Worst Use of "Iconic"
A World I Didn't Know Existed

Prelude To A Whole Lot of Preludes and Fugues

I recently decided that I wanted to get to know Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das wohltemperierte Clavier). I have a recording, a two-box set of LPs given to me fifteen years or so ago by a friend who didn't want them. (He's mainly a jazz fan, and I got the impression that he had bought some classical recordings mainly for educational purposes, now either fulfilled or abandoned.) The pianist is Sviatoslav Richter, and the recordings were originally issued by the Russian (Soviet at the time) recording company (if that's the word) Melodiya, and in this country by the Musical Heritage Society in the 1980s. 

I was a little hesitant, and not sure how far I would get in the series. When I first encountered the title many years ago, I thought it must be semi-humorous: the composer taming the savage keyboard, or something along that line. In a college music history class (one of my half-dozen or so favorite courses in all of my schooling) I learned that it is very prosaically, clinically, descriptive. The explanation quickly gets beyond my very limited knowledge and discernment, but the general idea is that in order to get a keyboard instrument to sound in tune in all keys you have to tweak the tuning of each string just a bit away from the mathematically correct frequency. If you want to read all about it, try this

To demonstrate the concept--and incidentally write a classic work--Bach composed a set of forty-eight preludes and fugues, a pair for each of the twenty-four keys (majors and minors).  That was Book I. Nearly twenty years later he published Book II. So: ninety-six compositions. 

I started, sensibly, with side 1 of disc 1 of box 1: the first four pairs, in C major, C minor, C# major, and C# minor. Something about the recording bothered me a little. I think it was mainly the quality of the sound, which though not terrible is somehow a little distant, and there seems to be some dynamic variation from one track to another, more than is accounted for by the character of each piece. So I decided to look for other recordings, and I found Glenn Gould's.

Whenever I talk about classical music, I start with the disclaimer that I don't have much of an ear for variations in interpretation. Often I'm pretty sure that I would not be able to distinguish one performance from another. But in this case.... Here, listen for yourself to the two performances of the first piece in the series, the Prelude in C Major from Book I. Even if you don't know the WTC, you'll probably recognize it. I think it's often performed alone. 


You don't have to have a rarefied level of connoisseurship to hear the difference between those. I think I may actually have laughed aloud when I heard Gould's: it's almost mechanical-sounding, with that resolute thumping on the low notes that outline the harmony. With my folk and pop sense of how music works, I think of them as the bass player staking out the chord progression. But I can't help liking the performance. It makes the structure crystal clear, almost reducing the piece to structure. I certainly don't state that as a principle, but in this instance, maybe just because of the immediate contrast with Richter, it seemed delightful.

Someone says in a comment on that video that "Gould doesn't play Bach. He explains Bach." That strikes me as pretty accurate. That first prelude seems a deliberately provocative statement of his intention not to seek out or impart emotion to the music, but to show us how it works. After that statement he relaxes, still cool but not lecturing. And for me he brings a clarity to the music which in fact increases rather than limits the aesthetic-emotional effect. 

That's especially true in the fugues. And it's the fugues that led me into this venture. With a few exceptions, the form has left me cold. It seemed dry, abstract, academic. You get the statement of the subject--which is frequently not all that interesting in itself--three or four times, and at that point I usually lose the thread: the piece just becomes a lot of wandering counterpoint, with the subject emerging from time to time. Yet I've heard people say that this or that fugue moved them to tears, and I'm intrigued by that, and wonder what I'm missing. 

And I find that Gould's performance is opening up the fugues to me. I'm up to E Major now, and am enchanted by most of the preludes, and enjoying the fugues more than I have in the past, though they're still a bit of a struggle. It helps that most of them so far are fairly short. 

It's a lot to absorb, and I don't expect to get through both books anytime soon, especially as I don't intend to give up all other music until this project is completed. But it's a lot of pleasure, too. I had a vague notion that The Well-Tempered Clavier is a somewhat academic, pedagogical work. Wrong. Already I think it's climbing up my ladder of favorite music and approaching Goldberg Variations territory, which is at the top. I'm listening to the Gould recordings on Pandora (Plus), and thinking that I may have to buy the CDs, which I'm supposed to have given up. 

Here's an introduction to the fugue which I found helpful. It helped just to have it pointed out to me that fugues typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  

If you know Gould's work and, um, habits, you'll be amused by this customer review at Amazon:

I absolutely love the music itself, but the quality of the discs leaves a little to be desired. Throughout different sections there seems to be some type of strange "other" sounds. Sometimes it sounds like there is background music. Other times, it sounds like the pianist is humming to himself. These are studio recordings and it sounds like someone is talking in the control room during the playing.

P.S. I'm puzzled by the fact that in #8, the prelude is described as being in Eb Minor, while the fugue is described as being in D# minor. It led me to discover the word "enharmonic" ('a note, interval, or key signature that is equivalent to some other note, interval, or key signature but "spelled", or named differently'). But that doesn't explain why these two pieces are named that way. 


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I agree that when Gould plays, it's easier to hear the different melodic lines.

I'm not sure, but I believe it's because he has decided to play them in different ways--e.g., one of them is just a bit more staccato than the other. So you hear a ton of notes, but some of them are played staccato and others legato, and your mind hears the legato ones as one line and the staccato ones as another.

Just discovered this. Worth a listen and look, I think.

Definitely interesting, thank you. Your idea about how Gould separates the voices makes sense. I would not be consciously aware of it but it could still have its effect.

For some additional insight into Gould's, uh, unconventional and very strong opinions about live performances vs. recordings, including a very young Zubin Mehta's reaction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nZTgAGSajA

Oh man that's hilarious. Looks like there's more Gould weirdness available on youtube. Interesting to hear Mehta speak. I never really thought about his country of origin, though the name is a pretty big clue that he's not of old New England WASP stock.

I think one reason for the substitution of D# in the middle is so that you arrive back at the starting key at the end of the cycle. If you follow the circle of fifths around far enough you eventually end up back where you started, but without the substitution that never happens (although it does happen enharmonically after 12 jumps to the next fifth, i.e. B♭♭ is the same pitch as A in well temperament).

It's just a question of labeling, but on paper without the substitution it would be a never-ending spiral of fifths rather than a circle of fifths.

Maybe this is clearer:

A->D->G->C->F->B♭-> E♭-> A♭-> D♭ ->G♭ ->C♭ ->F♭->B♭♭->E♭♭->A♭♭
...............................................D#->G#->C#->F#-> B ->E -> A -> D -> G
.......................................Same pitches..............................Back at the beginning

I imagine the top row would have offended somebody who valued elegance and symmetry, while also confusing musicians who had never had to play in odd keys like F♭ or B♭♭ before (or since).

The diagram definitely helps--when viewed on a computer. I first read your comment on my phone, which made "clearer" seem funny. Yes I can certainly imagine that Bbb would offend. I didn't know that such a thing existed. But I'm still confused--I thought the circle of fifths went A->E->B....

Another thing that's always puzzled me a little: what's so special about C major? Why start there? My first thought was because it's all the white keys (white supremacy!) but why is that the case? Presumably the absence of accidentals in the key signature, but then why is that the case?

Interestingly, the track listing on the Richter recording does not do the Eb/D# thing. Just calls them both Eb. But then the liner notes say:

"Could this particular arrangement in ascending half steps (rather than in one constructed according to the circle of fifths) have reflected Bach's commitment to the growing importance in music of chromaticism? Perhaps, although the answer is only of academic interest. There is even a pair of pieces...that is enharmonically notated, the prelude being in E-flat minor and the fugue in D-sharp minor; here, possibly, Bach was exploring the nature of enharmonic relationships within the context of equal temperament....."

Possibly I guess.

Well, it's a circle so you end up back where you started no matter which direction you go. :)

I'm not sure why C major is the de facto starting point for everything, but back in the day there wasn't really a conception of major vs. minor, just a bunch of different "modes", and what we now call major would have just been Ionian mode and what we now call minor would have just been Aeolian mode. At some point Western music coalesced around those two modes and decided to call them "major' and "minor" instead, and mostly dropped the others, so my guess is the labels "A, B, C, D, E, F, G" were already being applied to the steps of the diatonic scale prior to that, and "C" just happens to be the step you start on to play an Ionian scale without sharping or flatting any of the other steps, and probably nobody wanted the confusion of changing that label from "C" to "A". So probably a similar question to "why do array indexes start at 0 instead of 1" in programming -- because history.

Btw after googling around some more I saw a few people saying that Bach reused some of his earlier pieces for the WTC, and the D#one may have originally been in D minor so it was just easier to copy it over to D# instead of Eb. But who knows.

'"C" just happens to be the step you start on to play an Ionian scale without sharping or flatting any of the other steps'

I thought it must be something like that.

It was a big deal in jazz when Miles Davis and others started playing in "modes." I never knew exactly what that meant. I mean I knew there were modes that weren't the same as major and minor scales, but I didn't know what it meant in practice for the sound. I read somewhere that it meant among other things no chord changes as traditionally used.

'"why do array indexes start at 0 instead of 1" in programming'

Actually there's a very good reason for that. Programming in assembly language, you have the address of the array, and the first element is at that address, i.e. address + 0, the second is address + 1, and so on. If I remember correctly the early high-level languages like Fortran and Cobol did use 1 as the starting index. Then C, meant to be sort of lower-level, closer to the machine, and created by guys who thought that way, used zero. And I guess some subsequent languages have followed.

"Deliberately provocative" sounds like a perfect description of Glenn Gould, from what I understand. My old piano teacher called him "idiosyncratic" and warned me not to rely on him for my interpretations.

The advice was correct, no doubt. From what I've seen "idiosyncratic" is pretty much a universal opinion. But there also seems to be at least an almost-universal opinion that his Goldberg Variations, the second recording at least, are among the very best.

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