D Minor Passion

I came back to the keyboard recently after a few years’ absence, and looked at Bach's Art of the Fugue. I had always found it impossible to play, blaming my short fingers. But this time what I found is a puzzle: you can play it with two hands, ten fingers. Even short ones. But there are many passages (some one beat long) where the inner voices change hands back and fourth – there are three voices in one hand and only one in the other. The voices cross, making it difficult sometimes to hear the voice leading. But every time I come to something I think is impossible, I find that Bach was there before me. There is a way forward: see, the soprano has been silent and you have tenor and alto in the right hand. The tenor is descending to the octave above the bass. Take the octave with the left thumb. Transfer the alto note to the right thumb. The alto leaps up an octave. Take that with the fourth finger, so the fifth can do the soprano entry.

I remember a concert in Montreal. Bernard Lagacé was playing the entire Art of the Fugue on the wonderful 1961 von Beckerath organ at Imaculée Conception. He said, (was it in the program notes?) “After playing this work I am spiritually exhausted.”

Today, working my way slowly through the first five fugues, I think I know why. And I think suddenly of two more works in D Minor: Bach's Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin, and the last fugue (D Minor) from Shostakovitch's 24 Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87, which is itself an homage to Bach.

It is because the D-minor theme is a person, and the development is her life.

The Chaconne is intense from the beginning. The eight-bar theme statement is all triple and quadruple-stop, rolling-bow virtuosity. The thirty-two variations are a spiritual roller-coaster ride. So much so that the return to the quadruple-stop theme is a rest, a relief. Exhausting.

In the fugues – both the Art of the Fugue and the Shostakovitch Opus 87 – the theme is set against itself and various counter-themes. The voice – the person – is always recognizable, right side-up or upside-down. The passion and struggle is later, as the theme shoulders its way into an increasingly complex structure. It is impossible that it will fit in this chromatic storm, you think, and then it does, and you are amazed and exhausted.

The end can be a bang or a whimper. The theme can rage, or it can find peace. In the Art of the Fugue, on the very last page, he has just introduced a new theme: BACH (B?, A, C, B). He sets up the new structure, and has just introduced the BACH theme in inversion (upside-down) and . . .

That's it. His life. Not rage, not really. Certainly not a whimper. Perhaps it is peace . . .

Bach Too Fast

Letting Go

It is a beautiful Spring morning in Montreal, the last Sunday in April, and I'm listening to the last of Peter Togni's all-Bach concerts on CBC. Perhaps I'm having trouble letting go.

It seems only yesterday that I could listen to classical music all day on CBC. Midday was Off the Record with Bob Kerr. For the last five years or so, his leitmotif was complaining about liner notes. He never quite came to terms with the transition from LP's to the new CD's with their sharply reduced space for pictures and text. I can still hear the pauses and sighs of exasperation as he tried to read the small type in a CD booklet or searched for a piece of information that was just not there.

Frustration. Stuff left out. Things that are just not there anymore.

Listening to Bach. To the St. Matthew Passion. And remembering Otto Klemperer and his recording from 1961. The classic that has become famous because of the very slow tempi. I have found it in my collection and am listening as I write this. Yeah, it's probably too slow.


Otto understood something. Just as the body of the violin resonates with the strings, receiving and amplifying their musical energy, so does music capture the listener, fastening his heart to its pulse, breathing with him, giving substance to the torment in his soul.

But music doesn't move us by force. The connection is a tenuous one. It is like rocking a car stuck in the snow, back and forth, gently feeding the rhythm of the rocking. If it is expertly done, enough energy can be transmitted to break the car free. Just so does music move the soul. Its work is not done when it emanates from a violin body or a speaker cone. It lives on in the listener, building momentum, beauty, glory. Bach does it.

Bucket Music

Peter Togni opened Choral Concert today with Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, saying this is the music he would like to hear at the end of life. My bucket music came later in the the program: Mache dich, mein Herze, rein – Make yourself, my heart, pure. (So Jesus can live there.) It was preceded by other excerpts from the St. Matthew Passion and the tempi were, well, fast.

It's a sign of our times. Fast is fashionable. It's not that a fast tempo is bad – it can be very exciting, as for example, in some sections of Glenn Gould's first recording of the Goldberg Variations. But at a certain point I find myself asking, is there more to this than the technical virtuosity? Does it do anything musically?

Here I am, a heavy Chevy stuck in a drift, and the conductor isn't speaking to my rhythm. His energy whistles by and I'm still stuck. So here I am later in the day, thinking about Mache dich and hearing it in my head, much slower. Now the sixteenth notes are the third-story facade of an elegant piece of architecture. They build on the first and second story, elaborating on the structure beneath, adding momentum to the great design. How they do that is a subject for a long musicological article, or perhaps just a conversation between Bach and God. But now I am moved. I feel the beauty and the glory of death. I feel the intense longing, the sweetness, the desire for an innocence I left behind in the womb. I guess I'm just getting old.