Sunday, November 3, 2019

Listening Journey through Bach's WTC 1. Preludes and Fugues No 3 and 4

Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp major BWV 848 
Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor BWV 849

Second Listening Session, Friday, 10/18/2019

The preludes and fugues in C-sharp major and C-sharp minor are two very contrasting sets, both in spirit and in the way they are composed. C-sharp major is one of the most lighthearted, playful and charming pairs in the Well-Tempered Clavier, the one in C-sharp minor is one of the darkest, most mysterious and profound. The prelude and especially the fugue in c- sharp minor are quite long and complex. For this reason, I decided to begin our session with these two pieces. After playing them, I started the exploration with the fugue, followed by the prelude. Then, we turned to the prelude and fugue in C-sharp major. 
What works well in a live demonstration doesn’t necessarily make for a good read. For this reason, the preludes and fugues are presented here as Bach placed them in the WTC. I also performed them in that order at the end of the session.

Prelude and Fugue No 3 in C-sharp major

Prelude  (click on the link to listen)
The prelude is full of energy and sparkle. It reminds me of icicles glittering in the sunlight, or snowflakes dancing – the reflection of a memory.
Winter in New Hampshire
This was the first piece I learnt after my relocation from Germany to the United States, in an almost empty apartment in the depth of winter in New Hampshire. My belongings, including the piano, were still on the way, and I practiced on an electronic keyboard with the headphones on – a good idea, considering all the wrong notes I played. C-sharp major with its seven sharps is very hard to read, and, at least in this prelude and fugue, extremely uncomfortable to play.

The keyboard pattern of the scale is easy enough:
Black -black-  white – black-black-black- white-black.
Keyboard pattern, scale in C-sharp major
The two white keys come in handy for placing the thumb just at the right time to change the hand position. In the prelude and fugue, it’s a whole different thing. To accommodate the numerous patterns, you’re constantly teetering on the narrow black keys with all five fingers, always in danger of sliding off into the narrow gap between them, and if that happens, you’re stuck. At my second complete performance of the WTC 1 in 2005 I barely avoided a major train-wreck in the fugue. That's early on, and the shock reverberated throughout the entire performance and beyond.  

The music of the prelude in C-sharp major is based on a succession of chords, broken up into patterns. We find a similar approach in the preludes in C-major and C- minor and many others. It’s the way Bach sets those harmonies in motion that makes up the charm and brilliant joy of this piece.
Prelude in C-sharp major. Related musical elements are marked in the same color
The 3/8 time signature gives it a dance-like character. Two different rhythmic elements are combined. To begin with, the left hand has the slower motion: a quarter note followed by an 8th, or three 8ths notes fill the measure. The right hand moves at twice the speed, first in patterns based on the harmony, (M 1-5) then merging into a melodic pattern that moves mostly stepwise (M 6-8). These elements and their exchange between the hands are the core ideas of the piece.

The second half (M 47-62) begins with a reverse of the opening. Then, Bach creates a new pattern. It is based on the 8th note pattern, but shifted in time, so that the right hand notes have to fit in between the notes of the left hand, requiring an interchange between the hands that is almost like juggling.
Exuberant hand-over-hand arpeggios in the last line are like a dancer’s pirouette, followed by cadence chords that conclude the piece like a final bow.

Fugue (click on the link to listen)
The subject (marked green in the score), that opens this fugue in three parts, is full of energy. It starts with a little turn that merges into exuberant leaps. Again, you could imagine a dancer –in fact, the rhythmic patterns of this piece have characteristic features of a Bouree – a popular baroque dance in moderately fast tempo, duple meter, balanced 4+4 phrases, simple harmonies and a joyful mood.

Fugue in C-sharp major M 1-25

Fugue in C-sharp major, M 26-55
The subject has a faithful companion throughout the fugue; a musical idea that consistently appears in another voice together with the subject. The musical term is countersubject . It is marked blue in the score.

Subject entrances are connected by episodes (E1-E6) – sections where the full subject does not appear. The musical elements of the episodes in this fugue are derived from the subject, however. 
In E 1, the two voices on the top exchange a motif consisting of leaps, (yellow) the bass has a sequence made up of continuous patterns in 16th that remind of the initial turn (purple). E1, E3, the 2nd section of E5 and E 6 share this basic structure. Doing the same thing over and over is boring, so Bach slightly varies the motifs each time. 
In E 2 and in the first section of E 5, one hand keeps up the leaps (yellow), while a continuous melodic line in the other hand takes the places of the sequence (orange). In E2, the right hand has the melodic line, in E 5 it’s the left hand. This kind of interchange between the hands is familiar from the prelude. 
In E4 the right hand quotes the opening of the subject in its inversion, accompanied by the countersubject. In the last two sections of E5 the opening of the subject forms a sequence, accompanied by an idea that reminds of the prelude.

The following, very simple “map” illustrates how these musical ideas are distributed throughout the fugue. Identical colors represent related musical ideas. To keep things simple, the map neglects the third voice and the length of sections.

"Map", illustrating the distribution of musical ideas throughout the fugue
Most of the time, sections where related ideas are interchanged between the hands don’t follow each other immediately as they did in the prelude. Instead, they are distributed throughout the piece and weave a fabric of cross-references. 
The final part (M 42-53) is a recapitulation - an almost identical repeat of the beginning section or exposition (M 1-11). It is followed by a very short coda (final section, M 53-55) – just an afterthought, very similar to the ending of the prelude, to wrap things up and confirm the key.
The exposition and the recap hold the piece together like two bookends and provide a feeling of wholeness – containment – contentment - completion.

Prelude and Fugue No 4 in C-sharp minor

Prelude (click on the link to listen)
The Prelude is a lament, an expression of grief, a continuous flow of the deepest sorrow. The alto as the leading voice is in conversation with the other two/three, sometimes four parts that make up the musical structure.
Prelude in C-sharp minor, score
When we discussed the prelude in c-minor last time, I mentioned similarities between Bach’s vocal and instrumental music. I would like to go there again, because this Prelude reminds me so much of one of the most beautiful vocal pieces that Bach ever wrote, the “Erbarme Dich” (Have mercy) - Aria from the St. Matthew Passion.

The aria is a duet for alto and solo violin, accompanied by the orchestra. We find the same kind of dialogue between voices, but the different colors of the voice and the instrument make them easier to distinguish. Listening to this piece will do more for us than dissecting the Prelude into its ingredients; the music speaks for itself.

The context of the aria within the passion is a story of friendship and betrayal. Jesus and his disciples are gathered over the dinner for Passover. He talks about his upcoming suffering and dying, and he also hints that his arrest will disperse the group of his disciples. Peter, totally sure of himself, declares that he will always stand with Jesus and defend him in distress. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answers, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
After Jesus’ arrest, people in the crowd point to Peter and identify him as one of the followers. This happens three times, and Peter denies, each time with more determination. Then the rooster crows. Peter realizes what he has done and he goes away and cries his heart out. 
This is where the aria comes in, with its long melody lines, expressing an endless flow of tears. The following recording is part of the Netherlands’ Bach Society’s project “All of Bach,” which aims to make quality recordings of Bach’s entire work available on the internet. If you subscribe to the website, you get a notification every time a new recording has been released.  In the recording of the “Erbarme Dich” – Aria, the orchestra plays on period instruments and the solo is sung by a countertenor.  (click on the link to listen)

Fugue (click on the link to listen)
Only two fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier 1 were composed for five voices:

No 4 in C-sharp minor and No 18 in B-flat minor. The second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier doesn’t have any fugues in five parts.
The fugue in c-sharp minor from WTC 1 is also special because it has 3 subjects. In the score, No 1 is marked green, No 2 blue, No 3 pink. The subjects differ greatly from each other: No 1 is very short and subdued, No 2 is constantly in motion, No 3 has a distinct rhythmic and melodic structure.

Fugue in C-sharp minor, M1-65
Part 1 (M 1-34, Exposition M 1-18, Counter-exposition M 19-34)
In the first part of the fugue only the first subject appears in its entirety. Traces of the other two subjects are already present as counterpoints, but they don’t appear in their final shape until later in the piece. 

The very short first subject consists of five long notes only. The subject moves in small intervals (falling half step, rising diminished fourth, falling half step, falling whole step) and ends on the pitch where it started. Throughout the history of music composers have used falling half steps to express grief and pain. In terms of momentum and energy, this subject is barely alive.

The lowest voice begins, followed by the other four voices in ascending order, so that the subject rises by two octaves in the course of the exposition. That’s quite remarkable, considering that, in and of itself, it is barely moving. 
The secret lies within the voices that go along with it. Not only do they develop momentum by moving faster – the main characteristic of the 2nd subject - we also find larger intervals, including the perfect fourth, that characterizes the 3rd subject. So, while these subjects haven’t acquired their final shape yet, the seeds are already there at the beginning of the piece. They are marked in the score in the respective colors.

In the counter-exposition (M 19-34), the first subject appears in all five voices again. The accompanying voices continue to develop momentum and make harmonic changes evident. The counter-exposition ends in major. That changes the character of the piece considerably. In the subject, the diminished fourth becomes a perfect fourth, thus anticipating the “signature interval” of the 3rd subject.
Something else is significant: Throughout the two subjects entrances in major (M 29 and M 32) all five voices come together simultaneously for the first time in the fugue.

Part  II The motion in the counterpoints to the subject in exposition and counter-exposition generates a second subject (S2). It’s the opposite of S1, which barely gets moving, and after a brief attempt, returns to its origin. The second subject plays a major part in moving the piece forward and preparing the entry of the 3rd subject. 
Traces of S 2 already appear in the exposition (M 17/18; 23/24; 31/32; 35) In fact, Bach simply doubles the speed of the motif and makes it continuous. The second subject has enough momentum to move forward in small, meandering figures, but it does not have a distinct rhythmic structure, or boundaries. One long, falling line accompanies two entries of S 1(M36-41).
Tension increases in the 3
rd entry of S 2 (M41). This time, the subject is inverted, which makes it rise. The first notes of each pattern form a chromatic line – another means to create expectation. The last two entries overlap – a technique that is called stretto – and lead into the appearance of the 3rd subject (M49).

Part III Rhythmic and melodic structure (a rising fourth and repeated notes) give this subject a determined character  – or is it pleading, a cry for help ?
In the long section that follows, Bach experiments with combinations/layerings of the three subjects. (top, middle, bottom) Writing a good fugue is very difficult . It requires a lot of experimenting and struggle. To this day, learning how to write fugue is a challenging exercise for composers. In his sonata op 110, Beethoven writes fugues as a symbol for problem solving – we get a sense of that here.
Fugue in C-sharp minor, M 66-115
It seems to me that Bach’s objective is to bring all five voices together in a way that works. Most of the time, three voices are involved, sometimes four, but we never get five again until the end of the third section (M 56-58) At that point, the second subject has just about exhausted its energy altogether. It will eventually disappear in the final part of the fugue.
Certain moments stand out in the third part: The brief turn to major in M 54-58; the entry of the first subject in the low bass in M 73, and the long descent of S 2 M 82-86.

Part IV  S 2 disappears after a final entry in M 92. Strettos of S 3 produce a very dense texture. Without the mellowing effect of S3 the structure is very chordal. If there is a dissonance you really hear the clashes. While all five voices are increasingly engaged in the process simultaneously – the ultimate goal – we feel struggle, conflict; the increase of tension. After clashing harmonies in the final part (M 109, M 112), the ending in C-sharp major comes as a faint hope, a sense of possible relief, rather than triumph.
At the core of this ending are the first and the third subject. They finish the piece together, and the it is the third subject that provides the major third in the final chord.

Concluding reflection:
Before performing both Preludes and Fugues in the original order at the end of the session, I shared some personal reflections about the music with the audience:

Elements of the same spirit join in the prelude and fugue in C-sharp major and play together joyfully. Right away, there’s very upbeat energy, momentum, and nothing happens to disturb that. In that kind of genuinely happy spirit, you don’t ask a lot of questions. You simply enjoy the moment and go with the flow. 

It took me a long time to make up my mind about the character of the fugue in C-sharp minor. The images that came to my mind in the course of the search are entirely personal. I’m not saying: “this is what it means.” I’m not suggesting that others have to identify with my associations, but as a performer, I have to take a stand in the way I play the piece.
What strikes me most about this fugue is how it develops momentum, from the initial “hint” of a subject to the final part that involves all five voices and ends in C-sharp major.  After the fierce, dissonant struggle that precedes it, though, the ending  doesn’t feel triumphant. It’s more like a shadow, a faint hope against better knowledge.

Long notes can feel reassuring like pillars that support a structure. That’s not the feeling that comes with the first subject. This is a tentative beginning - the first trace of light before dawn? The music that follows does not suggest a radiant day. The second subject creates motion, but lacks the focus to achieve something beyond that. That’s left to the third subject. The rising fourth, the insistent, repeated notes are like a plea, an outcry - the outcry of our tormented planet?

Ultimately, the prelude, and an incident that made the news, helped me define my personal understanding of this piece.
The prelude expresses deepest grief and sorrow, if not despair. Peter has committed the most atrocious betrayal; the damage is done and cannot be fixed.  

While I was preparing the presentation, another police shooting of a black person in this troubled country was reported in the news: A policeman in Texas shot an unarmed black woman in her own home, after he had been called to the house by a neighbor, who noticed that the front door was open and worried about a possible break in. The policeman saw something move by the window and his shot was fatal.

It’s possible that the incident touched me so deeply because only days before, I had called the police on my downstairs neighbors. They were playing music loud enough to wake me up at 3 am - an unfortunate habit of theirs; and I’m not a light sleeper. I’ve complained; we’ve talked repeatedly. This time I’d simply had it, and it has nothing to do with the fact that they’re from South America.

I imagined the state of mind of that policeman in Texas – assuming his action was not motivated by hate and racism. The combination of poor judgment and fear can be just as fatal. You’re responsible for destroying more than one life, and you will carry the weight for the rest of your days. All you can do is bring yourself to ask forgiveness. Granting it would be an act of boundless generosity on the part of those who have been harmed. There is no guarantee it will ever happen, only the faint light of a possibility at the end.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Personal Listening / Zuhören, ganz persönlich

Personal Listening or: 

What music means to YOU 

is the point that really matters

Our listening journey through Book 1 of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is off to a great start. We had full house at the introduction, and the audience listened in rapt attention, as I guided them through the first two Preludes and Fugues the following Friday. As I’m getting ready for the second listening session on October 18th, I’m amazed at my own enthusiasm. 

Another part of the preparation: posting announcements on the public billboards around town.
I’ve held events like this for a couple of years now, but haunted by painful memories of music appreciation classes in high school, I’ve always preferred playing music over talking and prepared for it with plenty of doubts and anxiety.

I hated those classes in school. They consisted almost exclusively of taking the music apart: distinguishing different motifs from each other, recognizing sonata form as opposed to Rondo, and then more talk about “what it means.” I sang in choir, played the piano, the violin and the recorder. “Don’t you feel what it means?” I objected silently.

I wasn’t aware that people who didn’t sing or play an instrument might have a different experience. I didn’t realize that other families didn’t listen to the Bach cantata on the radio over Sunday morning breakfast, followed by the concert from the Symphony. “Music appreciation classes in school opened a whole world for me,” said friends from childhood after reading my memoir, where I don’t have one good word to say about music classes in school.

“To hear more, feel deeper and know better” – that’s how I described the purpose of the Bach journey to the audience at the introduction. What made me resent music class in high school was the implication of a single correct way of appreciating classical music, and that was analytic. Enjoyment without conscious awareness of the ingredients was considered inadequate, immature and primitive.

After a lifetime in music, I know that there are many layers of listening, feeling and understanding. Each person’s experience is a true and valid station on a journey. I’ve done my share of reading, but I’m not a musicologist or a Bach scholar. My qualification as a travel guide are  those years of living with the WTC on a daily basis. The listening journey is an adventure for me as much as for the audience. I, too, will come out of it hearing more, feeling deeper and knowing better.

“What a magnificent musical experience Friday evening, listening to Birgit perform Bach and explain so clearly what Bach had in mind,” an enthusiastic audience member commented on Facebook. While it’s thrilling to hear that, it also makes me feel a little uneasy.

I demonstrate and describe how the music is made. I connect it to background information, e.g. the musical rhetoric of Bach’s time that associated certain musical figures with certain meanings, almost like a vocabulary. 

But do I know what Bach had in mind when he wrote the music? His symbolism is deeply rooted in his religious faith, his place and time. Demonstrations for the preservation of the environment didn’t happen back then, so he couldn’t possibly have connected the idea with the C-major Fugue. I have no idea what he would think of my personal association with the Prelude and Fugue in c-minor: breaking the impact of a destructive pattern and facing the uncertainty of a new path.

Certain human experiences haven’t changed over the centuries: Feeling the strength that comes from cooperating with each other, or coping with threats and challenge. It’s all in the music, more subtle and nuanced than you could put it into words. That accounts for its magic and its power, if we manage to find that personal connection. I want to encourage people to start looking for it.

An audience member told me that most of the musical things I talked about went way over her head. But her brother used to play Bach all the time. Hearing the music makes her feel close to him. That is valid, too.

Recently I listened to an interview with a musicologist who teaches at Harvard. Asked about his favorite sections in Bach’s Mass in B-minor, he replied that he kept changing his mind, and different people heard different things in the same music. His conclusion gave me a confirmation for my own endeavor: 

“Whenever you make a personal connection between your life experience and what you hear in the music, that’s when listening begins.”

The second Listening Session will take place on Friday, October 18, 7:00-8:00 pm at the Ethical Culture Society, 516 Prospect Street, Maplewood, NJ 07040. Suggested donation $ 10.00, to benefit the Ethical Culture Society and Interfaith Hospitality Network. Admission for students is free.

Summary of the first Listening Session

Prelude No 1 in C-major BWV 846

The C-major Prelude is a steady, uninterrupted flow of arpeggios in a succession of changing harmonies. It is motion that keeps us alive: the motion of the heartbeat, the steady in-and out of the breath, the motion of the body that takes us to different places, the flow of thoughts and feelings that respond to our experience of the inside and the outside world.

The arpeggios, whose pattern does not change until we’re “back home” at the end of the piece, provides a feeling of comforting consistency, while the changing harmonies move the piece forward. The absence of extremes, and the balance between change and consistency is a sensation we experience as comforting in life as well. ”It’s a feeling of mellow happiness,” one of my young piano students once said. I couldn’t find a better way to describe it.

Fugue No 1 in C-major BWV 846

As if illustrating two opposite ends of a spectrum, Bach combines the “easiest” Prelude with one of the most complex and difficult fugues. The fugue in C-major is saturated with subject entries. The subject appears 24 times in all. I admit you have to tweak it a little, there’s a double-take in M 15/16 that I counted as 1, and an incomplete entry in M 20, but the idea of Bach composing a fugue with 24 entries to symbolize the 24 Preludes and Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier at the beginning of the journey was just too good to pass it by.

Subject entries frequently overlap – a second voice starts the subject before the first voice is finished. The musical term for this is stretto. It intensifies the expression. At the climax of the piece in M 17/18, all four voices are involved in the subject at the same time. To use an analogy from everyday life: all partners the conversation are so excited with the idea that they’re all talking at once.

September 21st, the day of the first listening session, marked the beginning of “Fridays for Future.” All over the world people gathered in numbers never seen before to demonstrate against the exploitation of the planet that is destroying natural resources, the foundation of life for all of us.

One voice starts the piece alone. It resonates with others. They pick up on it and it becomes a movement.
“When you listen to the Fugue now, imagine it is the shared idea that holds a movement together and drives it forward,” I said before playing the piece again, after pointing out details of the composition. “One voice starts the piece alone, like the initial idea in one person’s mind. It resonates with others. They pick up on it and gradually, it becomes a “movement.”  There is the aspect of: “we can do it together,” but also the potential, if not the inevitability of conflict, especially if the voices operate as close together as in this fugue.

Prelude No 2 in C-minor BWV 847

The second Prelude in C-minor is another familiar piece from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Like the first piece, it is based on a pattern over a harmonic progression, but the character is completely different. Quite often, you hear the piece played in a fast and virtuosic manner. I used to do the same, until my teacher called my attention to the similarity between the pattern of the Prelude, and the pattern that accompanies the opening chorus of Bach’s St. John’s Passion: (This recording shows the score in Bach’s original handwriting)

In his vocal music Bach consistently uses certain rhythmic, melodic or harmonic patterns in the same context, or with the same words. We have reason to transfer the meaning associated with those patterns to Bach’s instrumental music as well.

When you play the c-minor Prelude at a moderate tempo, bringing out the underlying polyphonic structure – a melody- and a bass line, and the insistent “trill” filling the spaces – the “whirlwind” – piece goes inward and becomes an expression of searing pain, something that persistently gnaws at a person, like an obsession, resistant to changing its nature.

There are subtle changes in the pattern as the piece progresses. The edgy line becomes a wave in M 14, where the piece touches E-flat major. The “melody” line descends continuously until the bass reaches a low g, which becomes a pedal point. In M 21 the pattern dissolves into a free improvisation of rising arpeggios. In M 26 Bach notes “Presto” – very fast - another indication that the rest of the piece is to be taken at a moderate tempo. The music breaks out into a cascade of initial patterns, like an attempt to shake it out of the system once and for all.

Once the pattern is broken, nothing is certain any more. The Adagio section is like a reflection on the process, not without doubtful questions and hesitation that persist into the final section of the piece, where it regains momentum, before ending in a cautious C-major.

Fugue No 2 in C-minor BWV 847

Fugue subject is highlighted green, episodes are shaded

At the end of the Prelude we’re in a different place than the one where we started out. It is the point of departure for the fugue.

 The subject has a distinct rhythmic structure: The opening motif with the 16th- gives an impulse to go somewhere, but there is a drop down after each “attempt”. It gets larger with every try and the lowest notes form a falling line. The minor key gives it something subdued. At the same time, the steady pacing shows at least enough determination to keep moving, in spite of that falling tendency.

In this fugue, sections where the subject appears are interspersed with sections where it is absent – they’re called episodes. In this fugue, the composer experiments with ideas that are taken from the subject. Motifs are exchanged between the voices. The direction changes: “down” in the subject becomes “up” in the episodes. As if gaining reassurance, the episodes get longer in the course of the piece, seamlessly merging into new subject entrances. The last time we hear the subject, it is supported by a sustained C in the bass and harmonized by chords, ending in a confident C-major. The tentative beginning has grown into a solid structure.

Personally, I see the reflection of a process in these pieces: breaking free from a bad situation – an unhealthy relationship, an unsatisfying job, a place where you don’t feel comfortable. The fugue illustrates the path from into the uncertainty of a new beginning to a new place of stability. (Fugue)

Those tormented patterns in the prelude are like something that ties you down. Yet, patterns also grant stability and that can be a reason to stay with something that doesn’t feel right. Often enough, the pain you’re familiar is less scary than the step into uncertainty, even if that uncertainty holds the potential of something better. How will I feel after leaving the partner – how will I sustain myself if I quit that job – where will I go from this place I don’t like?

Breaking free doesn’t come easy – the Prelude ends with a single line over a fading bass note. C-major promises some relief – in fact, it contains the “seed” of the fugue subject - but it doesn’t sound like a triumph. You’ve saved your skin, but not much more.

The fugue subject appears like the signature tune of the new situation: I’ve shed the shackles of the past, but I have no idea where the new path is going to take me. Uncertainty hovers over the situation.

The episodes play around with musical ideas from the subject. They are like a playground where you try things out – “sharing the load” with another voice, a rising melody to balance the falling tendency of the subject. The long passages that appear in the highest and lowest voice open space and provide relief after the oppressive density of the patterns in the prelude. As the fugue progresses, the experimenting between the subject entries gets more extensive. The subject is supported by the accompanying voices wherever it appears. They give it harmonic definition and support the confident ending in C-major, confirming the trust in the new path.  


Zuhören, ganz persönlich, 

oder: wichtig ist, 

was es DIR bedeutet.

Unsere Hör-Reise durch den ersten Band von Bachs Wohltemperiertem Klavier begann mit viel Schwung vor voll besetztem Saal. Am Freitag nach der Einführung hörte das Publikum dann meiner „Führung“ durch die beiden ersten Präludien und Fugen mit gespannter Aufmerksamkeit zu. Bei der Vorbereitung auf das zweite Treffen am 18. Oktober bin ich über meine eigene Begeisterung erstaunt. 

Auch ein Teil der Vorbereitung: Plakate ausfahren und auf den öffentlichen Anschlagtafeln aufhängen.
Obwohl ich nun schon seit einigen Jahren solche Veranstaltungen halte, habe ich letzten Endes immer das reine Spielen dem Erklären vorgezogen. Die schlechte Erinnerung an den Musikunterricht im Gymnasium überschattete meine eigene Suche nach Wegen, Menschen an die Musik heranzuführen, mit Angst und Zweifeln.

Ich hasste diesen Unterricht. Er bestand fast ausschließlich daraus, Stücke auseinanderzunehmen: Motive zu unterscheiden, die Sonaten- von der Rondoform, gefolgt von endlosem Gerede darüber, was all das denn zu „bedeuten“ hätte. Ich sang im Chor, spielte Klavier, Geige und Blockflöte. „Fühlt man denn nicht, was die Musik bedeutet?“ protestierte ich innerlich.

Dass die Erfahrung anders sein könnte, wenn man selber keine Musik macht, auf die Idee kam ich nicht, oder darauf, dass es Familien gab, wo keine Bachkantate aus dem Radio das Sonntagsfrühstück begleitete, gefolgt vom Sinfoniekonzert.
„Der Musikunterricht in der Schule hat mir Welten erschlossen,“ sagten mir Freunde von damals, nachdem sie mein Memoir gelesen hatten, wo ich kein einziges gutes Wort für diese Unterrichtsstunden übrig habe.

„Wahrnehmung verfeinern, Gefühl vertiefen und Wissen vermehren“ – so habe ich die Absicht der Hör-Reise bei der Einführung beschrieben. Ich kenne inzwischen den Grund für meine Ablehnung des Musikunterrichts: es wurde der Eindruck vermittelt, die einzig angemessene Art, klassische Musik zu hören sei analytisch. Ein Stück ohne bewusste Identifikation seiner Bestandteile zu genießen galt als unreif und primitiv.

Als erfahrene Musikerin weiß ich heute, dass es unzählige Stufen des Hörens, Fühlens und Verstehens gibt. Jedes Erlebnis ist wahr und authentisch, es gibt kein richtig oder falsch. Im Lauf der Zeit habe ich einiges gelesen, aber ich habe weder Musikwissenschaft studiert noch Bach-Forschung betrieben. Nachdem mich das Wohltemperierte Klavier seit vielen Jahren täglich begleitet, fühle ich mich als „Reiseführerin“ qualifiziert. Die Reise ist ein Abenteuer für mich, wie für die Zuhörer. Auch ich werde am Ende mehr hören, fühlen und wissen.

„Es war eine tolle Erfahrung, Birgits Spiel zuzuhören. Klar und überzeugend erklärte sie was Bach im Sinn hatte, als er die Musik komponierte,“ schrieb ein begeisterter Zuhörer auf Facebook. So sehr mich der Kommentar freut, er verursacht auch ein gewisses Unbehagen.

Ich spiele einzelne Abschnitte und Elemente vor und erläutere, wie sich das Stück zusammensetzt. Ich steuere Hintergrundinformation bei, z.B. über die musikalische Rhetorik der Bach-Zeit, die bestimmte musikalische Wendungen fast wie ein Vokabular benutzte.

Aber weiß ich deshalb, welche Bedeutung Bach mit seiner Musik im Sinn hatte? Die Symbolik, die er verwendet, ist tief in seinem religiösen Glauben und den Vorstellungen seiner Zeit verwurzelt. Ich weiß nicht, ob er die C-Dur Fuge zu den Demonstration für die Erhaltung der Umwelt in Bezug gesetzt hätte, oder ob er sich mit meiner Assoziation zu Präludium und Fuge in C-Moll identifizieren könnte: Die Befreiung von einem negativen Verhaltensmuster oder einer bedrückenden Situation, (Präludium) und die ersten Schritte in die Ungewissheit, die folgt (Fuge).

Bestimmte menschliche Erfahrungen sind im Lauf der Jahrhunderte die gleichen geblieben: die Kraft die man fühlt, wenn man zusammensteht; der Umgang mit Bedrohung, die Bewältigung von Schwierigkeiten. Alles spiegelt sich wider in der Musik, feiner und differenzierter als man es in Worte fassen kann. Darin liegt der Zauber und die Stärke, die Musik entfaltet, wenn der Zuhörer eine persönliche Verbindung zu ihr herstellt. Dazu möchte ich ermutigen.

Eine Zuhörerin sagte mit später, die meisten musikalischen Aspekte meines Vortrages gingen weit über ihr Verständnis hinaus. Ihr Bruder habe aber viel Bach gespielt, und wenn sie die Musik hört, fühlt sie seine Nähe. Auch das ist wahr und richtig.

Vor kurzem hörte ich ein Interview mit einem Musikwissenschaftler, der an der Harvard Universität unterrichtet. Man sprach über Bachs H-Moll Messe. Nach seiner Lieblingsstelle aus dem Werk befragt antwortete er, er könne sich nicht entscheiden, es wechselte ständig, und außerdem hörten verschiedene Menschen verschiedene Dinge in der gleichen Musik. Sein Fazit bestätigte mich in meinem Vorhaben:

„Wenn jemand eine Verbindung zwischen der persönlichen Lebenserfahrung und einem Musikstück herstellt, dann fängt wirkliches Zuhören an.“

Das zweite Hör-Treffen findet am 18.10.2019 von 19.00-20.00 im Gebäude der Ethical Culture Society, 516 Prospect Street, Maplewood, NJ statt. 

Zusammenfassung des ersten Hör-Treffens

Präludium in C-Dur, BWV 84

Gleichmäßiges, ununterbrochenes Fließen von gebrochene Dreiklängen über wechselnden Harmonien bestimmen das C-Dur Präludium. Es ist Bewegung, die uns am Leben hält, Herzschlag, Ein- und Ausatmen, die Bewegung des Körpers, die uns von einem Ort zum andern bringt, der Fluss von Gedanken und Gefühlen, die auf die Erfahrungen der inneren und äußeren Welt reagiert.

Der stetige Fortlauf der Dreiklangmuster, der sich erst ganz am Schluss ändert, vermittelt beruhigende Gleichmäßigkeit; die Harmoniewechsel treiben das Stück voran. Auch im täglichen Leben empfinden wir das Fehlen von Extremen und das Gleichgewicht zwischen Abwechslung und Beständigkeit als angenehm. „Ein Gefühl sanften Glücks“ sagte ein 10-jähriger Klavierschüler von mir einmal. Treffender kann man es nicht beschreiben.

Fuge in C-Dur, BWV 846

Als wollte er den Anfangs- und den Endpunkt auf einer Skala von „einfach“ bis „kompliziert“ aufzeigen, kombiniert Bach das einfachste Präludium mit einer der komplexesten und schwierigsten Fugen. Vierundzwanzig Mal erscheint das Thema. Ich muss zugeben, dass man die Zahl ein bisschen zurechtbiegen muss. In Takt 15/16 erscheint der erste Teil des Themas zweimal, in Takt 20 ist es verkürzt; aber die Idee von 24 Einsätzen am Beginn der Reise durch 24 Präludien und Fugen ist einfach zu gut, um sie unberücksichtigt zu lassen.   

Häufig überlagern sich Themeneinsätze – eine Intensivierung des Ausdrucks, die man Stretto nennt. In Takt 17/18 sind für einen kurzen Moment alle vier Stimmen im Thema übereinander gelagert – man könnte es als Höhepunkt des Stückes verstehen. Ein Vergleich zum täglichen Leben: die Teilnehmer an einem Gespräch sind so vom Thema eingenommen, dass alle gleichzeitig reden.

Das erste Hör-Treffen fand am 21. September statt, dem Tag, als weltweit so viele Menschen wie nie zuvor zusammenkamen, um gegen die Ausbeutung unseres Planeten zu demonstrieren, die die natürlichen Grundlagen für alles Leben zerstört. 
Alles beginnt mit einer Vision in der Vorstellung eines einzelnen Menschen...
„Wenn Ihr die Fuge jetzt noch einmal hört, stellt Euch vor es ist die gemeinsame Idee, die eine Bewegung zusammenhält,“ sagte ich, nachdem ich Abschnitte der Fuge vorgestellt und erläutert hatte. „Es beginnt mit einem Gedanken, einer Vision, in der Vorstellung eines einzelnen Menschen, wie die einzelne Stimme, die am Anfang der Fuge steht. Andere nehmen die Schwingung auf, nach und nach entsteht und wächst die Bewegung.  Da ist die Erfahrung „Gemeinsam sind wir stark“ – aber auch Konfliktpotential, besonders wenn die Stimmen so dicht zusammengefügt sind wie in dieser Fuge.

Präludium in C-Moll, BWV 847

Auch das Präludium in C-Moll ist eins der bekannten Stücke aus dem Wohltemperierten Klavier. Wie das erste Präludium basiert es auf einem einzigen Bewegungsmuster über wechselnden Harmonien, es vermittelt eine völlig andere Stimmung. Sehr oft hört man es rasch und virtuos gespielt. Ich habe das auch getan, bis mich mein Lehrer auf die Ähnlichkeit zwischen dem Bewegungsmuster des Präludiums und der Begleitung zum Eröffnungschor von Bachs Johannespassion aufmerksam machte: (Diese Aufnahme zeigt Bachs Originalpartitur)

In seiner Vokalmusik hat Bach durchgängig bestimmte Worte oder Situation mit den gleichen musikalischen Figuren vertont. Es ist angebracht, diese Zusammenhänge auch auf seine Instrumentalmusik anzuwenden.

Wenn man das C-Moll Präludium in gemäßigtem Tempo spielt und die latent vorhandene polyphone Struktur hervorhebt – eine Melodie- und eine Basslinie; im Hintergrund der aufdringliche Triller, der die Lücken füllt - kehrt sich der Wirbelsturm nach innen und bekommt einen gequälten Ausdruck, wie ein Gefühl ständigen Unbehagens, das man empfindet, wenn man in einer unangenehmen Situation gefangen ist.

Fast unbemerkt schleichen sich im Verlauf der Harmoniewechsel kleine Veränderungen ein. Die „Zick-zack-linie“ des Grundmusters flacht sich ab zur Welle, wo die das Stück die Tonart Es-Dur berührt (T 14). Die Melodielinie fällt weiter ab bis zum Orgelpunkt G (T 21). In einer freien Improvisation, die auf gebrochenen Akkorden basiert, löst sich das Grundmuster vollends auf (T 25-27) und mündet in einen kurzen, mit Presto (sehr schnell) bezeichneten Abschnitt – ein weiterer Hinweis darauf dass das Grundtempo des Stückes langsamer ist. Wahre Kaskaden des Grundmusters wirken wie ein Versuch, es ein für allemal loszuwerden.

Als das geschehen ist, ist nichts mehr sicher. Der Adagio Teil ist wie eine Reflexion über das Geschehene, Fragen und Zweifel bleiben bis in die letzten vier Takte, wo das Stück wieder etwas Energie gewinnt und, einstimmig, in zaghaftem C-Dur endet.  

Fuge in C-Moll, BWV 847

Das Ende des Präludiums ist von der Stimmung des Anfangs ein Stück weit entfernt. Dieser neue Standort markiert den Beginn der Fuge.
Das Fugenthema ist grün, die Zwischenspiele blau markiert 
Das Thema ist rhythmisch deutlich strukturiert. Die beiden 16-tel des Anfangsmotivs geben einen klaren Bewegungsimpuls, aber ein fallendes Intervall folgt unmittelbar, und es wird mit jedem „Versuch“ größer. Verbindet man die tiefsten Töne, so ergibt sich eine fallende Linie. Auch die Tonart C-Moll trägt zu einer verhaltenen Stimmung bei. Nur der gleichmäßige rhythmische Impuls weist genug Entschlossenheit auf um voran zu schreiten.

Abschnitte, in denen das Fugenthema präsent ist, wechseln mit sogenannten Zwischenspielen ab – Abschnitten, in denen kein vollständiger Themeneinsatz erfolgt. Stattdessen experimentiert der Komponist in dieser Fuge mit Elementen des Themas. Motive werden zwischen den Stimmen ausgetauscht. Die Richtung ändert sich, verwandelt absteigende in aufsteigende Sequenzen. Im Verlauf des Stückes gewinnen die Zwischenspiele an Selbstbewusstsein; sie werden länger und leiten unmittelbar in neue Themeneinsätze über. Auf der Basis des ausgehaltenen Grundtons C, harmonisiert von zusätzlichen Stimmen, steht das Thema schließlich triumphierend da und endet in einem überzeugten C-Dur Akkord. 

Ich persönlich verbinde mit Präludium und Fuge in C-Moll ein Stück Lebenserfahrung: die Befreiung aus einer Situation, in der man gefesselt ist – an eine schlechte Beziehung, eine unbefriedigende Arbeit, einen Ort, wo man nicht sein will. Die Fuge illustriert den Weg von der Ungewissheit des Neuanfangs zu dem allmählich erwachenden Gefühl, wieder festen Boden unter den Füssen zu haben.

Das dicht gedrängte Grundmuster des Präludiums ist wie eine Kraft, die einen gefesselt hält. Aber Muster schaffen auch Stabilität, und das kann ein Grund sein, daran festzuhalten, auch wenn es sich nicht richtig anfühlt. Oft genug ist die er Schmerz, den man kennt, erträglicher als der Schritt in die Ungewissheit, auch wenn eine Veränderung Erleichterung verspricht. Wie wird man sich fühlen, wenn man den Partner verlässt? Wovon wird man leben, wenn man die Arbeit kündigt, wohin wird man gehen, wenn man den ungeliebten Ort verlässt?

Die Befreiung ist nicht einfach - das Präludium endet mit einer dünnen Melodielinie über einem verklingenden Basston. C-Dur klingt erleichtert - es trägt sogar den Kern des Fugenthemas in sich – aber es triumphiert nicht. Man ist mit heiler Haut davongekommen, aber mehr auch nicht.

Das Fugenthema ist die Erkennungsmelodie der neuen Situation: die Fesseln sind gesprengt, aber ich habe keine Ahnung, wo der Weg hinführen wird. Unsicherheit bestimmt die Situation.

Die Zwischenspiele der Fuge sind wie ein Spielplatz, ein Experimentierfeld für neue Ideen: eine Aufgabe wird auf zwei Stimmen verteilt, steigende Linien schaffen einen Ausgleich für die fallende Tendenz des Themas. Die ausgedehnten Passagen in Bass und Sopran  (T 9-11, T 13-15, T 22-26) schaffen Raum nach der Enge des Präludiums. Der „Spielraum“ vergrößert sich mit der zunehmenden Länge der Zwischenspiele. Die begleitenden Stimmen definieren das Thema harmonisch, bis hin zum selbstbewussten Ende in C-Dur, eine Bestätigung der Tragfähigkeit des neuen Weges.