This week’s guest blog post features an article on evenness and rhythmic groupings by Ken Johansen with an example from his From the Ground Up edition for Bach’s Prelude in D Minor (BWV 935).

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For many pianists, playing evenly is a bit of an obsession. We spend long hours trying to make our scales, arpeggios and passage work perfectly smooth and equal. This ideal is embodied in the famous jeu perlé, in which each note is like a pearl on a necklace – separate and identical, though united on the same string. But do we really want every note to be identical? Clearly, we don’t want unintended irregularities of tone or timing, such as bumps on the thumb in scales and arpeggios. Music, however, absolutely requires constant expressive, intended inflections of tone and rhythm. A string of equal notes doesn’t make a musical line. To modify Socrates’s famous saying, the uninflected line isn’t worth hearing.

Nowhere is the need for expressive inflection more important, or its absence more noticeable, than in the music of Bach. The continuous sixteenth-note (semiquaver) motion of much of his music seems to invite the kind of uninflected, mechanical playing that used to be called “typewriter” playing. At the same time, the beauty of Bach’s writing can inspire playing of great rhythmic subtlety and vitality. For Bach designs motives and melodies to have a built-in momentum and rhythmic drive. He does this in the subtlest of ways using the simplest of means – namely, the intervals and melodic changes of direction he chooses.

This subtlety is on full display in the Prelude in D minor, BWV 935, currently set in the Trinity College London piano examination syllabus, Grade 6. A complete edition and walkthrough of this little gem is now available on the Online Academy as part of my series, From the Ground Up.

The sixteenth notes tumble along, in one hand or the other, for the entire length of this prelude, but the way Bach groups these notes together changes constantly. In the opening motive, the six notes of the measure are divided 3+3, the first three forming a mordant, the second three a rising arpeggio.

Since the rising arpeggio is more energetic than the mordant, it initiates a new group that propels the rhythmic movement across the bar line.

The other two principal motives of the prelude having different rhythmic groupings, always extending over the bar line.

If we play all of these sixteenth notes with equal intensity, without nuance or inflection, or with an accent on the first beat of each measure, this rhythmic variety and vitality will be completely lost. But once we start to look for these rhythmic groups, and consider how to communicate them in performance, a whole new world of interpretation opens up.

In the edition, we explore this issue of rhythmic grouping, as well as other topics, in depth, and suggest practise methods to help you realize a nuanced, expressive performance of this prelude. It can be used as a guide not only to this piece, but as a primer for playing Bach in general.

– Ken Johansen

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If you enjoyed this article then you may be interested in the author’s From the Ground Up series, or the latest edition which features Bach’s Prelude in D Minor (BWV 935). Click here to view the walk-through on the Online Academy or click here to purchase and download a printable PDF version of the edition.

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series on the Online Academy devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively.

Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up or on one of the following links to view the available editions:

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