What is so special about J.S. Bach’s music? For us keyboardists it’s the contrapuntal texture which can be maddeningly difficult yet exhilaratingly uplifting. The synthesis of 2, 3 or 4 voices creates horizontal movement of melodies and vertical layers of harmonies. Visually and symbolically, Bach’s polyphonic approach can be likened to a cross, 2-dimensional in direction, 3-dimensional in the sound waves it creates and 4-dimensional in its travel through time, both momentarily as the music gets played and eternally as it has endured for over 300 years.
We are normally taught to listen to each “entrance” of a fugue’s subject and that is quite manageable. It’s much harder to keep track of the other voices at the same time, to be aware of everything that’s happening. How can we divide our attention between several musical lines at once?
To develop this skill, I recommend starting with Bach’s 2-part Inventions and 2-voice Preludes. Play each voice alone, then both voices, and then try to “hear” that energy they create together. Feeling that in-between element is what can make performances of Bach so dynamic. Of course, without it the music will still sound good. The Master himself said: “All you have to do is to play the right notes at the right time and the music will play itself.” Yet if you capture that magical interplay you will be adding a new dimension to your performance. Happy Practicing!