In 1722, celebrated Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a set of contrapuntal exercises called Preludes and Fugues, one in each major and minor key of the twelve-step chromatic scale. This systematic series of intellectual and technical keyboard exercises was intended “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.” Some 20 years later Bach composed a second book of the same kind, which became known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, Part Two. Together the books represent some of the most important pieces of music literature in the Western musical tradition.
Two centuries later, Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich traveled to Germany to judge a piano competition. There he met pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, who was only required to present 1 prelude and fugue of Bach as a competition requirement, and when it came time for her to play it, she informed the jury that she had learned and was prepared to play any one of the set of 48 prelude and fugues. Dumbfounded, they selected one, she played it, won the competition, and began a lifelong friendship with Shostakovich. Shortly upon his return to Saint Petersburg, Shostakovich embarked on the writing of his own set of preludes and fugues, inspired by the great Baroque master. Tatiana Nikolayeva became the champion of this work, performing it and recording it multiple times throughout her life.
Many pianists have performed and/or recorded the complete Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach. There are also a handful of pianists who have performed and/or recorded the entire opus of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues. There are even a few pianists who have built concerts using excerpts from both works. But to the best of my knowledge, there has never been a pianist who performed the entire set of both. In the 2018–19 season, I will be the first to perform this monumental series of pieces live, in a cycle of four concerts each of which will be preceded by lectures and presentations.
I have always felt close to Bach. When I was growing up, at the encouragement of my teachers Julian Martin (1986-1987) and later Jeanne Kierman Fischer (1988-1992), I played a recital each year, starting at age 13, and I always began my programs with Bach. I began my very first full-length public concert with Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor. In later years, I started programs with a French Suite, or a Partita, sometimes a Prelude and Fugue. It centered me to begin my two hours on stage with some of the purest, most spiritual music in the keyboard repertoire.
One of the most remarkable aspects of J.S. Bach’s keyboard music is that it is bereft of extramusical indications. In his keyboard music we see no tempo markings; no dynamics, no articulations, no indications of whether notes should be staccato, portato, legato, connected, detached. We are given no indications of crescendo or diminuendo, whether a phrase or a sequence should be rising or falling in volume and energy level. Bach’s music is a clean slate. It is mathematical and perfect in its construction and achieves a sublime state that transcends the need for extraneous detail. This is why performances of Bach are so personal, so different from one artist to the next. Musicians are given so much latitude to make their own decisions that interpretations vary immensely. Bach’s music survives this and emerges from any interpretation unassaulted and unblemished – because the nature of his compositional style is so scientific, so precise, regimented, controlled – and through those qualities so celestial, so metaphysical – that its power transcends the interpretation of any one performer. The message is potent. It will not and cannot be lost.
The music of Bach is the purest, most adaptable (it can be played on any keyboard instrument with equal success), most rigorously intellectual and yet flexible writing of any I can think of. As a matter of fact, it can only be rivaled in these aspects by the work of one other composer – Shostakovich.
He, too, leaves much to the performer. His music, like Bach’s, finds a potency through complexity masked as simplicity. Both of these composers rely almost entirely on counterpoint to carry the weight of their message.
Presenting these two composers on the same series of programs is both shockingly unorthodox and the most natural partnership one could imagine.
Documentary filmmaker Scott Meyers is in the process of producing a video portrait dedicated to my work as an artist and to this project in particular. Here is a trailer for the full length film which will be launched in spring of 2018.
I have launched a social media campaign designed to share with the public the nature of my project, to let that public in on the process of learning and practicing so much music, and to celebrate a more informal and personal medium for sharing my performances than is typical for my industry – rather than waiting until the project feels completed, I want to connect with my audience and share with them my process, my discoveries, and my insights along the way. To these ends I will be releasing an informal video of one Prelude and Fugue by J.S. Bach each day beginning January 1, 2018.
Here are the DAILY VIDEO EPISODES, as they have been released so far:
Episode 1 | January 1, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in C Major from Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) Book II: The first of what I intend to be daily video posts! Some Bach to start your 2018 off right.
Episode 2, Part 1 | January 2, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in C Minor from WTC II
Episode 2, Part 2: finding the “right” tempo
Episode 3 | January 3, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in C# Major from WTC II
Episode 4 | January 4, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in C# Minor from WTC II: It’s a sad one.
Episode 5 | January 5, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in D Major from WTC II: D major, the key of resurrection! Trumpets and bugles shouting their joyous fanfare!
Episode 6 | January 6, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in D Minor from WTC II: Bach’s version of a bomb cyclone!
Episode 7 | January 7, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in Eb Major from WTC II: watch over my shoulder as I play.
Episode 8, Part 1 | January 8, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in D# Minor from WTC II: Always wondered what happens if you get a phone call while taking a video. Now I know. 🙂 Real life happens, and I’m posting it anyway, to stay aligned with my intention for this project.
Episode 8, Part 2
Episode 9 | January 9, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in E Major from WTC II
Episode 10 | January 10, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in E Minor from WTC II: The fun episode. You’re welcome. Guest starring Michael Sheppard.
Episode 11 | January 11, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in F Major from WTC II: Lasagna and why Bach would have been a great pub buddy.
Episode 12 | January 12, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in F Minor from WTC II: Misty and moody.
Episode 13 | January 13, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in F# Major from WTC II: extraneous body movements while playing – the good, the bad, and… ya know.
Episode 14 | January 14, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in F# Minor from WTC II: A Fugue with three subjects!
Episode 15 | January 21, 2018 | Prelude and Fugue in G Major from WTC II