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13. Prelude and Fugue in F sharp major from Book 1



Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject!


At the heart of the Bach to Bach project is the conviction that it is interesting to map one system onto another to see what arises in the way of interillumination. When we consider two systems together, such as the 38 Flower Remedies and the 48 Preludes and Fugues, connections arise which did not previously exist. This sort of mapping is always radical and creative. Radical because it demands going back to the roots; creative because it unearths connections that were not previously seen. Going back to the roots is a particularly striking image here. With the Flower Remedies we consider the way in which particular plants root themselves, seed themselves, propagate themselves in order to illuminate our understanding of how human thoughts, emotions and physical symptoms are all so clearly connected. Dr Bach’s work of mapping the world of plants onto the world of the human mind was an immensely rich, radical and creative act whose significance we are only just beginning to acknowledge. We can consider roots in a different sense with the Preludes and Fugues. Each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale takes its turn to be the root note for four pieces, two major and two minor. The function of the root note is to give a point of stability, a home base, a reference point. Some of the pieces wander well outside this home base but the knowledge that they will eventually return creates an emotional; ‘safe space’ in which other layers of feeling can be experienced. Each piece presents a journey, and just as physical journeys in the external world eventually end by returning home so these musical journeys bring us back to the roots which we recognise. The whole journey through the ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ takes in all the roots in turn. It is not surprising, then, that the emotional range covered is vast. For the pianist to be able to bring these emotional connections alive there has to be a lot of disciplined work on making connections happen physically. Any pianist will be acutely aware of the fact that when you put two hands together there are difficulties of coordination which seem much greater than that posed by either hand separately. I sometimes consider this mathematically and explain to people that the level of difficulty is more like multiplying numbers together than simply adding them. So if the left hand part of a particular piece is say difficulty level 3 and the right hand difficulty level 4 (levels to be imagined or interpreted by each individual according to their experience) then putting the two hands together may well be more like difficulty level 12 (3x4) rather than difficulty level 7 (3 + 4). This is only discouraging if we hold onto the mindset that we ‘should’ be able to play the hands together because we can play them separately. If we can let go of that sometimes pervasive thought then we can open up to the fact that in learning to coordinate all the fingers of both hands for playing the piano we are going way beyond what we have learned to do through millions of years of evolution. The thumb to index finger opposition evolved for using tools to help us survive, but the precisely differentiated use of all our fingers is not about survival and it has to be learnt through long hours of practise. If we can get through the block that it ‘should’ be easier - and if we can take on board the fact that the increase in difficulty level involved in putting the two hands together means that we have to go much slower - then the whole process can become really fascinating. The key thing is the slowing down because that gives us the space to observe much more closely what is actually happening. Practising a piece with two hands together really slowly may not sound particularly musical, but it is absolutely necessary to achieve a real physical clarity about what the combination of fingers is doing. There are always more layers of observation to uncover. In learning a Fugue in three, four or five parts everything is even more complex - the brain, the ears, the fingers are all being challenged to map several things together at the same time. But the beauty of the Fugue is that this always starts from one simple voice. The Fugue as a form thus presents us with the perennial paradox of the One and the Many, the Simple and the Complex. We all make our maps through life, and in doing so we all have to map one system onto another in order to function as social animals. It is because we are creative beings living in relationship with other creative beings that we are able to find new interilluminations to move us forwards. Our life is ever in the process, not in achieving goals. Applying that to practising the piano transforms our fear of failure into the joyful experience of flowing energy.