular When Crossing Hands

The Goldberg Variations: in general and in particular when crossing
hands.  The hands always start in a more remote position from each
other than is dictated by where the next notes are.

Procedure:

I held my arms in front of me, floating above the keyboard, the
forearms rotated so that the palms of the hands faced each other
across an empty horizontal space.  In that space I imagined there
being a tangible object.  The object was well defined but not quite
rigid.

I imagined the feeling that my hands were two gentle but strong
clamps* on opposite ends of an object that occupied the horizontal
space between them.  I stayed aware of the imaginary object tightened
the clamps pushing inwards towards each other and that somehow the
object, with some resistance, without losing its integrity, could be
compressed along its horizontal dimension.  I gently compressed it
until my hands were the same distance from each other as the two keys
on the piano that represented in each hand the most current sixteenth
note in the piece.  One of the notes being in a voice that was in the
right hand, the other in a voice in the left hand.

I would repeat that procedure by advancing to the notes that lay on
the next sixteenth note of the piece, and so on.   The distance between
the palms and the size of the object they held was constantly changing
in size as the piece evolved in sixteenth notes.  OFten one of the two
notes was a note longer than a sixteenth, and remained in its place,
while the note in the other voice changed.  In other words, things
were constantly changing.

Regardless of the distance between the hands, when articulating the
The next pair of notes ended up being greater than, lesser than, or the
same**, their mutual distance between when articulating the current
pair of notes, I nonetheless re-expanded the distance between my hands
so that I would have to begin again by compressing the imaginary
the object between my hands until the distance between the palms
corresponded to the distance between the new pair of notes.

This technique is also surprisingly effective even at those moments and
episodes in the Goldberg when the hands cross each other.  But even
when the left hand took up a position to the right of the right hand,
as the right hand correspondingly took up a position to the left of the
left hand, the position of the arms just prior to the ‘squeezing
together’ of the imaginary object that lay between the palms, was with
uncrossed hands, the left hand being as usual to the left of the right
hand, and the right hand to the right of the left hand.  The palms
would then squeeze the imaginary object towards a point when the two
palms would converge in space even though in reality that continued in
their motions until they crossed each other.  But the procedure for
the following notes, even if it still involved crossed hands, began
from a position when the arms were not crossed but moved into a
the position that was crossed.  This was most easily forgotten if a series
of pairs of notes got further and further away from each other; the
palms should always be moved towards each other to land on the next notes

Try to avoid feeling that adjacent fingers are setting themselves down
on the keyboard one after the other.  Each finger comes from afar and
converges centrally, towards the other hand, to get to its note.

One should never feel that they are simply setting adjacent fingers
down, side by side, on adjacent notes – without first drawing the
hands further apart and playing the next sixteenth note via an action
which brings the hands back towards each other.

This means that the action in the finger causing a key to sound is not
a motion that is strictly speaking downwards, since it doesn’t begin
from a static position directly above the key.  The motion of the
finger is always swept along the hypotenuse of a long skinny right
triangle.  From a physicist’s point of view, motion along a
hypotenuse can always be thought of as having a down component and a
lateral component.  It is like the path of a boat crossing a swift-flowing stream.  One does not steer directly towards the nearest point
on the opposite side of the stream, but always somewhat to a side so
as to compensate for the flow of the water.

What I am saying today seems to me to be an extension of things I have
said in the past take had the form of “never aim directly at the next
key you are playing, but overshoot it, and then settle back easily to
its location.  That this can be more accurate in the long run, instead
of betting all the money you have on getting to the goal through a
direct unwavering motion.

It is also similar to what I’ve said in the past about “damping
curves” where a series ever diminishing but accelerating motions,
first one way and then the other converges on the exact location you
have in mind on the keyboard.  I also realize that this is in
contradiction to the method I have often proposed for skipping from
one place on the keyboard to another more remote location, by using
“opposing vectors”: the current finger tries to stay on its key even
though the arm is already pulling as hard as it can towards the more
remote key; that tension builds up between the two opposing motion;
until like an overwound spring, the spring suddenly explodes, and the
hand is propelled in a single, unbroken motion, to the remote key.

* Each side was separately adjustable – not like a vice or c-clamp.

** Thus, even if the hands remained in the same place on the keyboard,
covering the same group of notes, with the five fingers of each hand,
during a series of notes, I would still oscillate the hands apart from
each other and then close up the distance between them.

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