Beyond the Notes: Bach's Prelude in C Minor will make you smile.
Why do we feel emotionally connected to certain pieces of music? Why is it that music, regardless of style, bypasses the brain and connects directly to our hearts and souls? It speaks directly through a language that doesn’t use words, but creates a story that we can feel, but why is that?
The ins and outs of that connection will likely remain a mystery forever. However, we can explore certain aspects and small details that can reveal elements in a piece of music we may not have noticed before, which could establish an emotional connection we didn't previously have.
Let's take a closer look at Bach's Prelude in C minor. Bach used an older version of this piece and included an updated version of it in his famous bundle, The Well-Tempered Clavier, in 1722. This bundle includes 24 preludes and fugues, one for each key, with C minor being one of them.
C minor is not a joyful key. The mood is somber and depressing, even revolting, but there is a plot twist at the end! When we strip away the busy 16th notes, we are left with a skeleton of just a few notes: a bass note and a top note, which is the melody. These are the main notes, not hidden anywhere, but just covered by an abundance of 16th notes.
The first and third beats are constructed around a simple, calm melody. When we play only these notes, we can see that the character of the piece remains intact or is even enhanced a little bit. There is another special thing that you may or may not have noticed: a counter melody added to the main one. This counter "note" is also covered by the 16th notes and rhythm, but it is prominently present on the second and fourth beats. Combined with the main notes, this creates a strong interval.
Intervals are more than just two notes. They create an atmosphere of their own. For instance, the first interval in this piece is a descending octave, high to low, which is very symbolic in Baroque literature. You may have your own interpretation of this interval, such as God talking to humans or a happy situation turning sad, but ultimately, everyone will feel that this descending octave represents sadness.
Try playing this "skeleton" to experience the change in character of the piece or to reveal its meaning. The Presto suddenly adds harmonic density, culminating in a feeling of "I do not accept this situation, I want to go or be somewhere else."
Then suddenly, after this turmoil and all the 16th notes, comes the Adagio with its surprising (or not) opening at the dominant 7 chord, E natural, an open question leading to the final allegro where a semi-chromatic line pretends the Adagio never happened.
That line brings us to the bottom of the piece: C, the foundation of the piece and perhaps also of life. But where do we go? Where do we want to go? Up, we want to go all the way up to the high C, hanging in the air, representing God in Bach's time and perhaps to you as well. Of course, that is too high for us humans, so we need to go back a little. But not to the dark E flat. No. To an E natural. All the noise stopped, all the 16ths became only a bad dream of yesterday. In the light of the high C, we stand in the bright air of the E natural.
And who doesn't want to stay there forever?