Every now and then, I listen to Bach, and as the music starts, and I start to hear the melody lines interweave, I think, “You know, I think I’m starting to get this.” And then Bach throws in three more lines, ramps up the speed, and I realize something:
I’m not even close.
It’s very much the same feeling you might get when you’re learning a foreign language, and you decide to test your newfound skill with a native speaker. And your methodical elementary-school-level bid is met joyfully with a flood of fluency, the torrent of a mountain stream, water flowing over and around rocks, streams combining in ways that leave one wondering where one begins and another ends. Itisveryhardtounderstandwhenyoudon’tknowwherethewordsactuallyend.
The same goes for Bach. When those melodic lines start to intertwine, you can try to follow them, and you catch a glimpse of one every now and then as it goes by, but it is really tough to grasp everything that is going on.
I was listening to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052), and immediately had to listen to it again to try to figure out what was going on, it was so good. The first movement begins simply enough as Bach states his theme. Ah, but then, the keyboard and orchestra begin stating the theme individually, and the keyboard adds a rippling line, and here the water image is particularly apt, as the strings and keyboard take turns surging forward then receding. If you want to hear it and follow the score, you can do so here.
Another fascinating video puts the keyboard in a more prominent role, this time with Glenn Gould at piano and Leonard Bernstein conducting. The performance begins at 5:08, but Bernstein’s introductory remarks about the performance of music that bears few interpretative markings may be of interest as well.
Ok, so now we reach the second movement. And one would expect the same sort of interplay of instruments and lines. You know, predicting, because you’re starting to get this.
Not even close.
Bach pulls the rug out from under your feet, beginning the second movement with an extended statement, everyone playing the same note (within the particular octave their instrument plays). It then develops into a thought-filled, deeply expressive, one might even say somber, melody.
The liveliness of the first movement returns in the third movement, and it is classic Bach.
There are moments, something in the strings, that seems to reach forward in time toward the Classical era.
And that’s the stunning thing with Bach. Every now and then, you come across a phrase, and there is foreshadowing of music yet to come. It’s there, little glimpses of the future, and yet, it’s undeniably Bach.
One more thing. Here’s the kicker about the keyboard concerto. Most experts say that he put it together from earlier works, probably a violin concerto, judging by the violin-like features, and there’s some direct copying from earlier cantatas.
As stunning as it is, it’s just a reworking of stuff he already wrote.
And that’s the Bach and awe of it all.