Ah, Bach! (Any M*A*S*H fans? Anyone?) This week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC introduces Prelude No. 1 in C Major, BWV 846, from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, composed by J. S. Bach and performed below by Glenn Gould, piano (Canada).
About the Composer:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) — Jay-S, The J-Man, Johann Sebastian I’ll-Be-Bach — needs little introduction. Even if you know nothing about classical music, you’ve definitely heard his name, and his music. His compositions can be heard all over the place in popular culture — commercials, movies, literature. Bach defined the Baroque period, literally: music historians agree that the Baroque period ended the year he died, even though his contemporary Händel — who rivals Bach as one of the most important composers ever — outlived him by nearly a decade. Throughout his life, Bach did not once leave Germany — in fact, he spent his entire career in a small region of central Germany, around Weimar and Leipzig, working as a church organist and music teacher. He was not very well-known during his lifetime, and his small fan club lost its zeal not long after his death, causing his music to fade into obscurity. Then, in 1829 — nearly a century after Bach’s death — the composer Felix Mendelssohn conducted a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and the public was hooked. Today, Bach is widely considered the single most important composer in the history of Western music, which is a pretty intense claim, but which may well be deserved.
About the Piece:
The Well-Tempered Clavier is a set of teaching books, with forty-eight movements traversing every key signature and style imaginable. Basically, if you can master the WTC, you can master the piano. (Well, at the time, it would’ve been played on clavichord or harpsichord, since the piano still would’ve been in R&D.) Bach wrote Book 1 while working for Prince Leopold of Cöthen, in 1722. The prince died in 1723, so Bach then accepted a prestigious job offer in Leipzig; there, he composed Book 2 in 1742. The Prelude in C Major is the first section of the first movement of the first book. On the title page of Book 1, Bach inscribed, “For the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning” — and indeed, there is a very teachable simplicity to this prelude. It sounds sunny and nostalgic, and makes me think of black-and-white movies and Jane Austen novels.
The video embedded above is one of the seminal performances of this work, and for good reason — it’s gorgeous. Glenn Gould is easily one of the greatest pianists of recent history. He was known for singing along while he played — you can hear it a little bit in this video. Through the magic of the Internet, you can listen to Gould play the entirety of Book 1 and Book 2 for free, whenever you want — I highly recommend it. (: