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Mixing music and math

A music teacher and pianist has mathematically analyzed all of Bach's works. During a concert Saturday he will put his theories into practice.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 2001

A music teacher and pianist has mathematically analyzed all of Bach's works. During a concert Saturday he will put his theories into practice.

J.S. Bach was the most mathematical of composers, and that's a big reason Cory Hall loves his music. Hall, a pianist and musicologist, has spent the last 10 years on a project analyzing tempos in Bach's music.

"Most musicians are content with just playing the music. That doesn't satisfy me," said Hall, 38, who teaches music and humanities at St. Petersburg College. He's also an organist, playing for services at Anona United Methodist Church in Largo.

"Bach was a music scientist, and part of his musical science, I believe, was to totally unify all his music, the same way an architect would unify the dimensions of every room in a building."

Saturday afternoon, Hall will give a piano recital of Bach's six partitas for keyboard (BWV 825-83O) in which his theory is put into practice. Briefly, he argues that Bach established precise ratios between the durations of movements in each work, and that those ratios determine the tempos at which the movements are played.

"A typical ratio would be one to one, as when the prelude in a partita lasts two minutes, and so does the gigue," he said.

Hall has found that virtually all Bach's works can be analyzed through "duration ratios." In program notes for the recital, he has prepared a spreadsheet for each partita, laying out the mathematical relationships among movements. According to his theory, these relationships influence the movements' length, number of measures, tempos and so forth. It's dry stuff, but the consequences for performance can be dramatic.

"Those familiar with the partitas may find some of my tempi shocking," he wrote. "My research shows that many of the tempi we usually hear in recordings, in recitals and in teaching studios are incorrect."

One culprit is the 19th century romantic tradition in which musicians are still steeped.

"In the romantic period, during Chopin's and Liszt's time, performers started speeding things up or slowing them down," Hall said. "In our time, Glenn Gould took Bach playing in a completely new direction. He was famous for his fleet fingers, and he went to extremes."

Then along came historically authentic performance mavens such as John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington. They wanted the music of Bach and other Baroque composers to be played as it was in their time.

"Their goal was to fix the slow tempos of the romantic period," Hall said. "But in doing so, I believe the historical people have gone overboard and become too fast. When I hear the Brandenburg Concerti or orchestral suites done at hair-raising speeds, I really don't believe that's what Bach wanted. It's just a reaction against the old romantic tempi."

Hall is not a total purist. He won't be taking repeats in his performance of the partitas. Nor will he be playing a harpsichord, the instrument for which Bach wrote the works. He doesn't shy from using the sustain pedal, which wasn't invented until after Bach's death in 1750.

"I think I'm much more historically authentic than a lot of harpsichordists are," he said. "A piece played correctly on the piano is more authentic than a piece played incorrectly on the harpsichord."

Music preview

Pianist Cory Hall plays Bach's six partitas for keyboard at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Music Center of St. Petersburg College, Gibbs campus, 66th Street and Fifth Avenue N. Free. (727) 341-4360.

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