J. S. Bach’s “Habit of Perfection”: Andrew Rangell

Andy Rangell at his Well-Tempered Clavier

Andy Rangell at his Well-Tempered Clavier

Waiting the election returns (Obama v. McCain) in November, 2008, we repair to the consolations of J.S. Bach, and in this conversation, to the perfect nest of keyboard masterpieces known collectively as The Well-Tempered Clavier, delivered to the world in two prodigious installments: Book One in 1722, Book Two in 1744. Daniel Barenboim, and others, have dubbed Bach’s WTC the “Old Testament” of piano literature — Beethoven’s 32 sonatas constituting the “New”…! We repair geographically to the studio near Boston of the “quirky, imaginative, intelligent” piano master Andrew Rangell. In 2020 he is sequestered with WTC, Book Two, having recorded Book One in 2007.

I think of Andrew as the Glenn Gould of our time and place. Like so many Bach pianists he grew up with Gould’s great first recording of the Goldberg Variations from 1955, the record that announced the “birth of a legend.” (See the equally famous 1981 re-recording in exquisite video). Like very few others, Andrew Rangell has grown into Gould’s roles as an original writer and performer, in celebrated recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Partitas, French and English suites, and The Art of Fugue. Also many of the Beethoven sonatas, the complete Chopin Mazurkas, and music of Janacek, Nielsen, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Enescu, Charles Ives, and many others. Like Gould but for different reasons (a 1991 hand injury) Rangell has largely traded the concert stage for the recording studio and its painstaking and exhilarating techniques of re-creation, both in the recording and editing phases.

I came to Andrew this time to ask what an immersion in the Well-Tempered Clavier does for one’s mind and spirit – this endlessly extended and refined masterwork that, as Andrew says, “encourages mind, fingers and heart, and that never turns anyone away.”

The Well-Tempered, for short, becomes the musical metaphor of the long human course in hearing multiplicities of voices — polyphony is the musical word — and their accents, inflections, their placements and interactions. It also becomes a “semi-religious experience,” says Andrew, the non-believer:

Bach was a man of God in the most overt and simple sense… But there is a fusion in Bach that is just mind-boggling to me. It has to do with the intersection of Man and God — and not at Yale. We’re talking about a composer who seemed to write for his own enrichment and edification and the need to enlarge himself. This was a person who studied deeply and who then produced; and even in his secular music there is a religious aura. There is something in which he is writing to God and he is writing for himself. And then everything else falls into place. It turns out that everything he is writing can stimulate and be used pedagogically. It can show young fingers where to go. It can show young composers how to think; it can clarify things about voice-leading. To study the Well-Tempered is to study the treatise of all time on harmony. Somehow God and human concerns are fused in a very profound way. I speak as a person otherwise irreligious. I consider myself a kind of secularized person. Nonetheless maybe music is a kind of religion and Bach is in a way always the high priest, just because of the richness there. Sometimes these days I quote Glenn Gould who said, “I believe in God — Bach’s God.” Through Saint Glenn, I can go there easily. I feel deeply the man is an ocean. He is fathomless. Over and over again he had, to quote Hopkins, “the habit of perfection.” He is godlike. When I practice Bach I feel, whatever my own struggles, whatever my own difficulties, I am sustained by it. There is no flaw there.

Andrew Rangell in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 21, 2008

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