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PROGRAM NOTES: Brad Mehldau, piano

by Brad Mehldau

Three Pieces After Bach Approximate Duration: 2 sets, 50 minutes each

J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier is the point of departure for the three solo piano pieces I’ve composed. That work, written for keyboard instrument, contains a prelude and a fugue in all twelve keys, major and minor. He left us with two sets of these, Books I and II.

Bach’s music was a game-changer, yet it adhered largely to the rules of a tradition and was even perceived as old-fashioned in his own time. When we hear his music and we’re not really engaged, we may have the impression of hearing the status quo. When we listen further, we realize how radical his music is – how far he went with the musical principles he employed. Those principles, though, were older ones that he inherited. Bach’s music was a fulcrum – the culmination and endpoint of one tradition, pointing toward the future.

Well temperament appeared in a climate that could be compared to the early days of the internet, before Google took over as the search engine. The various mean tone temperaments – methods of tuning the keyboard instruments Bach wrote for – were pleasing to the ear only in a limited context, for music without much modulation or accidentals. Well temperament made a bid for a tuning that would work in every key, and was an evolutionary step towards the standardized equal temperament in use today.

It is a common error to think that the well temperament for which Bach composed his preludes and fugues is synonymous, more or less, with our equal temperament. We cannot know exactly how Bach tuned his instrument an what he heard as he composed, but based on the descriptions of various well temperaments that are left to us, the timbre of C-sharp Major on his instrument would have been very different than that of C Major. By contrast, the key of C-sharp major on a modern piano tuned in equal temperament, in terms of the relationship between its intervals – and thus all of the implications of the harmonic progressions – is fundamentally the same as the key of C Major, except that it is a higher pitch. This is a given for most listeners today, but some would argue that the move to equal temperament was a sad turn of events in musical history – that it erased the inherent differences of different keys that the composers intended.

Even if we do not regularly use some version Bach’s well temperament today, his music nevertheless sounds radical. In these pieces, he exploited the harmonic possibilities he had with a temperament in which none of the twelve tones of the scale were off limits. This meant not only that all the different preludes and fugues in keys remote from each other could be played with the same tuning; it also meant, more interestingly, that within a single piece or even a single phrase, Bach could compose progressions that would move much farther distances from their starting point, and employ dissonances that would have sounded so out of tune as to be unintelligible in an earlier, more limited meantone temperament. The well-tempered tuning acted as a catalyst for Bach’s imagination. The music has a spirit that a limited number of great works of art have – it is the spirit of someone being the first one to open a brand new box of crayons and start drawing.

Although there is plenty of respect and awe for The Well-Tempered Clavier, particularly among musicians, they’re definitely not on the warm and fuzzy side of Bach’s oeuvre, if such a thing exists. The reason why some of the fugues in particular sound “difficult” to some ears – even on our modern, equally tempered instruments – might be because of the sometimes willful nature of his harmonic exploitation. Bach adhered to rules of writing a fugue, yet, with the new temperament, used a densely chromatic musical language. The subject and its countersubject inevitably collide against each other in sharp dissonances. The result is bracing music that is so dense at times as to be almost opaque. In this sense, Bach foreshadows a modernist tendency we identify with late Beethoven or Schoenberg, by placing a higher premium on adhering to musical principles than what’s pleasing or even digestible to the listener’s ear.

Who had and still has more influence over music – Bach the harmonist or Bach the melodist? In the fugues, they’re inseparable. Simultaneous melodies are what generate harmony, so in the chicken-egg question, melody comes first in one sense – harmony is merely its result. The individual line is never sacrificed for the benefit of the larger texture; each voice stands, integrally, on its own. Furthermore, each voice taken on its own already implies harmonic movement in its line, so in a way harmony is the great goal or subject hovering over all that melody, asserting a more global precedence. Harmonic implication within a strong melody is something you hear in the jazz genius, Charlie Parker, or one of his descendants, Sonny Rollins. The harmonic accompaniment is already in their lines; the rhythm section is almost extraneous.

We can hear Bach’s fugues horizontally as intertwining melodies or vertically as harmonic progressions (and, depending on how he or she interprets the pieces, keyboardist can have a lot of fun drawing us into hearing the music one or the other way throughout a performance). There are no weak links, and melody and harmony melt into each other seamlessly. This is surely why the fugue held Bach’s obsessive imagination to the end and yielded some of his most personal music. It represented the resolution of a duality, perfection – something higher than human.

If the fugues, ruled by an abstract concept, must be forged with toil and sweat to live and breathe, the preludes, not constrained by the rules of a musical form, are alive at once and even move into the realm of fantasy. They brim with playfulness and show us the uncharacteristically humorous side of Bach, or can be tragic and passionate like a spurned lover. Each one has a fascinatingly individual keyboard texture. The C-sharp Major Prelude from Book I inspired my first piece, Rondo. I started with Bach’s arpeggiated motif and then truncated the meter, reducing it by one sixteenth note to 5/16. We find Bach the rhythmicist in the preludes, and many of them like this one have a dance like character. Another feature of many of the up-tempo preludes is a perpetuum mobile texture – once they start, they never really stop until they end. Both the dance element and the perpetual motion texture inspire my piece, which is an inverted Rondo: Instead of the usual A-1-A-2-A-3 etc. form, I return to the same material in the second theme of each pair: 1-A-2-A-3-A.

Ostinato is inspired by the G-Minor Fugue from Book II. Bach’s Fugue is full of cycles – harmonic progressions that skip in a stepwise pattern – often, as is here, in cycles of fourths. We hear Bach’s legacy in the melancholy cycle that makes up the jazz standard Autumn Leaves, and other sad French songs from Michel Legrand. Cycles create drama because there is not only rapid movement in the melody and figuration, but the ground itself is moving – the tonal center, where we hear the root of the harmony, changes quickly as well. For my Ostinato, I elected to switch it up, and keep a pedal point on the G root for the duration of the piece. The harmony shifts above it constantly, often cyclically, but it is all underpinned by G, G, and more G. Pedal points are big for me, and they rubbed off from Brahms’ music as much as Bach, but also popular music that uses guitar open strings – The Beatles’ classic Blackbird, with its open G string that runs through all those beautiful chords, is in this piece as well, obliquely.

While most of Bach’s preludes here do not employ fugal methods, they nevertheless seam together melody and harmony in a less overt fashion. A favorite method of his is to “trace” a melody across a series of arpeggios, as in the Prelude in D Minor from Book I. There, the listener hears groups of 3-note arpeggios that generate varied harmonic movement. At the same time, the top note of each one pops out in relief, forming a staccato, pointillistic melody. This top note is not on the downbeat, though; it comes right before, which adds an appealing syncopated bounce. Again, there is a feeling of dance. The dancing rhythmic displacement of Bach’s traced melody inspired my final piece, Toccata. It is the most venturesome of the three, with several shifts in meter and key. Near the end, the melody traces itself over arpeggios which form rhythmically asymmetrical groups and gradually expand in length; the dance feeling vanishes. At the climax, the groups of three return, prevailing, and the piece closes by cyclically returning to the opening material inspired by Bach’s prelude.

For my performance, I will play Bach’s piece directly before the piece of mine it inspired; in this way, the listener can hear the connections in real time.

meridia