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Tovey on playing Bach’s 48

October 29, 2008

This extract deals with general principles in the interpretation of JS Bach’s keyboard music. The extract is from Tovey’s Preface to the 1924 Associated Board edition of JS Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues.  The spelling and formatting is as in the original.

a.  The Cultivation of Pure Musical Sense.

A primary condition for understanding Bach is that the performer, while using all his instrumental resources as far as they are relevant, must set his mind free from his instrument’s special province, even if that instrument be the human voice itself.  Most of all is this necessary when the instrument is that modern and ubiquitous specialty the pianoforte, which Bach saw (and disliked) only towards the end of his life and in its unpromising infancy.  Bach writes with scrupulous attention to the technique of every instrument known to him; on the principle, however, not that music written for instruments, but that instruments (including the human voice) are made for music.  The resources of vocal melody and choral harmony form the nucleus of musical aesthetics; but when artificial instruments have enormously extended the range of music, even voices must learn from them.  Hence Bach is on the one hand always insisting (even totidem verbis in his title-pages) on the “cantabile style” of harpsichord playing, and on the other hand he is open to the charge (which left his withers unwrung) of writing instrumentally for voices.  The fact is that he writes musically for everything, and uses the most minute knowledge of instrumental and vocal technique to express the utmost amount of universal musical sense.  Now every instrument has a tendency to encourage mannerisms that have no real musical sense but which easily become accepted as “natural” even by critics who ought to know better.  In Bach’s day the keyboard instruments were perhaps less liable to this danger, inasmuch as the term Clavier was used for them indiscriminately, even organ music being sometimes involved in the ambiguity. By practical experience of the old instruments we soon learn where Bach’s music leaves the common ground of all and begins to specialise: and thus, we find that Das Wohltemperirte Klavier favours the clavichord more often than the harpsichord, and that Book I. is more typically clavichord music than Book II.  Further than this we should not lay down the law, but we may safely translate it into pianoforte terms as follows: – that a good technique for most of Das Wohltemperirte Klavier  is the technique that will be good for Chopin’s Preludes in E minor, B minor, F Major, and (for the volume of tone) E Major; whereas the Clementi-Czerny techniques apply mainly (if at all) to such exclusively harpsichord styles as that of the quick movements of the Italian Concerto and the concerto-form preludes to the English Suites.

At all events, it may be taken as an axiom that when a phrasing or touch represents a “pianistic” mannerism that would sound ugly on the harpsichord, that phrasing will misconstrue Bach’s language and tell us nothing interesting about the pianoforte.  If players think it “natural” they are mistaken, however habitually they may do it.  They are merely applying a small part of the pianoforte technique of 1806 to the clavichord and harpsichord music of 1730.  No sane person would apply it to Chopin, and we are outgrowing the habit of applying it to Mozart, whose style was opposed to Clementi’s but was formed before he obtained a glimpse of Bach.

There is a very simple way of detecting what is unnatural in the interpretation of most of Bach’s themes; and, if the test sometimes fails to answer directly, it certainly never misleads.  It is summed up in two words, viz: Sing it.

There is no need to have a fine voice or to be a wonderful singer coloratura singer; though no musician was ever the worse for a few good singing lessons.  Humming will do, if an honest effort is made to hum in tune (in a key suitable to your voice), in time, and with some feeling where not to take a breath.  Nonsense syllables (like “diddle-diddle”) may be useful in rapid figures, – many French musicians are so trained that they can fluently apply sol-fa syllables: – the point of the test is, however, to see what happens without effort.  (It is therefore as well not to spend too much wit on inventing texts for the themes).  If the phrase proves singable at all, the attempt to sing it will almost certainly reveal natural types of expression easily perfectible on the pianoforte and incomparably better than any results of the “natural” behaviour of the pianist’s hands.  Even in matters that at first seem to be merely instrumental, the vocal test reveals much.  For instance, many pianists will find a “natural” tendency to slur the downward octaves in the quaver bass of Prelude XV. in Book I.  The temptation mysteriously vanishes on the harpsichord, the clavichord and the pedals of the organ.  Nor would it occur to a violoncellist.  It seems harmless enough.  But now take that bass at is obvious musical value and sing it.  You will spontaneously produce something like “Pom-pom, pom póm-pom,” and the slurred reading will never occur to you.  On the other hand the organist is almost compelled to make the accented quavers a little less detached than the others; that being for him, as for the harpsichord player, the only way to make and accent; yet the consensus of even these instruments is with the voice, and against the merely pianistic habit.  Doubtless it is arguable that some pianistic mannerisms, unjustifiable by this test, are to be respected as representing the real character of the pianoforte, and are therefore pertinent to the art and science of idiomatically translating Bach.  Whereever this is so, it will assert itself readily enough.  And in asserting itself it will again arrive at an essential vocal criterion of melody.  The player who, after these considerations, still prefers the octaves in Prelude XV, will no longer be the slave of  habit therein.

Apart from arpeggios and other purely instrumental notions, there is a wide ground of melody wherein the vocal test is not decisive; for Bach’s melodies are apt to combine in counterpoint so as to form masses of harmony.  Hence it may be vocally optional to detach notes which may prove harmonically to be too sensitive to be separated from their resolutions.  (Thus, the traditional staccato reading of the countersubjects in the C minor Fugue of Book I is an abomination to anyone with a developed sense of Bach’s harmonic style, as is likewise the whole rule-of-thumb method of playing all semiquavers legato on a foundation of staccato quavers.)  Therefore, the second principal factor, in playing Bach, is the appreciation of his harmonic sense.  Here again, the vocal ideas are the normal basis, and the instrumental are largely independent of the keyboard.  An arpeggio is a mass of harmony traced out in a flow of single notes.  Bach’s arpeggio-preludes differ widely as to what becomes of their harmonies when we translate them into sustained chords.  The first and second Preludes of Book I. seem externally very much alike; but the one represents strict five-part harmony and one chord in a bar, showing an interesting sublety in the only place where two of the five parts go into unison; while the second Prelude hints at many subordinate harmonic changes flowing around its main chords, and resists the attempt to reduce it to massed harmony.

A surprising proportion of Bach’s apparently most homophonic key-board style will be found to be a translation of pure part-writing: and every departure from this will have special meaning.  Such departures take the following forms: (i.) Extra notes or chords in massed handfuls, as at the opening of the Italian Concerto, and throughout the E flat minor Prelude in Book I.: (ii.) Blank spaces in which some elements of the harmony are allowed to vanish while others are set free to drift through what would otherwise be violent discord, as in the last four bars of Prelude II., Book I., a locus classicus often obliterated by a bad “correction” of the text: (iii.) Ambiguities, where two or more parts form a collective melody equal or superior to their individual sense, as in the twin-counterpoint of Fugue XV., Book II., or, conversely, where a melodic figure becomes a mass of harmony by sustaining some notes and treating others as entries of parts, as in Book II., Preludes I. and XI.

All these principles must be familiar facts to the player who hopes to interpret Bach’s delicate gradations between sketchiness and fulness of harmony.  In sketchiness and fulness alike there is always the suggestion of more than can ever be written; and we must see that the interpretation does not destroy the right suggestions.

b.  Part-playing.  The nature of polyphony has been obscured rather than illuminated by Ouseley’s famous definition of counterpoint as “the art of combining melodies.”  Much “pianistic” fugue-playing of counterpoint has passed as “scholarly” when it even fails to realise that definition, inasmuch as it “brings out the subject” as if all the rest of the fugue were unfit for publication.  This notion is peculiar to pianists.  Organists, who perhaps play fugues more often than other people, do not find it necessary, whenever the subject enters in the inner parts, to pick it out with the thumb on another manual.  They and their listeners enjoy the polyphony because the inner parts can neither “stick out” nor fail to balance well in the harmony, so long as the notes are played at all.  On the pianoforte constant care is needed to prevent failure of tone; and certainly the subject of a fugue should not be liable to such a failure.  But neither should the counterpoints; indeed, the less often a characteristic subject recurs the more important it may be that it should be heard clearly (e.g. the clinching third countersubject of the F minor Fugue in Book I.) Most of Bach’s counterpoint actually sounds best when the parts are evenly balanced.  It is never a mere combinations of melodies.  It is quite different, for instance, from the famous three-fold combination in the Meistersinger Vorspiel.  This has been by turns praised and blamed as a piece of three-part counterpoint; but the praise and blame are irrelevant, because Wagner achieves a classic fulness and smoothness by means of the humble inner parts of the woodwinds and horms, to which nobody is asked to listen, but which supply the really classical harmony-counterpoint into which the whole combination melts.

When Bach combines melodies, the combination forms full harmony as soon as two parts are present.  (Even a solitary part will be a melody which is its own bass.)  Each additional part adds new harmonic meaning, as well as its own melody and rhythm, and all are in transparent contrast with each other at every point.  No part needs “bringing out” at the expense of the others, but on the pianoforte care is most needed for that part which is most in danger of failure of tone.  Thus, one of Bach’s standard types of triple counterpoint consists of a theme with wide intervals and lively rhythm, a countersubject flowing uniformly and in conjunct movement, and another countersubject consisting of a few long motes forming a chain of suspensions or a slow chromatic progression.  This third and simplest of themes will be the keystone of the harmonic arch.  On the organ it will dominate sublimely if the notes are played at all; chorus-singers will luxuriate in it; the clavichord will respond to it with a vibrato; the harpsichord will manage it quite satisfactorily; the pianoforte-?

The pianoforte player will manage it when he can give a good account of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor.

Donald Francis Tovey, J.S. Bach Forty-Eight preludes and Fugues, Book II., Preface, The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, 1924, pp. 9-12.

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