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About this Piece

SUN / APR 21, 2019 - 7:30PM

Notes by John Henken

In some ways, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Philip Glass (b. 1937) represent the yin and yang of patterned polyphony. Glass’ music is pared down, while Bach’s music is, well, baroque in every sense. “If Glass’ music is minimal, then Bach’s is maximal!,” Víkingur Ólafsson says. Both, however, are the result of questing minds and deeply reflective study, both are open to musical metaphor and rife with strange loops, and both contemplate metaphysical as well as esthetic goals.

“One of things about Bach that I have realized,” Glass says, is that “the techniques that you learn through the study of Bach are things that work very well with contemporary music. If you take a look at the way fugues are written, it is really a process…. The content and the form are linked very closely together…. Form and content are identical for Bach, so there are certain procedures that turn out to be very handy, that turn up in my music quite a lot.”

Bach, of course, is closely associated with keyboard music, although he wrote music in every current genre except opera and ballet (and some of his secular cantatas are in fact short comic operas). Bach was best known in his own time as an astonishing performer, an extraordinary virtuoso of endlessly creative improvisation as well as uncommon technical ability.

Bach was always an intensely curious artist, deeply engaged with the music of his own time. In the early years of his tenure as organist (and later concertmaster) for the Duke of Weimar, he made a close study of contemporary Italian music, particularly Vivaldi’s. The Aria variata alla maniera italiana (BWV 989) is his own take on that style, a theme and ten ornamental, melodic variations. Bach also arranged a number of recent concertos – mostly Italian, but some German – for solo keyboard. His famous adaptation of an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747), the Concerto in D minor (BWV 974) actually dates from before the original was published; he probably got a manuscript copy from his music-loving ducal employer.

The first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier was compiled in 1722, while Bach was in Cöthen. (“Well tempered” does not describe a Prozac-induced condition. A musical temperament is a tuning system that adjusts or “tempers” the intervals of the natural harmonic scale, something that became increasingly necessary as Western music moved away from a melodic emphasis to complex harmonic models, from modality to tonality.) It consists of 24 keyboard preludes and fugues, one pair in all 12 major and all 12 minor keys. There was an avowed didactic element to this, but Bach also seems to have been making a point about practical and artistic ramifications of the gradually developing system of equal temperament, which divided the natural interval of the octave evenly into 12 semitones. True equal temperament – the tuning on a modern piano – was not universally adopted in Germany until after the death of Mozart, and not in France and England until the middle of the 19th century.

The Well-Tempered Clavier also displays the other kind of temperament – emotional volatility –  as powerfully as it illustrates a tuning system. This is a collection of character pieces as much as it is of counterpoint, expressing Baroque affects. The preludes might be dances or instrumental songs; sometimes they are every bit as contrapuntal as their companion fugue. The sprightly Prelude in D major runs fleetly over a stolid, stoic accompaniment until the final, florid cadence; the one in E minor begins somewhat solemnly, with a long-spanned, ornamentally-activated line over a relentless flow of 16th notes.

In many ways, a fugue seems the last thing we would associate with temperament in its emotional sense, a wind-up musical machine that runs on logic rather than passion. Rigorous imitative polyphony suggests order and structure, and Bach responded by creating astonishingly ordered and structured collections of his counterpoint, such as The Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue, in addition to The Well-Tempered Clavier (for which he created a second book 20 years later). But the fugues are multifarious and often less strict than might be imagined. Most are in three or four voices (separate polyphonic lines), but two in Book I are in five voices, and the chromatic, rhythmically acute one in E minor has only two voices. The D-major fugue is in four voices, the springing turning figure that begins the omnipresent subject making it easy to follow.

From roughly the same time as The Well-Tempered Clavier comes Bach’s 15 two-part inventions and 15 three-part sinfonias. (The sinfonias were probably not finalized until a little later, after Bach moved to Leipzig.) The volatile B-minor Invention (BWV 786), like most of its companions, swaps roles and material easily between the two-parts, invertible counterpoint being a great mechanism for making both hands on the keyboard equal and independent. The B-minor Sinfonia (BWV 801) is a variation of sorts on the invention. Both sets were intended as teaching tools: “Forthright instruction,” Bach wrote, “wherewith lovers of the clavier, especially those desirous of learning, are shown in a clear way not only to learn to play two voices clearly, but also after further progress to deal correctly and well with three obbligato parts, moreover at the same time to obtain not only good ideas, but also to carry them out well, but most of all to achieve a cantabile style of playing, and thereby to acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”

The imposing, grandly imagined Fantasia and Fugue in A minor (BWV 904) comes from Bach’s first years in Leipzig, probably around 1725. The Fantasia is solemnly dramatic – if that is possible – with strong chords and suspensions over a descending bass line that alternate with passages of freely flowing counterpoint. The Fugue is a two-headed monster of a piece, a double fugue whose two starkly contrasting subjects – the first harmonically solidly rooted and hesitant; the second floridly chromatic and insistent –fit together perfectly.

Probably no composer has been as universally admired as Bach, even in seeming stylistically opposed eras and places. The great Russian post-Romantic pianist Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), whose teachers included Tchaikovsky and Liszt, was noted for his virtuosic transcriptions and arrangements, the most famous of which is probably his version of that E-minor Prelude from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (which Siloti transposed to B minor). One of Siloti’s pupils was his cousin Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who arranged three movements of Bach’s solo violin Partita in E major (BWV 1006) for piano in 1933, including the gracefully dancing Gavotte.

One of the pioneering masters of American Minimalism, Glass began his music career fairly conventionally, including study at Juilliard. Further study with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar in Paris provided the impetus for a decisive stylistic break, and in the mid-1960s he began composing in a pared-down idiom of simple harmony and rhythmic cycles. He has developed this into a readily recognizable personal style capable of expansive power and color. He has composed in many forms for many occasions, but is most identified with theatrical and ceremonial works, ranging from film scores and operas to the opening and closing music for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Glass’ work with Boulanger centered on counterpoint and Bach. “Actually, all I did was study Bach, hours and hours of counterpoint every day,” Glass has said. He has composed a number of pieces directly inspired by Bach, and his layering of sequential patterns has many similarities with textures often found in Bach.

For Víkingur Ólafsson, however, recursion in Glass’ music does not imply simple reiteration. “I came to the conclusion that it’s not a repetition, it’s a rebirth,” Ólafsson said in a New York Times interview. “It’s not treading the same path, but traveling in a spiral. That’s the image I have.”

Glass was already the celebrated composer of the “portrait” operas Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha – as well as instrumental music for his own ensemble and other works  – when his first commercial album, Glassworks, was released by CBS (now Sony) in 1982. A suite of six movements, Glassworks was intended to introduce Glass’ music to a wider audience and was quite successful at that. “Opening,” for solo piano, is its first movement (all can be performed independently). Its rippling three-against-two patterns, moody modal harmony, and the way subtle tunes emerge from the restless yet meditative flood of notes created a stylistic revolution that influenced musicians across all styles and genres.

“He changed the course of music history,” Ólafsson told The New York Times. “So many composers are writing in a language that he invented. There are so many diluted versions of his music, and I think he’s misunderstood. To me, he’s like the Mondrian of music. He’s taking primary colors and really exploring what that means. At his best, he’s getting to the essence of music.”

In 1994, Glass wrote six solo piano Etudes for the conductor Dennis Russell Davies in honor of Davies’ 50th birthday, and completed a book of ten Etudes with four to expand his own piano technique. For almost two decades, Glass was almost the only one playing this music; a deliberate and practical career move. A second book of ten more etudes was premiered in 2012; both books were published in 2014, and now there are already about 20 recordings of some or all of the etudes.

Like Bach’s preludes, Glass’ etudes come in a wide variety of characters and dimensions, from the deep tolling mysteries of No. 2 to the rushing joy of No. 13. And though Glass’ structures and patterned processes seem remorselessly logical and defined, like Bach’s fugues they admit a surprising range of interpretation.

“He understands the needs of a performer,” Ólafsson says. “From the beginning, though, he would tell me if something bothered him. For instance, with Etude No. 6, he told me: ‘It sounds wonderful. Someone should really give you a speeding ticket. But that’s not going to be me.’ I love that. He was saying: I might choose something else, but if it’s convincing, keep it because it’s yours.

“There’s one time he told me I needed to change something, and it was Etude No. 5. He was right; I was playing it too nicely, too fast. But slowed down, it’s incessant nostalgia: tragic, through the filter of time.”