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A musical exchange, but mainly J.S. Bach 101

Talking to my MSc in computing course leader, on Facebook, about music, esp. J.S. Bach., and 28 years since graduation.


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MH - The best music ever written (or conjured up otherwise) are the Six Keyboard Partitas of J.S. Bach. If you think otherwise, you are wrong, and here's why I say that. This music is a direct link to "God", making players and listeners, laugh and cry in its beauty alone. My last 33 years of piano playing has often been in pursuit of the skills to play this music, but it's like riding a bike: if you're not riding, you're on the deck; but there is a scrappy in-between bit, which you hope your brain will eventually turn into riding.

In Bach's day this was the ultimate music (still is for me), but a listener needed to play them, or find someone to play these Partitas to them, in order that they could hear them. Recording was obviously impossible back then, that's why mastering this music could lead to musical world fame in those days.


MScCL - I will listen to that music. My taste is early c20, but my dear friend who died almost 7 years ago did his best to share his love of Bach, Mozart and to a lesser extent Haydn.


MH - when I first started playing and listening to piano music, it was overwhelmingly the bigger romantic works I was drawn to, but I liked Bartok a great deal, so from the earlier to mid c20, like you also mentioned. I also liked Ravel and Debussy. I still like all three, but exactly like your friend, Bach, Mozart and yes, to a lesser extent, Haydn, are now my thing. I think Beethoven opened the field for this massive composing. Satie mocked it, calling it Wagnerian, but also inspiring Debussy in a way, probably harmonically. Both Debussy and Ravel looked quite far backwards by sometimes writing in old fashioned suite forms. Bartok, wrote stacks of smaller scale piece, genuine music, without romantic excesses. And today, in terms of classical music, I think the minimalists are where it's at, and it's highly skilled to write appealing original music with such a reduction of musical resources. Einaudi is great. I shared my own rendition of a piece of his on here a bit ago. A sort of summary: there was certainly something in that comment of Salieri's in the film "Amadeus." He said, "too many notes." You can't say that about Mozart's music. It's perfect, but maybe with Beethoven, his Hammerclavier sonata, for example, and the romantic period, music got carried away.


MScCL - For me it is Elgar, Mahler, and Sibelius primarily, but I have no technical understanding of music. I can see why someone who has would admire the Bach Partitas. I have listened to the 1st - on Harpsichord and then piano. I think I liked the piano version more, but no idea why.


MH - I like them on piano too. The louds and softs add expression. Not that the piano existed in Bach's time. That leads to purist and historical accuracy.


MH - I thought a bit more about your technical descriptor. I wasn't sure what you meant. In Bach's day compositional rules were very strict. I think that's why he can make me laugh. That's the effect of the clever aspect. It's both organic and "mathematical" at the same time. The feeling bit is inexplicable. You would never buy a friend a painting. That's something you do yourself. Your late friend might have been trying to do something like that to you with music? You must have heard of the book "Godel, Escher, Bach". I don't read books, that's why I got lumbered in computing. I certainly would never have chosen a life at a desk with a bloody machine if I could have avoided it! That book covers the link with arts and rules/maths, etc. There is definitely all of that going on in Bach. I've heard of some people who say every Bach piece they've heard is essentially the same one. They can't hear it. It's almost like white noise to them. It's absolutely not for them. A test in piano grade exams is when the examiner plays a piece with a right-hand line, and a left-hand bass, with some notes in-between in the alto/tenor bit. Then they ask, sing or hum the bass tune back to me. For some people that is almost impossible. A better appreciation of Bach, and you could call this technical, but also organic, is discerning different threads, not a single melody alone. The overall effect though, is there or not for people. I don't know what you can do about that. For me, if I sightread a piano piece for the very first time, and really gel with it, could be any genre, I get nice feelings in my body. If I then play it again, I get the feelings again, but they've diminished. A third time might not be much good again. If I play the piece again, in say two months, it feels nice again. With much of Bach, it feels good in my body every time, but not all Bach. Those six Partitas I mentioned, are an absolute joy to play. Listening to Andras Schiff or Gould play them is brilliant, but for the nice bodily feelings, it means playing them. That's my Bach 101. I hope you welcome it.

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