Comparing notes – Derek Scally on Bach and Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva

An Irishman’s Diary

As another train journey in Germany begins, I slip on my headphones and let Johann Sebastian Bach slice away my mind's clutter.

Returning, voluntarily, to Bach as an adult is something my teenage self could never have imagined. While my peers in 1990s Dublin played football or experimented with glue, I grappled with Bach’s two-part inventions, French Suites and his collections of preludes and fugues.

The latter first appeared 300 years ago as book one of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” and is dedicated “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning”. Though I was a musical youth, the pencil marks still visible across the sheet music triggers long-forgotten trauma. When Bach was on the note stand, mine was often an ill-tempered clavier.

As I remembered them, the preludes and fugues had a grim, prim air, somewhere between singing equation and musical typewriter. Even on recordings I sought out for help, the notes were hammered out with a showy, mathematical precision but never, to my ear at least, with joy.


On a recent train journey, my jaw dropped when I played a recording of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" by Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva. Her playing, my ears registered immediately, was joyous, melodic and soulful.

As pandemic hangover flips into war anxiety, playing music remain a simple source of solace

Even the infamous first prelude in C major – murdered by millions of piano students over three centuries – is raised here to new life. In Tatiana’s hands, the melodic voice hovers gently, guiding me through the thicket of notes. Hearing her play the preludes and fugues for the first time, I felt like I had finally passed a colour blindness test for my ears.

That I am on this piano journey at all is because I decided to take the plunge and return to lessons as an adult. After years of musical drill as a child and teenager, I am having a very different experience now with Mark, my patient English piano teacher.

We alternate our lessons between a rehearsal room in a deserted East Berlin shopping centre and a sound-proof bunker in the Nazi-era Tempelhof Airport.

At my request we alternate our efforts, too: between learning sheet music, as I used to, and playing songs based on melody, chords and their inversions.

The latter is a new experience for me and resembles musical Tetris, as I struggle to get the ideal chord block in the ideal place in time. It is taxing yet relaxing.

During the early days of the pandemic, racing to finish a book, I struggled to focus, in my break, on reading or streaming. My piano helped me steam out the creases in my mind in an era of endless online distraction.

One reason playing the piano these days is more therapeutic than ever, I read recently, is because it is one of the last remaining human activities where we cannot simultaneously use a smartphone. And, as pandemic hangover flips into war anxiety, playing music remain a simple source of solace.

As I play, I can hear an embrace of, and farewell to, Europe's classical music tradition as Shostakovich slides towards a modern melodic meltdown

A year ago, aware of my mixed history with Bach, Mark suggested we look at another set of preludes and fugues, by Dimitri Shostakovich. The Russian composer wrote them in homage to the German master after a visit to Leipzig in 1950, where he was a judge at the city's first Bach music competition.

The competition winner was a young woman called Tatiana Nikolayeva, the pianist and composer became friends and, when he wrote his own preludes and fugues, she was the one who made them famous.

So far I have learned only two – numbers one and 23 – but never tire of their beauty. As I play, I can hear an embrace of, and farewell to, Europe’s classical music tradition as Shostakovich slides towards a modern melodic meltdown. The fearful composer was writing in the Stalin era and, in an era of fresh horror from Moscow, Tatiana and Dimitri are a welcome reminder of Russian beauty.

On YouTube you can watch Tatiana performing all the Opus 87 preludes and fugues. On a website dedicated to the pianist I read recently that, during a 1993 concert of the work in San Francisco, she fell ill, was unable to finish and died nine days later at the age of 69.

I thought of her last week. I was reading a report about neuroscientists who were analysing the brain activity of an 87-year-old elderly man when he had an epileptic seizure and died unexpectedly. Reviewing their data later they noticed how, 30 seconds before and after his last heart beat, the man’s brain experienced intense dream activity.

Perhaps as we die, the researchers suggested, our brains really do play back the highlights of our lives at high speed.

If so, maybe one day I will drift away with happy memories at the keyboard – or to the sound of Tatiana Nikolayeva, soulful yet strong, playing Shostakovich and Bach.