An Essay by Dr. Cory Hall (June, 2016)
I began BachScholar’s “Bach Chorale Project” less than a year ago from this writing, around August, 2015. Over much of 2016 all my energy (in addition to teaching 45 piano students weekly) has been spent on copying out and engraving Bach’s entire output of 4-part chorales, which numbers roughly 400. Why do I spend so much time on Bach’s 4-part chorales? The answer is simple: As a piano teacher with over 30 years’ experience, I have come to the conclusion that Bach’s 4-part chorales represent the most beneficial and rewarding music pianists can possibly practice, yet sadly, there currently exists no sufficient piano editions of them. Upon completion in a few years, BachScholar’s will be the first true “piano edition” of Bach’s chorales ever published.
Because of our proprietary 3-Tier Format™, extra legible manuscripts, and high-quality engravings, I have named our chorale manuscripts the “Ultimate Piano Edition.” What is more, each chorale is available FREE OF CHARGE for immediate download! All that we ask is that if you like our product and appreciate our efforts, that you kindly make a donation to BachScholar’s “Bach Chorale Project.”
CLICK HERE to make a donation to the "Bach Chorale Project"!
Over the next couple years, I plan to churn out Bach’s entire oeuvre of chorales until all 400 are finished. I estimate to complete this goal sometime in 2018 or 2019. Despite their brevity, transcribing Bach’s chorales into quality piano editions is quite labor intensive. Your donation will help cover compensation plus help to fund hard-copy editions of all 400 chorales once they are all completed. I promise that our “Ultimate Piano Edition” of all 400 chorales (probably in at least three volumes) will be a monumental work of historic importance! Please CLICK HERE to make a donation to help us achieve this goal!
BENEFITS OF PRACTICING BACH’S 4-PART CHORALES ON PIANO
Now, let us consider all the skills that are immediately honed by practicing Bach’s 4-part chorales. No other repertoire of music even comes close to the number of benefits offered to pianists as Bach’s 4-part chorales:
- Ability to read “first species” counterpoint — This most basic technique of one note against one note each in its own clef, codified by Johann Fux (1660-1741), serves as the foundation of reading music. Pianists who have not learned and practiced this technique will ultimately fail at sight-reading. Virtually all contemporary piano methods have abandoned the teaching first species counterpoint (although it was common in the older piano methods of yesteryear), which is the reason most piano students today struggle so much at sight-reading. The best way to practice first species counterpoint — and improve the foundation for sight-reading skills — is to extract and play separately the soprano and bass lines from Bach’s 4-part chorales, which is the first step in our 3-Tier Format™.
- Ability to hear and discern four independent parts (voices) — After learning the art of reading two notes in each clef (#1 above), the next step is to learn how to read two notes in each clef and to combine these to form 4-note chords. Once one becomes fluent in reading 4-note chords (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), one then automatically develops the ability to hear and discern music polyphonically. Unfortunately, contemporary piano methods neglect the teaching of reading in four parts, which is the reason most piano students struggle so much at reading vertical-style chords at the piano. Pianists who aspire to play Bach fugues can do no better than first master the art of reading and playing Bach’s chorales. A pianist who cannot play at least a handful of Bach chorales well will never be able to play any of the fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier.
- Develop superior music theory skills — Being able to read and play constantly changing chords at the piano (step #2 above) is essential to developing the skill of naming chords and chord recognition. Any pianist who aspires to become complete and educated should be able to recognize and name every chord played. Unfortunately, contemporary piano methods fail in this area, which is the main reason most students struggle so much at chord recognition. No other style of music offers such a rich and comprehensive resource for developing skill in music theory and chord recognition as Bach’s chorales.
- Develop rock solid finger independence — Playing four independent voices with two hands automatically develops superior finger independence. Bach’s chorales are by far the best style for developing finger independence. You may as well throw away your Hanon exercises and spend all that time on Bach chorales instead.
- Develop superior finger dexterity — Because of the endless ways chords and independent voice can be combined, Bach’s chorales require the most challenging finger contortions that can possibly be found anywhere. Moreover, Bach’s chorales require the most numerous fingering possibilities out of any music. The more one experiments with and adapts to various fingerings, the more complete a musician and pianist one becomes. Bach’s chorales are like “yoga for the fingers” offering pianists the perfect vehicle for practicing stretching and dexterity. It is impossible to play Bach chorales well, and at the same time, be physically tight and inflexible.
- Develop a singing tone — It is well-known to historians and scholars that Bach highly valued the art of attaining a “singing tone” or “cantabile” at the keyboard. Imagine how much more Bach would have valued this had he a modern piano at his disposal! Because the chorales are first and foremost, vocal music, they offer the perfect vehicle for practicing “cantabile” playing. This is achieved by striving for a smooth legato tone, which is the default touch in piano playing.
- Become more sensitive to musical phrases — One unique characteristic of Bach’s chorales is that the end of each phrase is marked with a fermata, thus clearly delineating the beginnings and endings of phrases. Because of this segregation into distinct musical phrases, Bach’s chorales offer the perfect vehicle for teachers and students to practice the art of phrasing created by subtle gradations of tone, and often, ritardandos at phrase endings.
- Practice diminuendos, crescendos, and ritardandos — Despite Bach not supplying romantic indications like “dim” or “rit,” Bach’s chorales nevertheless provide some of the best opportunities for adding these beautiful, expressive nuances. Since playing Bach’s chorales robotically and with no expression is to be avoided, it is mandatory that pianists learn to add expressive nuances like diminuendos, crescendos, and ritardandos and emphasize certain parts (voices) over others. In other words, Bach’s chorales are like dry and objective pieces of clay that need to be formed and molded in order to make beautiful pieces of art. Ultimately, pianists become more complete musicians by adding their own expressive nuances to a “blank slate,” which are Bach’s chorales.
- Ability to establish a convincing tempo — Establishing a convincing tempo is one of the most difficult and elusive aspects of piano playing. Because of the vocal nature of Bach’s chorales, in that they were all composed to be sung with specific texts, they make tempo determination a much less mysterious process. Bach’s chorales serve as the perfect vehicle for piano students and professionals alike to experiment with and eventually decide upon convincing tempos. Bach did not tell us how fast or slow to play his chorales, which gives pianists the opportunity to become better musicians by having to make their own decisions with regards to tempo.
- Practice and master use of the damper pedal — It is a common belief that pedal should be used sparingly or not at all when playing Bach’s music on the piano; however, the 4-part chorales disprove this belief. In contrast with Bach’s Two- or Three-Part Inventions and most fugues from the WTC, which usually require little or no pedal, Bach’s 4-part chorales often require an abundance of pedal played for each quarter-note harmony. In fact, more pedal is required in Bach’s chorales than in most Beethoven Sonatas. For this reason, Bach’s chorales offer the perfect vehicle for students and professionals alike to practice and perfect the art of pedaling. Show me a pianist who can play a dozen Bach chorales while naming all the chords played within one second, who uses good fingering, who employs fine expression and cantabile, who plays with musical tempos, and who pedals cleanly and I will show you a pianist who has attained “master” status.
SUMMARY OF OUR ULTIMATE PIANO EDITION OF BACH’S 4-PART CHORALES
Over the past year, the format and presentation of Bach’s chorales has changed, namely, in that we now use a new and improved, proprietary 3-Tier Format™:
1. The first “tier” in our 3-Tier Format™ extracts the soprano and bass lines from the chorale. Bach always composed the soprano and bass lines first, before adding the middle two voices (alto and tenor). Extracting these two outer voices from the 4-voice texture and playing them creates a perfectly beautiful example of first and second species counterpoint, which is the most beneficial music for students learning to read music. This type of two-voice counterpoint offers the best sight-reading material for piano students. Students up to Grade 3 will not be able to play the chorale in its original form (the second tier), in which case reading and practicing the soprano and bass lines will offer the perfect stepping-stone to eventually being able to play all four voices in the original chorale. Ours is the only edition of Bach’s chorales that presents the soprano and bass lines separately, which has huge pedagogical value. Here is an example of the soprano and bass lines extracted from the chorale, BWV 84, which serves as an ideal exercise in sight-reading for students up to about Grade 3 as well as being beautiful music in its own right. (Tips: Play slow, legato, and with a singing tone. Suggested tempo, quarter note = 63. Students and teachers should experiment with various fingering possibilities and strive for a fingering that makes it easiest to play everything legato. Also, add a slight ritardando and diminuendo before each fermata cadence point and hold the fermata chords for their full values. Do not use any pedal.)
2. The second “tier” in our 3-Tier Format™ presents the chorale in its original form, which consists of four independent lines or voices: soprano, alto, tenor, bass (SATB). Even though two voices appear in each clef — soprano and alto in the treble clef, tenor and bass in the bass clef — it is often necessary to play the tenor with the right hand, thus breaking down the voices as 3 in the right, 1 in the left. Students who are new to playing Bach’s 4-part chorales often mistakingly assume that each hand must play two voices because this is the way it looks on the page; however, large spaces between the bass and tenor voices usually demand that the tenor be taken with the right hand. I estimate that 60% of the time it is easier and more “pianistic” to play 3 notes in the right hand and 1 note in the left hand. In any case, regardless of which hands take which notes, reading 4-part notation proves challenging for most pianists, even those considered “advanced.” Reading strict, 4-part notation at the piano has become a lost art, and unfortunately, many pianists who can otherwise play difficult, 19th-century virtuoso music with ease struggle and usually fail at reading and making music out of relatively simple 4-part Bach chorales. In this case, I advise all pianists — even concert-level performers and students who are considered “advanced” — to start by practicing the soprano and bass lines as in step #1. Here is an example of the complete chorale, BWV 84, in its original form. It is one of the 10 or so least difficult of all 400 chorales, yet at the same time, one of the most beautiful of all 400. (Tips: Play slow, legato, and with a singing tone. Suggested tempo, quarter note = 63. Voice the soprano over the other three parts. As opposed to the soprano and bass extract above, which needs no pedal at all, chorales with all four voices such as this often need liberal amounts of pedal to help bind the chords. Students and teachers should experiment with various fingering possibilities and strive for a fingering that makes it easiest to play mostly legato. Also, add a slight ritardando and diminuendo before each fermata cadence point and hold the fermata chords for their full values.)
3. The third “tier” in our 3-Tier Format™ presents a careful alteration of the original chorale tailored specifically for piano performance, called the "piano notation, doubled bass" version. The only differences here is that the bass line is doubled with octaves while the tenor is transposed up usually an octave. About 60% of the time no transpositions are necessary, in which case the right hand plays the upper three voices in their original ranges while the left hand plays exclusively octaves. Due to the characteristically “pianistic” nature of this version, due to 3 notes in the right hand and octaves in the left hand, it bears the description “piano notation” as opposed to Bach’s original, stricter 4-part notation in step #2. Not only does this version sound fuller and more “orchestral” than the chorale in its original notation, but it is usually less difficult to play than the original version due to its "pianistic" nature. Pianists will love the fullness and playability of these “piano notation” versions! Here is an example of the chorale, BWV 84, in its fuller and richer sounding "piano notation" version with octaves in the bass. (Tips: Use the same phrasing and tempo as the chorale in its original version above, although fuller pedaling should be used in this version due to the octaves in the rich bass register. Compare and contrast the chorale in this "piano notation" version with the original version pictured above. Pianists should strive to play both versions equally well.)
4. In addition to our 3-Tier Format™, pertinent information appears in the top right area of the first page of each chorale. Researching all this information, especially for some chorales more than others, is no simple task and is quite labor intensive due to disparate sources and often conflicting data. In addition, I have categorized all of Bach’s roughly 400 chorales according to their HYMN TUNES, which serves as a table of contents or directory. Eventually, when all chorales are completed (around 2018 or 2019) and they are published in one volume, this alphabetical list of hymn tunes will be the table of contents. Finally, I am currently compiling a master list of Bach’s chorales categorized according to the Lutheran Liturgical Calendar, which in the near future will be available for purchase.
5. Due to the labor intensive nature of the 3-Tier Format™ as well as all the pertinent research, it is no longer possible to supply fingerings for the chorales. Working out and formatting fingerings is roughly four times as labor intensive as when no fingerings are supplied. Moreover, students learn and grow much more by experimenting with their own fingering options. Finally, fingerings litter up Bach’s scores with unnecessary numbers that are visually distracting to serious performers. I apologize for doing away with fingerings and realize many customers who purchased the chorales in their old format did so because of the fingerings. However, since the chorale format is now new and improved and all downloads of them are FREE OF CHARGE, the issue of fingering now becomes moot.
6. In order to simplify things, cover pages and text pages have been eliminated. Texts for Bach’s chorales are usually easy to find on the internet, while the master list of Bach’s chorales according to the Lutheran Liturgical Calendar (see step #4 above) will have links to texts.
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Sincerely, Cory Hall (D.M.A.) — June, 2016