Sabbath delight: Angela Hewitt interviewed on Bach, the Well-Tempered Clavier, and… baby hippos?!

Possibly Canada’s greatest living treasure in the realm of classical music is pianist Angela Hewitt. She has a huge and musically diverse repertoire (her recent recordings of Scarlatti sonatas are quite scrumptious), but is best known for her complete recordings of J. S. Bach’s keyboard works.

Here she is in Hong Kong in late 2018, giving a quite delightful interview to a local music professor for about an hour:

She talks about her background (her father was a British-born organist and choir director at a cathedral in Ottawa, her mother a pianist), about playing Bach on the piano, why she uses Fazioli pianos exclusively now, about her favorite preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (I’m not surprised C#m book 1, Bbm book 1, and F#m book 2 are among them). A few amusing as well as enlightening nuggets:

  • Because both Canadian and Bach, a comparison to Glenn Gould is inevitable. But she recalls seeing him on TV as a child, and asking her parents, “who is this kook?” Later on, she decided that, without detracting from Gould’s (staggering) musical talents, her vision of Bach wasn’t his, and that in particular Gould’s tempo choices were too eccentric and counter-intuitive for her taste. (It’s also hard not to notice that she’s as outgoing as Gould was introverted. She even once answered a fan note from yours truly :))
  • Her taking ballet lessons as a child helped shape her approach to rhythm in Bach, particularly the degree to which the rhythms of French courtly dances (quite explicit in the French suites, the orchestral suites, and the French Overture) come through in Bach’s preludes. The dance steps required notes inégales, rhythms that are more or less subtly syncopated even when written as equal notes. (Cf. “swing” and “boogie-woogie” in American popular music.)]
  • Similarly, being in a choir (her father’s?) since childhood gave her an appreciation of phrasing and articulation that you would not normally acquire from playing Bach on a piano (or other keyboard instrument) in isolation.
  • Her realizing during preparing for her then-current Bach concert tour (after a long spell of focusing on other repertoire), “there’s no bulls–t [sic] at all in Bach’s music”. By [bovine scatology], she means redundant notes or passages, “fluff”, “filler”. (As I understand it, a piece by Liszt, for example, will contain quite a bit of ornaments, flash-bang, musical “foley effects” that can be ad-libbed or simplified while still basically retaining the same piece. In contrast, everything in Bach is “just so”.[*])
  • How she was taught Bach (starting at age 3) by her parents in the same sequence she recommends for learners now: first the Anna Magdalena Notebook and the Little Preludes, then the Two-Part Inventions, then the Three-Part, then the French Suites, and only then the Well-Tempered Clavier.
  • How an important factor in deciding tempi for the preludes is “harmonic tempo” (her interviewer’s term), i.e., the frequency at which chords change. For example, the (in)famous First Prelude in C she takes comparatively fast as it only changes chords one to the bar (and she’d otherwise “be asleep by the time it’s over”), while the Fm prelude with many changes to the bar she plays more slowly and more expressively than many pianists.
  • My LOL moment: One of her favorite fugues is the long, ponderous, organ-like A minor from WTC book I, which she calls “my little hippopotamus fugue” [sic]. This is actually a reference to a Victorian musicologist named Ebenezer Prout, who, as a mnemonic device for the required articulation, put all sorts of droll lyrics to the fugue themes. A full list can be found here. For the A minor from Book One, it was : “On a bank of mud in the river Nile, upon a summer morning, a little hippopotamus was eating bread and jam.

Glenn Gould (whose correspondence is replete with musical jokes) clearly missed that joke, and instead played the fugue at a brisk tempo that is “rushing” for Angela’s taste, but brings out the relentless motorics of the piece. Here (via commenter “riverstun”) https://youtu.be/28pM2Z-2tZw?t=563 Gould discusses how he spliced together the final recording from two takes (out of eight) at the same high tempo, one of which he labeled the articulation as “pompous” and the other as “skittish”.

Sadly I could not find Angela’s performance of the same fugue on YouTube: suffice to say that in my iTunes music library, her recording runs for 5:33, compared to just 3:27 for Gould! (The great Tatiana Nikolayeva’s version, part of a single track with the prelude, I timed at 4:30.)

It is a marvel of the modern age that not only can we pull these contrasting performances up at the touch of a button, but we can even hear the performers explaining their artistic decisions. This is a luxury Bach himself (I nearly wrote Bach Himself, but that would be idolatry) could not have dreamed of in his lifetime, but would have been quite delighted with.

Enjoy!

[*] exceptions that prove the rule are pieces like the 2nd movement of the 3rd Brandenburg, where Bach leaves a space for an improvised keyboard cadenza, or sections of the Chromatic Fantasy where performers are given sequences of chords to arpeggiate to their own taste.

Sabbath delight: Tatiana Nikolayeva plays J. S. Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier

I had no idea who this fabulous Russian pianist was until I heard her performance of J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue on the Hyperion label — and was blown away by its combination of sensitivity and contrapuntal clarity. I treasure that recording above all others in my collection—if I could only take away one to a deserted island, that would be the one.
Sadly, shortly after that recording, she was felled by a stroke during a concert in San Francisco, and passed away days later, never having regained consciousness.
She had a very broad repertoire, most of it recorded in the former (thank G-d) USSR and (until recently, at least) only available on CDs with doubtful source audio provenance. (Vinyl rips? Analog studio tapes?)
But her first and last love was Bach. After she won the Bach Competition in Leipzig (then in the DDR) in 1950 with her Well-Tempered Clavier performance, the composer Shostakovich was so impressed by her voice-leading ability that he wrote his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 especially for her.

Until recently, all I had heard of her earlier output were lo-fi Youtube rips off vinyl recordings — with lots of hiss and distortion I had great trouble listening past. Now somebody uploaded a high-resolution digitization of the CDs. Below is the video for your enjoyment; I managed to locate a legal download for the source and promptly bought it. [Book I; Book II] You will wish to do the same if you like the recording. (I thought nothing could surpass Glenn Gould’s or Angela Hewitt’s for me, but this is something specia. )
“Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but they all believe in Bach.” (Mauricio Kagel)

J. S. Bach (Tatiana Nikolayeva, piano): WTC Books I & II (complete)

As a bonus, here follows the complete performance by another great Russian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter. Enjoy!

J. S. Bach (Sviatoslav Richter, piano): WTC Books I & II (complete)

The myth of the starving composer

A friend of mine was told that, basically, “you’re not Beethoven and you’re never going to make a living at composing, so stop already. Besides, even Beethoven starved”. Aside from the proper answer being Sierra Tango Foxtrot Uniform or (in Yiddish) Golf Kilo Oscar Yankee, let’s address the enduring (and pernicious) myth of the starving artist/composer.
A writer https://goinswriter.com/die/ blogs about it here, particularly focusing on Michelangelo — whose fortune in today’s terms would have been in the millions.

The most damaging myths are always those with a grain of truth in them. It is undeniably true that few if any of the great composers of your were able to make a living directly and exclusively off composition — but that didn’t mean they starved, or that they could not make a living in music!

Let’s start with (to me) the greatest of them all, J. S. Bach. As explored in great detail in Christoph Wolff’s scholarly biography, the surviving financial evidence suggests Bach’s income stream made him solidly middle-class, or even upper middle class, by the standards of his day — and all of it was related to music. His main incomes were as an organist, then as a Kapellmeister (music director — the modern concept of a conductor emerged only later), then as the Thomaskantor (music director and assistant principal of the St. Thomas High School in Leipzig). Some of these jobs included composing duties — Bach wrote several years’ worth of weekly church cantatas.
He had respectable secondary incomes as a private keyboard tutor (for which he was in high demand), as what we would today call a “consultant” on church organ construction, and even as an agent for the Silbermann family of harpsichord and fortepiano builders. (The instrument he was representing them for was an early fortepiano — giving the lie to another myth, that playing Bach on the piano is somehow inappropriate.)
But would Bach have been able to feed and house his large family on intermittent composition commissions? Or from publishing his works? The economics of the day didn’t work that way. Copyright as we understand it today didn’t really exist. (Nor did the modern conception of plagiarism, by the way — composers borrowed thematic material from each other, from folk tunes,… as a matter of course.) Music printing was a laborious and costly process that involved engraving by hand on copper plates, and only a handful of Bach’s works were printed during his lifetime. (The Art of the Fugue appeared posthumously but Bach arranged for, and subsidized, the publication while he was still alive — he clearly intended this Mount Everest of absolute music to be his artistic testament.)

So could he live well? Yes. Could he live well off music? Yes. Could he live solely from composition? No, but the very concept of a full-time composer did not exist in the day.

But what about Mozart, you say? Mozart actually made quite a bit of money off music. He had wealthy admirers, he was a keyboard virtuoso since childhood, staged operas that not only will endure when today’s richest Broadway composer will have been forgotten but were popular in their day,… and indeed ghostwrote music for wealthy would-be composers. (This is the true origin of the “Requiem” story. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_von_Walsegg) On the flip side, he was a spendthrift and thus perennially in debt, though his fortunes appeared to have turned around when he caught what appears to have been [http://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-151-4-200908180-00010] a streptococcal infection and died — again, there was no king or queen safe from that at the time.

Beethoven, to greater or lesser degree, was able to live primarily off composition. Despite his by all accounts volcanic temper and cantankerous personality, he had rich admirers. But crucially, as discussed e.g. in Jan Swofford’s biography, he would subsidize his “serious” output with volumes of song transcriptions and “bagatelles” (short, easy, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) that his publisher would pay good money for. Yes, even that “artiste’s artiste” would write unabashedly for the masses sometimes! (It is a measure of Beethoven’s genius, to me second only to Bach, that even these throwaway pieces contain some real gems of invention.)

Liszt gained fame and fortune as a legendary piano virtuoso (a “rock star” of his day whose “groupies” engaged in embarrassing displays) before retiring to focus full-time on composition of works more profound than the flashy showpieces he had written for his own use. Chopin, aside from a concert pianist, taught piano lessons to the rich and famous of his day for what are princely fees by any standard. Mahler never gained the esteem he has now as a composer during his lifetime, but held one of the most prestigious conductor positions of the day. (That he had to convert from Judaism to Roman Catholicism to get it is another story.) Bruckner, whose symphonies I have only recently started appreciating, enjoyed fame as an organist during his lifetime. The list is endless.

In fact, until the modern era, the performer and/or practical music educator was the norm among composers, and the full-time composer the exception. Pianist and organist Anthony Newman, in an interview in Keyboard Magazine that I read as a teenager, actually argued that classical music started becoming a sterile art form precisely when composers were no longer primarily performers.[*]

As we have seen above, the “starving artists” weren’t all that starving (some, like Handel, indeed got rich); the Great Composers, for the most part, were professional performers first; and the Professional Composer is a comparatively recent phenomenon that coincidentally (?) coincides with the decline of classical music as a living art form.

We are now living in an era where skilled amateurs can put their music, writings, or other creative works in front of a global audience for comparatively modest investments. The challenge now has shifted to bringing it to the attention of people, to make it stand out from the crowd. Conventional agents and publishing houses are increasingly becoming redundant or even irrelevant to the process, though I can see the role of a publicist transforming, rather than disappearing.
However, the “YouTube/SoundCloud economy”, where you compete less for money and for people’s attention and time, in some ways will be an interesting throwback to aspects of yesteryear’s composers. Bands today often don’t make any real money off albums due to illicit downloading and the overheads of legacy record labels — it is in live shows that the real money is nowadays, as people are clearly still willing to shell out money for “the live experience”. Had Bach or Handel lived today, they would probably each have millions of followers on YouTube (and have millions of people illegally downloading their music) — but Handel got rich staging his own operas and oratorios then, and would likely have to do so now. Bach would likely be able to travel in style from one sold-out-in-hours gig to the next — but he likely would be touring if he wanted more money than a faculty appointment could provide. Of course, once they got famous in our fictional world, a billionaire with good musical taste would be willing to bankroll them, but I can’t see Handel giving up the stage. Bach perhaps, because as much as he loved the good life, this deeply religious man ultimately wrote for an audience of One.

I would counsel my friend to “Keep calm and carry on”.

[*] The case of Jean-Philippe Rameau is somewhat peculiar. He first gained recognition as a music theorist (his Treatise on Harmony is a milestone in the field to this day) and considered himself a music scholar first and foremost. But he worked as a church organist for over two decades after succeeding his father, and ultimately gained fame as an opera and ballet composer, conducting his own works. Ironically, the greater ease of printing a book (rather than sheet music) in the age before digital typesetting may have contributed to his early reputation.

Karl Richter (1971) conduct Bach’s Matthäuspassion BWV 244

 

It is Passover for us Jews and the Easter holiday weekend for Christians of the Western Communion. (Orthodox Christian Easter is in another week this year.)

The way in which Karl Richter conducted Bach’s immortal Matthew Passion, BWV 244, would nowadays be considered “Romantic”, and “not historically authentic”. Yet for sheer musical and expressive power, it has rarely been equaled.

Here is the full movie of the 1971 performance on YouTube (featuring tenor Peter Schreier as the evangelist):

A short biography of this amazing Bach performer can be read here. I had no idea that he was offered the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig — musical director of the St. Thomas Church, the selfsame position Bach held! — at the age of only 30, but that he declined it on the grounds that (a) he felt 30 years too young to bear the weight of such a position; (b) he had built up an excellent ensemble in Munich and did not want to abandon it. Unspoken was probably (c) having fled the East German dictatorship with a single attaché case and the clothes on his back, he surely had no desire to move back there, even in a privileged position.

People would wonder about the punishing workload Richter subjected himself to. His parents both having died young, he apparently suspected the same would be his own fate and said “my time is now — we Richters don’t live long”. Indeed, he died in his mid-fifties of a heart attack while preparing for an upcoming concert tour.

Let Bach and Richter’s music speak for itself. Enjoy and happy Passover or Easter, as applicable!

Bach Day post

Today, J. S. Bach would have been 333 years old. In honor of the day, this organ piece.

A “Toccata” in Bach’s day was a virtuosic type of prelude with somewhat improvisational character—the word comes from the Italian verb ‘toccare’, which means both ‘to touch’ and ‘to play [a musical instrument]’. Bach actually wrote two “Toccata and Fugue” pairs in D minor: the extremely familiar BWV 565 with its stark musical contrasts, and the misnamed “Dorian Toccata and Fugue” BWV 538 with its driving perpetual motion in the toccata. It is actually in D minor rather than D dorian, but the (in the modern era) unusual notation without a key signature led to the erroneous nickname.

Below is a scrolling-score video — the audio is a performance by the great French organist Michel Chapuis, in standard pitch. Enjoy!

 

Saturday musical delight: Well-Tempered Clavier in MuseScore animation

Via YouTube channel “gerubach”, which has been presenting “scrolling score” youtube videos of musical compositions for many years, I stumbled upon the following gem of a playlist:

All of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is being rendered there in MuseScore animation: as you hear the audio, not only do you see the score on screen (two systems at a time) and a pointer scrolling across the notes being played, but at the bottom of the screen, you see the notes currently sounding displayed on a piano keyboard.

Especially in combination with YouTube’s ability to play back videos at reduced speed without altering the pitch, this is a marvelous self-tutoring tool for keyboard playing as well as music theory.

The audio is taken from the performance by pianist (and former competitive weight lifter!) Kimiko Ishizaka [official website]. The MuseScore team could legally do so as the (IMHO excellent) performance was released in the public domain (!)

The onetime child prodigy pre-funds her recordings through Kickstarter campaigns (most recently, she ran one for a “Libre”recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue), then releases them online under PD or Creative Commons licenses. The word “Libre” she uses has some currency in the open source software developer community: It refers to one of the two words in French (and other Romance languages) that correspond to the English “free”, namely libre (without restrictions, “free as in speech”) vs. gratis (without cost, “free as in lunch”).  She does not work gratis, but on what I have been calling a “massively distributed commissioning” model, and what is becoming known as a “threshold pledge” model: she sets a funding goal, solicits pledges from patrons on Kickstarter, and if her threshold is met, the work is performed and the money collected. For her last campaign, the threshold she set was 20,000 Euro, and the minimum pledge was 10 Euro — the price of an album at a CD store (remember those). Larger pledge amounts (20 Euro, 50 Euro, 100 Euro) get various extra goodies, such as live recordings from recent concerts, a physical CD of the music, and admission to one of three “meatspace” live concerts.

D. Jason Fleming has been talking a lot about the “Open Culture Movement”. I believe this is an interesting example, and may actually point a way toward the future for classical performers. The big losers here, of course, are the classical music labels, who in this model are about as profitable as illegal CD bootleggers….

 

Saturday delight: Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar

I accidentally stumbled on Moran Wasser’s amazing performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004, on an 11-string guitar, embedded below:

What’s the deal with an… 11-string guitar?! Sounds pretty scary, no? Actually, 11-string and 13-string guitars are similar to the Baroque lute in conception:  The top six or seven strings are played like a standard guitar, while the additional bass strings are typically tuned ad hoc to cover the bass notes of the piece, and plucked as open strings with the thumb as a harmonic foundation. I am sure that sympathetic vibration also adds a lot to the body of the sound when these strings are not explicitly struck.

But let’s talk about the piece now. Many instrumental jazz and rock improvisations are based on a repeated “riff” or bass line that forms the foundation. This is, however, not something invented in the modern era. Early Western classical music had a form called a “ground” where exactly the same was done: take, for example, William Byrd’s virginal/harpsichord piece “The Bells” (1580). During the early baroque period, two forms of Western art music evolved with a repeated-riff structure: the Passacaglia and the Chaconne. Significantly, both were originally slow, stately dances in 3/2 rhythm.

It seems nobody is quite sure what is the difference between the two: I remembered it as “in a chaconne, the repeated riff is always in the bass, while in a passacaglia, it can move through all voices” — but it appears this definition was too narrowly based on J. S. Bach’s monumental examples, the Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ in C minor, BWV 582, (about which I have blogged previously), and the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, BWV 1004.

This piece, which stretches the capabilities of violin and violinist to the very limit, has numerous times been arranged for other instruments: for piano (by Ferruccio Busoni and by Alexander Siloti), for piano left hand (by Brahms), for organ, and indeed for orchestra (by Leopold Stokowski). It is particularly often performed on guitar (either in Andres Segovia’s arrangement or directly from the original score).

Moran Wasser’s arrangement is transposed one half-step down from the original, i.e., to C# minor: this sounds equivalent to playing it in “baroque tuning” (A=415 Hz) in its original key. Note that he places a capo on the 2nd fret over the seven top strings.

For those who prefer a violin original, here is Hilary Hahn’s performance:

The piano arrangements for two hands both tend toward the flashy, but Siloti’s is to my ears the more musical of the two. Here is a surprisingly powerful recent performance by a young pianist named Tanya Gabrielian:

Enjoy!

 

Saturday musical fun: “Bach Panther” by Stéphane Delplace

I saw this on the “Mezzo” channel in a European hotel room once. Stéphane Delplace takes Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther theme”, and uses it as the subject for a very Bach-esque fugue — it is clearly inspired by the G minor fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the theme of which has some vague resemblance to the Pink Panther.

Enjoy!

J. S. Bach’s 325th Birthday

Halevai (would that it were so). Exactly 325 years ago, on March 21, 1685, in the German city of Eisenach, Johann Sebastian Bach was born. His body may have died, but his music is more alive than ever.

In honor of the day, here is Itzhak Perlman performing (YouTube video split up in two parts) the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, BWV 1004. A “chaconne” is roughly the more stylized classical equivalent of what jazz, rock, and metal soloist often do: spin out ideas over a repeated bass line. (If the bass line moves to voices other than the bass, the piece is called a passacaglia, of which Bach wrote a marvelous example for organ.) Violinist Nigel Kennedy, not without reason, refers to the composer as “Jazz Bach”.

The theme Bach ‘riffs’ on is very basic, and the limitations of solo violin playing (especially with a modern bow) mean many things have to be hinted at rather than played. Yet, this piece manages to not bore the listener for one second. And Perlman has enough technique that he can squeeze an emotional performance out of this “Mount Everest of solo violin music”.

Enjoy!