presentation at the opening day convocation, Juilliard School, September 2000

Præludium. A prelude. A prelude is something that comes before something else. A prelude…to a fugue. A prelude is an improvised piece before a written-down piece. A prelude could be a written-down piece before another written-down piece that’s more…formal, or strict. A prelude to your school year…

Præludium. This is music from J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

[BB plays J. S. Bach’s Præludium in B-flat Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.]

A prelude by Bach is a prelude to many pianists’ careers here at Juilliard. That was the first piece of music I played at my Juilliard audition. The school required it—excuse me, the “Yard” required it! How many pianists in the room today played a prelude and fugue by Bach when they auditioned here? Let me see some hands. And that is a way we make a “classical” music. A way we establish a Great Books list for ourselves—connecting ourselves to the past, and connecting ourselves to each other in the present.

So what was I doing just now? What did you hear? That was Bach’s music, or was it? Some of you thought I went too far, with the red light and all—that it was in bad taste. I know you did. Maybe I should see some hands. Who thought it was in bad taste? Ah, the same hands as before! OK, forget taste.

I played the notes more or less that Bach wrote. There are a couple of differing, old authoritative manuscript copies of the piece. (It was not published in Bach’s lifetime.) And there is a spot Bach may have changed his mind or simply had two ideas about how to do a passage. We don’t know.

I would like to get some specific reactions from people here in the theater. Find out what you thought. And today, I have a special gift—I’m a mind reader!

[BB “mind-reading.”] And I’m getting something now. Right here in the front. This guy…who’s thinking: “Yeah, it was OK. I love music. Ya know, Bach is kinda like Britney Spears. I love music.” Hey, thanks! And now, this gentleman. (“Reception’s” a little fuzzy….) Oh! We’d better skip that one! But now, I’m getting something from the very back. This is complicated. The woman in the very back. It’s something like: “That performance recalled for me the 1965 Glenn Gould recording made on 30th Street, particularly in the slight, somewhat self-conscious arpeggiations of the seventh chords. And then the little episode – in the middle – seemed to draw on the sound world of Edwin Fischer, the whole thing overlaid with the almost overly earnest…religiosity of Albert Schweitzer’s writing about Bach, and in the use of the red light, a sense about the music as context that was rather like the treatment of Bach in the movie Hélas pour moi by Jean-Luc Godard.” Hmm…maybe.

So now what have I been doing? I meant to suggest that each of you received what I did at the piano rather differently. You interpreted it. You read it according to what you know and according to what you feel, and what you don’t know. Everything.

So what was with the red light? Was I using it to interpret a feature of the music? The place the prelude dramatically moves toward and arrives at a fully-diminished seventh-chord? [BB plays.] That sound that you’ve heard in every old horror movie. [BB plays tremolando] In just the way I’m using this modern instrument: I was thinking of being here, in this theater, with the capabilities of a theater like this—an instrument like this. I decided to use a little of that possibility this afternoon.

In J. S. Bach’s time people played new music. The whole idea of “classical” music started later. That came in the 1800s (Bach had been dead a long time already) when people started to believe older music could have lasting value…in performance. And often, Bach was seen as the beginning of what had meaning. That may be because Bach himself took from the past, used it, elevated it. His music is a “reception” of the past.

The later study and careful publication of Bach’s music really started to define “classical” music. Of course, people still updated Bach’s music, arranged it, modernized it. But, that’s why I’m talking about Bach today.

If Bach had not existed, we would have to have invented him!

We would not be here without the idea of classics as seen in Bach. The Juilliard School would not be here without that idea. And, I don’t speak only to the musicians in this room. We all believe that the past—the dance of the past, José Limón, or Anthony Tudor, the theater of the past, Strindberg…or Aristophanes—we believe that this art can continue to speak to us, in new performances now.

When Bach wrote down the Præludium in B-flat Minor that I played, the note B-flat [BB plays B-flat.] sounded lower than it does now on this piano. [BB plays an A.] More like that. This kind of piano did not exist in 1720. Bach might have played his piece on a wood-framed harpsichord, or a clavichord so delicate in sound that you couldn’t really hear it in a place like this.

This piano was built in New York City in 1930. This afternoon, I almost chose to play the German Steinway that’s back there, because the German Steinway was made in Hamburg and Bach visited Hamburg in 1720, just about when he wrote the Præludium! Then, the role of performer was not a separate role from that of composer.

People didn’t play solo keyboard pieces like the Præludium in public concerts yet. Public concerts didn’t really exist. So again, what did you hear from me before?

I’m pretty certain you heard me—a pianist born in Iowa—playing here at 40 degrees, 46 minutes, 27 seconds North latitude by 73 degrees, 59 minutes, 2 seconds West longitude. That’s to say: Here! Of course today, for most of us, the performer and composer are separate. I’ve appropriated Bach’s work; I’ve taken it. Because of the way this all developed, I don’t have to pay anything or get anyone’s permission to do so.

Harold Bloom—who writes and thinks about literature, about books—has said there’s no such thing as interpretation, only misinterpretation. In a sense, the progress of art comes from each new artist misreading the past. Sometimes we don’t want to know too much. It may stop us somehow. The anxiety of knowing about all that great powerful art that’s already been made, all those great performances already given—it’s troubling. Or perhaps…that’s what makes us create. Isn’t that connected to stage fright too? We’re worried about being embarrassed in front of the audience, sure. But, we’re really worried about being embarrassed in front of Brahms, Arthur Rubinstein, or Balanchine, or Stanislavsky. Of course, they’re dead. But we’re worried!

When I go to the piano to play Bach now, I can’t not be in the year 2000. And I bring with me all that’s happened since Bach, as I’ve received it. Yes, I bring Glenn Gould (I think we have Glenn Gould impersonators in classical music just the way they have Elvis impersonators in pop!), and Albert Schweitzer, and Milton Babbitt, and Ben Harkarvy, and Harold Bloom…and John Rolle (welcome to the “Yard”!), and Proust. All that affects me—and then, hearing me, all that affects you. If I’m lucky, I end up—not with “authentic” Bach, whatever that might be, but—with “authentic” Brubaker. Not an accumulation of borrowed details, but something that speaks truly of me, and, much more importantly, that speaks truly of this moment in time. It begins from the received past—and then translates that past, interprets that past, makes it real.

I want to play a different prelude. Another Præludium as a matter of fact. The first movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano. This prelude is the first piece of twelve-tone music ever written. Music with no key center. You can’t say it’s in G, or F, or B-flat. It’s not in any key. Or, it’s in all of them some people say. It was created in 1923. A moment of crisis in the German-speaking world. The Austrian monetary system collapsed the year before. In 1923, the German government said: “Those Reichsmarks in your pocket are not money anymore. They’re worthless paper.” Around this time, Schoenberg expressed his fear that the anti-Semitism he witnessed around him could lead to horrible violence. And in this moment of social and economic crisis, Schoenberg chose to interpret Bach. The Præludium became the first part of a new Baroque-style suite with a Gavotte, Menuett, and Gigue. I could talk about tone rows now. Let’s just say that, in this piece, Schoenberg chooses to spell out with musical notes: B-A-C-H. Bach. He uses the letters backwards at first. In German musical spelling, [BB plays] “B” is B-flat, “A” is A, “C” is C, and B-natural is called “H.” “Ha.” It’s a musical motive Bach himself used in his Art of Fugue and elsewhere, and literally hundreds of composers have used it since. Hundreds! Schoenberg fills his piece with it: Connecting to history what will seem to some of you—even now, seventy-five years after he wrote it—to be rather bizarre music. I want to emphasize that in a way this music is Schoenberg reading Bach. It doesn’t sound like what came from the piano earlier when I read Bach for you. But this is Bach too.

[BB plays Schoenberg’s Præludium from the Suite for Piano, op. 25.]

The tricky part is that when we experience the power of “classical” music, or dance, or the theater, we can sometimes then believe we ought to preserve it just the way it was at that moment. Starting more than a hundred years ago, performers tried to rediscover the then forgotten techniques and instruments that had really been used in playing older music. People started building harpsichords again after a period when no one was interested in them. Eventually, the “authentic instruments” movement became hugely important. It’s affected me, even though I always play a modern instrument. And it’s happened in the other arts too. When somebody builds a theater as a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, or when someone painstakingly recovers choreography by watching a film of Martha Graham over and over again.

I want to show you an old photograph, [photo poster on easel is uncovered] a beautiful picture of Wanda Landowska playing the harpsichord in Paris in about 1910. Here you see something that was new in music then—the recovery of something old.

You see her: a vision of the past. That’s the sculptor Rodin standing in back, receiving Landowska’s offerings of Bach. It tantalized people to hear these pieces, pieces by Bach, with just the same sounds Bach heard. Landowska is supposed to have said, “You play Bach your way, and I shall play him his way!”

But wait a minute. The harpsichord Landowska had built for herself was a metal-framed instrument, like a modern piano. It had thick modern strings. It had deep keys like a piano. It was loud. It was a modern interpretation—a reading, or a misreading of an old instrument. She played with modern piano technique and she played from printed editions of the music that today seem less than reliable. She was very important: a marvelous performer who awakened interest in old music. I don’t want to deny that in any way. But was it “authentic”?

It was, of course: authentic 1910 Landowska. And it was authentic 1923 Schoenberg, misread by me earlier. And all of it was a reading of Bach. Didn’t Harold Bloom say there were no interpretations, only misinterpretations?

So, we create Bach in our own image.

As many of you know, Juilliard is launching a new jazz program. I wanted you to hear a little of one of many readings of Bach by jazz players. This is a recording from 1993 by Jacques Loussier and his trio. They’ve started from the “Italian” Concerto, a solo keyboard piece by Bach. You’re going to hear the beginning of the last movement of the piece. Right from the start, you’ll hear the added rhythm, the drummer, and the bass. After the first little section, they break off into an improvisation, riffing on Bach.

[recording of Jacques Loussier and his trio is played]

There’s a piece written by Paul Hindemith that uses jazz and quotes from Bach’s music at the same time. On a little note Hindemith wrote, “Would Bach be turning over in his grave?” And he answers that question by saying: no, if he were alive today, Bach would be using jazz too.

Our understanding of classical music and drama and dance, and books, is changing. We are learning that sometimes “greatness” has had a lot to do with class structure, politics, and gender. If the world is losing some interest in “classics,” it may signal a stronger interest in new art. Maybe that’s good—a historic return. Let’s remember that in Bach’s time people were interested in hearing new pieces, not old. As long as we don’t put our hope into trying to hold onto the past by clutching it too tightly, or by embalming it: What touches us from the art of the past can be a basis for what we do now.

During my præludium here today, in the minutes I’ve been talking, next-door at Tower Records they just sold [BB “mind-reading” again] …twenty-seven more copies of the new Eminem CD. So even though we believe in the value and present relevance of Bach, of Chekhov, and Martha Graham, we’re not alone on this planet. The way I play my diminished-seventh chords is important (with red light or without). And we can think and argue about it, and even make it our obsession. But, those are trees, and let’s not miss the forest. [BB gestures toward Tower Records.]

I can’t tell you how to receive Bach. I can’t tell you how to interpret the past. You will tell me. And you will tell your generation. And you will keep telling us—you will keep answering those questions—every time you step onto this stage, or any other stage, anywhere, ever.