Music Notes

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was an innovator of keyboard music. He was not the kind of innovator-composer who experimented with new forms or new instruments, such as Haydn or Wagner. Rather, he stretched existing forms and instruments to their previously-conceived limits and beyond. He did so out of faith—faith that the performers or listeners could comprehend his widening of the boundaries—faith that the structures that he was bending so ruthlessly would not break. It also seems that he had faith that the old-fashioned forms could be used to the greatest effect even to the modern (1730s, 1740s, 1750s) ear.

I recently started working on Bach’s third prelude in the Well-Tempered Clavier, from book 1. If you don’t know the Well-Tempered Clavier, here is a short introduction: Bach wrote 2 series of prelude-and-fugue pairs, in each of the 24 major and minor keys, for a total of 48 pieces. The third prelude of volume 1 is in C# major. C# major has 7 sharps (every note is sharp), which is a daunting key signature for any musician to tackle. Needless to say, it is an exercise of the brain—but more importantly for us to realize, it is an exercise in faith.

Bach’s predecessors were limited in how many different keys they could write in, because the tuning system did not allow for certain “remote” keys, such as C# major, to sound properly. In fact, intervals in the C# major scale are rather ugly in traditional tuning methods. So, in order to write a piece in C# major, and sound good, Bach discovered a new way of tuning his harpsichord. Other composers knew about this system of equal temperament, but no one had before composed such a complete set of works to prove how well it worked. Nevertheless, when one’s fingers had touched the keys, there must have been some doubt as to whether the chords would sound beautiful as in C major, or like chaos.

A new system of fingering was also needed to execute this piece effectively, since all of the black keys are used and the notes are situated so that you must use more fingers than tradition allowed for. According to the biographical sketch by Philip Hale at the front of my addition, “Before Bach, the little finger and the thumb were almost never used…Bach employed all the fingers equally; he had invented his own system of fingering for conquering difficulties, and it rested chiefly on the use of the thumb.” Your piano teacher probably told you never to play a black note with your thumb. Not possible here! Well, not for me at least. I wonder how long Bach trembled for fear that he would get some type of injury by using his hands in such unorthodox ways. 150 years later, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) suffered serious damage to his hand by trying to extend the strength and range of his fingers.

For the performer, reading the Prelude in C# major is a leap of faith as well. In C# major, every note is sharp, which means that even e and b are sharp. Since there is no black note to the right of either, the sharp versions of them are f and c, respectively. So, to play f but think e# is a big challenge in cognitive dissonance. You must have faith that the key you sink down into will actually produce the right sound.

In performance, none of these issues are apparent to anyone. All of the work done behind the scenes, from the composer’s pen to the musician’s metronome, is where the faith work happens. Any musician will tell you that a lot of doubt creeps in our minds in the first moments of learning a new piece. I merely wanted to make you aware of the special nature of this piece—the work done by the composer and the practicing done by the performer are both works of some significant faith. This should not be surprising, since Bach’s faith in God is well-documented. Even the little notes that sound so innocuous and charming in performance were worked out with great courage and peace with unknown forces by his masterly hand.

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