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Timeline: Pairing The Music of Bach And Chopin

All Images Public Domain - Collage by James Stewart
Vermont Public Radio

We celebrate Chopin’s birthday on the first day of March and J.S. Bach’s on the last. So, on Timeline we’ll be spending this month exploring the life and music of these two influential composers.


In February, I had the pleasure of hosting a concert at Vermont Public Radio’s Stetson Studio One with Vermont pianist Paul Orgel. Paul was presenting an evening of musical pairings, putting together selections from J.S Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier Book II and Chopin’s Nocturnes. I was honored to be a part of the evening, giving some insights into the composers and their music. You can listen to all of the recordings here. We wanted to share some highlights from that evening with you.

James (from that evening): There are some things that just naturally go together; peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, and for those with perhaps a more sophisticated palate, an aged Vermont Sharp Cheddar with an earthy Pinot Noir. I have to admit, I had to look up that last one. The idea is to take two things that seem to be quite different from one another and place them together, experiencing how they contrast or complement each other. That’s what we’re doing musically tonight. We are taking two composers’ work, separated by a century, geography, philosophy and style; we’re placing them side by side listening to them together and, I believe, we’ll hear something new and unique as a result.

Specifically, we are pairing Bach and Chopin’s music by key, or tonality. This evening we’ll be experiencing excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, starting where Bach began, with the key of C. That word “tempered” or “temperament” is used to describe how we tune and create scales or keys, the building blocks of western music. Today, we use a tuning system called “Equal Temperament.” This beautiful piano in front of you has been meticulously tuned by Allan Day so that the octave is split into 12 equal steps that we call semi-tones. But history is filled with different ways of tuning. In Bach’s day, the standard was Mean-tone Temperament. The limitation of that system meant that a single keyboard could only play in 5 or 6 related keys. That means that you would have to have multiple keyboards to play in all the available keys. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was written for a single keyboard tuned to play in all the available keys, 24 of them, 12 major and 12 minor.  This was a revolutionary idea.

I doubt that Bach intended The Well-Tempered Clavier to be a concert work as we’ll hear it performed today. In Bach’s words The Well-Tempered Clavier was written “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in the study.” That’s certainly not true of Chopin’s Nocturnes or Night Pieces. These are works meant to fill a concert hall and to be played by a master. Chopin composed 20 of these works or 21 depending on how you count them. The nocturne was a salon genre, invented by the Irish composer, John Field, but it was perfected by Chopin’s hand and imagination. These works are full of emotional depth in which many hear the influences of vocal writing, specifically Italian opera arias.

You can learn more about Bach and Chopin and listen to all of Paul Orgel’s performances from that evening right now here.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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