Alchemy of Genius: A J.S. Bach and Chopin Musical Pairing

Mar 1, 2019

There are some things that just naturally go together; peanut butter and jelly, or macaroni and cheese. You'll find unusual pairings as well; strawberry and tomato, kiwi and oysters, or olives and white chocolate. Two things that seem to be quite different can contrast or complement each other. That’s what this project is all about. By pairing two composers, separated by a century, geography, philosophy and style, we can hear something new and unique as a result.

Paul Orgel is a well-respected Vermont pianist and professor at UVM.
Credit Paul Orgel - used with permission

This is the title page of the manuscript for J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book One.
Credit U.S. Public Domain

Specifically, we are pairing Bach and Chopin’s music by key, or tonality. We'll listen to excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, starting where Bach began, with the key of "C." That word “tempered” or “temperament” is used to describe how we tune and create scales and keys, the building blocks of western music. Today, we use a tuning system called Equal Temperament. On our modern pianos the octave is split into 12 equal steps that we call semi-tones, but history is filled with different ways of tuning. In Bach’s day, the standard was Mean-tone Temperament. The limitations of this system meant that a single keyboard could only play in five-or-six related keys. That means that you would have to have multiple keyboards to play in all the available keys. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was written for a single keyboard tuned in such a way that the performer can play in all 24 keys (12 major and 12 minor).  This was a revolutionary idea.

We aren’t sure if Bach had our current system in mind when he wrote this work, but we do know that he liked writing it so much that he did it twice. There are two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier separated by 20 years. We'll hear excerpts from Book II, the less familiar of the two. Actually, I doubt that Bach intended The Well-Tempered Clavier to be a concert work. In Bach’s words The Well-Tempered Clavier was written “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in the study.”

That’s certainly not true of Chopin’s Nocturnes or Night Pieces. These are works meant to fill a concert hall and to be played by a master. Chopin composed 20 of these works, or 21 depending on how you count them. The nocturne was a salon genre, invented by Irish composer, John Field, but perfected by Chopin’s hand and imagination. These works are full of emotional depth in which many hear the influences of vocal writing, specifically Italian opera arias.

Chopin’s Nocturne in G is written like a barcarolle, a song of the Venetian gondoliers. In the left hand you’ll hear the gentle rocking motion of the boat. The music shifts and the key changes just like the scenery passing by. The boat comes to a rest and we hear a melody, like the gondolier singing a simple, repetitive song.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Credit U.S. Public Domain

Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many to be the greatest composer in all of classical music. His life and death marks the end of the period we call the Baroque. He composed a tremendous catalogue of work over the course of his life, writing for almost every possible combination of voices and instruments. He was a master at counterpoint, canon and fugue. However, during Bach’s lifetime he was mainly known as an organist. The vast majority of his compositions were all but forgotten after he died in 1750. However, about 80 years later, through the passion of Felix Mendelssohn, there was a huge revival of Bach’s music and suddenly Europe, and the rest of the world, couldn’t get enough. Chopin was in his 20’s at this time, just making a name for himself in Paris. Unlike Bach, most of Chopin’s music was written for the piano and was met with immediate and consistent popularity.           

Frédéric François Chopin (1810-1849)
Credit U.S. Public Domain

Chopin wrote that his style was greatly influenced by two composers, Mozart and J.S. Bach. Chopin had his students practice Bach every day in order to exercise and warmup their fingers and perfect their technique. Many of Chopin’s contemporaries declared just how attached he was to the work of Bach, but there was actually very little scholarly evidence of this, until an 1801 Swiss copy of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I was found that bares copious notes in Chopin’s hand. He was obviously using this score to teach one of his students and made metronome, dynamics markings and other notes about how to play the pieces. Chopin often criticized other Bach scholars, saying that he understood Bach’s music better than most of them did. In this student copy we see that Chopin had a very clear vision of how Bach’s counterpoint and emotional content is to be approached and expressed. By following his notes, the piano student sounds like Chopin playing Bach.

For many composers, Bach and Chopin included, different keys have different moods and emotions attached to them. For instance, we just heard Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major that opens Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier. C major is usually attached with bright feelings, like the lively fugue that ended that work. Now we’ll hear the second pair from Book II written in key of C minor, which is usually seen to be a sad, serious or somber key. The prelude is slow and murmuring and the fugue is rigorous and austere, quite church like; which will pair nicely with Chopin’s Nocturne in C Minor. In this work you’ll hear what sounds unmistakably like a funeral march, or dirge, followed by a hymn-like anthem. Listen for how these two composers approach the same key in quite similar ways.

Now we leave the realm of C, major and minor, and rise a half-step to C#. This next prelude in C# major has a great deal in common with the familiar first prelude in Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I. Both present a kaleidoscope of gently changing harmonies.

There’s such a freedom in Bach’s preludes. It’s a form that could do just about anything that he desired, which is quite similar to Chopin’s treatment of the nocturnes. Of course, there is a general structure to all of these pieces. They all begin somewhere with an opening idea, go somewhere different with a contrasting idea and come back home again. But, beyond that loose form, Bach’s preludes and Chopin’s nocturnes could do just about anything the composer wanted. That isn’t true with Bach’s fugues. In order for a piece to be called a fugue it has to follow a very specific set of rules, which are actually quite strict. Rather than thinking of that as a limitation, think about it as a solid structure. In poetry there are strict rules that define what a haiku has to be in order to be called a haiku. However, within that structure there is complete freedom of expression. Bach’s true genius is his ability to find endless variety within the complex structure of the fugue.

Following the C# major prelude and fugue we’ll experience Chopin’s Nocturne in Db. Bach chose to write in C# while later composers, like Chopin, chose Db. Why? We don’t know. Perhaps it’s because C# has seven sharps while Db has five flats. Either way, the ear can’t tell the difference. Chopin’s Nocturne in Db shows his devotion and adoration for the bel canto or “beautiful singing” style from Italian opera. He loved the music of Rossini and Bellini. It might just be his best melody, tender and mellow. Many people call it their favorite Chopin Nocturne.

Variety, that’s always the challenge. Chopin wrote 21 nocturnes and Bach wrote a grand total of 48 pairs of preludes and fugues. How do you infuse something new and different into each of these pieces?

In our next pairing, I feel like the answer is found in the words “drama” and “dialogue.” Bach’s C# minor prelude is a rather lengthy lament, a patient conversation between three voices.  There is something melancholic about how these voices interact. The fugue that follows seems to raise the stakes as the tempo increases and the conversation takes off. The Latin and French roots of the word “fugue” are “fuga” meaning flight and “fugere” meaning to flee. We can only guess what these three voices are flying away from and toward in this prelude and fugue.

The opening measures of Chopin's Nocturne in C# minor, op.27/1 evoke a "moonlight" quality.
Credit U.S. Public Domain

Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor is an entire dramatic scene. The opening is Chopin evoking something very Beethoven-like, with the relentless rhythm of the left hand and the slow melody un-folding above. There is a definite “moonlight” quality here.  In the middle, the music seems to want desperately to open up into something hopeful, but there is a sense of agitation that pulls the music back into the moonlight. At the end it seems like that is where we find resolution.

The wonderful aspect about this music is that it invites us to draw whatever picture we would like from the notes and harmonies. As you listen, decide for yourself what kind of dramatic scene is being portrayed.

When we hear the word “alchemy” we usually think of magic, mysticism and veiled, secret societies. The reality is that alchemy was an important forerunner of our modern chemistry. It wasn’t just about finding a means of turning lead to gold. Alchemy was concerned with purifying, maturing and perfecting objects. It was the study of reactions. What happens when you put these two things together? How do they change? What is the result?

This project has been an experiment in alchemy, as we’ve placed the music of Bach and Chopin together to see how the keyboard works of these two geniuses interact. We hope that it’s illuminated something within you. Perhaps it’s given you a “philosopher’s stone” to take with you into your own listening experiences.

We conclude with another Nocturne by Chopin written in C# minor, one of Chopin favorite keys. This work was written early in Chopin’s life but was left unpublished until after his death. If you listen, you’ll hear fragments of themes from his Second Piano Concerto. The opening, sad melody might be familiar to you as well. It was featured in the film The Pianist.

The idea for this project was brought to VPR by Paul Orgel, a well-known Vermont pianist, and a regular guest on our Live Performance Series starting back on Walter Parker’s show in the 1980s, when the studio was in Windsor. Performing the complete Chopin Nocturnes and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book II are both projects of Paul’s, and we were delighted to have him play and record some of them on our wonderful, still new, Steinway D that he and pianist Simone Dinnerstein helped choose for the station at the Steinway factory in New York.

Find out more about Paul Orgel here.

The notes were written and researched by James Stewart and Paul Orgel. Ty Robertson and James Stewart produced the event The Alchemy of Genius on February 13, 2019 in VPR's Stetson Studio One. The recording and mixing engineer was Peter Engisch. Special thanks to Kari Anderson and the entire family at Vermont Public Radio for making this project possible.

If you would like to learn more about the music of J.S Bach and Chopin, check out the podcast Timeline from VPR Classical as James Stewart hosts a deep dive into music's roots and influence. This month we are featuring new episodes tied to this project. Check out the first episode here.