Arrangements and improvisations on the solo keyboard music of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.
The David Rees-Williams Trio comes together to present their second CD recording with Champs Hill Records. This disc, Classically Reminded: Bach, includes arrangements & improvisations on the solo keyboard music of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.
The trio was formed in 1988 featuring David Rees-Williams on piano, Neil Francis on bass guitar and Phil Laslett on drums. Based in Canterbury, Kent, they have performed many concerts in a diverse selection of festivals and events in the UK, Europe, The United States and Barbados.
At the age of fifteen Johann Sebastian Bach, an able scholar and accomplished organist, left school in the small country town of Ohrdruf. He set out in company with a classmate on the long march north to Lüneburg, where he became a choral scholar at St Michael’s School and received lessons from Georg Böhm, one of the three finest organists in Germany at the time. Bach’s musical education was built on the broad base of skills required of organists, improvisation chief among them. Candidates for jobs at leading churches were usually expected to improvise elaborate fugues and fantasies on Lutheran hymns during their auditions, while incumbent church organists appear to have entertained audiences for their public recitals with largely improvised programmes. The young Bach, according to one of his first biographers, would satisfy the urge while improvising ‘to run or leap up and down the instrument, to take both hands as full as all the five fingers will allow and to proceed in this wild manner till he by chance finds a resting place’.
While comparisons between practices common to one age and another can be strained beyond reason, there are parallels between Bach’s approach to improvisation at the keyboard and certain fundamental features of jazz. Many of the composer’s notated preludes, toccatas and chorale fantasias – genres freely improvised as part of church services or courtly entertainments – are based upon simple formal structures, elegant melodic formulas, and clear-cut chord progressions, close in spirit to the ‘head’ of a jazz tune. Bach and his contemporaries were raised in the art of continuo playing. Part of their training involved constructing polyphonic pieces from the information contained in a throughbass or basso continuo part, just as jazz musicians learn how to invent melodies out of the bare information contained in a chart of chord changes. It seems likely that Bach was also heir to a long tradition of improvising fugues at the keyboard, one supplied with a rich stock of existing melodic subjects around which performers could demonstrate their technical prowess and grasp of the ‘science’ of music.
Professional musicians in Bach’s day refined their craft and art by listening to others, taking note of the melodic ornaments and improvised figures that produced the strongest emotional affects. Michael Praetorius, writing in the early 1600s, suggested that performers were obliged to learn such practical knowledge ‘as one bird must learn from another’. Although the practice of decorating existing compositions could be and often was overdone, improvisation remained a vital part of the performer’s toolkit deep into the 1700s, as Johann Mattheson made clear in 1739 in his influential handbook for The Accomplished Chapel Master. The singer, he observes, should ‘know how to perform a pre-composed melody not only without the slightest offence against the [written] directions but especially with much grace, ornament, and artistry: the first is bad reading; the second is reading with expression and good style’.
Chances are that Bach improvised many more keyboard pieces than he ever chose to fix on the written page; even so, the spontaneity of improvisation found its way into many of his compositions, present in the written-out ornamentations of their melodic lines and the vitality of the fugues in works such as The Musical Offering, originally invented here and now at the keyboard. The composer’s Obituary, published four years after his death, includes a detailed report of a keyboard duel planned in 1717 for Bach and the famous French harpsichordist and organist, Louis Marchand. ‘Bach … invited Marchand to a contest [in Dresden], in a courteous letter in which he declared himself ready to execute ex tempore whatever musical tasks Marchand should set him and, in turn, expressed his expectation that Marchand would show the same willingness – certainly a proof of great daring. Marchand showed himself quite ready to accept the invitation.’ Bach arrived in good time for the showdown; Marchand, however, had already left town by the early morning coach. ‘Bach, who thus remained the sole master of the scene of the contest, accordingly had plentiful opportunity to exhibit the talents with which he was armed against his opponent,’ notes the Obituary. ‘And this he did, to the astonishment of all present.’
The boundaries between the improvised and the composed were less rigid three centuries ago than they often are today. Although Bach took care to write out elaborate melodic ornaments in his mature works – details that were said by contemporary observers to represent all that was necessary to their interpretation – he readily returned to revise scores with fresh ideas that most probably arose in the white heat of performance. Jazz musicians were drawn to Bach as their genre developed, some to play his music more or less ‘straight’, others to improvise on the composer’s own themes: the Trinidad-born pianist Hazel Scott, for instance, recorded Bach’s Two-Part Invention in A minor in 1940, moving from an unadorned reading of the piece to reach a compelling double-tempo swing playout, while the Modern Jazz Quartet’s pianist, John Lewis, regularly improvised fugues in the style of Bach. Jacques Loussier launched his Play Bach trio in 1959, crowning a decade in which the links connecting Bach to jazz were reinforced by, among others, Nina Simone, George Shearing and Dave Brubeck.
Bach has proved a lasting source of inspiration to the jazz world, nudging Keith Jarrett to make classical recordings of the composer’s Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier, and Claude Bolling to create the pulsating piano solo Bach to Swing. David Rees-Williams and his Trio have communed with Bach’s music for almost three decades, absorbing elements of his style into their work and exploring the oceanic expanse of the composer’s imagination. The DRW Trio’s Bach calls to mind what the poet John Keats termed negative capability, ‘that is when [one] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Each piece, whether joyful or mysterious, contemplative or boisterous, emerges naturally from one of Bach’s original themes, the immediate outcome of lived experience, with all the unforced spiritual insights and conscious illuminations that come with deep immersion in the composer’s musical rhetoric. These are expansive responses to Bach, full of heart and hope, the opposite to all things narrow and mean of spirit.
Considerations of the romantic and mysterious in Bach will vary according to the performer’s intentions and the listener’s perspective; what sounds ‘authentic’ to some will strike others as dust dry and lifeless. David Rees-Williams’ interpretations evoke the spirit of spontaneity that shaped Baroque improvisation, reclaiming the old borderlands between performance and composition that Bach, his teachers and his pupils would have known. The DRW Trio’s harmonies echo the clear I- IV-V-I chord progressions set by Bach at the opening of so many of his compositions and emulate the subtle nuances of their transformation over a work’s course: ambiguity and uncertainty gradually emerge here as the only certain ground beneath our feet, part of the universal order rather than something other; likewise, Rees-Williams disrupts a melody’s course with a wholly unexpected scale passage, a spicy dissonance or sudden rhythmic kick, directing the creative mind’s light, shade and colour to flow freely in the present moment, to bypass the reducing filters of compositional rulebooks and conceptual thought in pursuit of the inmost truths of Bach’s music. ‘I require you only to look,’ wrote St Teresa of Ávila. And Bach requires you only to listen.