Saturday, October 2, 2010

Album for the Young 7

Question: Did J. S. Bach write an "Album for the Young?"

Answer: Hmmm. Maybe...? Well, no, not exactly. There are some books that have a reputation as showing stages in Bach's musical instruction of his own family. But to say that they amount to a keyboard method, from beginners on up, would be a huge exaggeration. Many of these "notebooks" for Bach's kids were aimed more at teaching them to copy, analyze, and imitate other composers' work, in order to learn the basic principles of music. Thus the books were not so much about learning to play keyboard instruments as learning to read, write, and improvise keyboard music.

Perhaps a better question to ask is: "How soon can I get Junior playing Bach?" This yields a much clearer answer: "You can work Junior into Bach carefully and gradually, starting at a fairly basic skill level." Which is to say, as soon as Junior can play with both hands at once and play notes on sight with a less than torturous effort. It might help to start by playing duets with him or her, so that Junior only needs to learn one musical line at a time. You may also need to start with graded compilations and easified arrangements, unless you want to go through all the books described below and plan when to drop which pieces into Junior's life.

Nor am I saying that you should absolutely rule out tossing Junior into the deep end and letting him or her thrash it out the hard way; I reckon there are a lot of fine pianists who mapped, say, the "C-sharp-major" wrinkle on their brain by struggling through the relevant Preludes & Fugues of the WTC (which here stands for Well-Tempered Clavier, not World Trade Center, silly!) But remember: You want to teach Junior to love Bach, not to hate him. So the "sink or swim" approach should be used very judiciously, if at all.

Chances are, you're going to have to wait for a while before Junior is ready to play Bach in his original glory--even the relatively "easy" pieces. If they don't pick up a knack for sight reading first, wrestling with Bach will only frustrate them. If you're worried that they're not getting that knack even after working and working at it, you may have to try the "learning by ear" method. As a parent you probably already have a sense of whether that's going to work for your kid or not. If not, you may have to face the fact that Junior is never going to play at Carnegie Hall. But if hard work and smart practice pay off, as they should in a majority of cases, I reckon Junior could start developing a lifelong relationship with J. Sebastian B. by about the third or fourth year of lessons.

Alas, I must repeat: There is no "Bach Album for the Young." But there is a certain progression of Bach pieces that can, and I think probably should, play a role in Junior's sequential development of keyboard skills. To put it bluntly, if (s)he wants to be a virtuoso without becoming a bore, Junior must learn these books by heart, forward and backward, upside-down and inside-out, and pretty much in the order given below. NOTE: The notation "BWV" followed by a number indicates the position of each individual piece in the catalog of Bach's works ("Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis" in German), compiled by one Wolfgang Schmieder in the early 20th century; thus one might hear classical-radio announcers (Tom Sudholt, where are you now?) refer to these as "Schmieder Listing" numbers. I've always thought the abbreviation would be "S" if it were supposed to be called that, but oh well...

1. INVENTIONS: First, let Junior try his hand at the fifteen Inventions BWV 772-786, all written in two-voice counterpoint and thus frequently described as the "Two Part Inventions." This is another handle I have a hard time grasping: It makes the pieces sound like D.I.Y. instructions for assembling so many low-tech gadgets. Actually they're just brief (approx. 2 pages each) pieces in which each hand gets to play an independent melody line, the two parts frequently imitating each other and overlapping in a variety of interesting ways. The same pieces turn up in a larger collection that I will describe later, each under the title "Preambulum"--which suggests a sort of introductory flourish before something larger and more substantial. In this case, the larger & more substantial thing to come is not a suite of music, but the rest of Junior's musical career. When (s)he has these well in hand, let Junior sink his teeth into the...

2. SINFONIAS BWV 787-801. Simply put, these are pieces of three-part counterpoint based on the same principles as the Inventions. Don't let the name "Sinfonias" mislead you; they bear no relationship to symphonies or sonatas. The same publication in which Bach called the Inventions "Preambles" refers to these 3-part numbers as "Fantasias," though they are much shorter and simpler than the musical form that more commonly goes by that name. Like the Inventions, the Sinfonias instill nimbleness of fingers, nimbleness of mind, the ability to shape independent melodic lines at the same time while (in the case of the Sinfonias especially) coordinating which hand does what. They also put Junior through his paces in all the common and relatively easy-to-play major and minor keys, with all the concomitant variations in mood. And it's worth noting that they are perfect, miniature examples of musical form, worthy of being studied as to how each piece goes through different keys before coming back home to the tonic.

You can buy both of these sets separately, but I recommend the Urtext edition with both the Inventions and the Sinfonias, published by G. Henle Verlag. "Urtext" means the edition takes pains to convey an accurate idea of the composer's original intentions. Some people don't think this makes a difference; if you're one of them, you're welcome to buy a cheaper edition... but when I come over to your house and, as an after-dinner diversion, play whatever I find lying open on your piano, I'm going to notice the misprints, wrong notes, and editorial enormities. Trust me. This is experience talking. If no one in your household is up to playing them, it is still worth your while to hear them. Among the numerous fine recordings available are Wendy Carlos's pioneering synthesizer arrangements from the 1960s on. I myself took an undergraduate class in electronic music where, as a regular class assignment, each student had to create a synthesizer arrangement of one of the Inventions. If Junior is into computers, a course on MIDI might just get him hooked on Bach!

3. LITTLE PRELUDES & FUGUES: Also available in a Henle Urtext edition, these relatively easy pieces include selections from the same larger work in which the "Preambles" and "Fantasias" figured, namely the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach--i.e., a "Little Keyboard Book" for Bach's eldest son. The first section of the Urtext consists of 7 "Preludes" from this book, BWV 925-928, 930-931. (FYI, BWV 929 is a "Minuet & Trio" that Bach inserted into a keyboard suite by another composer.) The second section is "Six Little Preludes for Beginners on the Keyboard," BWV 933-938. (The omitted Prelude BWV 932 is an unfinished fragment.) The third section, titled "Six Little Preludes," includes BWV 939-943 and 999, the last of which seems to have been written originally for the lute. Part 4 comes under the heading "Little Fugues and Preludes & Fughettas," further breaking down into one Fughetta (BWV 961), two Fugues (952-953), two pairings of Prelude and Fughetta (899, 902), and two pairings of Prelude and Fugue (895, 900). These exercises in keyboard execution and counterpoint may be the most sophisticated pieces Junior has in his repertoire... provided that (s)he approaches them as a necessary, intermediate step before...

4. THE WELL TEMPERED CLAVIER: Book I (BWV 846-869) and Book II (BWV 870-893). Each book, mind you, contains 24 pairs of Preludes and Fugues, one each in every major and minor key. This is one of the lofty summits of mortal art, created just before the Enlightenment demystified everything and shook music down to earth. It is still a pinnacle to which Bach's disciples reverently ascend. I can honestly say from experience that I could play out of this set every day for years on end without growing tired of it; and because I have worked through every piece in it, I am no longer afraid of any piece of music no matter how many sharps or flats it has. (Nervous, sometimes, but...) You could argue this is an Album for the All-Growed-Up, but truthfully, I was playing pieces out of it in my teens. Pieces which, by that point, I was fully capable of selecting for myself, without some piano-teacher-type looking over my shoulder and clucking his or her tongue.

5. FRENCH SUITES: Six suites BWV 812-817. Each "suite" is a set of keyboard pieces in a single key, more or less abstractly based on a traditional sequence of old-world dance styles. Though the precise sequence of numbers varies from one suite to another, the mnemonic PACSAG can serve as a helpful rule of thumb. "P" is for "Prelude," which in the case of the French Suites is omitted. If you miss it (and you should), just wait for the next two sets of pieces. The first "A" stands for Allemande (lit. "German"), a rather cerebral piece in a 4/4 rhythm with a pick-up. Then there's "C" for Courante, a more lilting Italian-influenced dance, usually in triple time, and given to abrupt shifts in rhythm, e.g. between 3/2 and 6/4 pulse-patterns. "S" stand for Sarabande, a profoundly passionate dance originating in Spain, with a "short step" on beat 1 and a "long step" stretching across beats 2 and 3.

The second "A" stands for "Alternating Pair of Miscellaneous Dances"--for example "Minuet I & Minuet II," ending as an unwritten rule with a return to Minuet I. Only the first of the French Suites follows this exact form. Other stylings used in place of one or both of the Minuets include Air, Anglaise, Trio, Gavotte, Bourrée, Loure, and Polonaise--descriptions available on request. Finally, the "G" of PACSAG stands for "Gigue," better known to you as a jig: a rapid English dance with a light and springy touch, which Bach frequently divides into two parts with the second flipping the theme of the first upside-down. Though I have played all the Gigues in this book, over the years I have often reminded myself that, when playing Bach for pleasure, "There is no shame in skipping the Gigue." If you disagree, please phrase your comments diplomatically.

6. ENGLISH SUITES: Again six suites, BWV 806-811. Since I have already blown a good two paragraphs explaining what Suites are, I can now use this space telling you the difference between the French & English Suites. The English ones, for starters, are twice as big. A good deal of this added length has to do with the "P" (Prelude) not being omitted. Thus, the first movement tends to be the longest and most musically rich part of each English Suite; this also goes, by the way, for the SIX PARTITAS (BWV 825-830), which are built along the same guidelines. Judging from the titles of Bach's works for solo cello and solo violin, "Suite" and "Partita" are pretty much interchangeable terms. Their Preludes, in either case, are often highly structured pieces that, to my analytical ear, sound like an evolutionary link between Bach's freewheeling fantasias and toccatas (definitely grown-up stuff, not to be described here) and the then-soon-to-be-crowned king of classical music, sonata form. A couple of them actually strike me as being almost sonata-allegros already. Then the succeeding dance movements form a sometimes contemplative, but increasingly light and frothy contrast to it--rather like the slow movement, minuet, and finale of a classical sonata.

What these books offer that WTC and the books building up to it lack is an opportunity to experience a large-scale musical form. Again, this might be more than we can expect Junior to be able to handle. But throughout all three sets of suites/partitas there are individual pieces that I did play as a kid, and that later helped draw me into the full-blown suites of which they were originally a part. And if Junior is as precocious as I was, he will enthusiastically plunge into these books as soon as you see fit to expose him to them. I personally didn't seek these books out until I was an adult, but the tale might have been different if they had ever been placed before me. Meanwhile, I filled the then-unnamed hole in my musical life by devoting countless youthful hours to equally challenging piano works by Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc. Including whole sonatas!

So, who says these can't be Albums for the Young? But, like a character in a video game who must master each level before proceeding to the next, Junior needs to arrive at these masterpieces at the end of a long and labor-intensive progression. The good news is that the music is totally awesome. Unlike the many pieces of trite, throw-away music that piano students suffer with ill grace, this is music with stuff in it, and under it, going down and yet farther down, as deep as ever you care to explore. It is music some whiny brats might give up on, but that will never give up on them until it forms an integral part of their richer inner life. To master the technical challenges of these books is to be prepared for almost anything music can throw at you--including some even more advanced keyboard works by J. S. Bach! Meanwhile, to be counted worthy to perform these pieces is to receive an honor (and pleasure) that will make all further musical exertions that much sweeter.

BONUS MATERIAL: Additional stuff that you may be tempted to take as a possible "Bach Album for the Young"--but I advise against it.

(1) The Notebook (Klavierbüchlein) for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Totally not worth it. Trust me. I bought it in an Urtext edition. I played my way through it. Half of it turned out to be an early draft of the Inventions & Sinfonias. The better part of the other half is available in the above-described edition of "Little Preludes & Fugues," which I found to be a much better deal. What little in the Notebook for W.F.B. doesn't filter into these other books, turns out to be either (a) an incomplete fragment, or (b) an item of negligible merit, at best dubiously attributed to J.S.B. So this book will interest scholars rather than players, the interest being mainly historical in nature.

(2) The Notebook (also Klavierbüchlein) for Anna Magdalena Bach: This celebrated collection comes from a fancy notebook in which pieces of music by Bach and his sons, as well as other composers, was written by hand, mostly Anna Magdalena's. She was Sebastian's second wife, by the way. You probably think this is ideal stuff for kiddies because of the two or three easy pieces from it that you, or somebody you know, played in fifth or sixth grade. But again, it's a whole lot of stuff thrown together, including things you can more conveniently find elsewhere and things you may not want to find at all. The first two sections of the Notebook for A.M.B., for example, are the same as Partitas BWV 827 and 830. Then there are 3 Minuets, two of which (including the most famous one, in G) are now known to be by Christian Petzold. Then there's a Rondo by François Couperin, another famous Minuet in G, a Polonaise in F, a Minuet in B-flat, a Polonaise in G minor, and now suddenly we have lyrics! Bach gives us several arrangements of chorales (hymn tunes), some of them containing no more than the melody and bass line. Two more Minuets, then a series of pieces by Bach's second son C.P.E.--not at all bad pieces, really, but is this what you came here for? Then an Aria of uncertain authorship, complete with a block of German lyrics extolling the joys of smoking tobacco. Then a Minuet by Georg Böhm; the book goes on with some lightweight pieces that, by now, could be by Bach or by anybody else. No. 25 is the well-known aria "Bist du bei mir," now thought to be by G. H. Stölzel; then a Minuet by Bach so decorated as to sound like Couperin; more C.P.E.; something by J.A. Hasse; an excerpt from the WTC; then two French Suites; then two more arias, melody and bass-line only, including some recitative; a Minuet; two more arias, a chorale harmonization, and another chorale with melody and bass only. Two arias; a page of instructions by Bach which the Urtext has unhelpfully left untranslated; and as a final appendix to an already very redundant book, five "sonata" movements by C.P.E. Bach, apropos of nothing.

If you think it's hard having to read this, imagine paying Urtext prices for it and then finding out what's in it. Now you know! Take my advice and, if you (or Junior) want to play some nice, easy pieces from the time of Bach--whether or not Bach really wrote them--try a "best of" compilation like the one pictured above.

As to what I meant by Bach's "even more advanced keyboard works," further info is available on request. Practice hard, now! And more importantly, practice smart!

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