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I have recently been looking at “The Well-Tempered Clavier” again and was hoping someone had written a theoretical analysis of the fugues. That is, I wanted a shortcut to the subjects, answers, countersubjects, episodes, and so forth. If they offered a voice-leading analysis, all the better. I have not found that yet. Maybe because the market for that kind of technical material is just too small and those of us who are interested in it can do the analysis ourselves, but we just want to save time. Plus, the college kids who have to do that kind of analysis for class would use it to cheat. I don’t know why it isn’t available, it just isn’t. I saw one website that color codes the subjects and countersubjects but the score is small and running by as the piece is played so it is of much practical use.
I bought this book because I have a high regard for Ralph Kirkpatrick, as we all should, and figured anything he had to say on the WTC would be helpful. As I started reading the book I realized it was strangely familiar. Then it hit me. I had read this book when it was new and I was in music school decades back. I am sure that my reactions to it now are a bit different now than they were back then, but I remember reading the passages. And I believe I saw much the same overall strengths and weaknesses of the book then as I do now.
I studied music for a year a Michigan State University in 1972-1973 and then at the University of Michigan School of Music from 1978-1983. I graduated with a Bachelor of Music in music theory in 1981 and then did 57 graduate hours before I left music and switched to a career in computer networks. But I still keep up with music and enjoy playing my piano and studying music. These years were a hot time for the study of Early Music and its performance practices. I was fortunate to be able to participate in a ground breaking performance of Handel’s “Messiah” as part of a world-wide Handel conference here in Ann Arbor. Ars Musica was the orchestra. We had a choir of about 24 (six on a part, more or less – maybe a few more) and the soloists were Emma Kirkby, Renee Jacobs, Marius van Altena, and Max van Egmond. We were led my Edward Parmentier and he and Penelope Crawford provided the harpsichord continuo. Altogether, we did a complete performance with fewer than 50 performers. It was fun and both delighted and angered people.
I bring this up because this is exactly what Kirkpatrick was experiencing as he was, beginning decades earlier, trying to think about and teach an approach to early music that broke severely with 19th Century traditional musical practice and tried to recreate an approach that seemed to him (and other “original performance practice” revolutionaries) as more connected to the instrumentation and the musical language itself. And it was based, so far as is possible, upon the writings of musicians and composers of those times. And that is what Kirkpatrick is trying to provide in this book. The book is much more about performance and its practice than about theoretical ideas or analysis. Over and over and over again, Kirkpatrick focuses us on what we hear when we actually play the music. We are counselled to listen, to feel and to experiment and never to merely receive opinions from a teacher or critic or to play by rote.
The book consists of six chapters each consisting of an approach to music, with the WTC providing the basis of the musical examples for the book. However, these lessons can apply to all music of any period, even if they are meant to be especially apt for the music of Bach and his fellows from the Baroque and just after.
The first chapter elucidates what the author calls the “Historical Approach”. He wants us to seek after the reason for which the music was created, the meaning of the language of the pieces, such as the title “Well-Tempered Clavier”. He also wants to us become sophisticated about the scores of the music we play and to see past the encrustations added by editors to the actual work of the composer. We also have to be aware of musical fashions and fads. Finally, don’t be afraid to read the best scholarship about the music you want to learn and master.
The second chapter examines things like the works in the WTC, thinking about the implications of organization for performance (if any), the kind of instrument to be used and the sound of those instruments, and the opinions of a range of performers. Kirkpatrick calls this the aesthetic approach (he spells it esthetic).
The third chapter is on “The Melodic Approach”, which is not so much about counterpoint or the horizontal voice leading of Bach’s music, but of the importance of our singing with our own voices the music we are going to play. Kirkpatrick is correct when he says that passages we do not know well enough to sing clearly and accurately are going to betray us under the pressure of performance. That the exercise of actually singing the music, each line, each voice, will make the music clear in our minds and help us understand and retain the music. This includes not just the notes and rhythm, but the articulations and phrasing. Singing a multi-voice fugue with friends will help everyone learn the piece better. I also really like his encouragement to step or dance the melodies by stepping the interval sizes. That is, decide what the seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, octaves would be and then step them off as you sing the melody. This really puts the sense of the music in your very body.
The next chapter is on the rhythmic approach to understanding the music. Kirkpatrick steps back from the definition of meter and rhythm in his Scarlatti book and then despairs of providing one. I think this is silly. Meter is simply the underlying pulse or heartbeat of a work and the nature of how those beats are subdivided (in twos or threes – simple or compound meter). Tempo is the rate of those beats (a fast or slow heart beat). Rhythm is the interplay of the music (the “motives”, the melody, the harmonic changes, the way the lines or “voices” of the music play against each other) against that pulse or heartbeat of the meter. The meter is regular and if and when it changes within a work it is a big thing in the work. Rhythm may or may not change against that pulse.
Rhythm is very important because it helps us connect to and remember a work. I could play “Yankee Doodle” with every note wrong, but if I play the rhythm of the work correctly, you will likely recognize it as “Yankee Doodle”. However, if I play the melodic notes correctly and get the rhythm off by enough, you won’t be able to tell what it is.
His chapter on “The Harmonic Approach” remains, for me, the least convincing. I think what he is railing against is the old school harmonic analysis that puts Roman numeral figures under every vertical structure because of what it looks like without regard to its musical function in a work. And that is a very good, if old fashioned, point. Just because notes are sounding simultaneously doesn’t make them a “chord”. Nor do all chords have equal structural, musical, or rhetorical importance. But to say that Bach is all about harmony and not very much about counterpoint is, to me, just silly. Of course Bach is a contrapuntalist of the first order. But, no, not in the simple way counterpoint used to be taught in music courses. I was fortunate to be taught about voice leading and the way music unfolds harmonies over time and happens at various levels and points of remove. Kirkpatrick is right that we must focus on what we hear and not on what we see on the page. But his, for example, “harmonic reduction” on page 97 (example 5.5) of the E flat minor prelude of book I seems pretty useless to me. I don’t understand its point at all. I must have missed something.
The final chapter provides the author’s approach to bringing all the preparatory work together into a compelling and personal “interpretation” of the work you are performing. He justly rails against mere typing the notes on the keyboard as if the instrument were going to turn the notes into music. He also rejects anyone unthinkingly copying another’s performance as if that would also be music. While he encourages us to bring ourselves to the music, he also does not want us to become indulgent or mistaking musical fashion for personal interpretation. We always, in the end, are reduced to that ineffable idea of what good taste is in performing, but we each think we know it when we hear it.
I gained from reading this book decades back and re-reading it last week. It wasn’t what I was seeking when I purchased it, but I gained from it after all; even without agreeing with some of what the author says. If an author can inspire a reader to become more clear in his thinking about his own views, even contrary views, I think the reader has gained a lot.
Reviewed by Craig Matteson, Saline, MI