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Thread: Playing Bach at the piano

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    This is an old controversy, but remains unsolved. In playing Bach my current russian teacher commands: No pedaling, no dynamics. Other teachers would add: no legato.
    She explains that such resourses were strange to Bach's keyboard compositions, that they are unnecessary to play well such a music, and that he didn't composed for the piano, but for harsichords.
    Of course I obey my teacher, as an exercise of self-discipline, but in spite of my own current opinion. I'd support the use of all the piano resources in playing Bach because:
    i) I think that Bach didn't composed for the piano simply because there was no good pianos at his time. It was a recent invention and remained underdeveloped during his life.
    ii) Bach had clavichords at his disposal, which allowed to use dynamics.
    iii) My guide and goal is beauty. If the music sounds enriched at the piano and the result is beauty, what is wrong with it?
    iv) The piano must sound as a piano, not as a hapsichord. The piano has its own dignity.
    v) The tradition of playing Bach at piano began immediately as soon as good pianos were manufactured. If great composers and artists as Chopin, Liszt and Busoni gave his approval, why to be contrary?
    vi) Great pianists, for example, Joseph Hoffman, declared in favor of pedaling, in order to get organ sonorities, and provided that the clarity of the voices were preserved. My teacher protests "That was not Bach's music then, but Hoffman's".

    What do you think?

  2. #2
    DW
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    GREAT TOPIC! Rafael!
    Finally...someone brought up this 'dreaded' discussion here.
    Ok, both u and yr teacher are right, BUT, I will have to be 'fair' and say that Yr more right. LOL
    Some would argue that it all comes down to personal preferance... that I strongly disagree.
    okay,
    How one approaches Bach, is greatly influenced by what one percieves of him. If u see Bach as the archtype of well mannered academic counterpoint, then a calm exposition is necessary. But if u see him as an innovative Baroque Master, who not only catured the essence and 'true' spirit of Baroque playing, but cultivated it to a whole new dimension, then a more 'explosive' style, should we say, will be assertively accurate.
    I will have to dab into some main concerns here...Firstly: Bach's unique language of articulation and punctuation.
    Do u notice how Bach's music often comes with a ' comma at the beginning of each important phrase( and they usually don't appear with the first pulse of each measure, but by the 2nd and 3rd - which is really unique). This notation was added by editors and not by Bach himself. But without these '...u'd probably have expressed or punctuated Bach in some other ways...it might not have been wrong, but certainly meaningless. So do follow those ' , for they speak of Bach's unique way of sentencing music.
    Next comes articulation. Not all of Bach is staccato. But some pianists played 'certain' of his music this manner, as they wanted to imitate the harpsichord feel. There's nothing wrong with imitating periodical music... but all considerations had to be made with referance to the actual nature of the music itself. I can't imagine playing staccato all way through his slower dances like Courante or allemande. It simply will not make sense, esp. so if the music is very French in nature( Bach used alot of French elements during his Weimar period, and Italian Concertante for his later suites ). AND Bach NEVER did indicate that his music was to be expressed in marcato/nonlegato manner( we did when trying to re-create that Baroque feel)...which, is in actual fact just a unfortunate, realistic limitations of the harpsichord, and with that the performer could never do any other forms of articulation other than a semi-dry staccato! Legato or no legato, mf or mp...there would have been no difference. BUT! Listen to Bach's work for strings. You'll be amazed by the Mannheim directions and articulations.
    Well, in actual fact, how one deploys the articulations in Bach depends on whether u undestand, as I was saying his 'unique' sentence. And if u do, then at times u'll find yrself playing longer notes ( crotchets, quavers ) as semi-staccato and shorter notes as legato, or vice versa. Bach's staccato is different from the staccato u use for Haydn( from a pianist's viewpoint ). His tends to be more 'german' in style, more crisp and bite for shorter notes, and more round for basso continuo.
    Dynamics- I love terrace and Mannheim expressions, and I think these are 2 elements that will have to be retained, but not without flexibility to bring it to a higher order altogether. And it really depends how/what yr presenting. I once attended a grad recital, and nearly dozed off when this pianist played a really clear(good thing)...but restrained and monotonous account of Bach's WHOLE suite. And trust me...the review she got after the recital was disasterous. People criticised her for misunderstanding Bach. I think a calm exposition IS only safe if yr presenting a short, and perhaps 2 part counterpoint( such as an invention ) of Bach. For much of Bach is really contrapuntal...and he adored the Italian Concertante style and textures, which could only be justified by adopting a more 'explosive' ticket. And yet another viewpoint as a pianist- pls refrain doing small, 'hipcup' phrases for Bach...go for broader phrases with questions and answer (response-call )kind of structure.
    Pedalling- A matured and wise pianist will definately use pedal for Bach, but AGAIN, it pretty much depends on the nature of the music. Baroque music is never as dry as u think. Actually much of the 'acoustics' is really wet in early Georgian music. Listen to yr Gregorian, Cantatas, Arias... How do they sound like? Fluffy and airy right? Well, That itself is the element of 'wetness'. Why? It has got to do with the architecture at that time. Notice how tall the roof is and how spacious the rooms are? And considering the fact that much of Baroque is Court Music...then I would expect a really 'wet' acoustic. So do use the pedal(but not as u please) where necessary. And Baroque pedalling itself is another huge topic. The technic used is slightly different. We dab the pedals instead of pressing it all way down. And just a hint as to when to use the pedal for Bach- in slower, rich, 4 part counterpoint progressions.
    Tonal Voluptuousness- The piano in every aspect, is a better instrument to play Bach than the harpsichord. Because of its wide dynamism in tonal palette...it gives u an idea of Bach's philosophical weight. Do u think one will better understand Bach by hearing the harpsichord version? That I certainly don't think so!
    And since we can accept string players + ensembles's recording of Baroque Music with Modernistic interpretations and so on? Why not play Bach the way in which He Himself certainly will agree upon, IF only he had apiano in those days.
    Thank you.

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    Hello,

    I think Bach can be played on all keyboard instruments, Bach himself didn't make this even clear. The effect is different.

    I love old instruments, but play Bach mainly on piano (actually because I don't have the possibilty to practise on a harpsichord or even a clavichord)

    The Clavichord is one of the most difficult to play instruments because of two reasons: At first the dynamic. The clavichord has a very low tone, and to get the right touch to let the string vibrate, and to put this together to a right dynamic, very difficult

    The second reason is the way of playing, the keys have a strange touch, you must get used to it.

    Bach would have played himself on grand piano and also harpsichord...He would have used the progress, and why shouldn't you use. Thats like : why using pen, when at those time were feathers to write with.

    Pedaling or not, that I decide from piece to piece, but in general, very few pedaling. I use pedal in some preludes in well tempered clavier, but in fugues and hard counterpunctual works, I wouldn't use it, because it would make the tone and harmonics too unclear.

    Legato or non legato? Gould would say non legato . Actually I do a mixture, parts which shows basses, lines, and ways I mostly play non legato, all harmonic counterpointic things, like runs, canon like, and oversteping from themes mostly legato, but that depends on every piece.

    A good question how it was played to that time on harpsichord, and what tempi, the musicology has different opinions.

    BTW, did you hear of the theory, that we all play the music aroound the half to fast :blink: that also after the invention of metronome by our so loved human Mälzel, that there has been a misunderstanding of tempo, that it is around the half to fast. Others say, we play them to slow, and want to fix that on critics to that times. Who knows...

    Greetings,
    Daniel
    Last edited by Daniel; Mar-03-2006 at 01:43.

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    Baroque music is never as dry as u think.
    yes. I certainly think so.

    [QUOTE] And if u do, then at times u'll find yrself playing longer notes ( crotchets, quavers ) as semi-staccato and shorter notes as legato, or vice versa.
    Yap. It all depends on the music. Even GGould has some wonderful contrast of these 2. He will play the melody legato and the Lh some crazy staccatos.
    We dab the pedals
    Yukko does that doesn't she? U know the Japanese pianist? I think her pedalling work for Baroque and early music as such is marvellous. I once attended her concert. Her Pedalling for Mozart was inspirational. Who would have thought of that? Pedal + Mozart. But the acoustics effect was great.
    The second reason is the way of playing, the keys have a strange touch, you must get used to it.
    I would think that they are more retarded in touch, is that right Daniel?
    because it would make the tone and harmonics too unclear.
    Good point. But I will not think it's safe to say completely leave out pedalling for strict heavy counterpoint, it really depends on the music. I have seen pianists using the pedal for very chordal progressions also, but they tend to stop or 'dab' at certain places, unlike normal pedalling which is carried all way through the musical context. It's almost impossible to discuss actual use of pedal on the net. U need specific reference to scores.
    BTW, did you hear of the theory, that we all play the music aroound the half to fast that also after the invention of metronome by our so loved human Mänzel, that there has been a misunderstanding of tempo, that it is around the half to fast. Others say, we play them to slow, and want to fix that on critics to that times. Who knows....[QUOTE]
    Yes. This is what is vexing. So one's judegement of Bach's tempi will be very much on how well u understand him and his compositions. But I recalled that there is a table of conversion for Bach's tempi and ours today done by a bach scholar. Maybe we ought to post it on this site. I'm sure it will be insightful.

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    DW
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    It's almost impossible to discuss actual use of pedal on the net. U need specific reference to scores.
    yeah, it would all be easier with actual referance to scores.
    There's no 'rules' as to when or when not to use pedal... I myself use it sparingly, in stylistically varied context...be it Bach or Handel and etc. But I do agree with Daniel on tone and harmonics having to stay crystal clear.

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    everyone has such great input here. I love it! :-)
    sorry if my response is lacking in contrast. hehe.
    All I have to say is that I agree that Bach's music should be played with some well placed pedalings and dynamics.
    If you're goal is to keep a very strict interpretation of Bach, it would be best to play him on a harpsichord. So, as long as you're NOT playing on a harpsicord, I say don't worry about being strict. I agree with Rafael that a cheif goal is beauty, so why not make the music sound as best as it can on the piano? It seems silly to take a beautiful instrumnt like the piano and try to make it sound like another instrument. The harpsichord has its own features that make each piece beautiful. These qualities cannot be truely reproduced on any other instrument, so in their abscence, I think you need to utilize some of the piano's unique features to keep the pieces sounding interesting and alive.

    That's just my personal thought; One of the greatest glories of music is that it is open to interpretation.
    *LiSa*

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    This is always a very heated debate and can lead to endless discussion with no conlusion. After weighing up all the technicalities and aspects of true historical performance etc it can all be very conusing.

    The simple way in which I have come to understand it may help shorten what's already been said, then again it may not!

    Basically Bach did not have access to what we know as the 'modern' piano, so was unable to play with the sound qualities and technical capabilities which differentiate it from the harpsichord and clavichord. Therefore, if you want to try and recreate a sound similar to what Bach intended, use the instruments he composed for. If you want to play Bach on a piano, and there is no reason why not, then don't try and recreate the harpsichord/clavichord affect, it will always be unsatisfactory to the ear. Why not experiment with Bach by exploiting the character of the 'modern' piano!!!!!!! If this means adding pedal then so be it, there is no problem unless you are trying to be authentic.

    Basically, you need to decide what you want to achieve when playing Bach..... then you can decide how best to get what you want!!!

    I don't know if this makes any sense..... it does in my head

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    I agree with you. I had a masterclass last year where the professor brang a score with Bach's writing on it, and it basically said that the music should be cantabile (singing style). So I think we should play Bach with dynamics and different articulations. Just no excessive rubatos - it's still Baroque
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    I don't believe in playing Bach without pedal. For emphasizing chordal harmonies, which is important in Bach theory, I would suggest that this mechanism be used. Available technology is not directly proportional to performance practice. If Bach was born in the 19th century for example, he could have used all available technology, i.e., a wider keyboard and the pedal.

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    Vladimir Horowitz was able to execute Bach quite well at the piano. I'm sure there are other great artists who have accomplished this, but Horowitz was the name that came to mind at this moment.
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    Wasn't a big thing with Baroque music the freedom of the performer?

    Had Bach had a piano at his disposal, he would have used it. If you think that using the damper pedal or anything else piano-specific would be in keeping with the spirit of the piece, use it.
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    Default new post from me, papuo

    Rafael’s piano instructor’s statement about putting the dynamics off on Bach’s pieces caught my attention. Wasn’t just the issue here putting the PEDAL on? Does dynamics have much to do with it? I just thought that putting off the pedal doesn’t require you to disregard the piece’s dynamics as well, does it? I remember when I was starting to play one of Bach’s studies, repeated phrases have to be played softer than that of the first. Isn’t that a form of dynamics? I think it is. Plus, he was a in a matter of fact very particular when it comes to markings. I don’t really consider myself so good at focusing on dynamics but I don’t just ignore them. Just try to imagine his fugues, if all the coming voices/parts are loud, the listeners would be confused which is right? I believe Bach is such a very genius composer to just set aside something which could possibly make his compositions brilliant.

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    Default Bach's technicalities

    Well since that everybody seemed to have an endless unknown conclusion and just to have a little break form this controversy, I would like to jump to another. I have read something that tells me Bach had been so very technical with his markings and is actually very consistent with it- that sometimes some unwanted errors became very visible. It was said that his too much consistency tend to square the performer's attitude in playing. What's your view on this?

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    Junior Member Tré's Avatar
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    Default Hmm...

    Quote Originally Posted by DW View Post
    I will have to be 'fair' and say that Yr more right...

    This [comma] notation was added by editors and not by Bach himself. But without these '...u'd probably have expressed or punctuated Bach in some other ways...it might not have been wrong, but certainly meaningless. So do follow those ' , for they speak of Bach's unique way of sentencing music.

    Not all of Bach is staccato...
    I'm sorry, but this is very frustrating.

    a) He's not more right; Bach, as you've pointed out, did not have a piano. That's that. I'd say about 95% of his keyboard music was written for the harpsichord. He wrote his harpsichord music to be played on the harpsichord, not on any similar instrument or an instrument that would later replace the harpsichord on so many different levels (i.e. the fortepiano and even later the pianoforte). That being said, though he obviously would not prohibit one's unique interpretation of any piece - nor would an author prohibit the interpretation of his literary masterpiece, for that would be quite self-contradictory, he did not his music with devices like pedalwork or dynamics. It was impossible. So if those devices fall within your interpretive license, utilize them. Otherwise, it's not really playing the piece, is it? Rather, almost, a variation of sorts.

    b) Where are you getting your info, bud? Bach is obviously the mastermind behind such markings. He revolutionized the counterpoint and is the inventor of the unique comma marking you're referring to. No publisher should be given credit that belongs to the wonderful Johann S. Bach.

    c) You're right there. Not all of Bach is staccato. In fact, relatively very few segments within his keyboard works are staccato.

    Now onto my humble advice:
    As I've mentioned, IMHO, it depends on whether such pedaling, dynamic work, and other devices affect the integrity of the work in periodic terms. Even if your goal is not to be periodic in your approach, a piece's technique does not come from its performer, but rather its composer. I'm going to have to say that your teacher was more correct; in a performance, it's best to play as your teacher recommended - possessing a passion for your playing, but maintaining the technical integrity of the work.

    When it comes to dynamic, follow what your teacher tells you in reference to that particular publishing of Bach. I doubt your sheet music's publisher omitted all forms of dynamic manifestations. Read it .
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    Senior Member Ephemerid's Avatar
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    As far as the pedal goes...

    This may be more a matter of my own personal preference, but I prefer little or no pedal to piano performances of Bach's work. That doesn't mean it has to be played staccato per se-- but generally speaking, I feel the pedal needlessly muddies up the individual contrapuntal lines of Bach's work. I just like my Bach a bit on the dry side.

    ~josh
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