But, I sometimes ask myself, what’s the point of practicing a Bach prelude on the piano for hours if no one else ever hears it? Why not just listen to it instead?
Certainly, Bach is the perfect music to drive to, especially the keyboard pieces. There aren’t the jumps in volume that mean constantly fiddling with the volume dial to make it go quieter then louder again. You can forget about adjusting the sound, focus on the driving. The keyboard pieces—I’m thinking particularly of the Bach preludes and fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier—even out the rumples of the mind and the jangle of the emotions. It made total sense that the neurosurgeon in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday played Bach during brain surgery. No one wants a surgeon who jumps out of his skin when the trumpets blare or the cymbals clash. And it was no surprise to learn that baroque music is the best to listen to when you’re studying. That snippet of research findings motivated my then fifteen-year-old to play my Baroque Masterpieces CD with classic baroque works like Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Bach’s Air on a G String as she prepared for NCEA exams. Certain pieces are perfect for going off to sleep, just made for the Spotify insomnia playlist I haven’t compiled yet. It’s all because of the calming alpha brainwaves the slow largo beat produces, and the dopamine release it induces.
But playing Bach rather than just listening takes it to another level. Somehow the music gets deeper into you when you play it. It can be relied on to smooth away a bad mood or a bad day. As soon as I sit at the piano and play the first slow G of the Goldberg Variations, then repeat it, I settle. Heartbeat slows, blood pressure falls. Then come tinkly ornaments, twinkling like fairy lights, before falling back into a gentle stroll in a bluebell woods and wellbeing envelops you. When Glenn Gould plays it, you can hear him humming to himself beneath the notes, completely immersed in a soothing reverie.
There’s a rightness about the music of Bach. Sit at the piano to sight read a new piece and it’s as if I recognise it. My fingers seem to already know the patterns of the notes, the progression of the chords, and the modulations of the keys. The music is following harmonic principles, which I certainly can’t articulate. Back in the eighteenth century, this was new, and Bach’s mastery has never been surpassed.
On the page, many of Bach’s keyboard pieces look simple, with uncluttered lines, no large leaps, no complex chords, no complicated rhythms. No, rather the challenge is to achieve a smooth melodic line through exact fingering, holding one note while you play others to create a legato effect and blend difficult transitions without using the sustain pedal, a mechanism that didn’t exist on the harpsichord.
In Bach’s two- and three-part inventions, two or three voices call and respond in constant interplay. You could imagine putting words to the assertions of one character and the replies of the other: husband and wife, courted and courter, king and courtesan, queen and courtier.
The fugues call for greater technical skill. Like singing a round, three or four lines of the same melodic theme begin one after the other, intertwine, harmonise, come together momentarily, and go their own way again. Each voice takes its turn in taking the stage, so you need to hear each one and make it sing. I’m talking theoretically here where my playing is concerned.
One reason the notation on the page looks so open and uncluttered is the shorthand that Bach used. His markings are a language to be learned. When Bach draws a squiggly line above a note to indicate a trill, it means one thing; when other composers do it, it means another. Bach invents his own marks, adding extra squiggles, a wiggle extending upward or drooping downward. Heavy ornamentation is a characteristic of baroque music but many of the symbols that Bach uses aren’t seen anywhere else.
Coming back to playing Bach after a break, unless you’ve taken the trouble to pencil in the sequence of notes to be played above each marking, you’re relying on not always reliable muscle memory to decipher the codes. But play a piece often enough and it ripples and flows like a swathe of velvet, with a rare ease and fluidity that is the reward for the hours and hours of practice.