So, the real question is, can we have a Classical in Conversation, an RSL Classical Piano syllabus, without including the influential figure that is Johann Sebastian Bach? We think the answer is probably no… yep, definitely not.
Bach feels like the great-great-grandfather of the western classical music tradition. Think back to the baroque days, think harpsichords and organs, oratorios and motets, and you’ll begin to set the scene for the world that raised this musical master.
Bach was born in Germany into a family of musicians - his father was the director of town musicians, a pretty cool job title if you ask us! In his younger years he learned keyboard instruments like the harpsichord, clavichord and organ, most likely under his father’s instruction. Being such an early figure in western art music, it’s hard to imagine that Bach had any influences to learn from, but he was certainly not the only person composing in his time. Bach was exposed to the sounds of Pachelbel ("Canon in D" we’re looking at you!), Handel, Telemann, and he loved the Italian flavour brought by composers like Vivaldi and Corelli.
Bach’s career took him from city to city and church to church across Germany, and with word of his talents spreading like wildfire, he was a musician in high demand! A job as organist in the New Church, Arnstadt, led to its renaming – it would be Bach Church forevermore!
Head of Harmony, King of Counterpoint
But it is without doubt that one of the things which earned Bach his legendary stripes in the classical world and his golden status as one of the greatest composers that ever lived, was his approach to harmony. Living during a time where modal music was the go-to – a system which many of us may now associate with jazz improvisation (how wacky is that?!) – Bach pushed the boundaries and favoured composing tonal music. Though Bach did not invent the tonal system, his compositions certainly cemented it in the minds of the western classical world as the superior scheme, and of course we still use it today. That’s right, you can thank Bach for making that G# minor scale so important in your piano lessons…
Sitting alongside his harmonic innovation is his characteristic counterpoint. Again, though he did not invent it, Bach was such a fundamental contributor to the style that he is king in the eyes of many!
The Well-Tempered Clavier is the baby produced from his mastery of the tonal and harmonic system combined with his competence in counterpoint. The collection consists of two volumes, each containing 24 preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key – the first ever compilation of its kind. It has long since been regarded as one of the most important works for classical music that has ever been written.
Bach in the Books!
You’ll be pleased to know that, given how iconic Bach and his compositions are, we have included five pieces spread throughout the RSL Classical Piano syllabus, two of which have been pulled from the legendary The Well-Tempered Clavier. “Prelude in C” from Book 1 of the collection is instantly recognisable and quintessential Bach. Featured in Grade 4, it’s the perfect study of the many harmonic possibilities of C major. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a complete piano syllabus without the challenge of a prelude and fugue in the top grades, so for this reason, you’ll find “Prelude and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 847)” in the Grade 8 books. Your brain will be aching by the end of this one!
If you’re a classical beginner, you’ll be pleased to find “Minuet in G (BWV Anh. 114)” in the Grade 1 syllabus, a beautiful introduction to counterpoint and stunning ornamentation. And finally, we’ve included two of Bach’s Inventions, “Invention No.1 in C Major” is featured in Grade 5, and “Invention No.13 in A Minor” is ready and waiting for you in Grade 6.
Let it be known that learning a Bach tune brings with it a hefty test. It may demand a lot from your fingers and have intricacies that require the greatest concentration, but with this comes the knowledge that you are ticking off an extremely important box in your classical piano education. Bach’s pieces are truly the foundation of so much of the music that we enjoy in the modern world, and learning some of it for yourself brings an enormous amount of satisfaction!
There are many other incredible composers sat alongside Bach in our Classical Piano syllabus! We’ve got a Classical in Conversation blog about Alexis Ffrench, Zenobia Powell Perry and Ludovico Einaudi amongst many others.