From Why Bach

On "Solos" From Why Bach?


On a Monday morning in what we now call Germany, Bach enters an empty church, makes his way to the organ bench, and seats himself at the end of it. After removing his boots (so as not to dirty the organ's pedals), he slides over to the middle. He's
brooding—again—on his marathon squabble with the Town Council. Even as his interior mutter-logue continues (". . . a piddling thirty florins! . . ."), his right hand drifts onto the keys, rests there for a bit . . . then, for want of anything more intentional to do, fingers out the following . Hearing what his hand has done, he can't help tossing out an answering scrap . Nor, this scrap having ended somewhat up in the air (on the third scale step), can he prevent himself from grounding things by ripping off a two-handed run down to the tonic .

Thus the intriguing opening of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major. 19 No sooner are hands and mind engaged than it's off to the races . While this improvisational-sounding solo could be called a finger exercise, it isn't a mere one, distinguished as it is by such freedoms as a play between one- and two-beat phrase units and an embedding of six-note patterns within eight-note ones . The way Bach brings this solo to a halt—to three halts, actually—will be familiar to anyone with a driver's license: by depressing a pedal . The third of these brakings is conclusive, but only momentarily so. For now that the feet are in play, a pedal solo ensues. Its opening gesture calls to mind that of the solo for the hands, though where the earlier gesture had seemed preliminary , this one is peremptory, the pedals' voice seeming to boom "IT'S MY TURN NOW!" . This solo simulates the improvisational not by the previous solo's means of a headlong rush, but rather through an evocation of the tentative, almost halting way an improvisation may feel its way forward . Things do settle into a stride, though one that retains an improvisatory feel through an unpredictability—even an indeterminability—of pattern and phrase . In the segment that follows, Bach takes a common "stair-climbing" pattern he had seemingly abandoned after its appearance at the pedal solo's outset and fashions it into something almost tunelike . The pedal solo concludes with a depression not of the brake but of the accelerator .

Having offered two solos in succession, Bach now changes pace with a section that, particularly in its relentlessly square phrasing, doesn't sound sololike in the least. But I can't pass over this section without a word about its triumphant opening . If the ascending figure in these measures sounds familiar , it's because we've heard it before—and recently—in the tunelike passage of the pedal solo , a passage that itself derives, as we've seen, from a routine pattern . You'd have to go back to Genesis to find a better example of making something wonderful from nothing.

Bach now moves on to an extended adagio, one whose melody constitutes yet a third solo in the piece. I'm not going to discuss this section in detail, partly because it resembles a slow movement we've already considered (from the F Minor clavier concerto), partly because it's not one of Bach's more inspired productions overall. But I do want to point out an unusual passage in it. This passage is a sequence: a repetition of a musical unit at different pitch levels. Nothing unusual there; sequence is one of Baroque music's most common procedures. But of all the sequences in Bach (certainly hundreds, probably thousands), this is the only one I'm aware of with five sequential steps . Most of Bach's sequences (like most sequences, period) have three steps, often with a breaking of the sequential pattern partway through the third, as in this example from his E-major two-part invention . Occasionally, as in the C-major two-part invention, you'll see four sequential steps . But five? Only in this adagio, as far as I know. Why here? Possibly because the sequence changes key with each step, an element of variety that may have moved Bach to extend it beyond the norm. (That the keys in question alternate between major and minor makes their variety that much more various.) Or maybe Bach was trying to induce a listening state we would think of today as Zen-like, one in which impatience or boredom is passed through to a transcendental acceptance. Or maybe Bach was simply so taken with this sequence—its repeated unit is a beauty, after all—that he could no more bear to let go of it than anyone in love.

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