Monday, January 17, 2011

Psalms, Preludes and Fugues

Years ago I remember reading that the famous cello player Pablo Casals used to start his daily practice routine off with what you might call a meditative period: he would play a Bach Prelude and Fugue (on the piano) before he began to practice on his cello.

It always struck me that it was somewhat like reading a Psalm each morning, something I've done fairly regularly for years. The Psalms, even after countless readings, always have something fresh to say, something that triggers a response in the spirit and gets the mind working beyond the mundane.

Over a period of about three months I read Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace. It's a book in which each (short) chapter focuses on a particular 'Church' word - the sorts of words we use in everyday Christian life. Why I mention her is because time and again she writes how the Psalms have been one of her mainstays in her Christian life, and how one or more are read aloud daily in the Benedictine monasteries she's visited on many occasions.

Bach's Preludes and Fugues can play a similar role in a musician's life. If we were, like Casals, to play one of each every day, we'd find we were running the gamut of (spiritual) emotions in a way that was similar to the way we run through them in the Psalms. Bach goes from joyous exuberance (some of the Preludes, in particular, seem to have fallen out of heaven and onto the page) to anguish to deep meditation (those Fugues that seem to go on in an endlessly inventive way for pages) to sheer wonder at the mathematical genius of the way some of the Fugues offer a theme, turn it upside down, inside out, back to front and still provide beautiful music.

A good way to start the day would be to reflectively read a Psalm, and then go off to the piano and play a Prelude and Fugue. The soul would be all the better for it.

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