University of California, San Diego – Regents' Lecture No. 3 (1966) – Part 3 of 5
February 9, 1966
(Note: This is a written transcription of an audio recording of a lecture. Thus, there are some demonstrations at the keyboard and the chalkboard that are not preserved.)
Now, we have many proofs of this kind of handling, this kind of treatment, in Bach's own written-out music. In Partita No. 6, what ... that is all written out by Bach, really an arpeggio section. I'll play it as he wrote it, this opening section: (Mus. Ill.) Now what is that? Now that, of course, is highly figurated, isn't it? But again, it is not without a rhythmic design, it's with a very strong rhythmic design. (Mus. Ill.) Now isn't that like this? (Mus. Ill.) Only in a more complicated way. (Mus. Ill.) And what that really is ... this ... and then, of course it's followed by the rolling figure: (Mus. Ill.) which is what happens here: (Mus. Ill.) Now, what this amounts to could have very easily been written into the essential chords and then an arpeggio could have been written above it. This is what is actually going on: (Mus. Ill.) That's all that the two opening bars are doing and then this also: (Mus. Ill.) Now that's in seventh. It could have been written this way: (Mus. Ill.) and could have been played also: (Mus. Ill.) That is nothing but a realized arpeggio section. I am returning (Mus. Ill.); then: (Mus. Ill.) and so forth. There is an art of music called "figured bass" and this also enters into the whole concept of ornamentation.
When I told you just before that although it's written this way: (Mus. Ill.) Now that was a very important statement. That's why I must bring up figured bass, because it more likely would have been this way as far as large notes are concerned: there would have been the triads, the three-notes on the staff, but below you would have had number seven, and number seven would have been ... meant that note: (Mus. Ill.) Now, this is not unusual at all; this is what one finds all the time. And then (Mus. Ill.) Bach adds what we would call sometimes an appoggiatura, in this case an acciaccatura. This note (Mus. Ill. ) and that's an acciaccatura; otherwise you'd get (Mus. Ill.) the seventh (Mus. Ill.) and if we did it in the nineteenth century, we would be passing: (Mus. Ill.) You see? And if that wasn't considered brilliant enough, we'd add: (Mus. Ill.) and so forth, which is exactly what this last section really sounds like: ... that's precisely what is written out for a pianist, supposedly to do.
Now this is the way Bach realizes it, so (Mus. Ill.) first, you have the fundamental chord, which are those triads (Mus. Ill.): then you have number seven (Mus. Ill.), which means that (Mus. Ill.) they are to be in seventh (Mus. Ill.) which is in itself not a fundamental chord (Mus. Ill.) and then, on top of that, he adds an extra ornament which is what we'd call here an acciaccatura, which is always a kind of dissonant note which appears between the interval of a third. Now those of you who know enough about music to understand that know exactly what I am talking about and those of you who don't, probably are very much in the dark. (Laughter) Well, now this is a third, this sound is a third: (Mus. Ill.) And there's a note in between: as a matter of fact, there are two very important notes in between (Mus. Ill.): there is this one (Mus. Ill.) and there is this one (Mus. Ill.): and depending on the harmony in which you find yourself, you would employ either this one (Mus. Ill.) or this one (Mus. Ill.) for, what is called, the acciaccatura. Now this acciaccatura creates a dissonance and that's exactly what the composer wants, is a dissonance.
Now the reason I give such emphasis to the word "exactly" really grows out of years of pain and patience, because again our more recent heritage, we think much more in terms of consonance, believe it or not, when you hear contemporary music. In a way, that's why contemporary music made such a stir, because it has nothing to do with consonance. And many ... (change of tape, part missing) find a way of introducing dissonance. Now, Bach wrote these out in large notes. So now I have realized for you this entire figure as Bach himself wrote it and told you what this really is fundamentally. It is a simple series of chords (Mus. Ill.), very conventional (Mus. Ill.), very nice (Mus. Ill.); very nice, very good. With a number seven (Mus. Ill.), which is not really conventional at all, and then he adds the acciaccatura, every time. So you get: (Mus. Ill.) Now von Bülow wouldn't have liked that. (Laughter) You see, because it's not consonant; it's as dissonant as one could make such a fundamental series of chords, and then, on top of that, he writes them out in successive notes so it makes a rhapsodic figure: (Mus. Ill.) Now that sounds very free, doesn't it? It sounds as though it has no form. But it has all that form; and that's what I meant when I began the lecture by saying that despite the fact that it appears that these improvisational runs and so forth are very free, there's a very deep structure of all kinds of musical pillars upholding that freedom. Now, I think we have a recess for ten minutes.
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I don't know whether any of you have overheard this sentiment expressed, but I have heard it expressed in application not only to music, but other arts as well. For the first time I heard it was when I was a student and playing the Brahms B-flat Concerto with the second piano, and the pianist at that time had just married Roy Harris and when we finished our playing — we were working it out together — I was going to play with the orchestra and she was good enough to play the orchestra part on the second piano — when we finished, she said "What a great composer Brahms would have been if he had only written in the modern idiom." (Laughter throughout the audience.)
Now, I hear often said to me by people who are really very well-meaning and probably feel as though they want to give me some moral support, saying that "Well, if Bach had a modern piano, he would have written for it!" Now I think this is somewhat the same kind of thinking, and I — despite the fact that I do play Bach so much on the piano and have worked so hard to find a way to play Bach on the piano; I do play the other instruments, and always have — I feel that this is a very unbalanced kind of statement. The fact remains that Bach didn't have a [modern] piano. Now, you might think that I am speaking against myself, because this is what people who believe that Bach should only be played on the harpsichord say, but I don't think that's incriminating in any way, because there is no question in my mind and I think if one is really serious about these things you can't escape the fact that you are dealing first with music and then you have to think about how you are going to articulate this music, and there's a great deal more to be known than this one instrumental question.
Now, everything that I speak of with you, you may have noticed — and if not, I try to call it to your attention — I think you will find there's always some kind of relationship to something: at least, I try for that. What I've just said may seem very far out from what I am going to do for you right now, and that is to play for you a couple of variations from a very little-known piece by Bach, and that's the Aria and Ten Variations in the Italian Style. That's the only other set of variations that he wrote besides the Goldberg Variations. Now, this is a very little set and it's an early work and the Goldbergs are something quite different, as you all know. Now, by coming to these one or two variations of this very little ... rather little-known work, I want to bring out a number of things and the illustration of what I just spoke of regarding piano, harpsichord and so forth; an illustration of a term which is getting to be known about the rather little informed, and that is the "notes inégales" and that's a very dangerous phrase.
The only people who can handle it are the most sophisticated musicologically and instrumentally and even they have a terribly difficult time, because almost nothing is known about the "notes inégales," which means simply "unequal notes." We have a few little written fragments by writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that, of course, in all due respect to the theoreticians, is nothing to go by, because you just don't know how to apply it and this has always been a great problem in Bach and in the study of the period, because we have marvelous sources now revealed to us, and we have wonderful material for study; but we have to learn how to apply it and this is what I am trying to do in my work, is to integrate them; not only bring them together, but to integrate them.
Now, the application of what little we know about the "notes inégales" is, at this time, perhaps, one of the most fashionable aspects of the study ... oh, in the study of Bach, and you hear about it when you hear people lecture on the more mysterious arts of Bach. Now, what does it really amount to? Where is ... now, I show you a little picture of it. (Noise of paper being unfolded.) You have a phrase written in equal notes that is rhythmically (noise of chalk marks on blackboard) just eight notes, all sixteenth; what could be more simple? Now, according to the "notes inégales" style, those are supposed to become unequal, but nobody really knows how unequal. So we have a few illustrations of earlier times which seems ... which indicate that it might be something like that: (noise of chalk marks on blackboard) You see? Dotted! So that one becomes dotted, which means instead of, something which appears visually this way: (Mus. Ill.) You do: (Mus. Ill.) Now you can imagine what that would sound like if that when on, and on, and on, and on? You would have the pigeon-head action. (Laughter among the audience.) Now, this is a very beautiful variation. It's in these Italian Variations actually: (Mus. Ill.) Now, what if I were to... (Mus. Ill.) Now, no composer ever wrote a piece like that and no composer would ever want his little variation to sound like that.