Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bach's Lessons in Listening

Back when I was working my way through the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition, I raised the question of whether a "marathon" program of all 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, usually in the order in which they were written, could really "inform the inquisitive ear." Here in San Francisco Frank French has decided to demonstrate that listeners, as well as music students, can benefit from such a performance project. He scheduled two concerts, one for each of the two volumes that traverses the chromatic scale, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, the first of which was given this afternoon. He also made it a point to perform this music on a piano tuned with a system developed by Thomas Young in 1799, rather than using equal temperament. Young is probably best known as a physicist, but his physicist's interest was applied to the problem of tuning, particularly for keyboard instruments. His system has a Wikipedia entry, which summarizes the basic idea as follows:

Young temperament is a well temperament devised by Thomas Young, which he included in a letter to the Royal Society of London written July 9, 1799. It was read January 16, 1800 and included in the Society's Philosophical Transactions published that year.

Before closing, Young outlined a practical method to "make the harmony most perfect in those keys which are the most frequently used," by tuning upwards from C a sequence of six pure fourths, as well as "six equally imperfect fifths," in other words six progressively purer flat fifths. His goal was to give better major thirds in more commonly used keys, but to not have any unplayable keys.

When this system is used, because of the differences in the major thirds, each key has its own characteristic sound. The distinctions between the keys are subtle, but they are most evident in keys whose harmonic relation is remote. Thus, one is particularly aware of the qualitative difference between C major and C sharp major. This does not mean that there is some kind of "dramatic arc" to the chromatic ordering of Bach's preludes and fugues; but the ordering helps the ear to appreciate gradually those qualitative differences. Consequently, in a very fundamental way the "inquisitive ear" really is informed about listening habits from Bach's time, particularly where preferences regarding the selection of key are concerned.

The question remains whether this kind of "marathon" concert is the best way for the ear to acquire this new sense of listening. There is definitely a problem of fatigue in what may be described as "densely-packed diversity;" and I am afraid that at least some of that fatigue took a toll on French's performance. There were more than the usual number of evident errors; but I find this secondary, if not an antidote for the expectations for perfection induced by the recording industry. Where I had more trouble was in decisions that French made in setting priorities to negotiate the tightly-knit contrapuntal webs of both the preludes and the fugues. I have written in the past about how Richard Goode's performance of Bach counterpoint seems to be informed by the discourse of social conversation, which serves to provide each work with that sense of a "journey" that I feel is so important to the listening experience. Thus French's sense of journey in each composition may have also suffered from the fatigue of the situation. My guess is that the concert would have been better structured in equal thirds, rather than equal halves, providing more time for French to recharge his batteries, so to speak.

Having said all that, however, I suspect that his "total immersion" approach is the best one to take to familiarize the ear with the new sounds he is trying to present. It is a bit like learning multiplication tables. You can invoke "new math" to theorize all you want; but the problem of basic skill acquisition will still remain. In the domain of listening, this is just another problem of skill acquisition. Now I need to see to what extent listening to Bach's second volume will be informed by this afternoon's experience!

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