Bach Outside the Box
Johann Sebastian Bach (ca. 1685-1750) is one of the most revered composers in the Western tradition—ironic since, in his own time, his music was widely considered gothic and outmoded. Fifty-some years after Bach’s death, Beethoven called him the Urvater der Harmonie (roughly translated as “grandfather of harmony”); and the scientist Lewis Thomas once wrote of how we Earthlings should attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”
Any keyboardist with experience in Bach’s music knows that one of these “harder truths” is the transparent, exposed nature of his keyboard works. The lines are clear, delicate, and perfectly balanced. Even the tiniest instability or trepidation in execution tends to be amplified. And yet, in terms of performance practice, there is little, if anything, that is clear about Bach’s music—everything from such basic considerations as tempo to the finer details of melodic ornamentation is up for debate.
I have a good deal of experience in interpreting Bach’s keyboard music, and I’m decently versed in most of the classic recordings of his output. My relationship with Bach began in fear—when I thought of him, I pictured a marble bust possessed of the most somber and repugnant of visages. But now that I’ve gotten to know him better (in a process that happily continues to generate more challenges than it conquers) I’d like to take the opportunity to make a few good-natured observations about practicing and performing this demanding but warmly rewarding and three-dimensional body of work.
Practice Makes Perfect.
Yeah, yeah. But seriously—in the case of Bach’s music even moreso than that of the classical and romantic composers, it is supremely important to be methodical and deliberate with one’s practice routine. When approaching a piece for the first time, always take things very slowly in terms of rehearsal tempo and in terms of the pace of digestion. You will save time by learning things right early on, for Bach’s dense textures can be unforgiving and you may find deprogramming your mistakes to be discouraging.
Sublime independence of the fingers was Bach’s greatest asset as a performer because his music is almost exclusively contrapuntal in texture. A melody singing above a progression of block chords or a simple accompaniment figuration, while not unheard of in his work, is rather rare—you will be juggling multiple melodies juxtaposed against one another, and each voice must retain at all times its distinct identity and character. Carefully observe the values of notes and rests; hold the long tones for their full durations, regardless of what might be going on above or beneath them. Remember, each voice is independent; your hands are a choir in this music. If you cannot mentally keep track of each of these independent lines as you rehearse, chances are you’re going too fast. Slow down! You’ll thank yourself sooner than later.
Pay close attention to fingering. That point generalizes to practically all keyboard music, but, once again, the contrapuntal texture of Bach’s music will more severely punish illogical, jumbled fingerings than the works of, say, Mozart. If you practice slowly and cautiously enough, you’ll find that the most workable fingering patterns suggest themselves. It’s not necessary to have at your disposal an edition which enumerates fingerings for each and every figure—I tend to distrust textual fingering patterns simply because hands are unique. It is well worth remembering that Bach’s own fingering, from all indications in the historical record, would be considered in some respects unorthodox by the editors and pedagogues of today. In rapid passagework, Bach was not afraid to pass the third finger over the fourth, the fourth over the fifth, or the index finger over the thumb. All in all, Bach used his thumbs very little—but that doesn’t mean you must do the same. It’s just to demonstrate that there is wide latitude in choice. Find patterns of fingering that sound smooth and feel reliable. Those are the correct ones, whatever they might be. Don’t move on from a given passage until you settle the matter!
Ornamentation shouldn’t be a big deal.
The ornamentation found in various editions of Bach’s keyboard works seems to be one of the most frustrating obstacles for performers everywhere, both novice and advanced.
A very great deal of what we know about how to interpret those pesky little squiggles comes from Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, writing in his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing the Keyboard.) But much of this information is in turn open to interpretation, as there are of course no contemporary recordings—only texts.
The principles of notation were somewhat different and a great deal less standardized in Bach’s day than in Chopin’s, for instance. Compared to his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, Bach left relatively little to the imagination in terms of melodic decoration. His notation was more exact. Compare his ornamentation with that of Couperin, and you will see what I mean. He left more room for play in his slower works than in the more sprightly pieces, as was the custom, but generally Bach was mercifully clear in his intentions with regards to ornamentation.
I haven’t the space to go into great detail, so I’ll advise a couple of key principles: first, I recommend that you always begin by ignoring the ornamentation marks. As you become familiar with the melodic lines, you’ll likely find yourself experimenting with different types of figurations. If you’re unsure—or not feeling very creative—many editions make specific recommendations about how to execute specific ornaments. Secondly, remember that any interpretation, however authoritative, is merely that—an interpretation, a recommendation. By listening to various recordings of Bach’s music, one can “get the feel” of what baroque ornamentation is all about. As in most creative pursuits, first we imitate and then we begin to synthesize. But until you’re ready to tackle those squiggles, why not leave them be?
Tempo and dynamics are largely up to the performer.
Personally, I find it quite irksome to open an edition of Bach’s keyboard works and find the pages full of crescendi, diminuendi, accelerandi, and ritenuti. These are all editorial suggestions—please remember that! The fluctuations in volume to which the piano lends itself were not possible on Bach’s native instruments, the clavichord and harpsichord. He would have relied on registration changes and differences in timbre from one keyboard of the harpsichord to the other for tonal and dynamic variation, so any dynamic indications one comes across in an edition are, while perhaps grounded in good musicianship generally, merely editorial opinion.
Much the same is true of tempos. Becoming familiar with various recordings of a given work is especially helpful in judging tempos. For example, the picture above is of the composer’s manuscript of his Two-Part Invention Number 8, which is generally played at a very sprightly tempo—but there is no allegro or vivace written, correct? Traditions of performance carry a certain weight, but you shouldn’t be afraid to play any given piece at a different tempo from one you might have heard elsewhere, if it suits you. There are guidelines imposed in Bach’s suites of dance pieces, because they are dances in an established tradition—a sarabande is a very slow and stately dance, while a gigue is, well, a jig. Outside of these generalities, there is no real authority of substance on tempo in Bach’s music. Be creative! Be daring! Just be sensible.
Rubato—the elusive art of expressiveness in subtle changes of tempo over the course of a given phrase of music—is something that is widely regarded as out of place in Bach’s music. Particularly in his keyboard works and works for other solo instruments or small ensembles, I see no reason why this should definitively be the case. I don’t think you want to allow yourself the same liberty of rush-and-drag in a Bach fugue that you might in a Liszt rhapsody, to be sure; but retarding at the end of a phrase or giving the tempo a little push during the more harmonically tense passages of a piece should not be taboo. Again, use good judgment and refer to recordings from established masters of the repertoire. Wanda Landowska, one of the most famous interpreters of Bach in the 20th Century, once told a friend: “You continue to play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” While I wholeheartedly respect Madame Landowska’s musicianship, she was herself no stranger to theatric hysterics in performance. Let her play Bach his way. You play him your way. Actually, I consider that to be sound advice!
Special considerations for the piano.
As we said, Bach’s native instruments were the harpsichord and the clavichord. He did try out an early pianoforte made by Gottfried Silbermann while visiting Dresden in 1736; according to secondhand reports, he found the action stiff and the treble too weak, and so he continued to use the instruments with which he’d grown up. He visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam in 1747, and played on several specimens in the king’s vast collection of the then-novel contraptions, remaining unimpressed. The keys would have offered much more resistance than Bach was accustomed to, and the wooden-framed instruments of the 18th Century lacked the sonority and clarity of tone that 19th Century developments brought to the piano.
Apart from their very different timbres, the most prominent differences between the harpsichord and the piano are that the harpsichord is not capable of dynamic shading according to the velocity of attack on the keys, and that the piano features a sustain pedal whereas the harpsichord does not. Many purists believe that, since Bach wrote for the harpsichord, when one must commit the cardinal sin of performing Bach on the piano, one should firmly cross one’s feet beneath the bench and one should never indulge in such follies as a pianissimo or a forte.
I find this idea absurd. Because Bach’s music is highly contrapuntal, and because its harmonies are based on transient melodic juxtapositions, I would say that one should be very careful about applying the sustain pedal—and especially cautious not to use it to “cover up” technical faults that can be resolved by the fingers! But, used sparingly and cleverly, I think the pedal can add a good deal of pleasant sonority and singing tone to the music. Just don’t use it to hide rough spots.
With respect to dynamic contrast, nothing can really be said that hasn’t been said already. The principles of sound musicianship and reference to quality recordings are all the guide you’ll need. I like to think that Bach, had he cared to familiarize himself with that upstart child of the harpsichord, would have taken judicious advantage of both the piano and the forte. Why shouldn’t we?
Why Bach? And where to begin?
Many fellow musicians fail to understand my enthusiasm for Bach. His music, particularly in the United States (for some reason), is often viewed as “mathematical” or “mechanical,” of the most value as technical fodder. I think that such a dour perspective is frequently an artifact of viewing Bach from this side of the Romantic era, and such prejudices are quickly cured, I’ve found, upon careful listening to great recordings of Bach’s music in various media. Those whose only experience with Bach consists of plodding through a four-voice fugue at the keyboard, those who’ve not heard Bach played masterfully by great artists, tend to be less inspired by Bach than those who are “in the know,” so to speak. Of course, then again, music is a subjective thing. No one composer or historical period of composition is going to appeal universally to everyone.
Aside from purely aesthetic considerations, Bach’s music has a great deal of historical value. No other composer has served as a primary inspiration to so many other musicians—Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Frank Zappa, and Yngwe Malmsteen were all devotees, among countless others of note. Bach is a composer’s composer because, through all of his work (and he was astoundingly prolific), he maintained the highest standards of craftsmanship while never degenerating into the realm of the unmusical. Even in his great Kunst der Fuge (“Art of the Fugue”), a dizzyingly technical exploration of musical theory if ever there was one, there is profound artistry and eloquence.
For the beginner just becoming acquainted with Bach’s keyboard music, I recommend starting with the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach; if this fare does not prove sufficiently challenging, I suggest moving on to the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and some of the less dense preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Once you’ve opened that venerable tome, there can be no turning back from Bach!
Bach sheet music online (public domain editions — keyboard music and much more)
Glenn Gould plays Bach (video from Youtube — wide selection. Glenn Gould played Bach in his own unique and often controversial style)