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Clavier Übung

Bestehend in
Praeludien, Allemanden, Couranten, Sarabanden,
Giguen, Menuetten, und andern Galantieren;
Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung verfertiget

Von

Johann Sebastian Bach

(The title page of the first volume of the Clavier Übung, consisting of the six Partitas, designated by the composer as his Opus 1 and published at his own expense in 1731.) 

An ambiguity hovers around Bach, a kind of uncertainty principle that obliges us to accept probabilities rather than absolutes when we approach much of his output. For example, one translation has it: Keyboard Practice, consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Minuets, and other Gallantries; prepared for the enjoyment of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach. The questions begin even with that first word.

Clavier, in Bach’s day, referred to any keyboard instrument, be it clavichord, organ, or harpsichord. The composer did not specify an instrument for this music. The earliest examples of the fortepiano were known to Bach, but the rudimentary mechanics of the instrument made it unreliable. It would be decades before the fortepiano would develop into the instrument that Mozart would know. And after Bach’s death, more than a century would elapse before the piano with which we are accustomed would fully mature.

The composer’s earliest biographers have suggested that Bach’s favored instrument was the clavichord, a delicate but expressive instrument whose voice hardly reaches beyond the confines of a small room – an ordinary conversation would overwhelm its sound. The clavichord did, however, share with the modern piano (on a much smaller scale) the ability to affect the volume of sound created by a keystroke with the pressure applied to the key. The harpsichord’s volume is fixed since the sounding string is plucked rather than struck as is the case with the clavichord and piano.

(A side-note for anyone who might think of the clavichord as an entirely antiquated instrument. Track down the recording made by jazz great Oscar Peterson on clavichord, partnered with guitarist Joe Pass in excerpts from Porgy and Bess.)

The second word of the title, Übung, can be translated as practice or exercise. In English these words have a connotation of repetition and rote, something even strenuous – not at all the composer’s intention. Bach’s exercise suggests more of an experience through doing; learning while playing; activity rather than duty.

This becomes clearer as we look a little further on to “Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths Ergoetzung” or “for the enjoyment of music lovers.” More accurately than “enjoyment,” “Gemüths Ergoetzung” should be the delight or edification of the spirit or soul. And “Denen Liebhabern” when translated literally means “to those who have love,” that is amateurs in the original sense of the word before it acquired a derisive connotation of incompetence. Amateur comes to us from the Latin amator or lover – someone who is devoted.

Who then are these devotees for whose “spiritual delight” this music was prepared?

For Bach, this could only have meant the player. The idea of an audience gathered to hear this music played by a solitary keyboardist would have been alien to him. We must remember that the recital format, as we know it, was invented by Liszt in the mid-19th century. Bach might have envisioned the music of his Clavier Übung played by a teacher for a student, but never a soloist before an audience of hundreds or thousands.

Wading through all of this has a point. It gives us, the modern concert audience, a sense of how this music must be listened to. Because no instrument has been specified we must be aware that the piano is the instrument we are hearing at this particular moment in this music and we must be aware that the characteristics peculiar to the modern piano are contributing to how the music sounds. Because it is intended for the player’s delight, we know that it assumes the simultaneous participation of one’s physical, intellectual, and emotional capacities. Since few of us have the technical means to perform these works, our spiritual renewal derives from being engaged and active listeners, creating or re-creating the music, substituting for an absence of any direct physical effort with an alertness to what might be required to produce these sounds with ten fingers. To sit back and expect this music to wash over you misses the point. We must stay on top of it as though we were partly responsible for its being heard at all. If you are reading this as the music is being played, stop now, and listen.

The six partitas gathered together to form the first of four volumes that Bach called Clavier Übung were published as Opus 1. This refers not to these being his first compositions – Bach was over 40 at the time – but to these being the first of his compositions to see publication. In fact, many of his greatest masterpieces had already been composed. The first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the “Brandenburg” Concertos, the violin concertos, the orchestral suites, and the two Passions had all been written but, amazingly, some would not be published for more than 50 or 100 years.

The Partitas follow the basic form of the Baroque dance suite. An elaborate opening movement is followed by four stylized dances: the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, with one or more extra dances interpolated before the Gigue. In the case of the Second Partita, a Capriccio takes the place of the concluding Gigue. While the opening movements can vary widely in scope and style, the Allemande movements tend to be moderately paced in 4/4 time. The Courante also tends toward a moderate pace in triple meter, although in the First, Third, Fifth, and Sixth Partitas Bach titles this movement Corrente, opting for the somewhat faster pulse of the Italian rather than the French version of the dance. The Sarabande was originally a wild and lascivious dance inherited from Mexico, through Spain, but by Bach’s day it had been completely re-imagined as a slow stately dance in triple meter. It was here that Bach confided his deepest reflections. The Gigue retains the energetic character of its Irish and English heritage.

General descriptions of character can be given to the Partitas, but it is impossible to describe the many subtle emotional states which might comprise a given movement or even section of a movement. We can refer to the passion and mysteriousness of the Second Partita, but what about the minor-key perkiness of the Rondeaux? There is no questioning the generally sunny and joyful mood of the Fifth Partita, but the Sarabande dips at times into a serene wistfulness that can be heard but not articulated. And the Sixth Partita, the most monumental of the set and surely one of the greatest of Bach’s compositions, conveys tragedy and burden, but resolutely reminds us of its dance roots in the Tempo di Gavotta. Understanding this music requires an emotional agility denied to words alone.

The Partitas are large musical canvases, each comparable in length and ambition, say, to the sonatas of Mozart or Beethoven. Mastery of this music was evidence of a musician’s capabilities. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who published the first Bach biography in 1802, wrote of the Partitas:

“This work made in its time a great noise in the musical world. Such excellent compositions for the clavier had never been seen and heard before. Anyone who had learnt to perform well some pieces out of them could make his fortune in the world thereby; and even in our times, a young artist might gain acknowledgment by doing so, they are so brilliant, well-sounding, expressive, and always new.”

Annotator Grant Hiroshima is the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.