On Bach


by Kirby Congdon…….

The harsh clatter of a bell tells us time’s up, attention! stop thinking, get out of the way. Or it can toll — letting us reflect, relieving us of distractions to iterate success or failure, celebration or commiseration. All these interpretations take only one note.

In the first Prelude of The Well-tempered Clavichord, BWV 846 so familiar to every piano student, Bach uses one note in the bass, like a bell, fourteen times consecutively in one great sweep while the right hand chords are busy elsewhere. We are usually taught to bury this note in the chords. We wonder is this great figure, Johann Sebastian Bach, doing this when we usually depend on his changing his tunes every two seconds to hold our interest? He dares to use one note as a kind of heart banging out its support of life itself?

Using one note over and over can, indeed, be a solace on the one hand or an articulation of insanity on the other with its almost claustrophobic pressure on us. That note, “g” in the lower clef, is, once more, a tolling of despair from hell and at the same time a confirmation of the steadiness of reality, much like having your dish of oatmeal every day at breakfast at the same time because you can’t cook, you are hungry and because it tastes differently too, depending on your mood.

In approaching Don Dorsey’s solos on a digital keyboard, Bachbuster, put out by Telarc in 1985, I felt intimidated by his professional handling of technology.

However, I was won over by the slow movement (labeled “Andante’) from the Italian Concerto BWV 97. What almost brought me to tears was the coupling of, again, one note in the bass. The same pair of notes in the same position in every measure is employed throughout this slow movement. This figure was much like a sedate tom-tom, or reminiscent of the heart’s continuous appeal. It has the steadiness of a locomotive on it destined track straight ahead to eternity or, on the other hand, the despair suggested by a large church bell. It was an experience. I went to another recording of hear the orchestral version. As I listened those double notes got lost as the music developed, dismissing them as easy harmonic supports. Mr. Dorsey, however, never lets go of their importance. As I say, it was an experience.

By the way, may I suggest, for those who play a keyboard, take a look at BWV 900 if you want a similar musical expression. Once more, the very familiar becomes transcendental.

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One thought on “On Bach

  1. Great article.
    I noted an error, but it appears in print so often as to merit an automatic excuse. The collected works of BWV846 are entitled “The Well Tempered Clavier” (tr) not Clavichord. The pieces were written to explore the “new” tuning systems which allowed performance in nearly every key and made modulation more musical. (The prevailing Meantone Temperaments did not)
    Today we mostly use Equal Tempered Tuning in which all keys sound the same. (Yawn)

    (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Well_temperament

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