The Well-Tempered Clavier is J.S. Bach’s two-part compendium of forty-eight preludes and fugues based in each of the major and minor keys. On November 2, in observance of the centennial of EMU’s Pease Auditorium, piano professor emeritus Dady Mehta will perform twelve of the twenty-four preludes and fugues that make up the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II.
Mehta glows with a congenial and keenly observant intelligence. In an interview at his home, the octogenarian musicologist spoke at length of his birth in Shanghai, a journey to Paris with pianist Bela Belai at the age of sixteen, and his arrival in Vienna in 1953 at age nineteen. There, he says, “I grew up musically” as a student of keyboard master Bruno Seidlhofer.
Musicality and an unwavering work ethic are the lifeblood of the Mehta family. Mehta named his eldest son after a Zoroastrian holy day; Navroj “Nuvi” Mehta, who studied with Leonard Bernstein, is now an esteemed violinist, educator, and conductor of the San Diego Symphony. His brother, Bejun Mehta, has flourished as a Baroque countertenor at the Metropolitan Opera. Bejun learned the fundamentals of high voice technique from his mother, soprano Martha Ritchey Mehta, who for many years was affiliated with the U-M Museum of Art. And in case you wondered, internationally acclaimed conductor Zubin Mehta is Dady’s cousin.
We have been discussing art, oppression, humanity, and Shostakovich when Mehta stands and walks across the studio to his Steinway piano. There is a perceptible shift in the energy of the room. A fugue has sprouted from the seedbed of its prelude. His fingers move with uncanny precision and rapidity, and I have the distinct impression that he is merging with something elemental in the music that defines and sustains him.
Bach, he explains, placed great emphasis upon the songlike qualities of instrumental music. As a fugue unfurls, three or four separate voices are summoned and interwoven. When one of his hands is called upon to negotiate two voices at once, Mehta differentiates by playing one part more softly than the other. During a particularly scintillating passage he grins, chuckles, and says, “This is in triple counterpoint!”
The preludes are constructed in ways that suggest the shifting repetitive grace of dance. Since the original root of the word “fugue” is “flight,” it seems perfectly natural for the mingling voices to take wing and begin to wheel overhead. To this listener, the force that holds Bach’s cycle together appears to be centrifugal. And with reverberations lingering in the air, etymology suggests yet another adjective: fugacious, meaning fleeting or evanescent.