Wednesday, 3 March 2010

"Teleportation, all this kind of crap"

Years ago, I remember a few weeks when I used to stay up late (until just after midnight) to watch TV. They were repeating The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and then afterwards they would show one of the Prelude's and Fugues from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier (or WTC for short).

The story behind the WTC is all about out of tune pianos. Or rather, out of tune harpsichords. And organs. I don't want to go into hideous detail, but basically people used to tune their organs and other keyboard instruments so that chords played, in say, C major, sounded really good. However, if you tried to play in a different key, say, G major, you'd find that some of the notes were ever so slightly out of tune. By the time you got to unrelated keys such as Ab, things were so bad that if you were lucky if the audience didn't actually lynch you.

Consequently, composers wrote a lot of music in C major, but not very much for C sharp major. I'm not quite sure why this was a particular problem, but at some point clever people, such as J.S. Bach, realised that if you tuned your instrument so that all of the notes were slightly out of tune, then you could play equally well (or badly) in each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys. This method of tuning, called "Equal Temperance", has been used ever since.

Bach celebrated this technological milestone by writing 24 preludes and fugues in these keys. Then he wrote a sequel (the first lot must have sold well), consisting of another 24. The two volumes of WTC are often referred to as "The 48", for reasons that should be clear to those of you who didn't do too badly at Maths.

Anyway, in 2000 the BBC got 4 pianists to record the 48. That's 12 preludes and fugues per pianist for those of you who flunked arithmetic. Each pianist was filmed in a different venue. Some of the venues were really picturesque, such as the wonderfully ornate (if unfortunately named) Palazzo Labia in Venice.

The Russian-born pianist Andrei Gavrilov drew the short straw, and got to perform in the not-quite-opened New Art Gallery in Walsall. Like most British towns, they have planning restrictions which ensure that new buildings are in keeping with the traditional ones. In (say) Bath, this means that new buildings need to look like they're a couple of centuries old. In Walsall you have to make them as ugly as possible.

Before each of the preludes and fugues, the performer says a few words about the piece. Sadly, these bits are cut out of the DVD version, but not from YouTube. Gavrilov says it like it is. The C# minor prelude is indeed like something from another planet. The director of these films did a great job in making 48 heavy-going pieces of music look visually interesting. Even in Walsall.


Jean Knee said...

so many many plays on words I could do here.


the only thing I could understand that dude saying was teleportation. he has fast fingers though

Bee said...

Brian? Where did my comment from the other day go? It had something about Labia and a pianist and I'm sure it was hilarious!

Anyway, the music was beautiful. The way they focused on his fingers was awesome but the cuts of his face gave me the heebie jeebies.