Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is a work of both musical and domestic harmony. In the collection’s two volumes, composed some twenty years apart in the 1720s and 1740s, the laws of composition are investigated with unmatched rigor and imagination. Even in pieces of extreme dissonance, concord always follows discord; the most intense musical argument resolves in a state of peaceful agreement.
The Well-Tempered Clavier was one of Bach’s essential textbooks for teaching his own sons not only keyboard technique, but also the art of composing. Bach’s music made sense and so did his household—the great man at its head and his numerous offspring doing what they were told. Under this regime, the Bach children learned not only how to play the keyboard, but how to tune it so they could play in all major and minor keys, the tonalities visited in ascending order in his two books of 24 preludes and fugues. The well-tempered clavichord in the Bach home sang forth in the well-tempered family.
In Das wohl-temperierte Klavier, a “musical play” conceived and staged by the brilliant young Rumanian theater director David Marton, it is chaos, anxiety, violence and despair that reign. The domestic space is not the cramped quarters of an incessantly busy and ambitious musician of the 18th-century, but a sprawling apartment perhaps of the first half of the 20th century. Front and center stands a dining table with a legless grant piano nearby; another grand piano of full stature is at the rear of a hallway marked out by a long and narrow Persian rug. A bedroom stage left and a sitting room stage right are lined by books that confirm what the odd pair of pianos has already suggested: that we are among the educated bourgeois classes. This much becomes even clearer from the syntactically complex formulations of the formidable lady of the house when she fulminates about the unseen rabble outside, the general decline in public life and services, and even the rudeness of the weather—late trains and rogue snowstorms, failing street lights and impolite political rallies.
At the start of the play, an international production which premiered in Paris in January before making its way to Berlin’s Schaubühne, that fearsome woman straightens the Persian rug as a man hunched over the grand piano at the end of that rug plays what he must at the start of a show entitled The Well-Tempered Clavier: the first prelude in C-major. As Bach heard and played the piece its gently arpeggiated chords move in pleasingly regular harmonic rhythm: each chord is repeated twice before moving to the next one, the course of this progression logical and never boldly adventurous, though perfectly judged in its mixture deft feints and fulfilled expectations.
But in this unsettlingly entertaining play it is not only the rug that it is out of whack. So is the world and therefore Bach’s place in it. Each time the woman’s foot touches the rug to try to straighten it, the pianist—the actor, pianist, and musical leader of the production, Jan Czajkowski— matches her actions with jumps and anticipations in the rhythm. In between the woman’s tinkering with the décor, the piano lingers far too long on a single harmony, repeating it many more times than is written This most regular of pieces is made to move in fits or not move it all. It becomes a combination of jumpy paranoia and paralyzing lassitude— a metaphor for a society on the brink of collapse; or for the condition of interwar Europe; or for the uncertainty of creating theater in the first place. In blatant contrast to its original purpose, this prelude forms a portal not to further coherence and unity, but instead to aesthetic fragmentation and an abundant weirdness of the kind Bach’s music too rarely gets to revel in. What results is obscure, frustrating, and often hilarious, with profound hollows among its comic shallows.
The spoken text and the general scenario were taken by Marton from the novel The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, first published in 1989, the year the Iron Curtain came down. Not coincidentally it’s a book about the passing of an old order. Marton was drawn to the novel because of a shared nationality, but because of its disquisition on the difficulty in subscribing to the Bachian belief in musical truth and order, when the world itself no longer makes sense.
Marton was trained as a pianist and studied both and music and theater at Berlin’s University of the Arts. One of his aims as a director is to return to the theater the singing voice, but one that is not overwrought with technique as in the opera world, where a cracked note can mean the end of a career. Although Marton is increasingly in demand as a director of opera, he is much more keen to get actors to sing—to use their voices in ways that communicate with the directness and unaffectedness of speech, but enlivened by the expressivity of song. The effect of this approach is that spoken and sung texts resonate more sympathetically with one another, even while the fundamental distinction between the two modes of delivering text are never fully dissolved.
After that rug has finally been straightened the guests arrive, or at least begin to populate the various on-stage rooms. A police captain (the marvelously petulant Neils Borman) in a wheelchair plays out a gun-sex fantasy with a woman in a chemise, who may have been a music teacher (the poised and sometimes mocking Jule Böwe). At the other side of the stage, a lone woman (Adi Haroni) muses at her violin—it’s Bach, of course, though later when she drifts to the middle of the action for her gripping, agonized solo, it’s Bartok. A messenger boy—the powerfully singing and artfully wooden acting Thorbjörn Björnsson— the son of the formidable woman—obediently follows orders, until in the end he goes missing, but not before delivering a valedictory speech in his native Icelandic renouncing the existence of unseen truths like those promulgated by Bach.
A deranged musicologist (the sometimes magisterial, sometimes frantic Ernst Stötzner) quit his job at the conservatory long ago and spends his time in bed, only to throw off the covers now and then to declare the laws of music dead, and therefore Bach (himself a God) dead, too. He long ago tipped his research into the garbage. God has probably done the same. Together with the pianist, the musicologist detunes the legless piano while railing against the apparent paradox that tuning systems must find a way to compromise with the physical truths that make it impossible to build a scale from perfectly tuned intervals.
A jazz singer (Jelena Kuljic) and her trumpet-playing bandmate (Paul Brody) appear and disappear to take part in the ensemble Bach sing-alongs. They also serve up two brilliant torch songs with Kuljic’s amber voice, mysteriously clear and lush at the same time, and Brody’s urgent, unfettered blues interpolations indulging in the sensual excess that Bach apparently cannot bring himself to enjoy.
But deep within, Bach’s music too is burning with an intensity that cannot be dampened by the often comic portentousness it is laden with by Marton’s actors in their group vocalizing. The threnodic B-flat minor prelude, with its pulsing chords gets a “loo-loo” 1960s overlay. Driven forward inexorably by Bach’s spectral harmonies, the banality of this performance begins to sound apocalyptic. One is encouraged to laugh at a world hurtling towards its end. An “oohing” treatment in three-part harmony of the B-Minor prelude (the last number in Bach’s ascending chromatic series of keys) over the dinner table demonstrates that counterpoint is itself a kind of conversation. But the vocalizing also sounds like Glenn Gould’s solipsistic humming, except that here it is delivered unabashedly and in tune. The actors proceed with their singing for several minutes until they all break out in hysterical laughter. It’s a sublime comic moment: the earnest beauty and consummate skill of this music is perched on the abyss of the absurd, and Marton is not afraid to kick it over the edge.
In the end Bach music also falls silent, too, and the female music teacher who’s also a capable fetishist, rehearses a eulogy devoted to mortality and the decay of the body (both favorite, and inextricably related, Bachian topics) before the stage is again depopulated and only a toy dog is left on the podium, nodding his agreement to these pronouncements on the inevitably of death.
In its encyclopedic investigation of the full spectrum of tonalities for the first time in music history and the presentation of all sub-genres of the keyboard prelude and its august companion the fugue, Bach’s musical project crowns the musical Enlightenment. Research has never sounded this good. The endgame of such an obsessive commitment to order is, as Adorno and Horkheimer, warned, fascist control. When the pianist again tries to tune the piano late in the play, the sound of felt hammer hitting string is eventually drowned out by the din of modern war.
In its bizarre comic confrontations and pathological fondness for paradox, Marton’s The Well-Tempered Clavier shows us that in the rubble and confusion, Bach’s music speaks—no, sings!—even more forcefully than it did when humans used to believe that order ruled the universe.
For a montage of the play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sInlLOZO528