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48. Prelude and Fugue in B minor from Book 2

48.  Prelude and Fugue in B minor from Book 2






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

It was while teaching a music theory class once that I was suddenly struck by the ambiguity of musical numbers. A question which asked for the doubling of musical note lengths involved changing the time signature from 4/4 to 4/2. In other words, the number indicating the type of beat has to be halved in order to double the note lengths. No wonder why people get confused I thought! Another strange thing to get your head around I have found in teaching about seventh chords. The logical brain surely imagines that the difference between a seventh chord (e.g. G7) and a minor seventh chord (e.g. Gm7) must be something to do with the seventh. But no - the difference is actually to do with the THIRD of the chord, B natural in the case of the G7 chord and B flat in the case of the Gm7 chord. Once again, no wonder why people get confused! Other musical ambiguities that spring to mind are the curved lines for ties and slurs and the enharmonic writing of notes with double flats and double sharps. I mean just how long does it take the brain to work out that a combination of F double flat, A flat and C flat will constitute the same notes and sounds as an E major chord? With jazz notation there are all sorts of variants to get to grips with - some books will use m7 whereas others use _7 for the same thing. Some use a triangle whereas others use Maj7. Some use m7(b5) whereas others use a circle with a slash line through the middle. No wonder that many young musicians decide that it is much easier to do everything by ear than by trying to master the vagaries of musical notation. When it comes to rhythm there is one are of ambiguity which has recurred in different guises for several hundred years. When French composers of the Baroque wrote inegal, they meant that notes which were written as quavers (or eighth notes to flag up yet another ambiguity in musical nomenclature) should be played unequally, with the first longer than the second. There was no such thing as the ‘double dot’ in Baroque times so when Bach wrote his Fugue in D major in the first book of the 48 he was leaving it to the player to understand the need for playing in the French style with more unequal notes. When Schubert wrote the Klavierstuck in E flat minor, D946, did he mean the semiquaver to come AFTER the third of the triplets as would be mathematically correct or together with it? When Samuel Barber wrote his Excursions for piano (the excursions being into popular American styles)did he mean the ‘slow blues style’ to override the complex ’classical’ rhythm notation or not? Such questions keep musicologists in business of course, and there are many people who have strong opinions on the ‘rightness’ of one solution or another. But in the end it seems to me it is the teacher’s job to open the ears, the imagination and the discernment of the pupil so that they might come to their own decisions about these things. This is maybe very different from the role that the majority of people seem to want to put teachers in, the role of saying that something should be played in a particular way to be ‘right’ or ‘correct’. So inside these apparently trivial questions about the placing of triplets and semiquavers lie some profound questions about the relationship between the composer and the performer, between the teacher and the pupil, and - beyond the world of music altogether - between the nature of external and internal authority. The most important thing in performance it seems to me is to be whole hearted and convincing with your intention. Do not doubt that the intent behind the playing will reach the listener. if the intent is uncertain then it needs to be uncertain for a particular musical reason, not because of temporary mental vacillation. There are moments such as the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat, Op 110 where there needs to be a profound spaciousness which can come across to the listener as searching, not declaiming. This will only come across if the searching quality is in the performer’s intention. In a place like this, the parallel might well be the mystic’s ‘cloud of unknowing’ where there is an invitation to the openness of the journey, not the certainty of the conclusion. In many other places in the same sonata, the intention needs to have a totally different character and be clearly declamatory. In music -as in just about any other field of human endeavour - it is possible to get so absorbed in the detail that the big picture is lost. It is sadly possible to remain at the level of disagreeing as to which is the ‘right’ way to sort out the triplets and the semiquavers. It is also possible, however, to use the attention to detail as a way into experiencing a quality of intention which transmits a much bigger picture to the listener. The experience is then more similar to that of meditation. Attention needs to keep returning to the simple focus of the breath. Eventually, with time and persistence, the bigger picture becomes clearer - all the layers of distraction turn out to be very superficial; by not identifying with the distractions of physical, emotional and mental vacillations, the mind really can abide in spaciousness and equanimity. For the musical performer this is gold dust. For if the performer is abiding in that spaciousness and equanimity, then the intention is clear without being fixed; alive and flowing rather than fixated on ‘rightness’. And the listener can receive the composer’s intention through the performer as transmitter.