On Friday, I had a post about Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. (Because Piotr Anderszewski had recorded Book II, or half of it.) I would like to quote from that post. Why? Well, I’ll tell you in a minute.
Book I is better known than Book II, I think. Book I—in whole or in part—is played more often in the recital hall. It is also the more recorded. It is also the more studied, by kids (and others) all over the world. These are my impressions, anyway. I cannot give you statistics.
For a long time, I knew every note of Book I and not very much of Book II. I assumed that Book I was superior. Boy, was that wrong.
Each of the forty-eight pieces is practically priceless.
I should have said “ninety-six,” really. Forty-eight “pairings” and ninety-six “pieces.”
You will recall the structure of The Well-Tempered Clavier: each book consists of twenty-four pairings of preludes and fugues, in each key—the twelve major keys and the twelve minor keys. You would not want to do without any of these forty-eight.
I received a letter from Robert L. Marshall, the musicologist, whom I’ve quoted and written about in the past. A year ago, I wrote about his book Bach and Mozart: Essays on the Enigma of Genius. In 2016, I wrote about another of his books, Exploring the World of J. S. Bach: A Traveler’s Guide. He wrote the guide with his wife, Traute M. Marshall. Bob Marshall taught at the University of Chicago and then at Brandeis, where he is professor emeritus.
So, his letter? You will like it a lot, as I did.
There’s no question that WTC I is much better known than WTC II for the obvious reason that it’s No. 1. The normal thing to do when there is a No. 1 and a No. 2 of anything is to begin with No. 1. So that’s where piano students start the WTC. They continue going through it until they—most of them, anyway—stop taking lessons. This happens well before they finish the volume and therefore before they ever get around to playing—or perhaps even hearing—Book II.
The tendency we’re talking about is enhanced by the fact that the opening prelude of Book I is such a grabber—and superficially easy. It’s actually incredibly subtle, for reasons I could explain sometime (largely by plagiarizing an excellent analysis by Edward T. Cone).
Professor Marshall continues,
Several years ago, the American Bach Society received a very generous gift—the largest single donation it had ever received, by far. There were conditions. First, the award had to be named after the donor’s deceased wife, who had been a pianist and Bach lover. Second, the Society had to introduce a keyboard competition centered on the WTC, Book I. Book II need not apply. When this was announced at the annual meeting of the Society, everyone in the room chuckled.
I used to prefer Book I—again, mainly because I knew it better, and from my childhood. But then I began to study and learn to play Book II. Believe me, it’s just as wonderful, as you say.
Back to my post, before getting to another part of Professor Marshall’s letter:
There’s more than one way to skin the cat of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Blunter, more detached—more staccato-like. Smoother, more lyrical. Slower, faster. On and on. Our tastes change over the years, and they change day by day, too. Probably a pianist or harpsichordist would never play these pieces the same way twice.
Another little slice of my post:
Are the preludes and fugues of the WTC holy or secular? It depends on the piece, right? But even this changes. Some pieces you regarded as secular, you come to hear as more holy. And vice versa, surely. Custom cannot stale these little numbers, in their infinite variety.
Okay—Professor Marshall, once again:
You’re right that it’s possible to play just about every one of the ninety-six pieces in many different ways. I believe that was one of the points Bach was making with them. I love to imagine him playing the pieces for his students—which we know he did—and saying, “You can play it this way [demonstrates] or you can play it this way [ditto] or you can play it this way [ditto, etc. etc.].”
I wonder whether you know that a number of years ago Bach’s personal copy of the Goldberg edition showed up.
Professor Marshall is talking, of course, about Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The score contained a number of markings by JSB. Even more fascinating: attached at the back was a sheet with fourteen canons (all but two previously unknown) based on the first eight notes of the famous bass pattern that controls the variation cycle. After the fourteenth canon, with which the sheet was completely filled, Bach wrote “etc.”—meaning, of course, he could have gone on and on, popping out more and more canons. Same with the number of ways you can convincingly play almost any piece of his. (Nota bene: “convincingly” and “almost.”)
A little coda?
My favorite performance of the St. Matthew Passion, by the way, is the completely historically incorrect (from every point of view), hyper-Romantic recording of it by Mengelberg—from 1939. Couldn’t be more heartrending. I’m sure JSB would have loved it—or at least would have said, “Why not!”
One more little coda? Professor Marshall has a friend and colleague—and former student—who says, “If I had to pick one movement from the forty-eight, it might well be the F-sharp–minor fugue from Book I, just because of the inherent mysticism of the subject.”
Excellent choice. How about Professor Marshall himself? “A ninety-six–way tie.”