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S47 Ep2

Now Hear This “The Riddle of Bach”

Premiere: 9/27/2019 | 00:00:30 | Closed Captioning Icon

Scott Yoo goes to Germany to learn Bach’s sonatas and partitas, widely considered among the greatest works ever written for solo violin. There, Yoo discovers a riddle Bach left behind in his portrait. In trying to solve it, Yoo and his wife, leading flutist Alice Dade, discover that Bach based his melodic style on Vivaldi and his rhythms on the music of the French court.



About the Episode

Scott Yoo goes to Germany to learn Bach’s sonatas and partitas.


-Next, on 'Great Performances'... -I'm Scott Yoo.

Come with me to meet the greatest musician of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach.

-This is him, definitely. -It's bit like a labyrinth here.

-His violin music is some of the most perfect, most difficult, in existence.

I have to make pretzels out of my fingers.

To play it, I'll first need to understand his personality... -Maybe it's the place where he created some of his most genius works. This is a riddle.

You need to figure out what it means.

-...and understand his influences.

I never knew Bach's sense of melody came from Vivaldi.

I'll travel with my wife, Alice Dade, across Germany... -This is really like a challenge, this next one.

-...and into France, to Paris, to meet some of today's great musicians.

-This is, you know, folk music.

[ Harpsichord plays off-key ] -Oh. -Oh, my God.

What we discover along the way will change my mind about Bach forever.

-That's part of his genius.

He makes you work for it.

-Next on 'Great Performances,' an episode from the new music series, 'Now Hear This.'

[ Mid-tempo classical music plays ] ♪♪♪ -A week ago, I went to Germany to learn how to play the violin music of Bach.

So, how exactly did I end up in Paris at Christmas, dressed like the Christmas turkey?

Well, it went something like this.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Johann Sebastian Bach.

Most musicians would say he's the greatest composer of all time, the greatest Mozart studied him, Beethoven idolized him.

They were mere geniuses.

But Bach -- Bach is God.

His work is the Bible.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Choir singing indistinctly ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Bach's solo violin works are sometimes called the Himalayas of the violin.

And I never learned them.

So I came to Germany to figure out not just to play them, but how would want me to play them.

Many consider this collection of work the most perfect writing for the violin.

To attempt them, I borrowed the perfect violin -- the 1714 'Leonora Jackson' Stradivarius.

♪♪♪ [ Violin string plays ] And I wanted to start with the most famous work of them all.

[ Violin plays ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Bach is a national treasure here.

So I headed to Germany's national concert hall to talk to Alice Sara Ott, the brilliant German-Japanese pianist.

[ Door opens ] -It's this way.

It's a bit like a labyrinth here.

-Alice won a Bach competition when she 15, so I hoped she could help me understand the 'Chaconne.'

It's fitting we were headed down to the basement to get to the bottom of this dark music.


And so you get to try these pianos and pick the one you want to play in the concert?

-Yes. Exactly.

So, there's three Steinways here, and I would pick one of those.

-Great. -It's actually quite nice, yeah.

-So, Alice, I'm here in Germany because, my entire life, I've avoided playing the Bach 'Partitas' for solo violin... -Really? -... and I decided, well, you know, before I die, I better play them.

So, you play these pieces on the piano, right?

-Yes, Busoni has written an arrangement, also Brahms.

-So, it's easier, right, on the piano?

-It is easier, when it comes to chords.

It is not really easy to play because it's still -- -It's not? -No.

What is it, 20 minutes of music?

-Right. -And it's -- it's like a prayer.

Scott, could you actually play the very end of the 'Chaconne' for me -- the last two, three bars?

-Sure. [ Violin plays ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Why, is your version different or something?

-No, I want -- What key does it end for you?

-Ambiguous -- An ambiguous key.

It's of D.

Could be D major, but I guess I think of it in D minor.

-So, you you see the whole piece -- quite dark, a sad ending?

-Oh, I don't associate this music with happy at all.

-Not at all? Okay. -Not at all.

-Let me, then, actually play the Busoni version, or the Busoni interpretation of the end.

So, this is still the same.

[ Piano plays ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Wow.

-Instead of... ♪♪♪ -Yeah.

-So, I wonder why Bach just, you know, left this question open.

Bach, as a personality -- I don't think he was too heavy and too dark.

You know, I always listen to Bach music when I feel blue and when I feel a bit depressed.

-So, you -- you find Bach's music's to be uplifting?

-Sometimes, yes.

Even in the 'Chaconne,' there are parts, like, yeah, in the middle -- -In the middle, of course.

-And I think the end is not -- you know, it's not Bach to me somehow, even if it's just... [ Piano plays chord ] So it's actually -- -The light at the end of the tunnel.


[ Violin plays softly ] -When Alice says there's a little light in the darkness, I needed to find out more.

♪♪♪ So I headed to Bach's adopted home, Leipzig, to meet another Alice -- my wife.

♪♪♪ During Bach's 27 years in Leipzig, this orchestra, the Gewandhaus, was founded.


-Bach would have known and worked with all their musicians, and since then, the Gewandhaus has had a strong connection to his music.

♪♪♪ If anyone knows Bach, it's their director, Andreas Schulz.

-We have had, in the past, in our orchestra nearly more than 1,100 musicians.

And you can go back always, with a jump of four, five, six stops, and then you are in the time of Mendelssohn, and then you're in the time of Bach.

So that's when this orchestra is, in a way, breathing and can really tell you, let's say, the spirits of that time that say how to perform Bach or how to perform Mendelssohn.

-Mm. -It's like a living history.

-It is a living history, absolutely.

-Sounds like a really excellent acoustic.

-It is, I can tell you.

So, when the orchestra is performing onstage, they are always very happy.

The public is very happy to listen.

And these fantastic acoustic -- there is nothing which is, let's say, changing the acoustic, like an open wall or a curtain.

It's really the natural acoustic of the hall.

-What you see is what you get. -What you see is what you get.

You can exactly feel, if you're onstage, what you will get from the room. -Right.

Would you mind if I played a few notes onstage?

-Yes. It would be wonderful. Very happy to listen to you.

[ Violin plays ] ♪♪♪ -This movement of all Bach's solo violin works gives me the most trouble, and playing it for someone like Andreas is enough to make anyone nervous.

But I've got to relax and find the lightness.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Applause ] -Super.

-If Andreas likes the way I'm playing it, maybe I'm headed in the right direction.

[ Bells toll ] But to understand the character of this music, I needed to understand the character of Bach.

So we went to see the man who literally wrote the book -- Christoph Wolff.

For many years, he was the director here at the Bach Archive.

Wow. Look at that.

I've seen this picture so many times, but this is the real one, right?

-This is him, definitely. -This is it?

-Yeah. It's the only authentic portrait we have.

-What kind of a person was Bach?

This looks a little bit like he wasn't terribly serious.

-No, he isn't serious.

I mean, he is a very serious composer.

-Of course. -But I think he was a person who had fun to be with other people, and he was a gregarious character.

And I think, you know, the way he presents himself -- You know, it's a friendly face.

He's not laughing, but I think it's a friendly face, and I think somewhat skeptical.

And he also had this piece of music, as you can see, printed on a sheet of paper and sent it to colleagues and friends.

Well, that's his business card.

He is showing the people who look at the picture who he is.

-So, it says 'Canon triplex' -- 'canon in three parts.' -Right.

For six voices. -Six voices?

-Six voices, but you see only three.

-Right. So you have to figure out... -You have to figure out. to make the other -- -Yeah, and I think that's what the smile of the composer is all about.

So, he holds and chose it, and you know, now he says, you know, 'This is a riddle.' -Figure it out.

-'You have to do something with it.'

-Would you mind if I just took a picture of the music part so I can figure out the riddle?

-Not at all. I mean, feel free to do it.

But that's the easy part. -Okay. Alright.

-[ Chuckles ] ♪♪♪ [ Camera shutter clicks ] -Good.

Now you have to work on it. -Yeah.

[ Choir singing indistinctly ] Next stop, Weimar, one of the places Bach lived before Leipzig.

Here we joined Alice's friend Gareth Lubbe, who is the principal violist of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

-This is where he hung out with his friends.

-This hotel? -Yeah, he drank beer here, spoke about life, the universe, and everything.

It's -- Maybe it's the place where he created some of his most genius works.

[ Laughter ] -That's usually where I make my genius works -- in the bar. -In the bar.

-Below the hotel is the Elephantenkeller where we'd meet the musicologist Andreas Jakobs, an expert on Bach's writing style.

-Can I have one of those? -Yeah, sure.

So one of the things everyone should know about Bach, that he was drinking dark beer in this very cellar.

So the Hotel Elephanten is quite famous... -Wow. -So, welcome.

So, have three beers, will you?

As for Weimar, so, Bach was court organist to the Duke.

And it was during this time where he developed one kind of decisive feature of his composing style, because he got aquatinted with Vivaldi's concertos.

-Mm. -Yeah.

You see, they were in the library, all the music of the concertos by Vivaldi, which were rather freshly in print already.

And Bach was part of the court chapel and so what he did is not only that he studied them, but he also -- he transcribed them for organ and harpsichord.

-Which pieces are you talking about?

-For example, the one -- the A minor for two violins, or one for four violins. So, yeah.

-So, wait a minute.

So, you're talking about... [ Violin plays ] -Exactly. That's one. -That's one, and, like, a... [ Violin plays ] -Yeah, that's one.

-So, those pieces, he took the entire concerto and he wrote it for one organist?

-Yeah. Well, so, the one has to do a lot.

-It's a lot -- lot to do, sure. -Music for organ, though.

-Sure. -So, Vivaldi's melody making was really the decisive starting point of Bach's compositorial career. -That blows my mind.

I never knew that Bach's sense of melody came from Vivaldi. I never made that connection.

Honey, you want to play the 'Badinerie'? -Yeah, sure.

-I forgot to mention that my amazing wife is also a world-class flutist.

We love this piece by Bach, but this time, I could hear Vivaldi in it.

[ Flute and violin play ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Yeah! Nice work.

-Have you played this? -Yeah.

-When's the last time you played... -Ages ago. -You go first.

[ Violins play ] Oh, my God. No, no. That's -- That's too hard.

How about the third movement? -Okay.

-Have you played the third movement?

-Yeah, just remind me.

[ Violin plays ] [ Both violins play ] ♪♪♪ -Uh, how about, um -- How about the oboe and violin concerto?

Do you know how that goes? -Oh, that's a beautiful piece.

-The second movement? -I'll steal that for now.

[ Flute and violin play softly ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Just outside the Elephant Hotel is Weimar's Market Square.

And there, this time of year, is a Christmas Market.

♪♪♪ Alice spent a few years in Germany as a kid, and the Christmas markets were some of her favorite memories.

-[ Speaking German ] My parents always used to get this, and I asked them if it was any good.

Whoo. It's really good.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -I can imagine Bach here, studying Vivaldi in the Duke's Library, walking the same Christmas Market with wife, and maybe -- probably -- drinking some gluhwein.

[ Music fades ] So that's -- That's a -- -That's a C?

-That's an F sharp on that. -Yeah.

-That has to be -- That has to be alto clef.

Has to be. -Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

-In our Leipzig hotel, we set to work on Bach's riddle.

Can you learn the top line? -Okay.

-And I'll learn the second and third lines.

-Hello, viola clef. Alright. -Okay?

I'm gonna go get my violin while you do it, okay?


[ Violin plays ] -Okay, play slower, just so I have a chance.

So... [ Flute and violin play ] So, that's pretty cool. -Alright, it's not bad.

-So, it says, 'Canon triplex in six voices.'

-Yeah. -So, we have three.

But, you know, Bach is holding the music like this, right?

-Yeah. -He's holding it kind of flat.

-Yeah. So I think what it's implying is that he's reading it for one angle, and you're reading it from the other direction.

I think that's what's going on. So what we have to do is we have to flip this thing upside down.

Uh... -Oh, the inversion.

That's a good idea. -Yeah.

So, here -- Okay.

Now you're gonna play the alto clef from the bottom.

-Yeah. -And so you play... [ Violin plays ] -[ Vocalizing ] -Okay? -Okay.

-And let me -- This is gonna be confusing because now the bass clef is on top, and so it's gonna confuse me.

Let me just -- Let me just practice this.

[ Violin plays ] ♪♪♪ -Tricky.

♪♪♪ No, that's not right. That sounds really weird.

That sounds like Schoenberg. This is kind of annoying.

♪♪♪ We had to table that to go a Christmas party with Michael Maul, a new-generation Bach scholar.

On the way, we stopped in Bach's church.

-I mean, here, everything happened.

Here, he premiered most of his Leipzig pieces.

So here is Bach's spirit, actually.

And by the way, if you want to get this feeling, there's a good opportunity tomorrow morning.

-Okay. -Because tomorrow morning, the St. Thomas Choir, Bach's choir, is rehearsing the 'Christmas Oratorio' by Bach.

-Oh, nice. -So, performances next weekend, they are all sold out.

-Ah. -But tomorrow morning, you have the chance to listen to the rehearsal.

It's the St. Thomas Choir, together with the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

And in Germany, it's so popular, this piece, because it's not only that you have, in Leipzig, a lot of performances, because people in Leipzig have a very special relationship to Bach.

-Of course. -But all over Germany, even in small villages, they are performing this piece around Christmas because it's part of Christmas like the Christmas tree.

So it's maybe, in a way... -Like 'The Nutcracker'? -...part of the central German DNA to listen to the 'Christmas Oratorio' in Christmastime. -Hmm.

[ Indistinct conversations ] Now on to the Christmas party.

It's hosted by some Gewandhaus musicians.

So, there's family and friends and food, and, of course, there's music -- at the moment, by the experimental jazz saxophonist Hayden Chisholm.

[ Piano and saxophone play softly ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -One, two. One, two, three.

[ Up-tempo jazz plays ] ♪♪♪ -Gareth is also a killer pianist.

He rearranged this Bach prelude into a wild jazz number.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Music softens ] ♪♪♪ -Awesome.


♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] [ Music fades ] Awesome.

[ Indistinct conversations ] ♪♪♪ I was listening to you play that C minor, 'Well-Tempered Clavier,' and I was moved like I haven't been moved in a long time.

So thanks for that. I appreciate that.

-We played a little bit with the cadenza and with slightly more -- -The cadenza was the best part.

That was awesome.

-You know, that's where we feel at home, and we can just... -It's like a deep blue, deep purple cadenza that you played. That was -- That was sick.

-Yeah, well... [ Chuckles ] -It was awesome.

Bach's still alive today.

-Yes, and I think that's something else.

This piece is just -- They have so much life in them that they can just continue to reinvent them and play over them and just could go on and on.

It's a beautiful thing. -Mm-hmm.

Being a human hasn't changed so much in 300 years.

[ Mid-tempo classical music plays ] [ Dramatic music plays ] ♪♪♪ The next morning came painfully soon.

But how better to start the day then seeing the rehearsal of Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio' in the same church, with the same choir that Bach himself performed with?

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Choir singing indistinctly ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Back on the trail of Bach's violin works, we went to meet Andreas again in Kothen, where Bach wrote them, to find out why and how he wrote them.

-There's Bach's statue. -There he is.

-And the reason why they put it here is because, for four years, Bach was living in this very house, and that's where he wrote all the music that's known up to today, like the 'Brandenburg Concertos,' violin partitas, orchestra suites.

-So, I mean, this house bore music that's been heard billions of times?

-Billions of times. Yeah, and this all happening in kind of a provincial setting like this.

-So this was kind of like a Galápagos Island, a little bit, of music, right? -Yeah.

-I mean, something that would grow so fantastically and out of control in this small, little town, right?

This is not Vienna, this is not Paris, this is not London.

-Of course, when he was here in Kothen he was there in order to serve a prince, and this prince was very keen on secular music, and he was a violinist himself, Prince Leopold.


-And so this prince would just ask Bach for his first pieces, like the concertos and the partitas and orchestral music, because he was not here as an organist or church composer.

-Mm-hmm. -This prince was not only an admirer of his music, but he was really a friend.


-So he was godfather of one of his kids.

Bach even returned here when the prince had died, eventually, and he sorted out things for his funeral, made music.

If you want to, we could actually move over to the church where the funeral took place.

♪♪♪ So, this is St. Jakobs church.

This is an old Gothic hall church, as you can see -- very clear in style.

This would be the gallery where the funeral music would have taken place, with 65 musicians up there.


-Let me show you something else, as well, in here.

So, it's something we're talking about, the funeral.

You see, this carpet is kind of hiding a secret.

So, if you give me a hand. -Sure.

-Yeah. -Oh.

-Now, look at that.

Secret doors opening to vaults.

I think we're close to the crypt where the Prince has been buried.

-Wow. -We're going to enter [Speaking indistinctly] the dead.

[ Chuckles ] Hey.

-Are -- Are we going in there? -Yeah, we're going in there.

-[ Chuckles ] -Most certainly we are.

[ Metal clanks ] Right, so, take care. It's a little bit dangerous.

No lights, but we are moving into the vaults where the Prince lies.

[ Door unlocks ] [ Door creaks ] So, now, this is the real stuff.

-Oh, my God.

-Well, now, have a look at that.

So... -This looks like the 'Indiana Jones' -- -'The Last Crusade.' -'The Last Crusade,' exactly.

It's a library but inside of a church.

-So, kind of big sarcophagus. This is actually -- These two here are Leopold's family.

His mother here, his wife there, two little children's coffin's there, so... -Oh. -Because children were dying very early very often in those days.

Even the wife of Leopold's, she just grew 22.

-Oh. -And Leopold himself, 32.

And the thing is, if you look at this quite ornamented sarcophagus, then you'd be surprised to see the one of Leopold himself, which is right over there.

It's the plainest, most simple one in the whole room here.

Well, now, considering all the pomp and the kind of dignity of all these other sarcophaguses, so, this is the one of Leopold, the Prince himself, the friend of Bach, who found his last place in this kind of very humble coffin, actually.

[ Organ plays mid-tempo music ] ♪♪♪ -Here in the royal chapel, Bach played for the Prince and his court.

It's also where Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who became a great composer himself, was baptized.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Bravo. Fantastic. -Beautiful.

-Well, thanks a lot. -That music -- What I'm amazed by, when I hear it, is, every single time there's a note for your feet, it's absolutely the right note. It's amazing.

-It's also different from playing the piano, because it's really -- You have to kind of move your body.

And organ playing actually is a little bit like dancing.

So, basically, this is one of the things Bach might have wrote here in Kothen, especially because here in Kothen, he was responsible for playing dance music at dinners, and so on and so on. So, actually, you can see, from that time on, that all kinds of dance characters kind of are being infused in all different kind of styles.

So you can see this from a piece I'm gonna play in some seconds.


-So, this was placed at the end of one of this major collections he presented to the public in '39.

-But this piece here represents Bach at the height of his powers, right?

-Yeah, and what he did there, he composed a fugue but not only a normal fugue but a triple fugue.

-So, 'triple fugue' means there are three tunes.

-There are three tunes. -Three melodies.

-Yeah, and the first melody is then combined with subsequently the second and then the third one.

-Okay. -Now, for the beginning, it's really kind of old-style, like... [ Organ plays softly ] ♪♪♪ And so on. -Mm-hmm.

-And then there comes a break, and there's a second fugue.

[ Organ plays up-tempo music ] ♪♪♪ And then there comes a third fugue.

And this is actually -- This is a gigue -- a real gigue.

And this is eventually then combined with each other, and then the first subject, as well, and this is really -- -This is something one person can do by yourself?

-There wouldn't -- Don't do this at home.

[ Laughter ] So, try to get in somewhere around here.

[ Organ plays up-tempo music ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ It's really like dancing.

[ Organ plays up-tempo music ] And so on, yeah?

-I can't believe you can move your feet that fast.

That's crazy. -It's like you're doing this, this, and this, and something else, too.

-Yeah, but that's exactly what it is.

-[ Laughs ] -Yeah.

And so this is really one of the last piece of one.

Then, in the very end of all his organ arts, he wrote a gigue.

-It's amazing.

[ Violin plays up-tempo music ] ♪♪♪ -This piece from the 'Third Partita' is also a gigue.

Bach often wrote his solo violin works in the form of a dance.

Today I realized he must have meant them to really feel like dances.

And I'm feeling closer than ever to knowing how to play them.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Back our Leipzig hotel, we had some homework to finish up.

Alright, so I flipped that thing around the C... -Okay.

-...and it just didn't make any sense.

So now I'm gonna try to flip it around the B.

-Oh, 'B' for 'Bach.'


Okay, that's that.

And then, um... [ Humming ] I know what that is.

That's the left hand of the 'Goldberg Variations.'

-[ Laughs ] -Right?

♪ Duh ♪ -Yeah.

-[ Vocalizing ] -[ Vocalizing ] -[ Vocalizing ] ♪♪♪ I mean, it's missing the -- It's missing the C, but, you know -- -But it's basically there.

[ Both vocalizing ] ♪♪♪ -I'm sure that's part of the puzzle, too.

[ Flute plays notes ] -It's like a new 'Jeopardy!'

-Okay, so it's... [ Violin plays ] ♪♪♪ Okay, okay, ready? I'm gonna start.

[ Flute and violin play ] ♪♪♪ -Okay, you keep going. -Yeah, we just keep going.

Okay, now here's what we're gonna do.

Here's what we're gonna do. Let's play the original version.

-Yeah. -And record it.

-Okay. -And then let's play the upside down version. -Yeah.

-And we'll lay it on top of the original, and then we'll have the six parts together.

-Oh, yeah, great. -Okay, here we go.

Ready? This is the original version.

-Okay. -Okay.

[ Bells toll ] To see if we got it right, we went down the road again to the Bach Archive to ask their director, Peter Wollny.

So, I think I've solved that riddle.

So I want to play what we came up with.

[ Flute and violin play ] ♪♪♪ -Wow, that's it.

You figured it out. -Okay, thank you.

And then the other part of the puzzle is that the baseline, the third line of music -- That's the first note of each bar of the aria of the 'Goldberg Variations.'

-That's absolutely right. -What a mind.

I mean, to write that, that's ridiculously hard.

-It's ridiculously hard, but it gives you a good impression of how his mind worked.

-Do you think -- Is it fair to say that Bach might have been the smartest person who's ever lived?

-At least one of the smartest, yeah.

-So, a couple of days ago, we were in Kothen, and Andreas Jakobs, he was explaining how important dance music was to Bach, and -- you know, like the bourrée, the courante.

All of those dances found its way into so much of Bach's music.

-Well, dance rhythms played a crucial role, actually, in Baroque music, and particularly in Bach's music.

This doesn't mean that he had people dancing around him all the time, but he simply picked up these rhythmic patterns and the phrase structure, and he simply needed to fill it with his own thematic inventions.

-Mm-hmm. -If you think of the stylized dances at the French Court, established with Louis XIV, all this played a very important role at German courts that picked up the French tradition in the late 17th century.

So Bach, as a court musician in Weimar, in Kothen, was exposed to this culture of dancing.

So if you would like to learn more about these traditions, you would need to go to Paris and to France to find out where this all came from.


[ Piano plays softly ] ♪♪♪ So, we were headed to Paris to visit some dancers.

But on the way, we stopped in Chaumont at the harpsichord workshop of Laurent Somenyak.

♪♪♪ Bach never played his 'Goldberg Variations' on a piano, because it hadn't been invented.

He wrote and played them on the harpsichord.

Its strings are plucked by a tiny plectrum, and each has to be exactly the same to give each string the same volume.

[ Harpsichord plays ] -Here we go.

[ Harpsichord plays scales ] ♪♪♪ -[ Speaking French ] -Right.

[ Speaking French ] -Right, right.

[ Speaking French ] [ Harpsichord plays ] -Harpsichords, like all stringed instruments, have to be tuned a lot.

But exactly how each note is tuned or tempered, in relation to the other notes, is something that Bach and the great harpsichordist Lillian Gordis have thought a lot about.

On this harpsichord from the 1640s, they've used the tuning system from before Bach.

-The problem is that on the keyboard, where you can't move your fingers -- like, on the violin, you can constantly address -- -Sure., you have to make a decision when you're tuning.

There are tonalities that don't work.

-Mm-hmm. -So you get to a certain point and you get to an interval, which is called 'the wolf.'

-The wolf. -They call it 'the wolf' because it kind of howls.

It's so out of tune that it howls.

So, this is the really, really famous C major prelude that starts 'Well-Tempered Clavier,' book one in C major. -Nice.

[ Harpsichord plays ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -If you take the first bar of that and you play it in C sharp major, you get this.

[ Harpsichord plays ] And that's the wolf. -Oh, my God.

-So, C sharp major is not a key that you can play in until the beginning of the 18th century or even the middle of the 18th.

-And that's not because you didn't tune it right.

That's the system of tuning. -That is the system.

And, Bach, we know that this was a problem for him because he was an organist.

So, every week, he was gonna play for services and he was gonna improvise stuff.

And he would want to just go to whatever tonality it was.

He wanted to keep going.

He didn't want to be stopped by the instrument.

And of course, the organ is an instrument that takes a very long time to tune, and the temperament is set by the form of the pipes already.

So Bach and people of his time started to say, 'What can we do?' -Hmm.

-Bach himself didn't leave us a temperament.

He left us two huge books of the 'Well-Tempered Clavier,' and these are a cycle of preludes and fugues where he goes up chromatically through the scale in major and minor for everything.

So you have C major... [ Harpsichord plays ] ...and C minor, C sharp major, and C sharp minor, et cetera, all the way up. -Yeah.

-And we don't know what he tuned.

-Hmm. -We know that he was using it to show, 'I can play in all these keys.'

-On one keyboard.

'I don't have to go to another harpsichord.'

-'I don't have to change harpsichords, and I don't have to use split keys, and I found a system that works.'

And that's Bach's thing.

He doesn't give you an answer.

He doesn't write it out for you.

He gives you a huge corpus of music, and he's like, 'Well, I have the answer.'

-Mm. -That's part of his genius.

He doesn't hand it to you on a silver platter.

He makes you work for it. [ Violin plays ] ♪♪♪ -Like the musical puzzle he left in his portrait, Bach left his tuning system as a riddle.

Lillian found her own solution, and we played this number with her tuning.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ From Chaumont, it was a short drive to Paris to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, to see one of Europe's most celebrated cellists, Gautier Capucon.

♪♪♪ We were there to talk about dance rhythms in Bach and in the work of so many other composers after him.

[ Music stops ] [ Cello plays ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ I mean, I know that's only a prelude, but you do a feel a little bit of a dance element in that music. -Well, yeah, you do.

You know, the prelude was an introduction in a certain tonality, spirit atmosphere.

But you're absolutely right, you can already feel all the succession of dances that are in every cello suite -- the minuets, the courantes, the bourrée, gigue, saraband.

Even the saraband, even the slow one, is a dance, actually. And you know, for us, it's so important to feel that while we play, because it gives the right tempo, the right balance in the music, and the right spirit.

-It all has dance in it, right?

Well, Jérôme, have you played the... [ Violin plays ] -Yes. -Yeah?

[ Piano and violin play ] ♪♪♪ [ Music stops ] That's dance music.

-Absolutely. Definitely. -Have you ever... [ Violin plays ] -Yes.

♪♪♪ -That's kind of a dance, right? -Well, it is -- -It's a rondo. -This is folk music, and folk music is inspired by dance also.

We actually have a very beautiful quasi minuetto of the E minor first Brahms 'Cello Sonata.'

-Sure. Let's hear that.

[ Piano and cello play ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -You know, so many composers were inspired by dance.

It's incredible. And you can feel the pulse, for us, as musicians and as listeners.

-Yeah. It's really cool.

I heard you guys playing some Piazzolla also.

-You know, Piazzolla, now that you talk about it -- I mean, it's -- Piazzolla was a great admirer of Bach when he was young.

He loved his music.

And actually he wanted to study it.

And he came to Paris to study with an incredible teacher called Nadia Boulanger.

And one day, she was not very happy about what he was doing or his inspiration, and she actually pushed him in that direction, saying, 'You should use the music of your country.

You should use the folk music. You should use the dance.'

And that's when he started to really get more and more into this music.

And he became this, of course, great tango master that we know.

Can we play 'The Grand Tango' for you?

-I'd love to hear it. -Jérôme?

[ Piano and cello play ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -So, honey, I saws this place where we can get costumes, like Baroque costumes, for the dance lessons that we're gonna take.

-No, we're not doing that. -No, come on!

-No. -It'd be really fun.

-Honey, I'm not gonna look like a [bleep] with some costumes.

-No, no, you'd look good. You'd look cute, in fact.

Let's just give it a try. -No way.

♪♪♪ Look like a -- look like a salmon.

♪♪♪ -[ Laughs ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -All I need is long nails, and a... [ Laughs ] Got to laugh, right?

♪♪♪ -Relatively speaking, of course.

♪♪♪ -What do you think? -Yeah, it's okay.

-Oh, come on.

-Yeah, you know, this -- I can live with this.

It looks -- It looks good.

♪♪♪ Now dressed for the part, we headed to the Baroque dance studio of Edith Lalonger, one of the true experts on the subject, to see the dance that inspired Bach.

♪♪♪ -Scott! How beautiful! Magnifique!


I have to teach you how to walk with your shoes.

-Okay. -You know that a dance master was very important everywhere in Europe, not only to learn how to dance but how to walk, how to sit down -- -You mean even for a non-dancer?

-All educated people were a dancer.

-Oh, I see. Okay. -Oh.

-So, now if you want to -- Alice... -Mm-hmm? dance with Scott... -Is it okay if I just take these off, just put these -- a contemporary dancer, what is important is not the shoes. It's the rhythm.

and how you present yourself. -Right.

-And plié. Up, up, up.

Down. -Oh.

-More elevation, Scott. Up, up.

Yes! Down. -Right. Okay, yeah, right.

So, being elevated is important. But being elevated is also important for the music, right?

I mean, the elevation implies a kind of lightness, right?

-Exactly. -Could you do it for real?

Just -- Could you show us what it would look like in tempo?

-In tempo, it will be... -Three, four.

♪♪♪ -Yeah, I'm lost -- just lost. -[ Laughs ] [ Music fades ] -Well, you are lost because we change step, you know?

-Of course. -It was common in Baroque dance to change step for each bar.

This dance was danced by Louis Quatorze.

-Louis XIV was a dancer himself? -He was a dancer himself, and he brought the dance in a very high level, and all the technique -- -So, Louis XIV was pushing this dance all over Europe?

-Yes, because he was a lover of dance and give to the dance master all the possibility to do so, you know?

-And then France exported those dance masters to Germany, to England, to Scotland, to wherever -- Italy. -Yes.

-Edith, I have a favor to ask you.

Would you mind if I played the Bach 'Bourrée' and you guys danced to that?

-Okay. -'Cause I feel like I might learn a lot, actually, from your -- from your dance.

-Take your violin, we dance. -Okay.

[ Violin plays ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ How would Bach want me to play his violin works?

He'd want me to figure them out for myself.

And now seeing and feeling the dance style that inspired him, I know that this is dance music.

Maybe his violin works weren't written to dance to, but if they don't have the lightness and rhythm of Baroque dance, they're simply not Bach.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Maybe more important, I feel like I've solved the riddle of Bach himself.

He's not a god -- just a guy who loved the Italian music of Vivaldi, French dance, German beer, and a good joke.

It's true, he was also one of our greatest geniuses, but he would never take that too seriously.

♪♪♪ I'm Scott Yoo, and I hope you can now hear this.

[ Piano plays up-tempo music ] ♪♪♪ -To order 'Now Hear This' on DVD or the companion CD, visit shopPBS or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

This program is also available on Amazon Prime Video.

♪♪♪ To find out more about this and other 'Great Performances' programs, visit, find us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Next time on 'Great Performances,' discover the greatest composer you've never heard heard of, Domenico Scarlatti.

[ Piano plays ] Of course, that's Scarlatti. -Of course.

-I'll follow his footsteps to discover the sounds and rhythms that inspired him and realize he was more important to the history of music than I could have ever imagined.

Next time on 'Great Performances,' another episode of 'Now Hear This.'


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