EVEN excluding his organ music, Bach’s keyboard music presents a bewildering complex. The works may be divided into three classes: pieces for the instruction of his pupils, pieces that may actually have been used in church (and in that case transferred to the organ), and Hausmusik, music for private use that Bach wrote for “the delight of the soul” and “the allowable recreation of the spirit.” This classification is not a rigid division, but rather a means of distinguishing Bach’s purposes and motivations for composing various types of music. In this chapter we will concentrate primarily on Bach’s pedagogical works. He was a great teacher, and his philosophy and method of education determined to a great extent his composition of musical exercises for his pupils.
Bach the Teacher
Many of Bach’s little pieces which he intended for a specific purpose are often dished up to suffering and reluctant students today who swallow this fare as unwillingly as they do their spinach. They are told that they are in the presence of the immortal Bach, whom they are expected to revere through these—to them—utterly meaningless and frustrating little atrocities. This ill-chosen teaching material generally instills in novices a life-long distaste for any and all music of Bach.
Bach did not intend most of these little preludes1 as finger exercises, but even less as musical creations. They were illustrations of harmonic progressions, for Bach first taught his pupils the inner construction of harmony and then its application on the keyboard. It was unthinkable in Bach’s time to teach children merely to play an instrument without making them aware of the harmonic foundations of music and preparing them to compose their own pieces as soon as possible. In view of this custom, it is possible that many compositions ascribed to Bach are actually the products of his pupils.
A simple prelude, such as the first in the Well-Tempered Clavier, consists of chords only, ambling through a few modulations and using certain broken-chord formations. Similarly the notebook of Friedemann presents several pieces of this type, only here Bach calls them preambulum. They serve a double purpose: first to acquaint the pupil, through practical experience, with the stringing together of a beautiful succession of chords (sometimes enlivened with sparkling figurations, as in the D major, d minor, and c minor preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier) ; and second, in the Well-Tempered Clavier, as an introduction to the main work, often a fugue. In Friedemann’s little notebook these fugues do not appear. Many of the preludes (preambulum) are in a somewhat rudimentary form, and some may well have been composed by Friedemann himself. Since most were written in Bach’s own handwriting, he probably helped to bring the little pieces to their finished form.
The famous C Major Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which appears in the notebook in a handwriting that is not Bach’s, may have been conceived as a lesson in harmonic progressions. The figuration of broken chords is written out only in the first six measures; after that block chords are written. In an earlier draft for the C Sharp Major Prelude of the second book (written in C major instead of C sharp) the word arpeggio has been written between the lines of solid chords.
The E Minor Prelude of the first book shows an interesting evolution. The first draft, as it stands in Friedemann’s notebook, shows the left-hand figure of this prelude, but instead of the delicate melody for the right hand found in the final form of the Well-Tempered Clavier, there are merely chords. Instead of the 41 measures, the original exercise omits the entire presto section and occupies only 22 measures. The entire “presto” part is lacking. Bach evidently recreated his prelude from Friedemann’s exercise in ornamented thoroughbass, and used it as the accompaniment to the tenderly mystic melody of the final form. By this example we can observe the organic growth of one of the most inspired melodies.
Forkel explains that Bach taught his pupils first of all the thoroughbass in four parts.2 The basses of these preludes in the notebook reveal a certain uniformity. For the first five (corresponding to the Well-Tempered Clavier preludes, Book I, in C Major, c minor, d minor, D major, and e minor) after an opening cadence that establishes the key, the bass consists of descending scales. In the E Minor Prelude the descent continues over more than two octaves, until at the very end, it progresses chromatically. The teaching of a thoroughbass began by establishing a bass. The harmonies were then laid over this, and in the third stage, as is evident from this £ Minor Prelude, a melody is added. The saraband that Anna Magdalena wrote into her notebook in 17253 —the same piece that served as the air upon which Bach later composed his variations for his pupil Goldberg4 —was undoubtedly composed by the same three-step process: first the bass, then the harmony, and finally, the melody. In the 30 variations built on the same bass, there is no trace of the melody of the air,5 for here Bach uses the bass as the substance and backbone of the composition.
We will never know whether many of the pieces in these notebooks are the result of the combined efforts of master and pupil, or whether the pupil had merely copied them from the master’s manuscript. But since Friedemann grew to be an eminent composer while Anna Magdalena did not, it seems plausible that at least parts of some of the pieces from Friedemann’s book were his own compositions. One little minuet in the notebook is marked “Menuet Trio di J. S. Bach,” suggesting that while this specific piece is by the father the other ones may be the combined product of father and son, but we will probably never be able to firmly establish authorship.
The first drafts of all the two-part “Inventions” (here entitled preambulum) appear in Friedemann’s notebook. These differ only slightly from the final form in which Bach published them in 1723, so we may assume that they are essentially composed by J. S. Bach. They were included in the notebook as models for the art of composition rather than as part of his introduction into the mysteries of harmony. Bach gives a good summary of the guiding purpose behind his teaching method in an inscription on the title page:
A candid primer, in which the lovers of the clavier, but especially those eager to learn, are shown a distinct way, not only (1) to learn to play cleanly with two voices, but also, after further advancement, (2) to deal correctly and ably with three obligato voices; and at the same time also not only to acquire good inventiones, but also to develop them well; and above all, however, to attain a cantabile manner in his playing, and besides to acquire a strong foretaste for composition. . . .6
Bach obviously uses the Latin word inventiones here in the sense of idea, theme, or motive, and not with the medieval and Renaissance connotation of craft or skill as opposed to creation of something entirely new. But as we have seen, for Bach the value of the inventiones lay not in their originality or expression of a mood; first and foremost, a musician must have the ability to develop and combine given material artfully. Self-expression was only an accompaniment to this. He himself has left very few completely original melodies in spite of being the most powerfully individual composer of all time.
Bach relied not on his own human talents but on his faith in God for musical inspiration, and he passed on his convictions about the religious basis of the art he taught to his pupils. Above the composition and performing exercises for little Friedemann we find the inscription “I N J,” In Nomine Jesu. Bach also always began lessons with a prayer.
Although the little notebook is entitled Klavierbuchlein, it is not devoted entirely to the keyboard. The very first entry shows six scales (all without accidentals) written out in various clefs—the violin clef, the soprano, mezzo soprano, alto, tenor, and the three movable F clefs (or bass clefs.).7 Friedemann must have already mastered considerable clavier technique; his father believed he was now ready for instruction in reading all these clefs as they appear in vocal scores. Bach himself never wrote in movable F clefs but taught all eight clefs as a means of reading chorales in open score, and possibly some ancient choralemotets, arranged for that purpose. The student probably was first taught to read each clef separately, the two together, then three, until several could be read at once. This process most likely progressed at the same pace as agility on the keyboard.
Forkel tells us that Bach played a great deal for his students, and that his example inspired them to approach their teacher’s skill at the keyboard. Bach kept his beginning pupils “for months on end” on “nothing but isolated finger exercises in both hands, with constant regard to clear and clean touch.” He did not feel it necessary to write these exercises out, and the notebook begins after the student has advanced considerably from this arduous practice. Along with these exercises in finger dexterity Bach must have given rudimentary information on the principles of harmony, scale construction, and thorough-bass to prepare the student for his more advanced presentations in the notebooks.
The art of reading various clefs was also taught in the Lutheran schools, as we have seen in Chapter 4, but Bach did not feel that this was adequate preparation for his sons’ achievement of one of the chief marks of musicianship—the ability to read anything at first sight. In school the students had to learn only to sing single lines—all that was needed to sing the Lutheran service. This choir training in Gisela Agnes’ Lutheran school was not enough for Bach’s children. Bach wanted his sons to become complete musicians, like all other Bachs (there have been 54 of them). Sight-reading, composition, and improvisation were all abilities demanded of musicians of his day. Later, in Beethoven’s time, thanks to the flourishing music publishers, many composers no longer needed to perform their compositions in order to make a living by their art. In Bach’s time very little printed music was in circulation, and composers were required to perform and conduct their works either at a court or in church.
Hence the master was responsible for teaching his students more than how to work out contrapuntal problems on paper. His student would one day have to prove himself as an unfailing sight-reader of any full score, an improvisor on given themes and in any given form, and a composer skilled as a performer. Bach taught his students not merely to play a keyboard instrument but to fulfill the manifold needs of the professional musician of his epoch, and many of his pupils, including his four sons, went on to fill positions as church composers and organists, or as directors of music at royal or princely courts.
Anna Magdalena did not receive as broad an education from her husband, however, since she worked primarily on singing, harpsichord or clavichord playing, and copying music for her husband. But we know she must have had considerable knowledge of music beyond mere keyboard playing to have copied his enormous orchestral and choral scores. Although her notebook of 1722 includes one fantasia for organ, and she may have occasionally played on one of the organs in Köthen, most of the pieces in both her notebooks consists of songs and dances for either harpsichord or clavichord.
Hausmusik and Religious Toccatas and Sonatas
Bach’s keyboard suites and partitas, often referred to as Hausmusik, were composed for sheer pleasure and relaxation, to both listeners and performers. They were obviously intended for his own family’s enjoyment: the notebooks, two complete suites—known as the French—and two complete partitas, along with numerous minuets and other dances. Almost any of this so-called Hausmusik, however, might have found its way into a church service.
Another type of Bach’s keyboard music now in the repertoire of pianists is the toccatas and sonatas conceived for the communion service in the Lutheran church. Most of these works did not originate in the Köthen period since Bach had no affiliation with any church there, except possibly for an occasional small after-service performance at St. Agnes’.8 Two toccatas and three sonatas, two of which are ornamental transcriptions of Reincken’s sonatas and one a transcription of Bach’s own violin sonata, served this religious function. It may not be too far-fetched to presume that the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue also belongs in this category.
Bach uses “fantasy” in this case as just another name for toccata. Historically a fantasy was a type of ricercar, a musical form which itself sprang from the motet9 and anticipated the fugue. The fugato themes of a motet were derived from a worldly or liturgical song, and originally the ricercar was nothing more than a motet transferred to a keyboard instrument. When its themes were freely invented rather than derived from song, the piece was called a fantasy, and Bach merged this ancient form with the rhapsodic and recitative elements of the toccata. Gradually the toccata elements came to dominate his works. His Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue consists of the same recitative passages found in the piano toccatas; it is interspersed with similar improvisatory passage work. Instead of the two ricercars this work concludes with one fugue, and thus could be classified as a prelude. Because Bach often combined forms in one work, he also often used different titles for the same piece when he transcribed it for another instrument or incorporated it into a larger composition. (Thus he freely interchanges the terms symphonia and fantasia, preambulum and invention, praeludium, toccata, and fantasia, ouverture, suite, and partita in the same types of, often identical works.) Bach may have chosen the term fantasy in this case because of the length of the work and the absence of ricercars in it, but it is folly to attempt to guess Bach’s reasoning in giving titles to his works.
The declamatory tone of the entire Chromatic Fantasy relates the work to the G Minor Fantasy that precedes the fugue in that key. Also, like the g minor work, it obviously is not a piece motivated by the gay spirit of his suites, but was meant for deep contemplation of a great mystery, possibly during the Holy Communion. Here again we can see that when Bach meditated musically, he did not give in to the vague reveries of a Romantic, but focused on a particular religious symbol or thought. In both the Chromatic Fantasy and the G Minor Fantasy, he calls forth the gigantic, superhuman forces of the chaos before creation. Like Michaelangelo’s painting of the Creator stretching out His omnipotent arms in a light-giving gesture, these musical fantasies are filled with biblical representations and images from a deeply religious soul too mysterious and profound for verbal translation. But in listening to these mighty recitatives, arioso-like cantilenas, and virtuoso passages we feel instinctively in touch with a mind struggling with the tragic and eternal relation of mortals to divinity.
Bach’s Attitude Toward Instruments
In our discussions of Bach’s keyboard compositions we cannot ignore the controversy that continues today over their proper, authentic performance. The argument has already been touched upon when our present-day attempts at reconstruction of a true baroque organ were described in Chapter 9. There we could conclude that although Bach revered the organ above all other instruments as the means of transmitting the religious depth of his music, he was not bound to one particular version of the baroque organ. Our attempts to search out his preference and recreate it are in vain and in fact ignore the guiding inspiration that gave purpose to his creative work.
In the same way, modern musicologists err when they claim that proper interpretation of Bach’s style depends on correct choice of instruments. Bach’s selection of instruments for his compositions was based on their availability in the place in which he was composing and on other purely practical considerations much more than on timbre and expressibility. Bach conceived his music independently of any physical manifestation or realization and his art can be incarnated through various media, even the modern pianoforte, if the spiritual import is retained.
Bach’s attitude toward instruments had its philosophical foundations in medieval, north European conceptions of the art of music. In 1490 Adam von Fulda, and later Kircher and Werckmeister in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, described music as a mirror of divine order.10 Accordingly, the musical proportions existed prior to creation. Adam von Fulda resented the Italian, humanistic suggestion that music should have a physical instead of an ideal and metaphysical origin. He observes with indignation that in southern countries, in France, Italy, and their neighboring regions, musical art is derived from the sounds coming from particular instruments.11 This kind of music lacks the power to penetrate into the true essence of music. Sensuous experience with instruments, actual sound produced by handling instruments, cannot inspire true musical thought; this must spring from the consideration of intervallic relations, from the contemplation of consonances and dissonances, from speculatio. Music is prior to its sound. Corporal, actual, sounding music, according to von Fulda and later Werckmeister, moves within the realm of semblance, Schein, which is not its true being. True being is ideal, primordial, and divine in nature.
Bach may never have read Adam von Fulda’s work—though his compositions were in the library of the Thomas School in Leipzig12 — but his musical application of Platonism lived on in the minds of generations of pious German musicians, and Bach found it expressed in the works of Tauler (Teutsche Theologia) and Werckmeister. Even if he did not embrace these ideas as a philosophical system, he held them as a working principle and a credo underlying his art.
This attitude explains why Bach’s vocal parts sound instrumental, and his instrumental compositions sound as if they were meant to be sung. For the same reasons Bach had no reluctance about transcribing compositions from one instrument to another. When Bach inscribes a title to one of his works “for harpsichord with two manuals” or “Pro cimbalo,” or “Vor ein clavicymbel mit zweyen Manualen,”13 this designation is not necessarily meant as final. We have seen how he transferred harpsichord concertos to the organ when he used them in cantatas, and how he transcribed a violin solo to various other media.
The instrument Bach assigned to his Chromatic Fantasy discussed above is not definite. Naumann lists 15 of the most reliable manuscripts for this work, most of them copies made during the life of the master. Only four assign the work to the harpsichord; most do not mention the instrument at all. One—a collection that belonged to Bach’s pupil Johann Christian Kittel—lists the work with a “collection of great preludes and fugues for the organ by J. Sebast. Bach.” It may be that rather than having been used like a toccata as I suggest above, the work was performed as a prelude or postlude to the main service, like the famous St. Ann’s Fugue, which Bach himself designated for this use. The essence of musical thought in art works such as the Chromatic Fantasy can be expressed as well by the harpsichord as the modern pianoforte, although the organ is, in some respects, most suitable.14
When Bach gave the title Klavierubung to the four volumes of keyboard music he published between 1726 and 1742, he revealed something of his own general attitude toward instruments. The word Obung may best be translated by cultivation or pursuit, but Bach’s choice of the word was prompted by its ancient religious connotation of “religious exercise.” The word Klavier in Bach’s time was the generic name for all keyboard instruments, including the organ.15
While Bach indicates in his choice of this general title for the collection his concern for an entire class of instruments, rather than specific ones, he designates a specific instrument for each composition. He based these particular choices on the performance requirements of the individual works, however. C. F. Becker aptly points out that “it might not be superfluous to observe that Bach, like most clavier players of his time, served himself for the execution with a double keyboard plus an additional set of pedals.”16 He assigns a set of chorale-preludes and the famous St. Anns Fugue to the organo pleno, and another to the manualiter. The Partita with a French Overture and the Goldberg Variations are marked “for a harpsichord with two manuals.” Forkel confirms that Bach, in order to be able to combine a reading of three or four separate parts (which he laid side by side), selected “two clavichords and the pedal, or a harpsichord with two sets of keys, provided with a pedal.”17 Bach probably owned one or two Pedalklaviere of this second type, with plucked strings. The clavichord type was more common.18
Bach’s choice of instrument, whether harpsichord, pedal clavier, clavichord, spinet, lute-clavier, full organ, or the mere use of manuals on a small organ, did not depend upon the particular timbre or expressibility of the instrument, but upon its playability and function. The texture of the music determined whether one or two manuals were needed to execute the polyphony. If the voices crossed a great deal, two manuals would facilitate their realization; if not, as in the French Suites, a one-manual clavichord would suffice. Both the harpsichord and the clavichord could be combined with a set of pedals to make more complicated combinations easily playable. (The clavichord was especially recommended to beginners and girls, whose fingers were as yet too weak for the more resistant plucking action of the harpsichord.)
Anyone who has played the Well-Tempered Clavier on either the harpsichord or the clavichord knows that some of its fugues cannot be played on manuals only. Many others present formidable problems of fingering when played on manuals alone.19 The modern pianist can overcome these difficulties by the use of the sustaining pedal—a device that did not exist in Bach’s time—and can avoid the risk of striking undesirable neighboring keys when playing some of the unusually large stretches, while the single-manual harpsichord or clavichord is very prone to speak upon the slightest touch. (The manual parts in Bach’s organ works offer none of the fingering puzzles of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and never is a stretch greater than the octave required.)
Why did Bach not write out the pedal parts for his clavier works if he played the basses (and sometimes the middle parts) on the pedals? The only answer is that any musician in that day would know when to use a pedal board. Many of the fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier obviously can easily be played on manuals alone. It was only during Bach’s lifetime that pedal parts began to be written out even for the organ; the organ works of Froberger, Pachelbel, and Buxtehude were still written on two staffs only. The organist had to decide where to apply the pedals, which were by no means used in the bass only. Even Bach did not consistently use a third staff on his pedal parts.20
Bach’s choice of keyboard instruments was thus determined mainly by the capacity of the instrument to exhibit the polyphonic structure and other features of the composition. When Bach played the Well-Tempered Clavier for his pupil Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber, he probably used a clavichord with an additional Pedalklavier, furnished with clavichord tangents. In the light of this interpretation, all problems of registration and fingering in the work become much clearer and simpler. While present-day harpsichords always have a 16-foot stop on the lower manual, this stop was rare on harpsichords of the eighteenth century, although it was always found in the pedals.21 The clavichord also, when the dynamic variations provided by the 16-foot pedal tones are added, can answer the expressive demands of certain works in the collection—for example, the wonderfully sustainedC Sharp Minor Fugue in Book I with its subtle chiaroscuro and Bebung (vibration). Another interpretation might be that the pedal-harpsichord would realize more fully the plasticity and clarity of the contrapuntal structure. This keyboard instrument could augment the treble voices with its four-foot stop, while the middle voices remained unthickened, in mere eight-foot pitch. The pedals then could expand the pitch downward into the lower octave. The registration then approaches more closely that of the baroque organ, and the orchestration of Bach.
Function too played a role in Bach’s selection of instruments. If a composition was destined for the church, the organ was his natural choice. Of course, this does not mean that he did not play and rehearse some organ works on the pedal clavier. Both Albert Schweitzer and C. F. Becker cite examples of this.22 While composing, however, Bach did not make his musical thought dependent upon a particular instrument. He never composed for an instrument: he assigned his compositions to an instrument. Forkel tells us that “he rigorously kept his pupils to compose entirely from the mind, without an instrument. Those who wished to do otherwise he called, in ridicule, ‘knights of the keyboard’ (Klavier-Ritter, or Klavier Hussaren).”23
Expressive Capabilities of Bach’s Instruments
Bach’s basic detachment from instruments does not imply indifference to the delights of varying sonority. He once asked the famous instrument maker, Zacharias Hildebrandt, to manufacture for him a lute-clavier—a keyboard instrument with gut strings.24 According to Spitta Bach acquired this instrument “because the tone of the clavier [meaning the harpsichord] was felt to be so hard and expressionless.” Though its less metallic tone probably appealed to Bach, the instrument’s power to control louds and softs was no greater than the harpsichord’s since both were operated by a plectra. The lute-clavier was coming into vogue at this time and Bach liked to invite his friends to listen to this instrument from outside his room and tell him whether he was playing the theorbo (a large lute with extra bass strings) or his new lute-clavier. His friends’ inability to distinguish between the sonority of the two was a source of great merriment. Nevertheless, he never that we know of wrote a composition specifically for the lute-clavier.
Forkel tells us that, according to C. P. E. Bach, of all keyboard instruments (except the organ) Bach preferred the clavichord25 Modern harpsichord enthusiasts insist that the statement only indicates his son’s own bias, as a child of a new era of “style of sensitivity” (Empfinsamkeit) for the more expressive clavichord. Undeniably Emanuel did not accept his father’s beliefs, founded in Adam von Fulda and others, in the metaphysical relations of his art, but I cannot accept this as proof that the son was more sensitive to the expressive qualities of an instrument than his teacher-father. I am convinced that these arguments are just as prejudiced as C. P. E. Bach’s may have been, except that practical considerations rather than questions of taste determine the position of modern-day concertizing harpsichordists.
It would certainly be impossible for these performers to play before large audiences on a miniature clavichord. Even the Pleyel harpsichord used by Wanda Landowska had to be built with the thick strings of a modern pianoforte—thus making necessary extra (piano) dampers and a steel frame—in order to be audible in a fair-sized concert hall. In Bach’s and Emanuel’s time the clavichord was just as unsuitable for public performance. Since Emanuel was more interested in sensitive articulation of his own music than in the art of composition, he preferred the clavichord. Moreover Emanuel had the reputation of a clavier player while his father was known as an organist. So Emanuel’s statement of his father’s favor for the clavichord may reflect some of the personal preference the harpsichordists charge him with. But the entire controversy does not provide any fruitful perspective on Bach’s art, for he himself was most concerned with the creation of music, not its performance.
I feel it is very likely that Bach shared his son’s feelings about the clavichord, and he unquestionably preferred it for special purposes of expressing lyrical and intimate sentiments. Bach’s imagination was, of course, not limited in any way to home music.
While his musical mind soared beyond all instruments, conceiving his creations prior to any instrumental realizations, it is nevertheless helpful in understanding Bach’s attitude toward and treatment of instruments to compare the expressive capacities of various instruments of his time, particularly keyboard instruments. These may be divided according to their capacity of declamatory expression, that is, the use of dynamic as well as agogic accentuation and of crescendo and decrescendo within a phrase. The organ, the harpsichord, the spinet and its derivative, the pedal harpsichord (the set of keys played by the feet like an organ), and the lute-clavier are relatively incapable of dynamic accents. All the stringed instruments, the lute, the flutes and woodwind instruments (especially the oboe and its related double reed instruments), and among the keyboard instruments, the clavichord with the pedal clavichord, the fortepiano, and the cembal d’amour, are capable of a wide variety of declamatory expressions for which the human voice has always been the supreme model.
Although Bach shared this age-old reverence for the voice—in his preface to the “Inventiones” he points out that they are to develop a cantabile style of playing—the expressive elements, accentuation, dynamic and agogic, and changes in volume, so natural to the voice, are completely impossible on either the organ or the harpsichord, the keyboard instruments most often used by Bach and his contemporaries. The clavichord, as we have said, is somewhat more expressive, but its diminutive scale sharply limits its use. In fact, during Bach’s time, composers did not even want to elicit such humanistic elements from these instruments. As we discussed in Chapter 9, the organ reigned supreme among the instruments, and its metaphysical esthetics to some extent suppressed the use of the full expressive powers of even the voice; guileless and less expressive boys’ voices were preferred.
We have already spoken of the comparative expressive capacities of the harpsichord and clavichord. Because the clavichord is struck with a brass tangent, instead of the leather plectrum of the harpsichord, and attains the desired pitch like a violin,26 the clavichordist can produce crescendi and decrescendi, as well as dynamic accents. Vibration of tones in a vertical direction, like the violin and voice, adds to the expressive powers of the instrument. But the volume of the clavichord limited its use, and Bach could never have used the instrument for compositions intended for the palace or any public place.
Ultimately the fortepiano satisfied the desire for an instrument capable of a wide range of expressions. Although interest in an instrument with this quality was growing even during Bach’s lifetime, the pianoforte was not satisfactorily perfected until the nineteenth century. Bach first became acquainted with the fortepiano in 1726, through an instrument built by the famous German organ builder, Gottfried Silbermann. Silbermann was not the inventor, but followed the principles developed by the Florentian, Bartolomeo Cristofori, who in 1709 completed a harpsichord on which loud and soft tones could be produced by finger pressure.27
Bach’s pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola, in his addenda to the Musica Mechanica Organoedi by Jakob Adlung (Berlin, 1768) gives this account of Bach’s reaction to the instrument:
... of these instruments Mr. Gottfried Silbermann had at first manufactured two. One of these the late Capelmeister Johann Sebastian Bach has seen and has played upon. He has praised the sonority of the same, yes, even admired it; but he found fault with the treble which sounded weak, and the instrument was too difficult to play. Mr. Silbermann, who could not suffer any criticism of his endeavor, has taken this extremely amiss. He therefore was for a long time on bad terms with Mr. Bach. And yet, his conscience told him that Mr. Bach was right. He therefore judged—and this must be said to his fame—that the best course was not to issue his instruments any longer; but on the contrary, all the more diligently to think about the faults discovered by Mr. J. S. Bach. On this he worked many years. And that this was the true reason of his delay I doubt all the less because I have heard Mr. Silbermann himself confess it to me. Finally, as Mr. Silbermann really had found many improvements, especially in regard to the manner of playing it [sonderlich in Ansehung des Tractaments]28 he again sold one to the princely court of Rudolstadt. Shortly after that His Majesty the King of Prussia ordered one of these instruments; and as this found great success, still several more. Those who had heard the old instrument, and among them myself, could very easily see how diligently Mr. Silbermann must have worked on them. Mr. Silbermann has also had the praiseworthy pride to show one of these instruments to the late Mr. Bach, and to have him examine it; and he received full approval of it.29
Nevertheless Bach never acquired one of Silbermann’s fortepianos. And by the time he played on Frederick the Great’s pianofortes, in 1747, three years before his death, he was less than ever interested in the interpretive phase of music-making but was devoting all his efforts to the mystic cult of contrapuntal discipline. The alternating vigorous and tender, graceful and fervent human affections found in the suites of the Köthen period, the expression of which would have been enhanced by the pianoforte, were very remote from the art of his last decade. The six-voiced ricercar that he improvised for Frederick the Great displayed Bach’s astounding contrapuntal art but not the particular potentialities of the pianoforte.
In fact his later sparing use of ornaments, so abundant in the Köthen suites, points up an inadequacy in the instrument that Bach must have recognized. Philipp Emanuel admits: “I doubt that the most intensive practice can lead to complete control of the volume of the short trill at the pianoforte”. And elsewhere, “The more recent pianoforte, when it is sturdy and well built, has many fine qualities, although its touch must be carefully worked out, a task which is not without difficulties.”30 Today the ornament presents infinitely greater difficulties even on our perfected pianos than on either the harpsichord or the clavichord.
In the period of more than a century that elapsed between the invention of the instrument and realization of its full potentialities, entirely different styles of compositions had evolved. The extended compass in both bass and treble and the addition of pedals—both improvements on Silbermann’s original instrument—allowed an infinitely wider range of volume than could be imagined on the early version of the instrument that Bach knew.
A few other instruments used during Bach’s time, which are now museum pieces, deserve mention. Bach seemed particularly attracted to the lute-clavier, as we have said, undoubtedly because of its timbre since the dynamic capabilities of the popular instrument were no greater than those of the harpsichord. The violo pomposa—violoncello piccolo—had practical advantages that must have appealed to Bach. The instrument had five strings (tuned C, G, d, a, e’) and thus could be played by either a violinist or violist. Bach’s purchase of one of these was certainly for the advantage of this exchangeability, not for any special timbre or expressibility. The rare cembal d’amour belongs to the clavichord family, but was reported to be superior in three respects: its tone was louder and could be held longer, and more pronounced louds and softs could be achieved by varying the touch.31 However, since the dynamics of even the early pianoforte were much superior, the cembal d’amour rapidly died out and no example of it has survived.32 Bach probably never knew this instrument.
Accentuation in Bach’s Music
These limitations on expression of the instruments at Bach’s disposal present problems of composition, of course, and one of the most obvious of these is accentuation. When Bach combined the human voice and the austere organ in his cantata choruses, such problems were bound to arise. The verbal text introduces an additional demand on accent. By examining a few specific passages in Bach’s works in which he had to deal with this problem, we may gain some insight into Bach’s method of composition, which in turn further reflects his attitude toward instruments.
In Cantata 50 (BG, X, 343) the musical accent in the opening chorus falls precisely upon the accented syllables: “NUN ist das HEIL, und die KRAFT, und das REICH, und die MACHT, unsres GOTtes SEInes CHRIStus WORden” (Now shall the grace and the strength and the rule and the might of our God and His Christ be declared). In the German text the words form a three-fourths time with a hemiola,33 beginning on the word “Gottes.” The music demands that the singer give the accented syllable a sharp and forceful emphasis, further enhanced by the higher pitch of these accents. This treatment gives the music strongly dynamic accents with an irrepressible agogic element, which was Bach’s intention.
A parallel passage in a work without the problem of verbal accent, the prelude of the g minor English Suite for harpsichord, reveals a similar rhythm. Since accents on a harpsichord cannot be affected dynamically, Bach produces this slightly agogical accent by slurring the third beat to the following first. (Of course, on a modern pianoforte, with its powers of dynamic emphasis, the accent can be enlivened beyond its agogic. For this reason also a hemiola in measures 31 and 32 can be brought out more clearly on the pianoforte.)
The first movement of the fifth partita (in G major) offers another intriguing problem of accentuation. It is impossible, when the piece is performed on the harpsichord, to hear whether the opening sixteenth notes form an upbeat or fall upon the first beat, and the listener is left uncertain until the eighth bar, when the low bass notes unmistakably emphasize the beats. Here again dynamic accents on a pianoforte can make this rhythm apparent and although some have argued that Bach intended to keep his listeners in suspense, such speculations, based upon the limitations and defects of Bach’s instrument, seem entirely inadequate to me. The D Major Fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book II), unlike these previous examples, is intended for purely musical contemplation, and Bach completely disregards accent in it. The bar line is no guide for accentuation.34 Busoni’s suggestion that the words Kirie Eleison, Christi Eleison are a fitting accompaniment to the theme led to the unhappy accentuation of the second, weak syllable in the word Christi. This indicates that Bach clearly did not desire verbal embellishment in this work; in addition, its complete disregard of accent, the terse and telling harmonic suspensions, make it eminently suited for the organ.
As we mentioned briefly in the preceding chapter, the rhythm and tempo of the C Minor Minuet of the French Suite in that key is related to arias in two cantatas for which Bach used identical music but different words. In the first, a secular cantata, “Durchlauchter Leopold “ (BG, XXXIV, 13), the verbal accentuation follows the gently graceful swing of the minuet rhythm, and in fact gives us the clue to the musical rhythm. The same rhythm is kept in the church cantata “Erhdhtes Fleisch und Blut” (No. 173, BG, XXXV, 83), although the inscription Tempo di Menuetto is omitted. The verbal accentuation similarly coincides with the rhythm of the minuet. The C Minor Minuet has the same melodic structure, although considerably lengthened in the cantatas. The work was composed, like the cantatas, during the Köthen period and the correct interpretation of the tempo and rhythm of the piece can be found in the syllabic accentuation of these two corresponding cantatas. The ideal realization of the Tempo di Menuetto lies in the cantatas, however. The harpsichord is too mechanically incisive for this gently flowing rhythm of one strong and agogically prolonged beat, followed by two weaker ones. The clavichord would be more suitable, and our modern pianoforte certainly is the most successful.
The above discussion makes obvious the intellectual ramifications and technical difficulties of interpreting Bach’s works. As he left much to the performer’s discretion and did not elaborate on aspects of his works that followed prevailing musical customs of notation and performance, many questions about his works will remain unanswered. But it is most vital to realize the importance of recreating the authentic spirit of Bach’s music over and above concerns of authentic performance. Bach’s primary concern was never with instruments, but with the spiritual substance of his compositions, and this latter element can be, indeed has been, experienced in every age since Bach’s death. Thus in spite of the differences in instrumental realization the Romantic and the man of the atomic age can share with eighteenth-century contemporaries of Bach the experience of music that sings of eternal truth.