Music speaks to us as words can never do. It reflects and captures every mood from happy to sad. We turn to it to pick us up, we study it, some of us perform it – we love hearing and sharing it. Many of us have been on our own during lockdown and music has been a lifeline – streamed concerts, recitals, interviews, all on top of Classic FM and Radio 3. We have our favourites, music we love to listen to, performers we love to watch. Soon, all being well, we shall all be back with live concerts again.
For many musicians in Scotland, it has been a challenge keeping fit musically speaking – the solitary practice, the lonely exercises, letting the imagination work on what a live audience might think. More time spent on the family budget than at the keyboard, more wrist action on the laptop than on the violin or clarinet. Yet practise we must: we have to be ready for the big show – when it comes. Our professional dialogue is with our instrument rather than with each other, and families have little patience with hours of practice.
Off stage, jazz master Art Tatum worked out with Bach's preludes and fugues: he said it was the basis of improvisation. Any pianist knows why: one master to another, Bach is the business. Something in every mood and every key, major and minor, fast and slow. Every finger has a part to play – they learn to behave as tricky runs get unlocked – every mistake put right. A solo performance to implied listeners, each time different and new, a journey of discovery.
A journey of discovery like life itself. Music is in the human soul, part of our emotional make-up. Bach's 48 preludes and fugues, his Goldberg Variations
, offer something else too – they are musical structures, conversations between voices that build on and interrupt each other just like human chat. Often, they build on the theme of a simple melody – Mozart was adept at this – and go off like fireworks in all directions – major, minor, cross-hands, subject up front and then counter-subject close behind.
Full of imitation and decoration just like human interaction, where we say something and the other person replies, agreeing and amending, a crescendo here for emphasis or anger, a diminuendo there as we tire of the topic. Perhaps an inversion for the sake of variety – the music turning the subject upside-down, our conversation heating up if we disagree. Baroque and early Classical keyboard music – think Bach and Scarlatti, Telemann and Haydn – is full of decoration. Just like conversation, as we form our impressions, invent our white lies, embroider our anecdotes and tall tales, and try to impress.
I might lose the non-expert in referring to double mordents, which elongate the notes and are usually left to the discretion of the performer: we all know people who go on a bit on the same note. I might also lose you by talking about the stretto, where notes and themes are squeezed together – rather like orderly collisions with subject entries crowd up – just like conversation when everyone is talking. Family life is like that – so is argument between experts.
The journey of discovery is about something else as well. Reflect for a moment on your own life, with all the twists and turns and ups and downs, the positions you took, the friends you made, the meetings that mattered, the unintended consequences, the long-wished-for climaxes and cadences. We find all these – or at least their musical counterparts – in the music itself.
Our life, like our voice, is the subject, and those of others that matter are the counter-subjects. Ours shifts from major to minor, the actions of others convert or invert what we plan, lives have long development periods and then times when everything coincides, when we long for a harmonious resolution to the discords of our lives.
With all his children and pressures from his bosses in the church, Bach knew all about that. Yet even his most chromatic music for keyboard resolves itself into pleasing order at the end. A metaphor perhaps for a good life lived. And this is where the joy and consolation of music kicks in: for all the subtle comparisons we can make about life and music, it has the power to energise and soothe, inspire and bring well-being, and, when we can meet up again in person, the fun and balm of being together again as the living beings we truly are. In the meantime, I shall go on practising in my studio.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is an honorary chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School