Bach's Beguiling "Architectural Masterpieces"

Question: What do you love about Bach?
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\r\nHilda Huang: I love how complex it is on the inside, but when you\r\n look at it from a distance, it's so simple and pure and elegant that \r\nyou would never suspect that it's such an architectural masterpiece. \r\nLike it follows all of the forms of a fugue, say a prelude, any type of a\r\n dance, but when you just listen to it, it's just a charming piece by \r\nitself. 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.
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\r\nQuestion: What is a fugue?
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\r\nHilda Huang:
So a fugue is when there's two, three, four, five \r\nvoices—or more if you'd like.  And each voice is basically just a line \r\nand each line has a subject, but the subjects are all the same in each \r\nline. So, say the first voice will enter with the subject and when the \r\nsubject is finished, then the second voice enters and does the subject, \r\nbut usually in a different key. Then the third voice enters when the \r\nsecond voice is finished with its subject, then the fourth voice enters \r\nwhen the third is done and so on and so forth.
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\r\nQuestion: Why is Bach's music so complex?
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\r\nHilda Huang:
In Bach's music, there's always a lot of lines going \r\nand if you have, say, a two-voice fugue, each line is completely \r\nindependent of each other, which is really confusing to play of course, \r\nbecause you have to pay attention to one, like, one character, then the \r\nother one has to be a completely different character. But when you move \r\non to the bigger fugues with three, four, five voices, that's a really, \r\nreally hard task to do because you only have two hands but you have to \r\ntake care of basically five different people playing five different \r\nlines.
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\r\nAnd then on top of that, these five different people are interacting \r\nwith each other in ways that are sometimes a bit surprising. Like \r\nsometimes they like to say argue with each other, the voices interrupt \r\neach other and other times they kind of play with each other and it's a \r\nvery friendly piece. But there's an outline in which they all work. So, \r\nsay there's a friendly part and they all work together, but then after \r\nthat, they suddenly turn against each other, so now they're angry at \r\neach other. So you have to create the distinction between those two \r\ncharacters as well as the five different characters as well as the \r\ninteraction between those five characters. And the list goes on and on, \r\nof course.
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\r\nQuestion: What is your favorite Bach piece?
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\r\nHilda Huang: I'd have to say my favorite is "The Art of Fugue" \r\nbecause this really showcases Bach's magnificent fugue writing. I mean, \r\nit's the entire 16 fugues are based on just one simple subject in the \r\nfirst fugue that comes in four different voices. But then, it's kind of \r\nlike a set of variations. You have 15 more fugues, with each subject as a\r\n variation of the first subject. And that works really well because each\r\n one has a different subject and each subject is unique in its own way \r\nin the fugue itself. And often times, in each different fugue he takes \r\nsubjects from different fugues and puts them in. So I think there's some\r\n fugues that you have three different subjects at the same time and \r\nothers you have two different subjects at the same time. So now you're \r\nnot dealing with just a fugue, you're dealing with a double fugue or a \r\ntriple fugue.
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\r\nQuestion: What do you mean by “subject?"
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\r\nHilda Huang: So a subject is basically like a very specific motif\r\n in a piece. You have say a line like da de da de da. And that is \r\nmirrored by da da da da da in the second voice, but then the third voice\r\n comes in doing da da da da da and then the fourth voice comes in and \r\ndoing da da da da da da, so it's always the same. The fugue is, the \r\nsubject is always set and the sequence of the notes is always the same, \r\nbut often Bach will take little bits of that subject, cut it up and \r\nplace it at random places in the fugue, or he'll take the subject and \r\ntransform it to completely different keys, or take it from major to \r\nminor and put it all over again.

Recorded on June 7, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

From a distance, Johann Sebastian Bach's pieces seem so "simple and pure," says the 14-year-old pianist. But on "the inside" they are much more complex.

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