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Some Thoughts On The Performance of Bach's Keyboard Music.
It is hoped that this short article will introduce you to a more open-minded approach to the study of Bach's music than is the norm. It is not intended to be, in any way, a complete course of instruction. There are many excellent books on the subject, which you are encouraged to read.

Apologies, in advance, for any offence given to "The Early Music Brigade". Actually some of my best friends are early music specialists!

INTRODUCTION

Playing Bach's music on the piano is, in my opinion, the most creative, rewarding and enjoyable activity for any pianist to engage in. In no other composer's music will you find so much scope for using your own judgement; so much scope for experimentation and so many potential interpretations. The range of possibilities that each work presents are, in some ways, limitless. Which performance is right; which approach is valid; which interpretation is best suited to a particular piece? So many questions! So many answers!

Indeed, this is probably the reason why comparatively few of the great pianists have the confidence to perform Bach in public. (Fools go where angels fear to tread?)

Do not worry though, because, in truth, there are NO definitive answers when playing Bach.

Comfort yourself with the thought that, of all the composers who ever lived, Bach's music can support/tolerate the full range of human expression. An astonishing number of differing approaches are possible in virtually EVERY piece.

BACH TRULY IS THE GREATEST!

A WORD OR TWO ABOUT AUTHENTICITY

It is my firm opinion that Bach's keyboard music positively benefits from being played on the piano!

Ignore the Early Music Fundamentalists! They are wrong! Follow their path and you will reach a joyless world of musical constipation. In spite of all the academic research, very few authentic interpretations shed any new light on the glories and mysteries of this master's music. Rather, the contribution of "The Early Music Brigade" is usually of the most mundane kind, namely :- that when played "authentically" the music sounds different (thinner) from a performance given on modern instruments - Surprise Surprise! The experience also shows us why  modern instruments were invented/developed!

TOCO : If the harpsichord is such a great instrument, why did they bother inventing the piano?

The piano is a superior instument, in every way to its anaemic, rattly, predecessors. It is a miracle of technology, a magic box: A percussion instrument that can (subjectively) sing! Its range of possible sounds are infinite. Its responsiveness to touch, unrivalled by any other keyboard instrument.

To deny oneself the opportunity of playing Bach's music on a modern piano is, quite simply, perverse!

ORNAMENTS

Research into ornaments and their execution is often helpful, however, many of the conclusions that academics have reached are contradictory.

If you are going to play Bach on the piano, many suggested ornamental interpretations are in any case  impractical. You will, therefore, have to use your own judgement and good sense when deciding whether or not to use a particular ornamental interpretation.

GENERAL PRINCIPLES

TOCO : Bach's music is simply concerned with the joy of life and the miracle of our existence. (Bach composed Dance Music For Life.)

While this statement may not be empirically provable, what else could Bach's music be concerned with? He was deeply religious, in a time of religious certainty. Unlike later composers, such as Beethoven, Bach was predisposed to accept, on a spiritual level, life's meaning. His fate was in God's safe keeping.

What is the consequence of this knowledge for the interpreter of Bach's music?

Simply this :-

The swings of emotion, romance, angst and the other temporal passions that make up our daily lives, are of  little use when contemplating the universality of this master's musical expression.You should, therefore, put aside your usual emotional palette, drawing upon which, while it aids the performance of other composers' work, will create a fog of incomprehension, when playing Bach. Rather, consider the joyfulness of life and nature, and the miracle of our human existence.

Bach's music should be seen as an allegory for the universal truths. Bach's music is about Goodness!

TOCO - Bach's music is - "Switched On" Spirituality.

ALONE AMONG ALL THE GREAT COMPOSERS, BACH USED THE TONAL SYTEM AS AN EXPLANATION FOR THE MYSTERY OF LIFE AND THE UNIVERSE. HIS MUSIC MEANS NOTHING OUTSIDE ITSELF. THE TRUTH IS IN THE NOTES AND THEIR JOYOUS  RELATIONSHIP TO ONE ANOTHER - NO MORE NO LESS!

TOCO - Playing Bach's music is as close to seeing God as you will ever get.

LET'S GET PRACTICAL!

When learning the notes, DO NOT anticipate a particular interpretation! Don't "box yourself in." Learn the notes in such a way, that you can change your view/performance of the piece, as it gradually reveals its particular nature to you, as an individual.

TOCO - The more you look, the more you see.

Start with a blank page.

Ignore editorial markings. These are of course, by definition, someone else's view and, no matter how scholarly, are a barrier to you acquiring your own understanding.

In time you will discover a suitable tempo, you will then be able to add your own articulation and dynamics to suit.

By starting with a blank page, your interpretative decisions will be positive and creative acts, motivated by a desire to reveal the music as you have come to see it, rather than a negation of someone else's view.

HINTS AND TIPS

Your task is to reveal the music's meaning through its inner workings. Therefore, you must understand its construction : its key system and its form.

Identifying the main cadence points are an essential first step. Knowing where these cadence points are, helps you understand the pieces formal structure.

Then you need to identify the thematic and motivic elements. This is vital, so that you can create a consistent scheme for articulation and phrasing, in order to reveal the web of contrapuntal relationships and motivic interplay.

Start with the assumption that all quavers (eighth notes) in a predominantly semiquaver  (sixteenth notes) piece are detached. In the fullness of time you will then arrive at a plan for slurring the various elements, that is, in your view, appropriate. Remember, that the effectiveness of a particular articulation will be speed dependent. In other words, what works at one tempo will not always work at another.

Gradually come to a view as to the overall nature of the piece. What tempo should you take it at? What dynamic range will you employ? Is it more song than dance? Should it "rock" etc.etc.?

Before I go any further, I must debunk a few myths.

MYTHS AND MYTHOLOGY

Never use the sustaining pedal in Bach.- Rubbish! In Bach's day, there was no such thing as a sustaining pedal, therefore all notes were un-damped. It is also safe to assume that the locations used for performances were very resonant (much more so than today's acoustically subdued environments), due to a lack of soft furnishings, wall paper etc.

The only rule, is that the sustaining pedal should not be used in such a way that is obscures the harmonic detail and contrapuntal flow.

Because a harpsichord cannot crescendo nor should you. - There is a grain of truth to this.  (But only a grain.) This prescriptive advice supposes that crescendo and diminuendo were foreign to Bach.This is, of course, nonsense. But, because it was not within the capacity of the keyboard instruments of his day to gradually alter the dynamic, you should take into account  the fact that Bach imagined and composed his music without having this option available.Remember though that you are playing on a piano, and to deliberately deny yourself access to its expressivity would be,as I have already observed, perverse!

Use "Terraced Dynamics" - DO NOT!  So called "terraced dynamics", (that is loud followed by soft, without intermediate dynamic gradations), are used to imitate the abrupt changes in tonal characteristics/timbre of which an organ or harpsichord are capable. To do this in the course of a piece is wrong on almost all occasions.

There are several reasons for this:-

   1.

      It is, usually, physically impractical to make rapid changes to the settings of a keyboard instrument, therefore, Bach would not/could not have done so himself.
   2.

      They cut across the contrapuntal flow. It is a fundamentally harmonic technique, and Bach is a contrapuntal composer.  

HINTS AND TIPS (cont'd)

Once the notes are learnt, the cadence points and musical material identified, the quavers detached, etc. Ask these questions:-

   1. What tempo is best suited to the musical content?
   2. What overall dynamic level suits this movement?
   3. What articulatory scheme will reveal the contrapuntal workings best?

As previously stated, there will be no definite/final answers to these questions, but what you will find is this:-

   1. The answer to one question will fundamentally effect your answer to the others.
   2. You will arrive at more than one possible interpretation.(Indeed, if you are really committed to the task you will arrive at several.)

Take your time. You will eventually arrive at an interpretation that seems to be just right. When you do, realise that when you come to work at this particular piece again, you will almost certainly reach a different set of conclusions.

An Useful Exercise : Listen to the different recordings of the same works that Glen Gould has made. You will notice that he has changed his mind fundamentaly on several occasions.

STYLISTIC CONSIDERATIONS

   1.

      Obviously, titled pieces (Sarabandes etc.) have to be performed within a comparatively narrow range of tempi.
   2.

      Untitled pieces, such as Preludes and Fugues, allow for a much, much  wider range of possible tempi.
   3.

      As Bach had no experience of the modern piano, dynamics should not be used as your primary means of interpretation.
   4.

      Your primary means of interpretation are:
          * Speed.
          * Articulation.
          * Overall dynamic level.(One level per movement.)
          * Pianistic expressivity (Within your pre-defined dynamic parameters)

     5. Bach's music is predominantly, and fundamentally, rooted in dance.

     6. Bach's music is about the hierarchical nature of scales, the major-minor key system and its meaning.

     7. Bach wrote in many differing styles to suit differing situations and patrons, therefore the more that you can learn about these different styles - Italian, French and so on, the better.

      ADVICE FOR COMPETITIONS AND EXAMINATIONS

When you perform a work by Bach in an examination or in a competition, you will often come up against the closed mind of the examiner or adjudicator. This person may be very critical of your hard won performance. If they know their business, even though they may not agree with your conclusions, good judges will not penalise you. Unfortunately this is often not the case, and you will lose marks.

Therefore, avoid playing Bach in these situations.
 
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