Adapting the words of the Gospel, may it not be truly said that among them that are born of women, there hath not arisen (in the world of music) a greater than John Sebastian Bach? And just as the genius of Shakespeare is no less manifest in the lovely lyrics of “The Tempest” than in the soliloquies of Hamlet or the passion-cries of King Lear, so is the genius of Bach not less apparent in his simpler inventions than in the Chromatic Fantasia or the “Mass in B minor.” Whatever the great master of music touched, indeed, he stamped and adorned with the unmistakable marks of a new beauty for the world.
Zoya Shuhatovich performing Bach's Chromatic Fantasia:
Married twice, he was the father of no fewer than twenty children—eleven sons and nine daughters. He had thus many opportunities for becoming convinced that music, more than any other practical art, must have its beginning in early childhood. This, doubtless, was a tradition with the Bach family; for it is written that there were at least fifty of the name who were richly endowed with musical talent. In the Sebastian household, we may be sure, music was as the light of the sun and the breathing of the air. To the education of his ever-growing flock, we owe the little preludes, the two-part and three-part inventions “whereby admirers of the clavichord are shown a plain method of learning to play clean.” We owe, too, the little fugues, the fughettas, and many another passage that afterwards appeared in the “Well Tempered Clavichord”—possibly in some giant fugue.
It is very evident that the great Bach instinctively felt the importance of developing musical intelligence simultaneously with digital technic. He knew better than to stupefy the beginner with meaningless mechanical exercises only. Hence the beauty and melodiousness of his smaller compositions, not less remarkable in their way than his mountainous fugues and torrential choruses.
These lighter pieces, however, much polished as they were in the process of continuous juvenile instruction (the claviers of the Bach household were never silent), have suffered much with the fading of tradition as to how they should be played. It is not known that Bach marked or indicated the tempi of his compositions, but relied rather, it would appear, upon their manifest spirit and purport for a correct interpretation, or upon a swiftly established tradition. It was not until late in life that he began to print, and much that has come down to us was printed a century or more after his death. He was most sparing in his written instructions, evidently deeming them unnecessary.
To Clementi and Czerny, famous for their technical virtuosity, must be attributed chiefly the vogue for pianistic speed, that has pervaded later years. Following them, the numerous editors of Bach’s Preludes and Inventions have shown a preference for Allegro, Allegretto, or Con Moto rather than for Grave, Andante or Largo. Czerny, for instance, edited the “Well-Tempered Clavichord,” but in a manner which awoke the serious displeasure of Anton Rubinstein, who wrote, “I have never been able to reconcile myself either to the indications of tempo or to the shading in the preludes or the fugues”—the reference being to Czerny’s edition.
The craze for speed did not exist in Bach’s day. It is a modern fad. It takes a master now to use the courage necessary to play a simple piece of music slowly. Because it is simple, the multitude of performers toss it off with as much haste as possible, much as the average organist of to-day seems to think it below his dignity to play his hymns with slow expressiveness. Similarly, Bach’s simpler pieces suffer from being played and edited to be played, almost always, with indecorous speed.
I have always been grateful to the late Henry T. Finck for having drawn my attention years ago to the beauty of the little preludes. It was his habit, he told me, to play them every Sunday morning and pointed out to me, in particular, the poignancy and beauty of the inner voices and the balanced perfection of No. 4.
My own copy of the Preludes was marked Allegro, and the editor had prefaced it with the remark, “This piece should sound like a jubilant organ prelude.” I was speedily convinced that my editor was wrong and that Henry T. Finck was right in advising a slow and expressive interpretation, in which full accentuation should be given to the middle voices, with a certain solemnity for the whole number, rather than any echo of jubilation. No. 5 in the same set was marked Lento and had made me happier with its undulating harmonies and charming quasi fantasia.
Even the “Six Preludes for Beginners” could have been written only by a master. The first, in “C” played Moderato, can be played fifty times without weariness, so perfect is its form and so cheerful its content. The passing dissonances for the left hand are delightful, while the alternations of the more rapid passages between the hands give it no little technical value.
The second, which at first sight appears to be merely a succession of diatonic eighth-notes, speedily reveals (like No. 1 of the “Well-Tempered” in which Gounod discovered a delicious melody) hidden harmonies on the swaying summits of which are heard snatches of delightful strains that one cannot but accentuate for one’s increased pleasure. In addition to the essential wealth of the music, notwithstanding its simplicity, its technical value in slowly extending (the only proper way) the juvenile or even senile fingers can hardly be over-estimated. We give a few measures for a ready recognition.
And then, what an exquisite morceau is No. 4 in D Major, from which we must also quote a few measures.
The pianist who finds himself, for whatever temporary reason, unequal to the task of mastering the polyphony of Bach’s more intricate fugues or concertos may thus have at hand stores of exquisite music, every measure of which reveals the master’s touch while making no insuperable demands upon technic.
Every pianist would do well to keep by him, for the sake of their double value as music and as technical material, a selection of these minor gems. Such a selection would include, in addition to those which we have referred, the Two-part Inventions in “C,” “C Minor” and “F”: the first with its brief phrases which join at length into closely knit harmony; the third with a vivacity replete with the very joy of life.
Such a selection would include also from the Three-part Inventions those in “D major,” in “E major,” and “F minor.” The first of these begins with the orthodox triple repetition of a shorter phrase followed by an extended run of jubilant tone. Thirds and sixths abound with the charming effect of sunshine after rain. The one in E major, with harmonies well dispersed, is of sheer beauty in its contrapuntal structure. How charming is the effect produced by the long pause on the third inversion of the dominant resolved upon the first inversion of the tonic! And who can play, unmoved by its pathos and emotion, the F Minor Invention?
No one who delights in the playing of fugues upon the piano (and their numbers steadily increase by the reason of the separate clearness of the voices as compared with the too common confusion of the organ) should neglect the “Six Little Fugues and Fuguettas”—usually published in one set. Each one is charming. The first three are without preludes; and for any student who has grown weary of scale-practicing and yet cannot conscientiously neglect his daily duty to his ten fingers, nothing more refreshing to the spirit of music within him, and at the same time more valuable as digital exercise, can be imagined or has been written. And then how ripplingly sweet is the prelude to No. 3! How mighty and grandiose are the preludes of the fourth and fifth! One feels when he has mastered these that he is on the way to playing the Toccatas in F and D Minor, even when arranged by Ferruccio Busoni or Karl Tausig.
The "delicious melody" Gounod discovered in Bach's "Well-Tempered" No. 1? Ave Maria. Enjoy Kimi Skota with Andre Rieu and his orchestra in their performance of Ave Maria: