Learning to Understand Bach

From The Etude, October 1947

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

"If anyone says that Bach is dry, mathematical, or dull, you may be sure that the person giving the opinion has never really heard Bach. He may have listened to Bach's music; he may even have tried to play it — but he has not truly heard it. An understanding of Bach requires an understanding of the contrapuntal movement of his lines. Now, a perception of the lines in Bach has become obscured to listeners through a habit of listening to music of harmonic tradition, in which a melodic line moving horizontally (in the right hand) is set above a harmonic accompaniment moving vertically (in the left hand). This is the pattern of songs, of most "tuneful" music — a pattern of important melody and less important accompaniments. It is a beautiful pattern as far as it goes — but it does not apply to Bach! Our Bach problem, then, results from trying to force such an application through the mental habit of expecting it. The average student sitting down to his first encounter with a Bach Invention, invariably tries to read it as right hand melody plus left hand accompaniment. After the first hour, he may give it up as tuneless and dull. Naturally! The work was never meant to be taken that way!

"The ultimate goal of Bach study is to recognize the several lines and to treat them simultaneously as both independent melodies and closely-interwoven parts of a unified whole. In other words, the lines must "sound" in their own right, and also as the component elements of the whole piece. That, I repeat, is the goal. A long path of study precedes it. And the first step along that path is the development of a sure, clean-cut, disciplined polyphonic sense.

"In my own teaching, I begin to build this polyphonic sense by asking the student to learn, by memory, the first of the "Two-Part Inventions" exactly as it is written. In memorizing it, he is asked to learn each line separately, so that it can be played independently and without the aid of the other line.

"Now, this might seem to mean the familiar practicing of each hand separately — and at this point, the student must learn to change his mental approach. Instudying Bach, he must learn to think, not in terms of hands, but of lines and voices — soprano, alto, tenor, bass. In the First Invention (as in most two-part works) it happens that the right hand carries the soprano, and the left hand the bass. But it is always the lines of development and not the hands that are of prime consideration use a fact that is clearly demonstrated in the more advanced works where the voices do not 'happen' to fall into any familiar division of right and left handed This is of the utmost importance in learning to understand Bach.

"When the student has learned the individual lines (or voices) separately and in combination, I ask him to transpose them into all keys. This may be done either chromatically, or in the circle of fifths. Again each voice is learned separately and then the two are combined.

"The next step is to turn the lines upside-down. The development of the Invention itself reverses the subject; what I mean is to play the lines taking the bass in the right hand and the soprano in the left (playing the bas voice in the treble register of the piano, and the soprano voice in the bass register). Again, each voice is learned separately and in combination, and again the upside-down voices are transposed into all keys.

"This is an excellent drill in applied polyphony, and also an excellent preparation for Each, whose own development of his subjects uses all kinds of 'turnings around.' Indeed, the many reversals and inversions in Bach are the root of much of the 'difficulty' in understanding him; Thus, the student who learns to put any line into any voice, at any time, familiarizes himself with Bach's idiom. He learns to think contrapuntally.

Further Analysis

"More ambitious students may well be encouraged to go on with this kind of work, separating and transposing the lines of other Two-Part Inventions. I do not advocate it with three part works. When they have done so, they will find that thinking independently of each line has become a habit — that Bach's idiom is getting to be their own.

"And now a second analysis becomes necessary. We begin to find the independentlines crossing each other and blending harmonically. We analyze the work harmonically and see how the lines fit. Once the student arrives at this point, a number of interesting things happen. He finds himself intellectually stimulated by making the various lines speak independently and fit together; He finds that so far from being 'dull', this many-voiced Bach is absorbingly exciting. He finds that he has, not a 'strong' right hand and a 'weak' left hand, but two independent hands, each occupied with fulfilling its own line of expression. And he finds that he is able to think not in terms of hands, but of music.

"All these are great gains — but the student is not yet equipped to play Bach! He must still learn to project these lines, to make them sound. Again we go back to the text, studying each line in terms of its own frame, its own register, its own rhythms We examine the shape of the individual lines in order to determine the phrasing. The student sees each line assuming its own shape. The clarity of these shapes must be understood and projected by the performer, and readily heard by the listener. And the lively variety of these several lines that move simultaneously, keeps both performer and listener vitally interested.

"An important part of Bach playing lies in an understanding of his use of ornaments. Any really adequate understanding involves years of research into the entire subject of ornamentation — still, that, too, can be approached in a practical way. My own belief is that, in teaching, as few 'orders' as possible should be given. I do not tell a student to play an ornament this way or that. Instead we analyze the treatment from the text; I explain the various laws tend exceptions) governing the particular ornament in question, establishing what may apply and ruling out what may not. Often enough there is more than one way of playing the ornament. I explain this to the student: ask him to go home and mull it over, making his own decision as to what to plays By the time he returns, he has accomplished a great deal more than the merely imitative business of doing what his teacher told him to do. He has exerted personal thought on the problem; he has exercised an independent decision based on his own thinking. His playing of the ornament in question may be different from mine — but if it fits into the line of the music and if it grows out of a correct application of the laws, it will be right. And the playing of it will be an intelligent, glowing thing, based on understanding and active personal thought and conviction.

"Thus far, I have spoken in terms of the young student — or of the student of any age which is beginning to break down the wall that separates him from a fuller understanding of Bach — and have therefore purposely limited myself to problems involving fewer lines and voices. The basic principle is the same, however, for works of four and even five lines. The goal is always the treatment of the lines both as independent melodies and as interwoven parts of a whole. And the first step towards the goal is to clear the mind of the habit of thinking in terms of important melody set above "less important" accompaniment. Once you get behind the intricate structural element of Bach's music — once you arrive at a clear understanding of his form — his vital expression of every shade of human emotion comes pouring through to you."


A conference with Rosalyn Tureck secured expressly for The Etude by Rose Heylbut