Andras Schiff’s Rainbow-Tempered Clavier

Andras Schiff gave an hour-long lecture about J S Bach last night at Davies Symphony Hall. The pianist recently began a two-year residency with the San Francisco Symphony, during which time he’s devoting much attention to Bach.

There’s an effortless yet quiet sense of humor to the man which I find charming. He seems very self-effacing in spite of his grandeur at the keyboard.

Of the many fascinating things that Schiff mentioned during his talk, which the pianist deftly accompanied with short musical excerpts to illustrate the points he wanted to make, the thing that I found most interesting was his interpretation of certain pieces by Bach in terms of the color spectrum.

For Schiff, every key in which Bach wrote a Prelude and Fugue in The Well-Tempered Clavier brings to mind a different color of the rainbow. According to the pianist, C Major is white, E Major is light blue, G Major is green, and B Minor is black. He played excerpts from the pieces Bach wrote in those keys to illustrate his assertions.

I can’t say I heard the hues that Schiff hears when he played those excerpts last night. But it’s a lovely idea anyway. It probably helps the pianist to embody a certain feel for the music as he plays through the series.

I kept trying to visualize the colors Schiff mentioned as he played, as if attempting to conjure a scene from Fantasia in my mind’s eye. I think that might be why I couldn’t quite understand what Schiff was getting at with his synesthesia-esque thoughts.

Andras Schiff will play Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier on October 21. For more information, go here.

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  1. says

    I don’t sense colors in keys, but many seem to have a general character. G major is bright and cheerful, E-flat is mysterious, E major is dream-like, B major seems deific, F major and B-flat major have a military qualities. F sharp major has a playful transcendence. C major is like light. I probably associate these keys with compositions in them that reveal those characteristics.

    It is interesting that Schiff sees B minor as black. Beethoven thought B minor was an evil key and he refused to write anything in it.

    • Sixtus Beckmesser says

      . . . except the Bagatelle Opus 126, no. 4.

      Nadia Boulanger used to insist that her students transpose preludes and fugues from the WTC into all other keys. In addition to being torture for those with absolute pitch, I wonder what this would do to those with synaesthesia?

      • says

        It’s a bit of trivia sticking up out of my mind like a dead braching protruding from the bottom of a swamp. Off hand, the closest reference I recall is that Beethoven labelled a B minor melodic idea in one of his sketchbooks as a “black key”. See: Michael C. Tusa, “Beethoven’s “C-Minor Mood”: Some Thoughts on the Structural Implications of Key Choice” in Beethoven Forum 2, Christoph Reynolds, ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press (1993). There are probably better and more complete references, but alas, I’m deep in the Black Forest of Germany and not in a position to dig them up since there is no research library near-by — to say nothing of a lack of time and interest.

  2. Michael Redmond says

    Andras Schiff is a great musician and a great pianist, no question. One of the greatest on earth. But if he is so enamored of Bach’s colors and timbres, why doesn’t he perform Bach on the clavier or the harpsichord? I’m not saying that playing Bach on the piano is “wrong.” But it surely isn’t authentic.