Bach's Beguiling "Architectural Masterpieces"

Hilda Huang is a American pianist who has achieved international acclaim for her performances of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. At the age of 14, she is also the youngest expert to appear on Big Think. Huang made her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 11, participating in the PBS series "From the Top at Carnegie Hall." She also won the International Bach Competition in March, 2010, becoming the youngest person and the first American to win. Huang, who started playing the piano at the age of three, is also one of the musicians featured in Michael Lawrence's documentary "Bach & Friends." She lives in Palo Alto, California.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What do you love about Bach?

Hilda Huang: I love how complex it is on the inside, but when you look at it from a distance, it's so simple and pure and elegant that you would never suspect that it's such an architectural masterpiece. Like it follows all of the forms of a fugue, say a prelude, any type of a dance, but when you just listen to it, it's just a charming piece by itself. And you don't have to hear like, oh this is an allemande, oh this is a sarabonde. But of course, it helps to know.

Question: What is a fugue?

Hilda Huang:
So a fugue is when there's two, three, four, five voices—or more if you'd like.  And each voice is basically just a line and each line has a subject, but the subjects are all the same in each line. So, say the first voice will enter with the subject and when the subject is finished, then the second voice enters and does the subject, but usually in a different key. Then the third voice enters when the second voice is finished with its subject, then the fourth voice enters when the third is done and so on and so forth.

Question: Why is Bach's music so complex?

Hilda Huang:
In Bach's music, there's always a lot of lines going and if you have, say, a two-voice fugue, each line is completely independent of each other, which is really confusing to play of course, because you have to pay attention to one, like, one character, then the other one has to be a completely different character. But when you move on to the bigger fugues with three, four, five voices, that's a really, really hard task to do because you only have two hands but you have to take care of basically five different people playing five different lines.

And then on top of that, these five different people are interacting with each other in ways that are sometimes a bit surprising. Like sometimes they like to say argue with each other, the voices interrupt each other and other times they kind of play with each other and it's a very friendly piece. But there's an outline in which they all work. So, say there's a friendly part and they all work together, but then after that, they suddenly turn against each other, so now they're angry at each other. So you have to create the distinction between those two characters as well as the five different characters as well as the interaction between those five characters. And the list goes on and on, of course.

Question: What is your favorite Bach piece?

Hilda Huang: I'd have to say my favorite is "The Art of Fugue" because this really showcases Bach's magnificent fugue writing. I mean, it's the entire 16 fugues are based on just one simple subject in the first fugue that comes in four different voices. But then, it's kind of like a set of variations. You have 15 more fugues, with each subject as a variation of the first subject. And that works really well because each one has a different subject and each subject is unique in its own way in the fugue itself. And often times, in each different fugue he takes subjects from different fugues and puts them in. So I think there's some fugues that you have three different subjects at the same time and others you have two different subjects at the same time. So now you're not dealing with just a fugue, you're dealing with a double fugue or a triple fugue.

Question: What do you mean by “subject?"

Hilda Huang: So a subject is basically like a very specific motif in a piece. You have say a line like da de da de da. And that is mirrored by da da da da da in the second voice, but then the third voice comes in doing da da da da da and then the fourth voice comes in and doing da da da da da da, so it's always the same. The fugue is, the subject is always set and the sequence of the notes is always the same, but often Bach will take little bits of that subject, cut it up and place it at random places in the fugue, or he'll take the subject and transform it to completely different keys, or take it from major to minor and put it all over again.

Recorded on June 7, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman


×