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The Interpretation of Bach's Works

The Interpretation of Bach’s Works

(Translated by Edward Burlingame Hill)

EVERY time the keyboard is mentioned in olden literature, it is always spoken of as being caressed, coaxed gently and tenderly. Those slight and fragile instruments would not endure the strain of the modern “pressure touch” with the whole force of the arms. The “rule of the fist,” which is supreme in the empire of the keyboard, has excited other aspirations and new ambitions. Women pianists must keep up and not lag behind, for the greatest praise that a woman can receive is for one to say, “if you close your eyes you would think a man were playing.”
Bach’s Works Written for the Harpsichord.

An opinion that is wide-spread and which has the endorsement of such an authority as Spitta, suggests that all the “clavier” works of Bach were written not for the harpsichord, but for the modern piano. The reasoning is, in every case, the same; Bach’s music is heavy, the harpsichord is fragile; there is the obvious incompatibility. An attempt has been made to base this view, which is so agreeable for pianists and manufacturers of pianos, as well as flattering towards our musical progress in several historical documents, notably the predilection alleged by Forkel that Bach had for the clavichord, and because Silbermann, the manufacturer, gave a piano to Bach. Those who know the limited but fascinating sonority of the clavichord are not surprised that Bach should have affection for an instrument so gentle and so tenderly expressive.

As for the piano, we know that Bach was displeased with the first model; but it appears that before his death he seemed to be satisfied with the piano which Silbermann gave him. The truth of this anecdote may well be suspected, since in the inventory taken after his death in which articles of even the slightest value were mentioned, Silbermann’s piano does not find a place. According to this inventory Bach as found to have, after his death, five harpsichords and a spinet, without counting the three valuable harpsichords with pedals which he gave to his son, Johann Christian Bach, during his lifetime. But there were no pianos or clavichords. The value of these eight harpsichords exceeded one-third the tian (sic) Bach, during his lifetime. The value of portant part in Bach’s life (sic).
The “Goldberg” variations, the Italian concerto, were composed for two keyboards. For what instrument were they written if not for the harpsichord, as the clavichord and the piano had but one keyboard? The German word “clavier” is inexact, for it can mean harpsichord, clavichord or even the organ. Spitta, who does not seem to be well acquainted with the special technic of the harpsichord, for which he ill-conceals his disdain, uses the word “clavier” throughout, even where Bach has clearly indicated “Clavicymbel” or “Clavessin” (Bach’s form of the French for harpsichord, claveçin) . If we add moreover that the word “clavier” signifies “piano” in modern German, it is easy to see how this misunderstanding could arise.

Nevertheless Spitta himself admits that the first volume of “Clavierübung” (Clavier exercises) were written for the harpsichord and not for the clavichord. The second volume, containing the Italian concerto and the French overture, was in an edition corrected and revised by Bach, the sub-title “for a clavicymbel with two keyboards.” The third volume of the Clavierübung contains the organ preludes and the duets which, by alternation of phrases, make a harpsichord with two keyboards indispensable. The fourth volume also has the title “For a clavicymbel with two keyboards.”

In the Clavierbuchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach we find, before the French suites, in Bach’s handwriting, “Suite for harpsichord by J. S. Bach.” The concertos could hardly have been written for any instrument but the harpsichord, as the clavichord was not used in chamber music. In view of certain works which contain sustained pedal-points or where the different parts are so widely separated that they are beyond the limit of the hands, as in the fugues in A minor (Book I, Well-Tempered Clavichord), Capriccio in B major, Fantasia with Imitation, Sonata in D, the Fugue in A major, and others, Spitta is forced to acknowledge that they were composed for a harpsichord with pedals.

It is obvious that the polyphonic character of Bach’s music in which contrasts of sonority are met with constantly, would suffer from the limited resources and the remarkably impassive tone of the clavichord. A distinct and precise figure, an elastic, bold, even brusque passage, does not find its best interpretation in the ultra-resonant and large, liquid tone of our modern piano; it cannot do without the fine incisiveness, the sharp, clear tones of the harpsichord. The picturesqueness of this music, its generous gaiety, its mysterious ecstacy (sic), and its luminous contrasts, like the old windows of cathedrals, demand the different registers of the harpsichord, with it mysterious hum, and the variety of its stops, and the combinations that are possible on it.
Playing Emotion into Bach.
I sometimes read or hear that this or that performer in his interpretation of some Suite or Partita by Bach, shows us the depths of a troubled soul, an intimate despair, struggles against destiny and what-not. Here is the exact title of the Partitas : “Exercises for the Clavier made up of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Menuets and other gallant pieces. Dedicated to lovers of music for their edification.” The Italian concerto and the French overture have the same title. The “Goldberg” variations, according to Forkel’s account, were written for a pupil of Bach named Goldberg, who was employed by the Count Kayserling. One day the count, who was ill, asked Bach to compose for him some pieces of a gentle and gay character to amuse him during long, sleepless nights. The French suites were so-called by pupils of the Cantor, on account of their graceful and elegant qualities.
Why, then, in the performance of Bach, should we have these sobs, these cries of despair, this tragic intensity, this involved struggle of an introspective soul? We are not content with reinforcing the sonority of Bach’s music, but try also to modernize the essence of his individuality. Bach the composer of galant pieces, of music that is almost frivolous, it is time to cry sacrilege!
Bach's Religious Spirit
But in these masterpieces of striking harmony there is something of greater import than the elegant style, the delicate levity which attracted Bach towards the French style, which was assimilated in the Partitas and the French suites; there is something else in his wonderful achievements in imagination and style, besides naïve grace (capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother) , inexhaustible spirit, wit and delicacy (the “Goldberg” variations) tender ecstacy (sic), (the fourth, eighth, twenty-second and other preludes and fugues, Book I, W. T. C.; fourth, eighteenth and others of Book II). If I insist on this point it is because to-day we think we are belittling or depreciating this giant by acknowledging any sentiment in his music save grandeur, intensity and sublime torment.

“The sole purpose of music,” said Bach, “is the glorifying of God, and the recreation of the spirit.”
On the first page of the Clavierbuchleir for Anna Magdalena, Bach wrote “Anti-Calvinismus und Christen Schule item Anti-Melancholia” (which might be paraphrased “A charm against Calvinism, and a treasury of Christ’s teachings; also a banisher of melancholy.”) The mysticism, unalterable peace, the soothing serenity and the naive and ardent faith in which he gave himself to his inspirations, far removed from our attitude!

How restricted a place serenity occupies in our feverish life and in our conception of an almost volcanic art. In hearing certain works on a large scale, one is apt to forget that majestic solemnity (toccatas, Fantasia Chromatique, etc.) and “jubilation to the skies” (Italian concerto) in Bach have both dignity and delicacy, and have nothing in common with modern melodramatic pomp. Considerations of virtuosity, of vivid accents and large outlines to the detriment of details is deplorable in its results. Like the Gothic cathedral, Bach’s music seeks to attain the infinite, by an elaborate lace-work of beautiful tones rather than by large architectural effects.

I have tried to give a hasty idea of certain differences between the taste and attitude of Bach’s epoch as compared with our own. I do not wish to suggest any comparison as to the superiority or inferiority of one or the other. Neither do I wish to be reproached, as happens to all lovers of the bygone, for inappreciation of evolution, of the step towards progress. My belief is that the laws of progress are not more tyrannical than any other laws, and that they should not be applied indiscriminately to the past. It may be possible that the latest hat and the automobile veil are the most beautiful head-dress that has ever been designed, but I should dislike to see it on a Botticelli head or on the “Jocunde.”
“But what we seek in this old music,” is often said to me, “is not this superannuated, unfashionable style, but the qualities of genius, the eternal outlines which, etc.”

The works of Bach, and of other geniuses of several centuries ago, are looked upon as nothing less than corpses, into which every one breathes his own latter-day soul. You see what this system amounts to, of tearing a work of art from its own epoch, from its surroundings and to make it an object of introspection, where one sees a cathedral, another sees a fine lace, a third hears sobs, a fourth “the song of a moujik in the middle of the steppes,” a fifth perhaps nothing at all!
But we, the enthusiasts, are attracted not only by the qualities of genius, but by precisely this superannuated, unfashionable quality, by this vital contact with a past that is. so admirably distant, so marvelously distinctive from all that surrounds us. We are sated with all that is big, ponderous, strong and intense; we are weary of this museum of monsters and terrible beasts —the soul thirsts after images that are more tender, more sensitive, after a “galant paradise” where brutalities are restrained. We have been too often stunned by raging seas, by torrents, by cries of theatrical passion, for our fatigued emotions (soul) not to seek a little refreshment in music that is serene, lucid, intellectual, majestic, and divinely naïve.
There are some ears which do not need to be stung with the whip. There are imaginations which do not need mallet-blowsto be aroused.

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