March 11, 2011
Like a broken record, I will mention once again that I’m not the biggest fan of Baroque music. But I really need to qualify that statement a little: I should say that I’m not a big fan of listening to Baroque music. Playing Baroque music, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Don’t think I mean just any Baroque music, though. In my mind, if you’re going to delve into that era, you really only have one choice of composer: JS Bach.
I play the piano — not like a concert soloist, but I did a lot of accompanying in college and have played the odd background-cocktail-music party. Unsurprisingly, Bach doesn’t come up a lot in either situation; I am very solid, however, on 20th-century art songs, piano reductions of famous arias, and the œuvre of Barbra Streisand (with the right crowd, “The Way We Were” is a pretty sure-fire way to get tips). But on my own time, and for no audience other than myself, I have to say it…I love playing Bach.
I remember hearing an NPR interview with the amazing pianist/wolf rescuer Hélène Grimaud in which she talked about how there are many composers she loves playing, but there’s a certain something about Bach. “Bach’s music goes straight to the very core of the human soul,” Grimaud said. “Playing Bach allows you to mark your spiritual growth, as well as your technical growth as an instrumentalist.” She admitted that she is someone who starts each day of practice with Bach, and I have a hunch that it’s true for many other top-notch (and amateur) players as well.
What is it about Johann Sebastian that is so satisfying? Perhaps the “wake up with Bach” phenomenon occurs because his music can serve as a wake-up-with-a-cold-splash-of-counterpoint for your musical brain. To understand his music, especially when you are playing it, you have to be focused and alert. Bach cannot be played without a deep level of concentration, and to me that is what makes it so satisfying to play. It sharpens your thinking and clarifies your mind, whether it be clearing the sleepy cobwebs out of your head or shaking off a stressful afternoon. Bach requires you to pay attention to his music and tune out everything else. And once you do that and are inside the music, everything else fades away. “You can wake in the morning and feel like dust, like nothing, so insignificant, so minuscule,” says Grimaud. “This music gives you the feeling of something larger than yourself, the feeling of belonging. It is an island – free and unwavering in the midst of currents and undercurrents.”
There’s a cottage industry of classical CDs marketed to different times of day, and online you can find an array of Bach In The Morning CDs, so obviously this phenomenon is not that unusual. My favorite series, based solely on its fantastic titles, features a CD entitled “Bach for Breakfast: The Leisurely Way to Start Your Day.” This compilation is, of course, from the same company that brought you such popular titles as “Baroque at Bathtime: A Relaxing Serenade to Wash Your Cares Away,” “Mozart for Massage: Music with a Soft, Gentle Touch,” and “Chopin and Champagne: Set Your Mood for Romance.” You might think I’m joking, but if you’re interested, you can get most titles on CD or cassette. Score!
But I digress. I wonder if there’s something about the personal connection I feel when playing Bach that doesn’t translate to listening to Bach; I know how rewarding and amazing it is to work my way through a fugue, so why would I want to be a part of someone else’s personal journey? Is that selfish? My mom, who’s a singer, recently told me a story about singing in a chorus that had been intensely rehearsing an intricate and contrapuntal work by Heinrich Schütz. The piece was amazing, everyone in the chorus loved it, and after a really great performance, she said to her pianist friend in the audience, “wasn’t that piece amazing?” Her friend kind-of shrugged and said “I bet it’s really fun to sing.”
I’m not saying that Bach is a chore to listen to (you can’t love music and not at least partly enjoy the cello suites or Goldberg Variations), but I do think there can be a difference between “listening” music and “performing” music. I love Steve Reich, but have never performed his music—I imagine it is a much different experience to be in front of the stand and not in the audience. Instead of being carried away by cresting waves of sound, you would be thinking “14, 15, 16, repeat.” There is no counting when listening and there is only counting when performing. Another example that springs to mind is Wieniawski, the prolific composer/violinist who is beloved by string players but leaves me cold. I have sat through many a recital where the string players wax rhapsodic about “that amazing Wieniawski piece” that lulled me into a deep, dreamless sleep.
What music do you wake up to? What music do you love to play?