Reality & Illusion, part 1: J. S. Bach at McDonald's

The other night I spent some time on YouTube watching the pianist András Schiff playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I’ve never seen Schiff perform live, and until now I wasn’t that familiar with his playing. I enjoyed it tremendously. His Bach sparkles and swings; his Bach speaks, laughs, and cries. It’s quite something.

Watching and listening to him got me thinking about reality and illusion.

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I first studied Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello in my adolescence. I was probably 14 when I sight-read the first suite, working from the one edition I was able to buy in my native São Paulo, in the classical-music backwater that Brazil was then (and, to a good degree, still is now). The edition was signed by Paul Bazelaire, a French cellist who was born in 1886 and died in 1958 (that's him on the cute photo). To Bach’s music, Bazelaire added dynamics, phrase markings, fingerings, metronome markings, and a thousand other indications. Later I bought several other editions of the suites. Over the decades I studied all the suites and performed several of them. I know them by heart, and like most cellists I only need to hear three notes from any excerpt to recognize which movement in which suite those three notes come from.

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What is reality, what is illusion? The metaphysicians have been debating this for millennia. There are many viewpoints on the issue. A minority—a tiny minority—believes that reality is an objective situation shared by everyone. Some say that the whole of humanity is someone’s huge dream, with no objective existence. Others claim that reality is what you make of it. A guy and his girlfriend sitting quietly across each other at a Macdonald’s are in two distinct, separate, and perhaps even mutually exclusive realities. The girl is having feelings, thoughts, thoughts about her feelings, and feelings about her thoughts—some of which involve the guy, or a version of the guy she imagines day by day. The guy is communing with the salt, fat, and sugar, and he’d be surprised if the girl suddenly entered his awareness and addressed him. “Don’t interrupt me,” he’d say. And his using these many words would deplete his energies and justify his ordering another Big Mac.

The idea that the guy and his girlfriend share a single, objective reality is ludicrous.

When a performer views a score, metaphysical questions regarding illusion and reality are in fact not only pertinent but downright urgent. Three hundred years ago, a human being called Johann Sebastian Bach, living in a country that today is called Germany but that back then didn’t actually exist as a country in the modern conception of the world, composed a piece for solo cello. He seems never to have written the piece down, but his wife wrote it down for him, and so did a couple of his students. How? Did they hear Bach play it on the cello? Or did Bach play the notes on the clavichord, and the wife and the students wrote down the notes as if for the cello?

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How come the scores came out a little different—in pitches, flats and sharps, slurs and articulations? If the versions differ (and remember, no version is in Bach’s hand), is one right and the others wrong? How can we tell? Is it important for us to be able to tell? How did Bach intend his piece to be played? And if he had specifics in mind, must we try to obey him? Does that mean that there’s only one way to play the piece—one legitimate, approved, sanctioned, sanctified way that renders all other ways criminal or sinful?

Nobody agrees on the questions—or on the answers. Watch this space for further developments.