Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach Fugue
A.B.’s playing of the first fugue of book one of the Well Tempered has improved by leaps and bounds. Due to the quality of his mind he can contemplate and wonder at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.
Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at our latest lesson.
He tends to express tension in the form of movements with his lips and mouth. One such motion per note of the piece. Last week we worked on doing away with such motions, for the reason that a phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note – each new bead in a necklace. We was able to control this for a measure or so at a time before it the mouth motions obstinately crept back in.
We worked out a compromise. If he is to make a separate mouth motion for every note let that motion be for the expelling of puffs of air. This would be a step in the direction of letting air flow out of the mouth in a steady flow while playing (for the flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer).
Joe: In terms of the physical actions you make when playing, they are not the cause of the sounds, you yourself are not the cause of the sounds, the sounds just “pass you by”, pass by your consciousness.
The general question arose of how to stay on course if you make a mistake and experience a deviation from the printed notes. An important component in answering this question is to answer the question: how do you react, both morally and emotionally, to making a mistake. Any negatively framed reaction of either type, magnifies the deviation from the ‘tracks’ and makes it hard and harder, in space and in time, to resume the correct path.
The issue of quickly getting back on track after a hesitancy or note mistake is tantamount to the question: how quickly can you begin playing ahead in the piece from any randomly selected measure, or beat within a measure, or note within a beat, with the ease and flow that you would have if you started the piece from the beginning. One might lard the piece with a plethora or random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms. Figuratively, every note in the piece is (or can be) the beginning of the piece. B.A. summarized how hard this was for him: sometimes when you start from a random point in the piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the piece you are in. And: where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these. Reminds me of a famous Gauguin painting made in Polynesia: “Where are we coming from and where are we going?”. Put another way: how very important it is to recognize the character of a piece within its most minute detail.
To develop this technique it is best, once one has started at a random place, and then has found the way back onto the track, that one not to linger too long on the track, before stopping and picking another place from which to stop.
There are times when the two hands draw very hear to each other horizontally, even overlapping slightly. When this latter happens it is statistically most likely that the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will need to cross and uncross. The coordination between the hands, or just in some of their fingers must be as carefully executed as a “pas de deux” in ballet, wherein the bodies of the dancers fuse to the greatest extent possible, so as to perform joint actions that simultaneously cause different parts of the dancer’s bodies to form a larger undifferentiated mass. Every sub-motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous sub-motion of the other dancer. There is a common consciousness.
The general question arose as to where does one phrase end and another begin.
This is sometimes marvelously complicated, because in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of a theme entrance, another somewhere in the middle of the theme entrance, and another closing off the end of a theme entrance. How does the pianist simultaneously make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning? Another way of saying this is: how does a voice say that it’s ending.
Put in other terms: frequently the shift from one chord in the harmony to the next in a fugue, may not occur at the same moment but is shaded across several notes, even several beats: one voice enters the domain of the next chord before another. Some voices are harbingers of the next chord while others may be late arrivals.
The need for a single finger in one of the hands to be very flexible through time regarding its stance on its note-key when other fingers in the same hand, in another voice plays two or more notes while the first note is being held in the first voice. The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the two or more fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the held finger to changes its alignment with the keyboard, I.E. in the angle with which the longitude of that finger meets the horizontal surface of the keyboard. The equilibrium of the finger must always be maintained regardless of how the shape or stance the finger is in the midst of changing. It is to be accomplished without any moment of imbalance in the firmness of the finger’s contact with its key.
Sometimes the student is confused when a fugue theme entrance starts not on the original starting note at the beginning of the first theme entrance at the beginning, but does not represent a movement into a different region or key. So, without leaving C Major, the first four notes of the theme entrance can be, D E F G, or E F G A, instead of C D E F, etc..* Instead of representing a
modulation, it represents the desire of the theme to enter on a different note of the C Major scale but cling obstinately to the scale of the original key.
It is vital to practice the instantaneous motion laterally of one and the same finger from one note to another regardless of how far apart they are on the keyboard. It is not a matter of practicing to make the motion gradually faster (and faster again). The absolute determination is to be that the finger take zero seconds, zero fractions of a second, to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between. The body is capable of doing this if one insists, before one starts moving the finger, that that be the case. This leads to an ongoing crispness in the immediate connection of any one note in a voice to the next, so that no connection of one note in a voice to another in that voice be any more sluggish than any other.
More generally this is one of the components in enabling the hand as a whole to snap from one hand position to the next position in which it needs to be. It is like the triggering a mouse trap: little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.
To achieve this general alacrity it is necessary for the arms and the hands to be weightless. The force that raises the arm to from the side of the body to the keyboard is an external force, not initiated or executed by the muscles inside the body, but as if the arm were part of a wooden puppet, and some unseen manipulator pulled upwards on the strings that connect the puppeteer to the arms. At a lesson the teacher can simulate this feeling by keeping the arm floating next to the keyboard by placing some part of their own anatomy just under the player’s arm as a support. The player is more likely to notice whether they are applying any pressure downwards on someone else than on the keyboard which is inorganic.
We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution on a held note (in anticipation of using convenient fingers on the next few notes) and the exercise, as in Hanon, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times and then go on to the note representing the step of scale. Though the overt purpose of the second case is to learn fast repetition of the same note, secondarily it prejudices the hand to a quick substitution of one finger on a constant note without resounding the note being played.
A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is also about who is doing what to whom and when.
We concluded the same lesson by working briefly on the companion prelude in C major from Book One.
Part of A.B.’s quest is to play the notes of the prelude “evenly”. So much of this has to do with the balance within the notes of the chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure. To make this chord more obvious to the ear let the player, when practicing, “densify” each chord. For instance, if there is an opening between the written notes for an additional note of the chord, add that note to the chord and play all the notes that now belong to the chord all at once as a vertical sonority. For instance in measure, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4, so that we create a five-note chord: c d f a d. Or taking it a step forward we can also add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord. The chord has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, the additional chord tones just make it stand out more clearly to the ear. Do this for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
All these additions should occur between the lowest and highest note Bach writes, as against the equally valid technique of reproducing notes from Bach’s written chord in lower and higher octaves with the result of creating a chord of 8 – 10 notes, or by use of the pedal, chords of as many notes as one wishes from the bass range of the keyboard to the high treble. This technique is also useful to help set the sonority of the written form of the chord inside a larger entity to which it in turns belongs. Whatever the sound characteristics and mood characteristics are of the chord in question, they become magnified to the ear, with the aim of then doing the aesthetic equivalent of a ‘trash compactor’ whereby, through compression, when the larger instance of the chord is condensed into the smaller chord with the same harmonic identity, is achieved without losing any of the fullness or meaning of the uncompressed version of the chord.
In terms of grouping every note of the measure into the unified sound of a single chord (versus hearing just separate notes), it is the pinkie note in the right hand that is “further”, not so much in space measured on the keyboard from the two left hand notes, but further in time from the occurrence of the left hand notes, and may as a result end up dangling like a loose participle compared the previous four notes of the half measure group. This, together, with some pianists’ tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand in order articulate its note, can lead to there being less control of the pinkie note’s sound, in terms of being a part of the chord, than the other notes in the measure. There is sometimes a visual “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out, and therefore loosing control of the pinkie. It is that the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – in an attempt to having better physical control.
* One could liken such entrances to hark backs to the old modes (D E F G as being the start of the Dorian Mode, E F G A s being the start of the Phyrigian Mode, etc..
More Thoughts on the First Fugue of Book One (C Major)
To even out the touch on a series of notes, especially if the sequence of fingers are adjacent, it is best to precede the execution of the separate notes by play a cluster made up out of all the notes. The trick is that when you now segue to the notes played sequentially, you retain in your hand and in your body the feeling that each of the five fingers is playing each individual notes, and not that only one finger plays at a time.
The Bach fugue starts with a lone voice to which, one by one, other voices are added. You want to stay at the same level of relaxation when you go from one voice to two voices, two voices to three voices, and three voices to four voices. Nothing new has to happen. There must be no extra effort at the point where the new voice is added. No extra energy or physical application of energy. Even four voices is as easy as playing a series of chords.* This requires a counter-force to remain subjectively “more and more relaxed” when the body, as the voice number increases, naturally tends to increase in tension and effort. One might call this compensatory, subjective feeling in the body, a crescendo of relaxation.
There is a wonderful point of stasis in the fugue when three voices simultaneously play A naturals (a2-a3-a4). Even though the pianist knows from experience that the next note is C natural, they should nonetheless wonder out loud “what will the next note be that spoils the stasis of the three a-s; how unexpected, it is a C natural”.
The stretto sections are hard. When a new voice enters with the theme before the previous voice has finished its rendition of the theme, it requires a split mind to play it so that the first notes of the new theme entrance sound-like the beginning of the architecture of the of the theme, while the voice that is already playing not be made to sound as if it too is once again at the beginning of its career, but is at the middle or closer to the end (depending on the exact circumstances) of the archetectonic curve of the theme-phrase. Playing two voices that are at different points in the arc of its phrase, is one of the most difficult things to do in a fugue. It is like listening to an actor give a speech and noting the difference between how they begin the speech and how they end it, and yet, in music, superimpose the two upon each other. They both can’t either begin or end when a second voice joins a first voice in a stretto.
A special case of this situation is when the three sixteenth notes in one voice is the finishing the theme, the tapering off, while if there is another voice present playing the beginning of the theme which is a statement, a declaration appropriate to the opening of a statement.
Sometimes, when two voices are in one hand, and one voice is static while the other is moving towards the held note, the easiest fingering is to use the same finger over and over on each of the moving notes. But to do so, it helps if the stationary finger acts as an anchor to the other finger, using its muscles to pull the other finger towards it as if making an attempt to create a glissando with the finger that is to move from one note to the next rather than a ratcheting motion as the other finger leaves one note and passes by the gap between that note and the next adjacent note.
When the right hand plays b4-d5 then g5-bf5.
One of the most marvelous implied dissonances in Bach. And if you play those four notes together so as to emphasize the dissonance, then start transposing the chord downwards one, then two, then three octaves, you will suddenly hear one of the most dramatic moments in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” that early unsurpassed masterpiece in his output.
Joe to A.B.: In general when you play the two thirty-second notes in the middle of the theme, they are not timed right in relation to the eighth notes that have preceded them. They tend to be too fast and a bit spasmodic. One of the most important rhythmic exercises that a pianist can do is learn to switch from a series of quarter notes to a series of eighths, to a series of sixteenths and then to a series of thirty-seconds. Once adept at doing this then do a series of quarter noted first then eights. Then back to a series of quarters followed immediately by a series of sixteenths. And lastly a series of quarters followed by a series of thirty-seconds. Changing speed in the ratio of 1 : 2 is easy. But to change in the ratio of 1 : 4 or 1 : 8 takes more practice and experience.
* And in these chords, sometimes it is hard to remember that one, or more, notes in the chord are held notes that begin sounding before in another such chord
Playing With Authority, Intervals, and the Inner Heart of Music
Playing with Authority:
C.P told me at our last lesson: I am very soft spoken in my private life, and in my business life. I am habitually quiet, but you have given me permission to speak out more, even though it is at the piano. I can make more sound and command more attention. Maybe it’s safer to do it on the piano first, but nonetheless it an exciting change.
What I had been doing for the last few months with C.P. was to ask her to speak out her notes with more pride and more certainty. She shouldn’t play it safe, be unassuming and be on guard for mistakes. This was in her Bach prelude. On the other hand, in her “Claire de Lune”, I said: here it less a matter of loudness or authority, and more about richness of tone, finding a deep and sensuous source for all your sounds; but that at heart it is the same thing as expressing yourself more fully.
Later in the lesson we were working on a new Bach Prelude (WTC I c minor). I pointed out to her the intervals that were formed between the two voices, particularly after the first sixteenth note of the measure and the first sixteenth note of beat three of the measure. At first she asked a type a question that I had come to expect from her inquiring mind. “What is the use of knowing intervals”?
First she gained facility in naming the intervals. This led to her noticing how the sixth and the third (sometimes as tenths) were the most frequently used intervals between the hands. I asked her if those two intervals had anything in common. This led to the idea of inverting an interval and that thirds and sixths invert to each other. This led to ask about seconds and sevenths, which meant we could discuss the role consonance and dissonance in a tonal piece of music.
Perspectives leading to the inner heart of the music:
Then I put things in a broader perspective. There are two ways of knowing something: from outside and from the inside. From the inside is the goal. Often we cannot go directly into the inside of something unless we first take a series of perspectives on from the outside. Intervals is one such perspective on the inner heart of music. So are chords, rhythms, structural features, thematic development, listening awareness, and the list proliferates.
I had a friend in High School, Stephen*, who sometimes took walks with me in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Once we were discussing the first of Emerson’s two essays on “Nature”, and how it is divided into sections, each on viewing nature from a series a different perspective. He said this was like the bible story of Joshua. Joshua’s goal was to get to the inside of Jericho. So for seven days they walked around it getting, as it were, every possible perspective on it. And on the last day the “walls came tumbling down”, or in other words, they now stood on on the inside of the city, just as the musician’s goal is to live in the inner heart of the music.
*An interesting thing about Stephen. He was born with only short stubs in the places where the fingers emerge from the hand. When you are a teenager everything seems possible. So one day Steven asked if I could teach him to play piano. Without hesitation I said yes. We chose the first prelude from the first book of the WTC. By the rotation of his forearm, and thinking of his hand as a wheel, and thinking of the stubs of the fingers as teeth of a gear wheel, we found a way not only to make sounds on the pianos with the his virtual fingers, but gradually gained a sophistication in the control of the rotation, together with the possibility that at any moment the arm could lift the wheel of the hand off the piano so that when the wheel came back down on the piano the virtual finger ajacent to the one that just sounded a note, could land on any key regardless of its distance on the keyboard from the previous note. Steve went on to Cornell, and I wish somehow I could be in contact with him again.
Technical Challenges in Moszkoski’s Etude in F and Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op 14.
A.J’s lesson today. Two works he is preparing for a competition.
-From: 15 Etudes de Virtuosité, Op.72 No. 6 (by Moritz Moszkowski), “Presto” in F major/.
#1. The “ear” as the abstract creator of the figurative shapes of sounds:
#2. The balance of sound between the two hands.
#3. A ladder falls apart if there are no rungs connecting the sides.
#4. The undulating patterns of three-note groups in the right hand:
-Beethoven: Sonata in E Major: Op 14 / 1 : I : The left hand sixteenths in the development section.
#5. “Additive” Clusters as a unit of pulsation through the passage with sixteenth notes.
#6. The desired effect in sound does not always follow upon a logical or teleologically designed set of causes.
-From: 15 Etudes de Virtuosité, Op.72 No. 6 (by Moritz Moszkowski), “Presto” in F major/.
#1. The ear as the abstract creator of the figurative shapes of sounds:
The ear, as the observer of the flow of sound content through time, may seem at first to be but a passive instrument. It listens, it notices, and only with a slight lag as the sound has already been physically produced.
If not distracted by the physical actions we make to start the sounds, there is an exact in knowing in the accuracy of the notes. The awareness of sounds in the ear and the more it is divorced from any muscle movements that physically give rise to the sounds–the more accurately and subtly it judges the sound characteristics of the music being played.
Through a miraculous confusion of tenses, the ear as a passive listener, after the fact that the sound has begun, yet can be the most effective force in controlling our sounds. In this regard it is far more efficacious than consciously controlling and gauging the quality of quantity of our muscle movements. This present tense in consciousness is not a mathematical instant, a point of zero duration. It contains, according to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the spilling over of the past into the present and the impetus of the present to be on the verge of becoming the future. A duration, though recognized as the present, has yet the efficacy of having what has just happened to have an undefinable but definite effect on what is just about to happen.
#2. The balance of sound between the two hands.
A.J. is having difficulty coordinating the two hands in the Moszkowski Etude in F. His left hand seems to be pursuing its own course–not blending with the right hand, but merely showing up at the same time as the right hand – at the beginning of every third note in the right hand.
I suggested that as he played one of the left hand chords, hold it for a few moments along with the first of the three triplet notes in the right hand. He should see if his ear could spread its attention over the sounds from the right hand as well. And then determine quickly whether together, the sounds of both hands formed a cohesive whole.
With just a little attentiveness, just a split second after the notes start sounding, one will notice whether the sounds from both hands seem to reach out towards each other eclipsing the distinction between them and creating a larger sound-whole than either hand’s sounds alone. And this fusion takes place as he listens to the sounds. It takes but an instant for this synthesis to occur. At the first instant there are disjointed sounds from two sources, but a mere instant later these sounds have instinctively reached out towards each other to form a synthesis in consciousness. Or, to put it another way, it takes just a bare moment for the ear to note and to form a larger whole out of the sounds of both hands.
To his surprise, A. had no difficulty in causing these sounds to fuse together though physically they were made by separate physical acts pertaining to a coordination of the individual sides of his body. He was surprised since in as much as he wasn’t aware that had done nothing physical to effect this balance, but merely remained attentive to the sounds for more than a split second. This synthesis had nothing to do with any physical effort to make the sounds be simultaneous. Nor was there any specific mental ‘effort’ involved.
The combined power of his ear and his brain focusing on the notes, brought the sound together. His previous preparation and physical muscle memory came through in a moment where his head may have easily gotten in the way–thus is the power of the ear.
#3. A ladder falls apart if there are no rungs connecting the sides.
As an analogy for what had just happened, I suggested that the left and right hands were like the two vertical sides of a ladder. They can remain upright only if there are rungs crisscrossing between them. These sides had nothing to keep them together without the ear forming the rungs. Without the attentiveness of the ear those side pieces would fall apart.
Once such a sound-synthesis has been effected at any point in the piece, the possibility then exists to ‘mold’ and shape the forms of these connections. It now became possible to mold how one of these composite sounds morphed into the next one. Though intangible in nature, the pianist now has a focal point to help steer all the course of all the individual notes of the composition through the medium of time.
Though to the body, the sounds originating from the right and left hands seemed to exist spatially apart and separate, from the point of view of the attentive ear they were (already) fused together. It is more the ear, something intangible, than the body, something tangible, that ’causes’, these sounds to meld and form a resonant four-note chord. We need only seek whether they do.
It is only after the fact of their fusion into a single sound that we can, for analytic purposes, speak of these fused sounds as having two spatially distinct origins.
#4. The undulating patterns of three-note groups in the right hand:
Next we turned A’s attention to just the right hand’s stream of notes, a rapid stream of triplets. I suggested that each and every group of three such notes comes to life in a molten state, which the pianist can then form into a well-rounded shape. Despite their melodic and harmonic differences, all such three-note groups should cast into the same shape. This creates a form ‘texture’ that holds the entire piece together.
The most recalcitrant triplets, the ones that would most resist such shaping, occur when the right hand is playing a chromatic scale. No group of notes yields up so little harmonic value to a repetitive pulsation, The chromatic scale is most innately without a shape. If started on a C Natural, and if accompanied in the other hand by a C Major chord, the scale tries to break down into uneven units of, first four note (C C# D D#), then three notes (E F F#), then five notes (G G# A A# B). This is too much of a strain on the scale which therefore yields up little by way of harmonic implication. It is the changing size of the harmonically influenced note groups that render the scale inchoate rather than redolent with harmony. In this etude, the smithy of the mind resists this falling apart of the chromatic scale and obstinately takes every three note group, regardless of its harmonic implication, and shapes those notes into a three note melody without reference to harmony. If I had to express this using a spatial analogy, each three notes would be, in its unformed state a straight line, which the agency of the ear then coerces into the shape of a letter ‘U’.
Beethoven: Sonata in E Major, Op 14 / 1 : I : the development section:
#5. “Additive” Clusters as a unit of pulsation through a lengthy passage with sixteenth notes:
The chord with which the left hand commences, c3-e3-a3-c4, is a first inversion A Minor chord. For many hands this is an uncomfortable arrangement that promotes flitting moments of tension. There are two ways out of this dilemma. One is for the hand to change its overall shape as each finger takes its turn enunciating its note, removing if necessary the other fingers from the previous notes they played. The other way does away with all the physical difficulties by having the ear take on a constructive role, building up, one note at a time, the eventual cumulative sound of the 4-note chord (c3-e3-a3-c4). When doing this, each single note, in its turn, prepares the eventual and cumulative sound of the four notes occurring at the same time. It is only through the first iteration of this four-note sequence of tones that the full chord does not sound until the fourth note. But after that, and with the pedal down, the simultaneous sound of the four notes is continuous. The evenness in the balance of this four-note is not the result of mechanical manipulation but the result of the expectation of an ear focused on the simultaneous sound of the four notes.
#6, The desired effect in sound does not always follow upon a logical or teleologically designed set of causes:
A.J. didn’t see how such a passive, ear-based, technique could possibly effect the evenness and balance of the four sixteenth notes. This prompted the following conclusion from him, his most significant realization of the lesson though at the same time not a logical one.
“Mechanically what I did makes sense as a way of achieving the sound effect that I want in sound. And yet … the result is the sound which I desire. This apparent disconnect between cause and effect is a normal sign of a sudden breakthrough technically. The physical means of doing something, when considered in and of itself, may or may not seem to be capable of logically producing the sound effect that the ear is after.
Yet that effect is what is achieved. So it makes no sense. It takes bravery to abandon physical/logical sense of consistency between cause and effect and be accepting of what in “Big History” is called an “emergent form”; or a form that is not contained in the some of its parts.
You find that the way to the newly emerging form is not foreseen in its physical and mechanical causes. The means happens to produce the ends, but cannot predict the effect.
Complex counterpoint in Bach
Some of the most complex wonders of Bach’s counterpoint, such as the F minor Sinfonia or the first movement of the B minor flute sonata, result from a procedure that is structurally, surprisingly simple.
There are three voices in the Sinfonia and three in the flute sonata (two in the keyboard and one in the flute). At the same time, there are several distinct motives present, any one of which can appear in one voice or another at any time. There are often three different motives appearing simultaneously in the three voices.
This suggests a creative procedure similar to making a mosaic. In a mosaic, there may be only several differently shaped pieces, or tesserae. From these few pieces, the entire structure of the work is created.
Though there is great variety in the sound of the piece, the parts making it up at any one moment are just one of the severally shaped pieces of the mosaic.
The counterpoint is most effective when these basic pieces are as different from each other as is possible. The F Minor Sinfonia is the perfect example of this. There are just three motives: one is a series of slow, chromatically descending quarter notes; the second is a series of three eighth notes, a movement up of a third and then down of a second; the last is faster, moving motive in sixteenths and thirty seconds. Bach creates an entire universe, aesthetically full and complete, with these three motives that each take up abode in one voice and then another. What genius!
While artists may follow the procedure of “separating” the voices in their playing, sometimes the greatest separation effect comes from following a single motive as it migrates from voice to another. I first discovered this principle in the five voice fugue in C-sharp minor in Book One, especially after the eighth notes begin.