Bach Will Break Your Brain

Here is Nahre Sol, a young and brilliant composer and piano player, talking about Bach’s Goldberg Variations with a teacher of hers, David Louie, who is an expert on Bach.

If you’ve never played any Bach or tried writing music, the discussion may seem so much arcane gibberish. But if you’re a player, and have tried to really understand what Bach is doing, this is just a deeper level of mind-blowing.

The thing to always keep in mind when plunging into the deep end where Bach swims is that it only matters because it is beautiful. Bach’s music is beautiful on so many levels. If you just want to lose yourself in sounds, you can do that. Try his famous Cello Suite #1 or Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. If you want something more emotionally complicated, how about Mache, dich, mein Herze, rein from his Matthew’s Passion. Composers since at least Mozart have found his Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of the Fugue, in addition to the Goldberg Variations, dazzling intellectual and artistic triumphs.

I’m a hack piano player, but enthusiastic, and I love Bach. For the last 40 years, off and on (mostly off, sadly), I’ve been learning pieces from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. The ones that are currently open on the piano are the Prelude and Fugue in D minor.

They don’t sound that complicated, certainly not by Bach standards, and they are not too hard to play. But, man, there’s a lot going on here in three minutes of music.

The Prelude starts with that relentless repeated D in the left hand, while the right hand jumps in outlining a i-ii-V-i change over the D as a pedal point. What Bach is doing here, as he does in almost all of the Preludes, is setting up a rock-solid tonal center in as direct and economical manner as possible, while still laying out the melodic and rhythmic materials he’s going to use in the piece.

This prelude is going to feature 8th notes in the bass, 16th note triplets in the treble, with phrases beginning with an upbeat.

Bach then takes a quick tour of F major, and then starts getting more adventurous by playing sequences to move from F to G-minor to A-minor.

We ended the F major section on the first beat of measure 6, then add E-flat and C-sharp and run quickly through G-minor; then add B-natural and G-sharp and run through the exact same pattern in A-minor.

Pretty standard Baroque stuff, done beautifully, and illustrative of the pattern Bach follows in most of the Preludes:

  1. Strong statement of the tonal center (I-ii-V-I or equivalent) and introduction of melodic and structural materials over the first measure or 2;
  2. Quick tour of the key (or the relative key);
  3. Introduction of a little harmonic complexity that are almost forays into nearby keys;
  4. Brief strong reminder of the original key, used as a launching pad off into Bach genius land – about 1/2 way through.
  5. A ramp up into increasingly complex ideas/riffs off of the original material;
  6. A pre-ending climax where hacks like me can’t even figure out he’s doing, except that it sounds great;
  7. The end, which is where Bach tends to throw his ‘that wasn’t supposed to happen for another 100 years!’ stuff.

All this in under 30 measures, most of the time, with the feeling that, despite stretching the limits of understanding for us mere mortals, Bach tossed it off with a little smile.

Here’s the climax and ending, at 7 measures long almost 1/3 of the entire Prelude:

Up to measure 20, all we’ve heard is 16th note triplets in the right hand, and 8th motes in the left. Now we get a D pedal, with increasingly dissonant notes on top, and one of Bach’s little things where accidentals introduced in the right hand are immediately canceled in the left, to curious and beautiful effect.

In measure 21, the bass starts a chromatic rise and fall from G-sharp up to B then back to the dominant A, and 16th notes appear in the left hand for the first time as the action intensifies. A rising arpeggio riff gets us up to a high D, then a series of diminished chords brings us chromatically back down to a lower D, and then a vanilla cadance, and we’re done.

26 damn near perfect measures, a little over a minute of music. And the Fugue is worse, by which I mean better. Every time I play it, at the end, I’m thinking, if not saying out loud, that it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. (Of course, I think that a lot for a lot of music – immediacy bias. Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium is really the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. A lot of Bach is close, though.)

I have almost no idea what he’s doing. Starting in measure 9, he does this, whatever it is:

The more educated musician will tell me: it’s a descending sequence, the first development after the subject has been introduced in all three voices. And I’m like, no, he’s setting up some magic. Later, he does the same thing, a descending sequence, except the second time it has a completely different character. I can’t explain it. It all fits perfectly, and triggers in the ear some sense of recognition and appropriateness, yet, looking at it, it’s hard to figure out why. Two other passages he lays out in the first half of the piece get the same treatment, where he repeats them, sort of, in the second half, but they have that same/completely different vibe.

In between all this fancy-dan stuff, Bach weaves aurally satisfying and beautiful stuff that, again, I can’t figure out. It’s one thing to write a pretty passage, it’s another to follow the constraints of the form, it’s an entirely different game to use the constraints of the form to deepen the beauty of the pretty passages. As is explored in the first video above by people far better versed in this stuff than I, getting the math and mechanics straight is tough but conceivable; doing that and not only achieving beauty, but using the mechanical stuff to inspire and enhance beauty – well, there is where Bach’s genius stands alone.

And this little Prelude and Fugue is almost trivia compared to Art of the Fugue and Goldberg Variations. Yet Mozart, Beethoven, and a dozen other famous composers had *hand copied* sets of the Well Tempered Clavier that they studied in awe. So, at least I’m in good company!

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Bach Will Break Your Brain”

  1. I’m a hack player myself. Alas, I don’t put anywhere near as much time in as I’d like, but I promise myself that when we can finally afford a good baby grand and I can give up my battered 50-y.o. Kawaii upright with the shot strings, I will turn more serious attention to practice and study.

    In the meantime, I just sight-read. When I turn back to Bach, I always start with the 2 and 3 part Inventions. I can stumble through all of the former and about four or five of the latter. I also can play about half a dozen of the Goldberg Variations comfortably enough to enjoy them. Once my eye is back in, so to speak, I spend a lot of time with the French and English Suites, a couple of the latter of which I actually studied back in my misspent yoot.

    I sometimes feel a bit cheesy floundering away at such a surface level on the works of the fellah I consider to be the greatest musical genius ever to live, but then I tell myself it’s better to be a hack than to not try at all.

    1. You seem to be much less a hack than I. My sight reading is terrible; I painfully hack my way through pieces, and often have them memorized before I can even get through them with constant crashings and burnings.

      But it’s fun!

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