Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trills in Bach B-Minor Fugue

This article deals with one detail of the interpretation of the B-Minor Fugue by J.S. Bach from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Anyone not interested in either Bach or piano playing might feel compelled to skip this whole thing. I won't be offended if you do.

As a little update to my earlier post on this fugue, Learning the B-Minor, I am pleased to say I've actually learned it. I've been playing it fairly confidently, with the prelude, for a few months now, but I'm still in the process of memorizing and trying out possible interpretations. In particular, the trills are still giving me some trouble.

Only one trill is actually indicated in the score: a half-note trill in the third measure, at the end of the first entrance of the subject. In my Peters Urtext edition, the trill ends with two grace notes. By implication, that same trill (and arguably the same grace notes) should be played at the same spot in the subject wherever it occurs, heightening the subject's recognizability and preserving its character. But that simple goal gets mighty tricky, mighty fast.

In a couple places no trill is possible--there's simply too much going on and too few fingers to play it. In four cases, the trilled note is harmonized by one or two sustained notes in the same hand, making a trill difficult but not impossible. In two of those four cases, and in one other place, the trilled note doesn't resolve down but is tied across the bar, making the ending of the trill necessarily different than all the other instances.

The rule of thumb in cases like this is to look for what is consistently possible. But in this case, no solution was going to work in all instances.

I decided to do a simple survey of performances available on YouTube to see how others players handled it. I really thought there would be one agreed upon standard with a few variations, depending on the player and the instrument. So wrong! The variety of interpretations is stunning. Here are a few. These don't constitute my recommendations necessarily, as you can probably tell by my comments. They're just a random collection of performances that were available for free online:

  • Ashkenzy's approach is the most logical. He makes a couple small changes in the trill (starting on the main note, not the upper note as I was taught, and excluding any grace notes at the end). He then uses this same trill at every possible place except the notes that are tied and the two places where the note is harmonized as a three-note chord in the same hand.

  • A German pianist named Friedrich Gulda is the most ambitious, using the trill (again starting on the main note) in every possible place, including the tied notes--even the terrifying (to me) trill between the 4th and 5th fingers in bar 15. He even throws in a few more decorative trills here and there, particularly on held notes. His trills are undoubtedly impressive, but in general, his interpretation strives for glory through crescendo and comes across as merely abrasive.

  • Pianist Joanna MacGregor uses only the clearest opportunities for trills, excluding all the trouble spots I mentioned above. She also has a dramatic shift in dynamics between the statements of the angular subject and the mellow, more melodic episodes. The effect is as if a person struggling with some inner demon occasionally stops to listen to the voices in the next room. Her approach is interesting, but strikes me as an exaggerated interpretation.

  • Harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert includes the most obvious trills during the exposition and skipping the trouble spots, before abandoning the trills altogether. In the last half of the piece, the only trill he includes is one of the tied notes. It's interesting to hear the difference in pitch. The lower tuning of Gilbert's harpsichord (and Belder's, below) is probably the more historically accurate, compared to the standard pitch of modern piano tuning. This clip includes both the Prelude and the Fugue; the fugue starts at 4:17.

  • Pianist Bernard Roberts plays all the trills, without exception, including one of the impossible ones, which he makes possible by truncating it. (Oddly, he includes the grace-note finish in each trill, even in the cases of the tied notes.) His trills are strictly 32nd notes, slower than the others on this list.

  • Glenn Gould's version is, of course, completely whacked. First, he plays the fugue at a lightning tempo, staccato, in defiance of all logic and Bach's own tempo marking. Given that, it's still interesting to note that he takes all the possible trills except one, altering the final notes as needed to execute the tied versions.

  • Harsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder, in a 2008 recording, takes what is possibly the most radical approach: he plays the first trill, the one that's notated, and that's it. It's surprising how popular this reading of the score is, particularly with pianists. To find it with a harpsichordist is even more remarkable. It must be added however that Belder's interpretation is really beautiful. Along with Ashkenazy's, it's my favorite of this group. Further, Bach was known to have bridled at performers who took liberties with the ornaments in his scores, so there is adequate historical defense for this purist interpretation. (Belder's tuning is about a half-step lower than standard, but still noticeably higher than Gilbert's.)

And in the end, the result of my survey probably could have been predicted at the outset: It's up to each performer to decide for themselves. This flexibility only highlights the beauty of this music. Played with skill and conviction, nothing you can do can mar that.

Unless you're Glenn Gould, in which case, Bach and I both forgive you.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

American Tune as Hymn

Worth mentioning for America's Independence Day is Paul Simon's American Tune. This one has always been a favorite of mine, but lately I've been thinking about it more. Written over three decades ago, there probably isn't a better anthem for the state of U.S. society at present.

A lot has been written about it, including an interesting post by culture blogger ChimesFreedom.com. The author there notes that the melody used by Simon is a reworked version of a chorale tune used by J.S. Bach in the St. Matthew Passion, the same tune that became the basis for the hymn, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded." That author adds a bit more detail about the melody's origins. I discovered the connection completely by accident while playing through some of the Bach chorales at the piano. And that started me thinking more deeply about "American Tune."

Simon's use of the melody here lends the song the character of a hymn, reinforced by chord changes on every note--the style of a traditional four-part hymn setting. The lyrics at first sound almost conversational--personal, confessional and melancholy like many of Simon's songs. But the musical underpinning keeps our attention focused, waiting for the song's larger intentions to unfold. In the way that a hymn's lyrics serve at once as a simple testament and as a metaphor for an entire system of belief, the music from the outset leads us to expect this song to have a greater significance.

Where the first verse is strictly personal, the second verse extends the perception of hardship to his friends: "I don't know a soul who's not been battered, I don't have a friend who feels at ease … etc." The lyrics of the next section, the break, are ironic, both wistful and playful--the singer pictures himself dying, smiling at himself, moving on. But then, almost as an afterthought, he throws in that he sees "the Statue of Liberty, sailing away to sea."

In the final verse we see that that potent image is the very heart of the song's intent: We are a great society that is losing its focus, that has lost its way. "We come in the ship they call the Mayflower, we come in the ship that sailed the Moon, we come in the ages' most uncertain hour, and sing an American Tune, but its all right, its all right, you can't be forever blessed." The last lines put the song back again into personal territory and add a hint of fatalism, "tomorrow's going to be another working day, and I'm trying to get some rest."

While it doesn't bear out in all hymns, the extension from the personal to the general is itself a hallmark of hymnody. "Amazing Grace" for instance turns the experience of one sinner's conversion, the first-person singular, to a lesson for all of us, the first-personal plural, in the last verse.

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" speaks first of God as a protector against earthly enemies and mortal ills; the second verse invokes Jesus and posits him as a power beyond the force of time; a third verse sees God as a protector against Satan and demons; and the final verse envisions God as a power greater than any other in the spiritual realm. In the final lines of "A Mighty Fortress," "the body they may kill/ God's truth abideth still/ his glory is forever," we see the same trick that Simon uses: returning at the end to the personal imagery of the opening to anchor the now generalized message firmly within the experience of the individual.

Thus even if we ignore the longing for eternal rest implied by "I'm just trying to get some rest," the structure of "American Tune" is convincing as a hymn, a weary critique from the same Christian belief system that has always been used to support our flawed sense of nationhood.

None of this necessarily makes this a good song--many others have retooled classical melodies, for instance, with far less impact. What makes this a good song is the complex, intuitive geometry of language and musical elements--a puzzle consistently mastered by only the finest songwriters. However, details like this, when they work, make a good song even better.

While the ChimesFreedom.com writer chooses a video clip of Simon and Garfunkel live in Central Park in 1981, I prefer Simon's solo version from 1975, below.

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Fourth of July and Hendrix

On this Fourth of July, I'm noting that my posts about Jimi Hendrix's 1969 "Star-Spangled Banner" performance at Woodstock remain some of the most popular on this blog. The main blog entry in the series is the analysis of the peformance, as filmed by Martin Scorcese in his documentary, Woodstock. Unfortunately, the clip I had snagged from YouTube has been taken down for copyright infringement. Plenty of YouTubers have posted this same clip elsewhere, so rather than replace it, I'll just let the readers look it up for themselves. (A Google search of Jimi Hendrix National Anthem Woodstock usually produces the item.)

While you're at it, you might want to check out this brief clip of Hendrix talking to Dick Cavett about the "Star Spangled Banner" performance.

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