Playing Bach in the twenty-first century

Some personal reflections

Alexander Hanysz

This article was originally published in "The Music Stand", the newsletter of the The Music Teachers' Association of South Australia, September/October 2009

Charles Dickens died in the year 1870. Many people admire his novels, but relatively few take the trouble to actually read them nowadays. They can still be found in bookshops, but tucked away at the back far from the bright lights of the best-seller lists. Probably more people know A Christmas Carol as a movie than as a book.

Isaac Newton died in the year 1727. His ideas are still taught in most schools today, but in a form that Newton himself would struggle to recognise. The concepts that revolutionised mathematics and physics have been thoroughly digested, synthesised with newer ideas and restated in more modern language. Newton’s original scientific papers are written in a style that few people today can understand. Instead we turn to the latest textbooks for a version that’s more relevant to our own era.

Johann Sebastian Bach died in the year 1750. His music is performed around the world every day, often in something very close to its original form. In music shops, the scores and recordings of Bach often take precedence over much newer work. Some people take offence when updated versions of this music are offered. Probably more people have listened to Bach’s keyboard music played on the harpsichord than to the “modernised” interpretations of Jacques Loussier or Wendy Carlos.

What’s the story here? Why do classical musicians cling so firmly to the past? Haven’t we learned anything since the seventeenth century? Certainly Bach was a great musician, but is his work relevant to our own times? Surely we should be able to relate more easily to composers who are living and working right now? What does it mean for a work of art to be “relevant” anyway?

As a practising musician, I tend to do things by instinct first and look for reasons afterwards. (Sometimes things turn out well, and I manage to convince the audience that I had a plan all along—performance is often about creating illusions, but that’s another story! Sometimes instinct doesn’t point me in the right direction, and I have a good opportunity to learn by experience.) I’ve been playing Bach’s works almost all my life, and it feels right. I think it would be a great shame if we all stopped playing “old” music. But looked at objectively, it’s certainly a strange phenomenon—and one that’s hard to explain to those millions of popular music fans who think that the 1980s are ancient history! As I’m preparing now to begin a series of recitals covering the whole of the Well-tempered Clavier, this seems like a good time to be asking questions.

Let’s retreat a little from the most difficult question, and ask instead how it is done. Here there seems to be something of a battle line. On one side, the “purists”, insisting that baroque music should be played with correct performance practices on the correct instruments: harpsichord, clavichord, organ, baroque violin, etc. On the other side, the “romantics”, using the modern piano (with lots of sustaining pedal) or violin (with generous vibrato), rubato, dynamic contrasts, painting Bach, Brahms and others all in the same colours. Of course these are stereotypes: things are not so clear-cut in practice. And to keep things interesting, the line has been redrawn many times over the last century.

One of the strangest things to my mind is the way the “purist” attitude has been applied to Bach when played on the piano. I grew up hearing statements along the following lines:

- the harpsichord didn’t have a sustaining pedal, so you’re not allowed to use pedal when you play Bach on the piano;

- baroque music used only terraced dynamics, so you’re not allowed to make crescendi;

- rubato was invented for romantic music, so you must always play Bach in strict time.

Apart from the question of whether these things are actually true, there’s a fundamental issue that’s being ignored here: the piano is not a harpsichord! It sounds like a silly thing to say, so let’s take another step back.

There’s one fundamental question that we musicians ask over and over again: What did the composer want? And there’s another question that we gloss over all too easily: Should we actually do what the composer intended? Wait, what sort of question is that? Don’t we all know about the bad old days when tasteless virtuosi used to “improve” upon the composers’ work and distort the music beyond all recognition? Wasn’t everyone relieved when twentieth-century musicians began preaching faithfulness to the original text of a work?

The word “intended” signifies another battle line, one that was drawn through the middle of literary criticism during the last century. In 1967, Roland Barthes famously announced “the death of the author”, urging critics to find the meaning of a (written) text by studying the text itself, rather than by guessing what was in the author’s mind based on knowledge of the author’s life or circumstance. Barthes put forward these ideas in a radical and extreme form, but they had been in the air for some time already.

If this sounds somewhat abstract, we can see it put into practice in concrete form in the theatre. It’s possible to find productions of Romeo and Juliet that are as historically accurate as we know how to make them. It’s also possible to find productions set in modern-day America, or more exotic locations, with costumes, scenery and lighting effects well outside the bounds of anything Shakespeare was likely to imagine. The director might well tell you that they hope to extract some “inner meaning” from the play, a fundamental aspect of the human condition that has nothing to do with historical circumstance—that it’s possible to depart from Shakespeare’s text without changing what it’s “really about”. A more radical director might assert that a new interpretation of the play can cause us to reconsider some aspect of our own modern world—that the text now can mean something that the author didn’t “put there”.

It’s a debate that still rages on in some academic circles. There are those who want to find out the author’s intentions, and those who don’t, and no clear way to prove that either point of view is correct.

What does this tell us about playing Bach?

For a start, the whole notion of the modern recital didn’t exist in the baroque era. The very idea of a hundred or more people sitting in a darkened room, not talking, just listening to one person play a keyboard instrument, would have been almost unimaginable to Bach. (Or maybe not. If the story is to be believed, he did imagine one person listening to the Goldberg variations in similar circumstances—but the idea was that the listener should fall asleep!)

In the nineteenth century, it’s usually clear that musical form exists to “tell a story”. The classical sonata form, as used by Beethoven and later composers, involves a heightening of tension—the development section becomes longer and more difficult than the exposition, both to play, and for the listener to understand. Then the recapitulation becomes a “transformation” of the opening theme, resolving the tension and rounding off the narrative. Variation forms do the same thing in a more direct way. In ternary and rondo forms, we usually see the final appearance of the theme varied in some way. Even binary forms are often asymmetrical, with the second “half” being longer and more dramatic than the first. In almost every piece of music, we can see devices that are intended to hold the listener’s attention, to make the public concert an engaging and memorable event.

In the classical period and earlier, musical forms can seem much more “square”. There is a lot of literal repetition of material. The binary forms of baroque dance suites are often perfectly symmetrical, with the point of highest tension at the half way point. It’s as if Romeo and Juliet died half way through the play, leaving us to sit through the second half with no “action” to keep us interested.

The fact is, of course, that Bach and other composers of the time weren’t interested in catching the attention of the general public. They were writing for themselves, or for a select group of connoisseurs. This explains why it’s so difficult for us to explain “fugue form” to our students. The textbooks tell us how a fugue begins, but don’t explain what happens in the second half; the traditional list of fugal “techniques” (inversion, stretto, etc.) leave us none the wiser as to which techniques we’ll see in any particular fugue, or what order they should appear in. Bach’s fugues generally don’t have a “form” as we understand it now; they simply didn’t need one. The idea of form was invented by later theorists, struggling to reconcile eighteenth century music with nineteenth century concert life.

My own way of coming to grips with this idea is that when Beethoven wrote a symphony, he was telling a story—but when Bach wrote a fugue, he was painting a picture. The fugue hangs in the air before us like a still-life painting; Bach intended that a student of his music would play and study the piece until they could take in all its details simultaneously, as a unified whole. When we take this picture into a concert hall though, we have to remember that many people in the audience don’t know it so intimately. Therefore we have the task of turning the picture into a story: describing its details in some order, highlighting which are more or less important and how they relate to each other.

What about harpsichords and pianos and battle lines? I think it’s good to be well informed: we should know that Bach played this music on an instrument that’s profoundly different from our modern ones. If we do choose to make a dramatic crescendo or a sudden hush on the piano, we should be aware that we’re creating a “special effect”—here we’re shining a spotlight on our favourite part of the picture. But let’s not see it only in the negative terms of things you can’t do on a harpsichord—or baroque violin or wooden flute or whatever it is. Why do the early music specialists love these instruments so much? Can you find out what a harpsichord does better than a modern piano? That’s the subject of a whole other article...

The first of four concerts traversing Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier interspersed with works of other composers was given on 15th December 2010. You can download the programme notes as a PDF file. Watch for details of future recitals.

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This page last updated on 6th July, 2010