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Bach to Basics

The Great JS Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was one of the greatest musical geniuses ever.1  The more I delve into his music, the more I discuss it, the more I grapple with his pieces at the piano, the more astounded I am by his musical mind and his stupendous offering to mankind.  One is always discovering Bach anew, he remains eternally fresh.  Talentless grappler that I am, I struggle with his pieces on an instrument comparatively excellent to the keyboards Bach had in his day.2  The piano had barely been invented in Bach’s time, so he had to do with harpsichords, virginals, spinets and the almost inaudible clavichord, intended for use in the home rather than in public places.3  But such was the vision of Bach that he composed not for any particular instrument, but for a universal keyboard, a generalised future instrument of the mind independent of technology or invention that was yet to come.  The grandeur of his foresight was in the league of visionaries like Da Vinci, Einstein and Leibnitz.  Bach was also instrumental in establishing the case for equal temperament as opposed to just intonation, in justification of which he wrote a series of pieces in each key called the Well-Tempered Clavier.4  This system allows keyboards to play without the necessity of re-tuning the instrument for each key, at the compromise of a slight modification of pitch.  This is the system in use in keyboard music today.

Bach's  Ranking

Not only did Bach make all these contributions, but he also fathered twenty children, feared the Lord, walked 400 kilometres and back to hear the great Buxtehude play as a twenty year old and played for emperors and paupers alike.  Bach was a true citizen of the world who engaged with life.  You would have loved Bach the man, if not the musician, which is more than you can say of most geniuses.

To get to better grips with Bach, I take lessons.  One fine day three years ago the madness hit me and I decided to take piano lessons for the first time since high school.  For this I go to Liz in Sea Point.  Liz is a retired music professor, is a London Royal Schools trained pianist and is a strict teacher.  I don’t know why Liz ever agreed to take me on as a student.  Her students are all of a much higher level than I am.  Perhaps I’m her contribution to artistic charity.  There are three things that are crystal clear to her:  1.  I have no piano technique whatsoever, if what I have can be termed technique; 2.  I have no notion, not the foggiest, of the musical ideas that inhere in the pieces I intend playing, and 3. I have little if any notion of the musicality of the pieces, obsessing instead as I do with technique and basically managing a performance, if what I present to the world can be deemed a performance, that is.5

You won’t believe, gentle friends, how crushingly cruel these cold facts are to me, all the worse for being delivered in a soothing politeness.  When someone confronts, attacks, you attack back.  But her pronouncements are delivered with the authority of a piano professor who has over fifty years teaching experience.  She has seen things, and even more, heard things.  My previous teacher let me do what I liked.  She gave me rope to hang myself with.  Any piece was allowed, whether I was prepared for it or not.  Not Liz.

My aim when I started lessons three years ago was to play Grade 8 standard-pieces in five years.6  Fat chance.  I have since lowered my aim is to play pieces of medium difficulty not necessarily to performance level, but to a well-executed standard.  Above all, my dream is to play Bach reasonably well.  You might dream of a Ferrari, fortune, faith, fame, but I dream of playing Bach, Lord in heaven may I play a Bach two-part invention well one day!7  Bach is the challenge.  One plays Chopin and stuff.  But you can’t fudge Bach like you can the romantics.  You have to play with precision, clarity, circumspection and furious concentration.  Bach is where you separate the tinklers from the players.  Of course, to do this I go to my hebdomadary lesson to Liz in Sea Point, arriving slightly early, there to listen in on Julian’s lesson from the verandah.

Bach on my Steinway B

Julian is the student who takes the time-slot just before mine.  Julian is a more advanced student than I am.  Much more.  Julian ignores me.  Anyone who catches the end of his lesson as I do while nervously waiting to knock on the door to do battle with the keyboard, can hear it.  At the appointed time of my lesson I pluck up the courage to knock.  The teacher opens the door and Julian walks out.  Julian is tall, untroubled, confident and clearly knows he plays best.  Like those who know they are better at things than others, Julian walks past me with an concealed swagger, chin in the air, hardly bothering to greet at all, if you can call a perfunctory sidelong ‘hi’ a greeting.  He has never once spoken to me.

Julian and his type bother me.  That is, the types who play Bach well.  I wonder whether he uses the same evasive tactics as I do when he has under-practised, and whether he resorts to the same excuses when the teacher catches him out as she does me.  Then again, considering Julian’s swagger it is clear he has never, ever, under-practised in his life.  He hasn’t the distractions or colourful life one has.  He can’t.  I also wonder whether Liz says she would mark him down heavily if she were examining him, as she does to me.  She can’t surely have forbidden him to touch certain pieces as she has me.  Some time ago she stopped me going any further with Bach’s two-part invention No. 13 in A minor.8  She had suffered enough, and had had enough of my suffering.  ‘Promise me you won’t dare touch it for six months’ she exhorted, pale and puffing, ‘promise me on pain of death you won’t!’  So I had to retreat, Bach to basics as it were.9  Now, Monsieur Julian would sail through it, sail through it I tell you.  But then it’s easy for Julian, coming coolly to lessons directly from the beach in Sea Point, tall-and-tan-and-young-and-lovely like the Boy from Ipanema himself.  He should have come here as I do, stressed from a shattering day of battling with markets and admin and people, snarling, ruffled and unappealing, and then I’ll like to see how he plays.  I really would.  You know what?  Next time I’m going to bring a portfolio of financial options along and I’ll thrust it into his face as he walks out.  “Julian, analyse this!” I’ll say.  “What’s the delta of this book?”  And then we’ll see who is better.10

Julian bothers me to neurosis.  However.  My Bach two-part invention No. 14 in B-flat is integrating beautifully, and when it’s perfect I’ll show him.11  For once, I’ll arrange for a lesson just before his.  I’ll be inside, playing, and Julian will be outside on the verandah, waiting.  And then he’ll hear.  And then when I come out he’ll greet me.  He will.  He’ll just have to.  He’ll even speak to me.  Just you wait, Julian, just you wait.



  1. In Human Accomplishments, The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences by Charles Murray (2003), a book that summarises a six-year research project in which thousands of experts in their fields are asked to rank the eminent giants in their fields.  In the category of Western music JS Bach was placed third in the all-time list of musical geniuses behind Mozart and Beethoven, who came joint first.  See attached pic from the book.
  2. I have a Steinway Model B among others, with which I’m delighted.  To those in the know, it’s simply called a “B”, as in, “I have a B”.
  3. The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) of Padua, the first piano being made in 1700.  Its diffusion through Europe was slow, and although Bach came into contact with some early models, they were not common in his time, neither were they up to scratch.  The name of the instrument comes from piano forte – literally “soft-loud”, which you truly appreciate if you play one of the piano’s predecessors.
  4. In twelve-tone equal temperament (12-TET), the octave is divided into 12 equal parts where the width of a semitone, i.e. the frequency ratio between two adjacent notes is the twelve root of two = 21/2 = 1.059463.  If one compares the 12-TET intervals to that of just intonation, intervals of a fourth and fifth are almost indistinguishable, but thirds and sixths are out by around 15 points, which is audible.  String players gifted with perfect pitch find it grating when playing with pianos.  To test your ability to distinguish between pitch differences, see the online pitch tester athttp://www.tonometric.com/adaptive pitch.  If your pitch resolution is above 15 Hz, equal temperament won’t bother you.  But most people can detect a difference of 6Hz in pitch so it’s a bother, although our ears get used to it and we no longer notice.  For a more technical and historical treatment see “Temperament, The idea that solved Music’s Greatest Riddle”, by Stuart Isacoff.
  5.  “You obviously don’t know what’s going on with this piece, you have no idea musically”, Liz said in the beginning.  “This is a two-part invention.  Have you heard of Escher?  The Dutch painter?” I had (M.C. Escher 1898 – 1972).  “Do you know the famous sketch of the fish and the birds?”   At this Liz hauled out a book of his sketches on a bookcase behind us.  “Look overall.  Fish, birds.  Fish, bird, fish, bird.  Now let’s look at the music score, an invention in two parts.  This musical line is fish, this one is bird.  Fish, bird, fish, bird, at first separate, then intertwining, but still remaining distinct.  Yet, the whole is harmonious!  Fish, bird, fish, bird, just like Escher!”  (I’m glad to report I’ve made great strides since then.)
    Escher's Birds and Fish
  6. Grade 8 basically gets you on a standard at which you can be accepted into a music conservatoire.  You’re supposed to be quite good by then.
  7. Bach wrote his two- and three-part piano studies for teaching purposes.  He called the two-part inventions Inventio and the three part inventions Sinfonia.  This is an excerpt from the preface to one of the editions of these works.  “That these little pieces were the work of a musical pedagogue possessing not only creative gifts and a consummate knowledge of art but also a deep sense of artistic responsibility has lent them that potency throughout the ages that makes them even today a groundwork of piano teaching and a real pleasure and delight for all those, who have ears to hear.”   Of course, Bach’s two- and three part-inventions are supreme examples of counterpoint.
  8. For a polished performance of this piece, see pianist Cris Becker on Youtube – Bach No.13 two-part invention in A minor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1V2cSpZcMY.  Now, it goes without saying that one does not play it at all like that, or at that speed…  One has difficulties…
  9. I owe the title of this piece to the redoubtable wit of Raoul le Breton.
  10. Look, he doesn’t play as well as Adrian does.
  11. See Cris Becker again, on Youtube, Bach No.14 two-part invention in B flat, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qj9Rx15wTIc.  He also plays No. 6 in E major.  There are other performers as well, and a host of terrible ones.