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Symmetry and a Template: Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and Chopin's 24 Preludes, Opus 28
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Department of Musicology.ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3367-9921
2020 (English)In: Chopin and the Baroque Tradition / [ed] Szymon Paczkowski, Warsaw, Poland: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute , 2020, p. 51-86Chapter in book (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Letters and documents show that Fryderyk Chopin was deeply interested in the keyboard music of J. S. Bach. Chopin owned several copies of The Well-Tempered Clavier, used the preludes and fugues in his teaching, and had committed them to memory. When he came to compose his own set of preludes, he allegedly had a copy of Bach’s WTC by his side. At first sight and sound, the contrasts between the Bach and Chopin preludes are greater than their similarities. The aim of this paper is to see what influence, if any, Bach’s WTC had upon the formation of Chopin’s collection of 24 Preludes, specifically in its proportioning and compositional ordering.

The technique of proportional parallelism, found in all Bach’s publications and fair copies, has led logically to questions about its origins and transmission. Recent research has shown that although several of Bach’s predecessors, including Pachelbel and Kuhnau, used the technique occasionally, it is more frequently found in the published compositions of Bach’s sons, including C. P. E. Bach and J. C. F. Bach, and students, including J. L. Krebs and J. P. Kirnberger.

Proportional parallelism is an objective technique, measured by the number of bars, to form layers of 1:1 symmetry in a composition or collection, or not. Compositional structure, on the other hand is neither objective nor philosophically neutral, as it is chosen deliberately by the composer.

Treatises by Lutheran music theorists in Bach’s time show how the proportions of musical consonances, transmitted from beliefs in universal harmony, had acquired a moral and theological significance, in addition to the ancient aesthetic understanding that proportions closest to the unity (1:1 and 1:2) were the most beautiful and the most perfect. One can therefore understand how important it was for the devout composer in Bach’s time to order musical compositions with layers of 1:1 and 1:2. But one would not necessarily expect this idea-bearing technique to survive when its significance had changed.

My current research project explores whether, and if so, how, Bach’s ordering technique influenced the compositional ordering of later composers who both knew and were inspired by Bach’s compositions. One such is Fryderyk Chopin, whose set of 24 Preludes was allegedly influenced by his own close study and familiarity with Bach’s collection of preludes and fugues.

With evidence from primary sources and proportional parallelism, this systematic investigation yields some ground-breaking results, providing numerous new answers to old questions. It is now possible to see that Chopin based the order of his 24 Preludes on the structure of Preludes 1–10 in Bach’s WTC II. The investigation also exposes for the first time the perfect overarching symmetry that Chopin created across the 24 Preludes, to unite the collection as whole.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Warsaw, Poland: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute , 2020. p. 51-86
National Category
Musicology
Research subject
Musicology
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-406551ISBN: 978-83-64823-92-3 (print)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-406551DiVA, id: diva2:1413206
Available from: 2020-03-09 Created: 2020-03-09 Last updated: 2020-03-13

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