Bach's 'easy' pieces teach a hard lesson about music, not piano playing

January 14, 1996|By GLENN MCNATT

A WHILE BACK, one of the New York critics wrote a charming account of his continuing efforts to play Bach's famous keyboard masterpiece, "The Goldberg Variations." I empathized with his struggle, because for years I had been trying, with much less success, to acquaint my fingers with Bach's "Two- and Three-Part Inventions," 30 unprepossessing little studies the master wrote for the musical education of his eldest son.

"The Goldberg Variations" are virtuoso keyboard music, comparable in difficulty to the amazing prestidigitation of Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas or Bach's own brilliant toccatas and fugues for organ. Glenn Gould, the eccentric Canadian pianist, launched a meteoric career with his 1955 recording of "The Goldberg Variations," while Vladimir Horowitz dazzled generations of concert-goers with his magical performances of Scarlatti.

But no one plays the humble "Two- and Three-Part Inventions" at Carnegie Hall. They are not considered concert pieces. Indeed, these deceptively simple-looking miniatures once were given routinely to student pianists, along with their scales and finger exercises. Because Bach wrote them for his own children's instruction, it was assumed they were basically children's pieces -- notwithstanding the fact that Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friederich, just happened to be a child prodigy and keyboard virtuoso.

So a couple of years ago, a musically inclined friend could in all innocence explain to a piano instructor that she just wanted to take a few lessons so she could "master some easy pieces, like the 'Two- and Three-Part Inventions.' " To which the teacher responded, deadpan: "Is that all?"

Anyway, after a long hiatus from the keyboard, I picked up the "Two- and Three-Part Inventions" about 15 years ago, thinking I would fool with them a little just to get my fingers going again. The first one I tried was the Eighth Invention in F major. You've surely heard it somewhere, because practically every piano student and his or her family has been compelled to suffer dutifully through its well-worn pages at one time or another.

I studied the score, worked out the fingerings and checked my counting against a metronome. All seemed to be in order. But when at last I played my efforts back through the portable cassette recorder I was using to gauge my progress, the results were anything but musical. Clattering keys, erratic rhythms and wrong notes abounded. It was truly a humbling experience.

Over the years I have been humbled over and over by these "easy" pieces from the master's pen. On paper they look so uncomplicated; under the fingers they feel so eager to please. But what eye and hand seemingly comprehend so effortlessly, the ear finds intolerable, unless all the player's resources of imagination, concentration and discipline are brought to bear. The notes are, by and large, unproblematic. Finding the music in those notes, though, requires true dedication.

As a musical amateur I am under no compulsion to achieve the kind of note-perfect performances expected of concert artists or conservatory students. I play lots of music for the sheer fun of it: Scott Joplin rags, Chopin waltzes, hymn tunes from the church songbook. Some days I pretend I'm Artur Rubinstein; other days I make like Fats Waller. I've gradually learned to read music at sight, without looking at the keys, and I can pick out lots of tunes by ear, filling in the harmonies by trial and error.

I've learned, though, that the cavalier approach to Bach just doesn't work. His music has too much to teach. It can express amazing vitality, but never frivolity; sentiment but never sentimentality; serenity but never smugness. The "Two- and Three-Part Inventions," I eventually came to realize, were never really intended to teach which fingers went where on the keyboard. Rather, they are an extended lesson in musical taste and musical insight, a study guide for the making of musicians rather than the training of piano players.

And so it is that each of these utterly unpretentious little exercises reveals itself as a portal to a higher calling, an invitation to a realm both noble and profound. They say to hand and eye and ear: "There is an art I bear to you across the centuries that has never been surpassed; and it is yours for the asking."

I'll probably never learn the entire "Goldberg Variations," but that's no matter. The "Two- and Three-Part Inventions," which years ago I thought of as child's play, now seem as poignant an expression of adult travails as any of the master's larger works. The more I study them, the clearer it becomes that Bach's greatness lies entirely in the spiritual content of the music he wrote, no matter how "simple" or "easy" it may appear. They have grown up with me, or perhaps I have grown up to them. The inventions, I think, will keep me occupied happily for many years more.

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