Johann Sebastian Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book I (Glenn Gould)


I don’t really want to dwell on the do’s and do not’s of piano playing. Bach gave no real indication of how he wanted these to be played, but because they’re from the Baroque period, people have played them in the Baroque style for years. Then, Glenn Gould came along, sat down on the piano bench with his white gloves on, started playing them however the hell he wanted to—blasphemously humming along all the while—and (single-handedly) breathed new life into the Baroque genre.

For one thing, I love what he’s done with “Prelude No. 2 in C minor, BMV 847.” His fingers are always on edge—a light staccato—but notice what he does when the song’s structure breaks at the 25th measure (the 1:14 mark), he shifts from a near mechanical style to a wholly human one, the focus on phrasing and playing with the strict confines of tempo. At the 28th measure (the 1:25 mark), he plays the first two beats at regular tempo, as if he completely forgot, or at least ignored, that Bach had written specific instructions that this section be played faster than the rest of the song, before finally shifting into gear and suddenly slowing down again a measure later. That being said, I wish he had kept the half-trilled ornament on the last note; it feels less complete without it, especially since Bach had a penchant for ending his pieces with a tierce de Picardie—ending minor-key songs in a major chord—for an greater sense of finality. Regardless, “Prelude No. 2 in C minor, BMV 847” has a coda that 99% of songs are jealous of.

Now, scholars will tell you that it wasn’t until the Romantic era came along that the prelude could stand on its own piece, but I really think that Bach’s Preludes in The Well-Tempered Clavier work just as well as their accompanying fugues – better, even, if you’d ask me. I mean, other than the key, these preludes share nothing in common with the fugues that follow them. Preludes around this time were based on the continuous expansion of either a melody (see “Prelude No. 1 in C major, BMV 846”) or harmony (see the first half of “Prelude No. 2 in C minor, BMV 847”). Meanwhile, fugues are based around counterpoint (fugue comes from fuga (Latin), meaning “flight” or “escape”), one voice introduces the main subject, before a second voice answers it, before the first voice responds with a countersubject (and Bach, in true testament to his genius, would occasionally use a third or a fourth voice—only one fugue here, “Fugue No. 4 In C-sharp minor, BWV 849,” uses five voices. None use only two).

Despite that Bach’s prelude and fugues revolve around the same, single ideas, he makes damn well sure that each of these have their succinct identities. “Prelude No. 1 in C Major, BMV 846” has the left hand gracefully leading into the right hand, from legato to staccato. On the other end of things, “Prelude in D Major, BMV 850” and “Prelude No. 6 in D minor, BWV 851” are set to a brisk jog of a tempo. Listen to the bass of the former, even if what the right hand is doing is infinitely more complicated, how it just hops from one leg to another (practically asking you to do the same. Can we compliment classical music by saying “dat bass?” I think I just did). And then when it harmonizes with the right hand, for only two measures (28-29, at the 0:42 mark), it’s pretty badass (can we compliment classical music by calling it “badass?” I think I just did). And any problems I had with “Prelude No. 2 in C Minor, BMV 847”’s ending? Well, I forgive them because I love the way he breaks Bach’s intended final cadence in “Prelude No. 6 in D Major, BMV 850” apart into single notes. Meanwhile, “Prelude No. 7 in E-Flat Major, BWV 852” masquerades as if it were a fugue while “Prelude No. 8 in E-Flat Minor, BMV 853” collapses constantly into rolled chords and silence.

I’ll gladly call Bach a genius; few people since have produced such consistent quality melodies that can be found in The Well-Tempered Clavier. And yes, I can do without Glenn Gould’s humming along (best/worst example can be heard in the last two pieces here), but when you consider just what he’s done for the genre, I think I’ll let his eccentricities slide. Without a doubt, this album is my favorite collection of classical music pieces, a collection of works written by Bach in 1722. Where are now? What’s happened in between?

For those of you who brandish “Modern music sucks” pickets over your heads, I’d offer this as a counterpoint (see what I did there?): this has just as much counterpoint and just as much melody as any of the fugues on here. Oh, and Kanye West made that beat. “Modern music sucks?” Get the fuck out of here, before I hit you.


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