Rhinegold David Bernard: 'Performing is what we do, and sharing music with audiences is why we became musicians'

Owen Mortimer

Bach to basics

10:32, 3rd July 2020

Like all conductors, David Bernard spends much of his time imparting precise ideas about musical works to other performers, but when he contracted COVID-19, a deep dive into the Well-Tempered Clavier altered his views on Bach – and his whole approach to music

I came down with COVID-19 in March as forced concert cancellations began sweeping the globe. My first two weeks in ‘lockdown’ combined experiencing the classic SARS-COV-2 symptoms and pondering the profound impact the outbreak and lockdown would have on music-making. Performing is what we do, and sharing music with audiences is why we became musicians.

As I emerged from my two-week recovery – a conductor without orchestras to rehearse and perform with – I began to think of new projects to launch while in isolation. In addition to compiling a list of scores to study and books to read, I decided to put at the top of my list playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier cover to cover.

As a conductor-pianist who is not a concert pianist, my experience with the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) has been quite varied and perhaps a bit uneven. I had played some pieces and studied others, but many remained undiscovered. At six, I started to tinker with the Prelude in C major from Book 1 on my living-room piano. At 13, I discovered Wendy Carlos’ Switched-on Bach, which ignited my passion for Bach in general and WTC fugues in particular. Juilliard Pre-College, Curtis and Stony Brook gave me the opportunity to focus on specific preludes and fugues through playing, studying, analysing or modelling them during tonal counterpoint classes.

The notion of indulging so completely in this amazing work – directly realising and expressing every note with my own 10 fingers – was therefore a thrilling proposition. I gave myself one rule: to play each movement at a tempo slow enough to avoid stopping.

One evening in late March, I began my journey with the First Prelude from Book 1.

Perhaps it was due to the meditative quality of this particular prelude, with its fusion of slow harmonic rhythm and flowing semiquaver figuration, but I began to experience flashbacks to my earlier experiences with the WTC – as a six-year-old working through the rippling arpeggios, then on to my teenage years relentlessly striving for evenness while clearly shaping the work’s harmonic phrasing.

As my journey through the WTC continued, I returned to my training in keyboard studies. This had involved playing works by Bach in open score – the chorales, Art of Fugue and even some WTC transcriptions. I saw myself hunkering down in Juilliard and Curtis practice rooms, modeling fugues after WTC at Stony Brook University, and many other similar occasions. The memories conjured up by this experience were vivid, and the timespan – from six years old to the present day – demonstrated with enormous clarity how the WTC was (and still is) a companion through my life as a musician.

Bach was a master at endings, bringing closure at the end of each prelude and fugue with a confluence of organic voice leading, harmonic rhythm and figuration that is as brilliant as it is beautiful. The final four bars of the First Prelude begins this process, signalled by the introduction of the B-flat – a note I’ve always looked forward to playing. With that B-flat, Bach strengthens the sense of the subdominant, but does this over a tonic pedal, ultimately weaving through the dominant and giving us an evocative major seventh leap that is elegantly resolved in the final bar.

My memories of several preludes and fugues were built on non-traditional performances. Bach was not prescriptive about which instrument to use for the WTC, instead using the term ‘Clavier’ or Keyboard. As a result, we have Bach’s keyboard works performed on harpsichords, pianos and guitars, along with arrangements and transcriptions for ensembles.

My music theory teacher at Juilliard, Bruce Adolphe, introduced our class to the Swingle Singers’ conception of the Prelude in F minor from Book 2, and my high school band performed an excellent arrangement of the five-part Fugue in C-sharp minor from Book 1, which instantly became an obsession of mine.

But it was when I listened to Carlos’ Switched-on Bach for the first time, aged 13, that I was completely captivated. Carlos had many objectives in her album, including demonstrating the versatility of the early Moog synthesizer. The result is innovative, including traditional and non-traditional sounds used to perform Bach’s keyboard and orchestral works. Yet beneath the flashy surface (listen to the incredible pyrotechnics in her version of the second movement from Brandenburg Concerto No 3), Carlos demonstrates wonderful musicianship. Her sense of phrasing and pacing is incredible and set the standard for how I listened to and performed Bach. Carlos’ conception and performances of the Second (C minor) and Seventh (E-flat major) Preludes and Fugues from Book 1 are indelibly imprinted in my mind.

The Second Prelude in C minor begins like the First, with oscillating semiquaver figuration and slow harmonic rhythm, though the mood is certainly not as meditative. However, this time Bach has created more of a rhapsody than a prelude, changing the pattern of figuration just past the halfway mark, leading to three distinct sections: a driving Presto, expansive Adagio and a final Allegro crafted with the same elegance, grace and skill as the end of the First Prelude. At the very end, Bach quotes the subject from the fugue that is to begin on the next page. I remember feeling Bach’s ‘wink; and giggling a bit when I played this ending while adjusting the rhythm slightly to more closely quote the subject in the fugue that follows.

The Fugue in C minor was the first WTC fugue I experienced, through Carlos’ recording. I loved the complexity and elegance of this fugue, and not only played it on the piano, but attempted to create an a capella-style version with me playing all three voices on the clarinet (my primary instrument), recorded on cassette tape using a mixer I built myself with components from a local audio store.

David Bernard conducts the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra
David Bernard conducts the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra

My recent exploration of the complete cycle took me two weeks to complete, playing an average of three preludes and fugues a day. It was an exhilarating and profound experience, both for the opportunity to be immersed in this great score, and for the heartwarming memories it brought back

It was also enlightening in several ways. I was struck by how Bach showcases the expressive potential for each key. Whether we are simply listening to or playing through each combination of prelude and fugue, we are shown with startling clarity the individuality, evocative nuances, passion and emotional qualities each key has to offer. It is as though Bach shows us what each key has locked away that is waiting for a composer to unleash.

While I’ve always been fascinated by the universality of Bach’s music, this experience highlighted how the WTC transcends instrumentation at a level beyond other music. From Switched-on Bach to the Swingle Singers, Bach’s craft and passion shines just as brightly and profoundly as ‘original’ versions – and in some cases even more so. Bach’s music is on a plane of universality beyond most other composers before and after.

Through consuming the entire WTC, I was reminded of the glorious ingenuity of the preludes. While we have some level of formal expectation for what the fugues will bring with them – subject, countersubject, episode, etc – the preludes bring no such preconceptions. There is always an amazing sense of anticipation in the first few notes of every WTC prelude – we have no idea where Bach will take us, but we know wherever it is, he will bring us there with innovation and brilliance. In many important ways, we come to the WTC for the fugues, but stay for the preludes.

I will continue to draw from this experience as a conductor when preparing and performing music by all composers – exploring with more clarity and passion how scores generate and illuminate their soundworlds in performance. As I played through each phrase, experiencing Bach’s craft through the nuances, line and pacing infused in the WTC, I not only felt Bach’s musicianship and skill, but also a profound generosity and empathy for performers and audiences. This couldn’t simply be an elegant working-out of compositional procedures to an endpoint of a finished work. Bach was truly giving something to the world and everyone in it, and as a conductor it is my responsibility to carry this beautiful intention of Bach, and all composers, to the benefit of musicians and audiences. Bach, after all, is not only about my personal view of the notes on the page, but a whole wealth of generations of interpretive approaches – they leave their marks and their spirits on the work itself.

This deep dive into Bach’s keyboard masterpiece has underlined for me how much richness there is in music to be channelled. Works shift and grow with each major interpretation – all of which we conductors must embrace.

David Bernard is the music director of New York’s Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra, and artistic director of InsideOut Concerts. davidbernard.com

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