The Interpretation of Bach's Keyboard Works

The Interpretation of Bach's Keyboard Works

The Interpretation of Bach's Keyboard Works

The Interpretation of Bach's Keyboard Works

Excerpt

Whoever sets out to study the so-called "piano works" of Johann Sebastian Bach with the earnest desire to play them as Bach expected them to be rendered finds himself caught in a most puzzling situation. He discovers complete disagreement among all those whom he consults for guidance in the correct style of performance--a confusion of opinions such as cannot be found in any other field of interpretation of great music. No two pianists, no two harpsichordists, ever give approximately similar performances of the same piece; no two editions of the "piano" works agree even about such basic elements of interpretation as tempo, dynamics, and articulation. Some teachers think that they achieve the true Bach style by banning all crescendos and diminuendos, by not using the pedal at all, and by keeping time in the strictest metronomical way. Other teachers advise just the opposite and anxiously look for the smallest opportunity for the display of romantic sentimentality. Musicologists themselves have not been able to agree upon what might have been Bach's own artistic intentions, although the problems inherent in the keyboard works have certainly not been neglected.

This deplorable confusion was created--alas--by Johann Sebastian Bach himself. When he wrote for keyboard instruments, he put down very little beyond the naked notes, and thus gave almost no direct information about tempo, dynamics, and articulation. It was neither laziness nor carelessness that caused Bach to omit all guiding marks in his keyboard music. He merely shared the habits of the other composers of his period, and, since all these men displayed this same deficiency in their manuscripts, only two conclusions are possible: these musicians felt certain that whoever of their contemporaries played a keyboard instrument had a general knowledge of how to treat these problems; and the compositions themselves contained some secret guiding marks that imparted to connoisseurs the correct manner of performance.

The first of these conclusions is not a new one. The scarcity of material on performance practice in musical treatises of this period makes . . .

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