Who is Bach?
Johann Sebastian Bach is not only one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period (approximately 1600 - 1750), he is regarded as one of the most important composers of all time. Most notably, he was an organist and a master of keyboard music, oratorios, cantatas, and orchestral music. Without delving into the details of his life, let’s examine what role his music plays in the world of piano literature.
One of the first significant pieces that piano students add to their repertoire is a court dance, such as a Minuet, or a selection from Bach’s “Inventions.” These short pieces are often written in two or three “voices” that create beautiful harmonies. Oftentimes, these voices mimic each other in the same pattern of rhythm or pitches, located higher or lower in the register. The recurring Themes and their Variations are some of the most important elements of Baroque music. When learning these numbers, one must pay serious attention to:
1) How the voices work separately
2) How the melodies are written against one another
3) Where the themes occur and repeat. Identifying each voice’s function (so that you can hear them apart as well as together) is a vital ear-training for pianists.
This compositional technique is a wonderful feature of Bach’s music that sets him apart from most other composers. Instead of just adding a bass line under a melody, which would be a mere accompaniment that supports the principal part, Bach writes in a way that the melodies are richly interwoven and converse with each other. Bach’s mastery of this technique ranges from simple dance music to more advanced pieces like Preludes and Fugues of Well-Tempered Clavier (sometimes up to five voices).
Bach rarely notated the manner in which the notes should be played. He did not give full details on dynamic contrast, articulation, or accentuations. This may have to do with the instruments that he was able to access in those days, which were not well-designed for making a big difference in volume from note to note, but it is also believed that he intentionally left it open to interpretation. While this may be bewildering, it allows you the freedom to explore every possibility. Your teacher may show you a few popular options to go over, however, this does not happen often in piano literature.
Bach’s keyboard music is appropriate for all levels of pianists. The simplest pieces are some of the most popular choices for beginners as an introduction to the Baroque style, while matured pianists value mastering all the voices in his more intricate pieces. Anyone who wants to be a well-rounded musician should start learning his work as early as possible to develop a wide range of skills! His compositions will always be a quintessential part of a piano performer’s repertoire.