“I was reared on Bach”

In Bach's works there is a powerful bond between rhythm and harmony. There is a symbiotic relationship between these two elements which is probably unique among composers.

I was reared on Bach. My father was virtually my only teacher, and he attached great importance to my growing up with Bach’s keyboard music. He considered it to be very important, not only for its musical and pianistic aspects, but also for everything else that is played on the piano. For him polyphonic music-making was simply one of the most important issues concerning everything relating to piano-playing. In itself the piano cannot seduce by virtue of its sound alone. The listener can be seduced by the lovely sound of, for example, a violin or an oboe. The piano, on the other hand, is a neutral instrument, and the art of playing it involves a sleight of hand. It is possible to create the illusion of a legato on the piano although, in the physical sense, it is impossible. But it is possible to create the illusion of sustained sound similar to that of a string instrument. The most important part of piano-playing is the symphonic element. The music can only be of interest if the different strands of the polyphonic texture are played so distinctly that they can all be heard and create a three-dimensional effect – just as in painting, where something is moved into the foreground and something else into the background, making one appear closer to the viewer than the other, although the painting is flat and one-dimensional. In my childhood I played practically all the Preludes and Fugues from Das wohltemperierte Klavier and many other pieces by Bach. That was my basis. At the age of twelve I moved to Paris to study harmony and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger. When I arrived for my first lesson, Das wohltemperierte Klavier was on the music stand of the grand piano. She turned the pages forward and back; finally she settled on the Prelude in E minor from Book One and said: “Right, my boy, now play it for me in A minor”. She held a wooden ruler in her hand and every time my fingers played a wrong note she tapped them with it. ThusDas wohltemperierte Klavier became the foundation for everything. In addition my father communicated something to me that I only found expressed in words when I was an adult – in a book about Franz Liszt in Weimar. It describes how he explained to a pupil that the piano should not be played with two hands or as two units. Either you play with a unit consisting of two hands, or with ten units in which each finger is independent. This is a very important piece of advice. I was really pleased to read that, because I recognised once again what my father had taught me without putting it into words. This is the only way to tackle Bach. One might well imagine a nocturne by Chopin with the melody in the right hand and the accompaniment in the left, without any polyphony. But Bach’s keyboard works definitely call for ten fingers that are independent of one another. And if they are, they can be brought together to create a unit.

One element in tonal music that is frequently neglected these days is harmony. Harmonic tensions have a crucial effect on a work and the way in which it is played. Of the three elements – harmony, rhythm and melody – which have such a profound influence on tonal music, harmony is perhaps the most important, because it is the most potent. You can play the same chord with millions of different rhythms. It can cope with them all without needing to change. A melody is uninteresting if it does not move harmonically. That implies that the impact of harmony is much greater than that of rhythm and melody. And it exists in every tonal work. There are thousands of distinctions between Bach, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Debussy, but they have one thing in common: harmonic impact. This implies that a chord exerts a kind of vertical pressure on the horizontal movement of the music. When a chord moves, the horizontal flow of the music is changed. This has nothing to do with Bach or Chopin or anyone else; in my opinion it is a law of nature. The study of old instruments and historic performance practice has taught us a great deal, but the main point, the impact of harmony, has been ignored. This is proved by the fact that tempo is described as an independent phenomenon. It is claimed that one of Bach’s gavottes must be played fast and another one slowly. But tempo is not independent! And you do not hear it! You only hear the substance of the music. It is this very audibility that informs every kind of musical theory. I could develop a theory that applies to any phrase of any prelude or fugue by Bach. But all theory is useless if it cannot be heard when you play. I think that concerning oneself purely with historic performance practice and the attempt to reproduce the sound of older styles of music-making is limiting and no indication of progress. Mendelssohn and Schumann tried to introduce Bach into their own period, as did Liszt with his transcriptions and Busoni with his arrangements. In America Leopold Stokowski also tried to do it with his arrangements for orchestra. This was always the result of “progressive” efforts to bring Bach closer to the particular period. I have no philosophical problem with someone playing Bach and making it sound like Boulez. My problem is more with someone who tries to imitate the sound of that time. Knowing that in Bach’s day this appoggiatura was played slowly and that ornamentation fast and copying it is not enough. I must understand why it was like that. This is why I consider a purely academic approach to the past very dangerous because it is linked to ideology and fundamentalism, even in music. Today we are witnesses to the suffering and violence that are the product of fundamentalism.

In Bach’s works there is a powerful bond between rhythm and harmony. There is a symbiotic relationship between these two elements which is probably unique among composers. Maybe this is what one might term the epic quality in Bach, just as there is a dramatic quality in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Thanks to this epic quality everything in Bach’s music achieves unity. An excellent example is the C sharp Fugue from Book One of Das wohltemperierte Klavier. It is like a dance with enormous rhythmic vitality. Any knowledge acquired when dealing with harmony is immensely helpful. Now, when I delve more deeply into or play the Das wohltemperierte Klavier, I often remember many musical experiences – with Mozart, Wagner, Schoenberg and many others – and observe that the greater the general knowledge of music, the more interesting is the performance.

Why did Bülow describe Das wohltemperierte Klavier as the Old Testament? What is the Old Testament? On the one hand it is the narrative of a people and its experiences. On the other it is a compilation of thoughts about life on this earth, love, ethics, morals and human qualities. Thoughts on the experience of the past provide a statement about the present and also a lesson for the future, showing thoughtful people where and how they can find their own way. That is what the Old Testament means to me, as does every other masterpiece, including Das wohltemperierte Klavier. It makes a statement about everything that preceded it in music. It makes a statement about music in the time of Bach. But it also indicates the direction which music might take as it develops – as indeed it has developed. For example, the chromaticism in the Prelude in C sharp minor from Book One brings Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to mind. Or the Fugue in E flat, which could be straight out of a symphony by Bruckner. In other words, Das wohltemperierte Klavier is not only the sum of everything that has preceded it, but it also points the way ahead. In the history of European music there are very few composers whose works that applies. This is one of the main reasons for the towering stature of Bach’s music.

Mr. Barenboim’s thoughts on this subject were recorded by Axel Brüggemann. Translated by Gery Bramall.