A composer of great influence

Bach’s Sonic Tapestry: The Well-Tempered Clavier of 1722, Book I
by Robert Silverman  

Victoria: FriesenPress, 2023
$24.49  /  9781039165229

Reviewed by Isabel Nanton

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas for the organ, Paul Jacobs refers to the composer as “possibly the most influential and sublime composer in history, (with) everyone from Mozart and Beethoven to the Beatles and Lady Gaga (paying him) homage.”

This is exactly what Robert Silverman, professional pianist and Professor Emeritus of the School of Music at the University of British Columbia has done in this slim gem of a tome—paid homage to the great man, with a specific focus on Bach’s collection of 48 astonishing keyboard pieces which author Stephen Anderton refers to as “that great showpiece of technical and emotional display.”

Robert Silverman is Professor Emeritus at the School of Music, UBC, and was named to the Order of Canada in 2013

Silverman, who counts Beethoven and Chopin among his repertoire, explains how in 2020 he came firmly to Bach as a composer “whose every note counts as with no other composer” and who “consistently writes in two or more voices.” The book traces Silverman’s two-year (Covid) adventure, when he took 15 months to learn all 48 pieces (available in CD form by writing to Bach Lives Forever at eUsibi@gmail.com), in the process conveying the emotion and harmony of the ultimate composer. As well, the author must also have been a superb teacher as well as a consummate pianist, since he shares his enthusiasm in an “informal yet informative fashion,” illustrating how he became engrossed in Bach’s counterpoint, that technique of composing music in two or more voices.

Bach published the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) collection of preludes and fugues in all twenty-four keys in 1722, (dying in 1750), so Silverman places the composer in history, including interesting anecdotes of Frederick the Great’s Court in Potsdam. I also learned that “being a devout Lutheran, Bach included Christian symbolism in all his music.”

Robert Silverman has felt he has been conversing with Johann Sebastian Bach for the last 60 years.

Part II of the book, The Interlude, examines a “question I often receive at my Bach recitals and lectures”. As a non-piano playing writer yet avid piano music fan, I was caught up in the author’s exuberant sharing of the technical challenges of playing Bach with slivers of insight—for instance, Silverman uses the pedal primarily to “help negotiate awkward fingering changes.” The author has been “in conversation” with Bach for 60 years, thus his detailed advice resonates, examining the role of each hand and fingers while playing these exquisite compositions.

Part III is invaluable for pianists as Silverman examines how to play selected WTC pieces. Yet again, I enjoyed reading his advice say for example, on playing of the prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major. His advice? Ensure that you play the notes relatively evenly, and keep the pedal fully depressed during each harmony so the music “sounds nice.” However, to Silverman, this is just the beginning of the learning process. The player must also pay close attention to the different note-lengths in each measure and must also analyze and understand the harmonic underpinnings of the Prelude, as well as its phrase lengths.

In a 1951 BBC Desert Island Discs radio program entertainer Joyce Grenfell talks of Bach as “the greatest of them all, because he’s a comforting composer…. All his music is based on certainty, as it were, and it always resolves itself, which gives a sense of confidence.”

In this book, Silverman conveys that sense of confidence in a profound, accessible way.

Robert Silverman writes on the role of hand and fingers while playing Bach’s compositions

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Kenyan-born author and Cambridge Press Fellow Isabel Nanton is author of the Sierra Club Guide to BC, Adventuring in British Columbia (Sierra Club Books, 1996, with Mary Simpson). She specializes in writing about East Africa and Western Canada. She has reviewed books for the The Globe and MailThe Vancouver Sun, and Old Africa magazine in East Africa. Editor’s note: Isabel Nanton has also reviewed books by Lisa Duncan, Oriane Lee Johnston, Mary Bomford, Mellissa FungJohn Schreiner & Luke Whittall, and Joe Martin & Alan Hoover for The British Columbia Review.

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The British Columbia Review


Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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