Saturday, September 13, 2014

The WTC and Me: My First Journey Through Both Books

Sometime during my childhood my father bought a Henle Edition of both books of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. I imagine he bought it in England because its price was indicated in pounds, and I believe it was used because there is handwriting in it that doesn't look like it belongs to anyone in our family.

My younger brother Richard studied piano all through his childhood, and these books were always on the piano. My older brother Marshall claimed one of the fugues as his "own" (the E minor in the second book), so I picked the D minor Fugue from the second book as "mine." I plunked it out as well as I could at the time: my eyes bouncing between the music and my fingers. Richard didn't do much in the way of piano playing after he graduated from high school, so his music went into the music room of my father's house, which is in the basement.

The basement flooded in 1979, and I believe that the water damage on the covers happened as a result of that flood:

A few years ago my father told me that I could have whatever music I wanted from the basement, so, in addition to tons of chamber music, I loaded a few boxes with a lot of my brother's piano music. After my slow journey through Richard's books of Haydn, Mozart, some Chopin, and some Beethoven, I decided it was time to go through the Well-Tempered Clavier from beginning to end. I started sometime in June, and I finished this evening. It was a profound experience, and before I turn around and start the whole thing again, I thought I'd mark the event with some observations.

My friend Danny Morganstern is reading Jan Swafford's new book about Beethoven (I'm waiting until I can get my hands on a library copy). Beethoven's teacher, according to Swafford, was from Leipzig. He taught Beethoven to play the piano using the WTC so that Beethoven would be able to play in every key. That is sound teaching. That's kind of what I thought I would get out of it too, but I learned through experience that one of Bach's points seems to be to leave the home key as many times as possible, and go off into adventurous places before returning to the home key in extremely clever and highly rewarding ways. Double sharps abound even in keys that don't have many sharps in their key signatures. Every one of the 48 Preludes and Fugues is unique.

I think that Bach wrote these preludes and fugues to offer possibilities in music that were not part of the normal musical practices of the day. Most non-keyboard instruments were severely restricted in their key possibilities, even after tempered tuning was invented. The majority of pieces for violin, with or without keyboard from the 17th and 18th centuries (and even in the 19th, but that's past Bach's time) are in keys that stay within three or four flats and sharps. Wind music from Bach's time is also quite restricted. Three flats is pushing it for clear intonation and fast fingering on the baroque flute, and music with three sharps is both difficult to finger and get in tune on the alto recorder. I do not play the baroque versions of other wind instruments, but I imagine that without keys (or with just minimal keys) they suffer the same difficulties as the flute and the recorder. In this work Bach got gave himself the chance to explore the strange new musical worlds (and there are moments that are pretty strange) that happen in between the keys that all the rest of the world lives in.

My first journey through the WTC was filled with all sorts of emotional highs and lows. While we were all waiting to see if Marshall would survive his accident, I was near the end of the first book. The B-minor Prelude and Fugue that ends Book One is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (even by the standards of its WTC company). Playing it helped me a great deal. By the time I reached the E-minor Fugue in the second book, my brother was no longer alive. It was difficult for me to play it. It was difficult because it is difficult, it was difficult because it was Marshall's "property," and it was difficult because my experience with Marshall as my brother was now something that could only exist in memory. It will still always be "his fugue."

I'm hoping that my next journey through the WTC will offer fewer reasons to seek out Bach for solace.


Quodlibet said...

Dear Elaine,

It is writing such as this that brings me back to your blog every day. It's always a challenge to articulate how music shapes, colors, and impels our lives; you have achieved that goal superbly in this essay. What a privilege you extend to your readers when you share these experiences; I have no doubt that next time I sit down with the WTC my own experience will be more profound.

Please accept my sincerest condolences on the loss of your brother. (It was hard for me to comment earlier, as your descriptions of life with Marshall mirrored almost exactly my earlier experiences with my brilliant, difficult, troubled older brother, who has estranged himself from our family.)

Anonymous said...

I share Quodibet's enthusiasm for Elaine's latest essay. No music is more bound up with our lives than the music we first hear: the music of our childhoods.

Back in the late 50's, long before “Early Music” had gained its current cachet, my mother played it in our home. Better yet, it was played "live". She was a stalwart member of the American Recorder Society and would host bi-monthly recorder consort get-togethers in our living-room.

To the eyes and ears of a five-year-old child these musical jollifications were astonishing. They were life-altering events. The music, Susato, Praetorius and Gervais, played from frayed, mustard-coloured Schott editions, were the first musical sounds I heard, and, having nothing to compare them to, they took a high place in my infant musical aesthetic.

But the dominance of these renaissance masters was soon challenged from another place. My father had a separate religion: he obsessively played (via the miracle of L.P. recordings,) Bach and late Beethoven quartets. (The opus 18’s he considered triffles, -- he was an opus 131 man.) In looking back at this domestic dichotomy, I now realize that it represented more serious divisions in our home. But thankfully, in those early days, when my parents were still touched by the energy and optimism of youth, this was the way that their disagreements were expressed. It was a gentle war.

My mother was a pilgram in search of the charming and the obscure. My father, in contrast, was on the look-out for a musical rebbe. He was not looking for a dancing partner. He was searching for the divine.

From the get-go I learned this lesson: The Goldberg Variations (newly reordered by the youthful and prodigious Glenn Gould, was to be listened to in silence and meditative awe. So too was the WTC and the late Beethoven quartets. The Praetorius and Gervais, on the other hand, was music made for a far different purpose. It was social music. It was music for dancing.

Between these two opposites, there was no truce,

My mother's musical friends were, to grab a current word and apply it to these long-departed souls, funky. They wore muti-coloured long skirts, possibly home-made, but certainly not purchased at a department store, they all sported short unornamented hairdos on top, and Birkenstock sandals at the other end. They were largely émigrés, not from a shtetl near Vilna (that was from where their parents fled) but rather from "Back East". That meant The Bronx or Newark. They were in our provincial western city, usually not happily or by choice, but because their professor or psychiatrist husbands had found employment there. So they found solace with their fellow exiles in the consort music of the 15the and 16th centuries.

My father, on the other hand, would sit morosely by himself; his solitude accompanied by the complexities of Bach’s counterpoint. To be cheered by his chosen music was not his purpose. He wanted to be made more wise.

Which of these two different lessons did I learn? Which path did I take? Where will I go? Thankfully, there are no final answers.

It is possible that the decision will only come to me, if it comes to me at all, sometime between the first and the last of my final forty-eight breaths of life.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you so much for your condolences, Quodlibet, and for your company in "younger sisterhood." It means a great deal to know that my childhood was not singular in this way (and it really felt that way during childhood).

You were so fortunate, Jonathan, to have such a bi-polar mix of musical dedication in your household, and you seem to have done well by your parents in the rich diversity of your adult musical life.


In Charles Rosen's amazing "The Romantic Generation," he makes the point again and again that the 19th century conception of how to write for the piano had a lot to do with composers such as Chopin and Schumann growing up on the WTC. He especially makes a wonderful case that Chopin's pianistic imagination is deeply influenced, more from a practical/experiential connection than theoretical, by these books - the way contrapuntal voices disappear (effectively) and reappear, etc.

Anonymous said...

I so much enjoy your writing about music because it puts me into a self-reflective mode. My response to your initial post was a bit long-winded and I fear a bit too self-absorbed. If so, my apologies. On the other hand, in the recounting I was able to make some discoveries about my musical past that I had never been able to put in a helpful perspective. There was a touch of the therapeutic in my response. Thank you for inspiring it!

I’m a serious collector of Slonimsky-iana. (I suppose there are worse things to collect). Taking the place at the head my collection is his wonderful autobiography. PERFECT PITCH inscribed by the rascal himself. It reads:

“To __________: I hope you find this book of interest form a psycho-analytic perspective.”

Slonimsky understood, and I sense from reading your blog, that you too understand how the complexities of our psyches are able create threads that intertwine with our musical lives ...for better or for worse.

A worthy goal for my musical future is to take those threads derived from that "bi-polarism" of my musical youth and sew it into a fabric both warming and durable that will both protect and warm me.

When that garment is completed, I will be in an even better musical place.