In Conversation With Angela Hewitt
A world-renowned Bach pianist reveals how the maestro’s divine intentions and multilayered harmonies can help us transcend life’s challenges.
What was your first encounter with classical music?
My father was the organist for 50 years at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa. He was a great Bach player. I remember hearing him play those organ works, and the wonderful clarity that he brought to them—the joy, the sense of dance, the rhythm, and all the things that you need to play Bach well.
Tell us about your earliest training related to classical music.
When I was a kid, my mother would tie up the gates of my play area with loads of knots because I was always escaping and running down the road. I’d spend the whole day undoing those knots so that I could run down the street. Maybe that’s why I like doing a lot of Bach fugues—they’re very complicated pieces with four or five different voices at once. I like taking those pieces and making them sound easy. It’s just in my nature.
You grew up with church music, but people today seem to have less exposure to traditional choral and classical music.
I think one of the reasons why classical music is in decline in a lot of places is that people don’t go to church anymore. Church was always a place where people could hear good music and were able to sing. In that way, music was at least present in their lives. For a lot of people, however, that doesn’t exist anymore. Many kids and younger people have really had no exposure to any sort of classical music.
Bach has many famous quotes related to spirituality and God. How do you think his beliefs influenced his music?
Bach’s compositions were a great expression of his faith. Perhaps more than any other composer, it’s Bach’s music that people turn to in times of trouble when they need comfort. People will listen to it repeatedly, as it conveys a message of great joy and hope.
Bach was a master of the art of balance. What inspires you when playing his music?
As an example, in The Art of Fugue, there is one three-voice piece in which he took the exact notes and did a mirror image of that music. He turned the whole piece upside down, then he also turned it inside out, so that the top voice becomes the middle voice, the middle becomes the bass, and the bass becomes the top. Amazing!
As was the custom in his day, he doesn’t write in how loud or soft to play. He doesn’t say how fast or how slow the music should go, or which notes are detached and which are smooth. We have to decide that ourselves, based on good musical intelligence and what we know of how the music was performed in his day.
When you’re performing a piece, you have to find the right balance of parts to make the piece sound intelligible to the listener.
Would you say that Bach helps your inner balance?
I’ll tell a story. The day my mother died, I was playing the 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier), which is a three-hour concert. That was in London’s biggest hall, the Royal Festival Hall.
It was a huge challenge for me because I had to keep my concentration going—and stay absolutely calm. Yet it was, of course, a very moving performance. The fact that Bach’s music gives you such great comfort and has such immense beauty helped immeasurably. I get the shivers just talking about it.
Everything you experience in life as an artist goes into your music. And in music, you find everything you need.