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HPSCHD-L  June 2018

HPSCHD-L June 2018

Subject:

Re: Bach on the piano

From:

Davitt MORONEY <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Harpsichords and Related Topics <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 10 Jun 2018 10:21:40 +0200

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (160 lines)

I'm not sure that this thread is really about "Bach". To me, the point of
David's original comment was the way so many of our pianist colleagues,
excellent musicians, seem to prefer JSB on the piano. The subject here is
not Bach, it's the twentieth-century grand piano. I have found that this is
generally the most fruitful terrain on which to engage them in mutually
productive discussions.

*On the one hand, how is the instrument a tool for playing the music? *Those
who put this question first, and who have a particular concept of what they
(we) think "Bach" is, may prefer to hear the clarity of the counterpoint
perfectly presented with democratic equality between the voices, and also
to have the great advantage of the chordal verticality that can happen in
passing when the contrapuntal stars align. On the piano, the chordal
verticality of Bachian counterpoint is rarely so viscerally exciting. The
silly idea that counterpoint is all about "horizontality" removes a
fundamental dimension from the mix.

I wonder who first came up with the silly concept of "bringing out the
fugal theme" on the piano? (Czerny's edition of the *WTC*, supposedly based
on Beethoven's way of playing, shows it goes back a very long way.) I find
it a ridiculous concept that immensely weakens Bach's music. Why should we
keep stressing what is generally unchanging in a fugue?  I find it is
usually much more rich musically to concentrate on (and to try to draw the
listeners' attention to) the wonderful ways the contrapuntal accompaniments
that give the theme life, like flesh on a skeleton. The counterpoint keeps
changing in a process of perpetual renewal throughout a piece. So I prefer
to give greater weight to what is changing than what is unchanging. JSB
himself is said to have referred to counterpoint in terms of "sticks" and
"fire". For me, the warming flames are in the ever shifting counterpoints,
not in the dry, brittle themes. But I prefer the concepts of bones and
flesh. I can always hear when a performer is listening mainly to the cold
and bony theme, and passing over the warm and malleable contrapuntal flesh.
"Bringing out the theme" is like looking at a perfect statue of a beautiful
figure and admiring just the skeleton. ("Can you see that tibia? Ah! That
femur in augmentation! Those carpals in diminution and metatarsals in
stretto!")

*On the other hand, is the music a tool created by imaginative composers to
make the instrument sound wonderful? *If pianists in effect put this
question first -- based on the reasonable assumption that the sound of the
twentieth-century piano is something they love and cultivate -- then they
will find ways to turn their Bach performances into something that
musically makes their pianos sound appropriately pianistic. This is really
just a quite justifiable instrumental bias.

Of course, harpsichordists also think that Bach -- and Couperin, and
Rameau, and Scarlatti, and d'Anglebert, and Byrd -- all make various
harpsichords sound in fantastic ways that often don't translate so
comfortably to the piano. We play those repertoires not only because we
like "the music" but because we get pleasure from the particular ways they
make our instruments sound.

Personally, I find that this balance between the instrument playing the
music and the music playing the instrument is in perfect equilibrium when
Bach is played on an appropriate harpsichord. We wouldn't like Bach quite
so much on an early Italian virginal... But even here we've evolved. In the
1960s, it was considered normal to play Byrd on late eighteenth-century
instruments, the nod towards plucked sound being considered enough to
validate the venture. We mostly now see that as a quite unjustifiable
instrumental bias.

For me, some of the most exciting developments over the last forty years
have been the discoveries of the appropriateness of various instruments of
various countries and centuries to particular repertoires. Incidentally,
I've on the whole come to respect the correspondence of century more than
that of country. So in general, I'd rather play C. P. E. Bach on an
eighteenth-century French or English instrument, than on a
seventeenth-century German instrument. I'd rather play d'Anglebert and
Chambonnières on a Flemish-style virginal than on a Taskin. I'd rather play
Byrd on a sixteenth-century Italian instrument than a late
seventeenth-century English one. I want to feel that the music I'm playing
makes the instrument come fully alive in the precise ways it does well and
that tends to happen more often when the century corresponds.

Benjamin Britten in his famous "Aspen Lecture" (31 July 1964) commented on
the "holy triangle of composer, performer and listener" that is necessary
for what he (rather dubiously) called "true musical *experience*". (I am
suspicious of such claims to artistic "truth".) I used to find this
triangle useful, but I no longer do. For me, it has to be a quadrangle:
composer, instrument, performer, and listener. And  even pentagular,
including in the mix the hall/room/acoustic in which the musical experience
occurs.

The black Steinway of the 1930s now purveys such a standardized sound,
look, and feel that relatively few pianists even notice how "1930s" it is
as an object, in all its decorative bluntness and utilitarian design. They
just see it as "a piano", that's what "a piano" is to them. Many of our
pianist colleagues have yet not examined the nature of their assumption as
deeply as harpsichordists and organists, with our plethora of different
kinds of instruments now available under the umbrella terms "harpsichord"
and "organ". But things are certainly changing, slowly. Even if only
because the Steinway kind of piano represents a distinct minority of pianos
that are sold today, the vast majority of which are electronic keyboards.
This has forced players of the "acoustic piano" -- like players of the
"acoustic guitar" -- into a somewhat defensive situation, something we can
sympathize with, I think.

We all know that the modern Steinway is a historical instrument, like any
other, and typical of its century -- the twentieth. A modern pianist's love
of what "keyboard music" is, and can be, is intimately linked to what this
particular historical instrument can do well. So when they play Bach, they
make that instrument do the things it does well, and who can fault that?
Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin all loved Bach on the piano, too, but what
they were loving was something quite different from what modern pianists
are loving, because their pianos were very different.

The fallacy in all this is in assuming that the discussion is about "Bach"
when in fact it is really about their instruments.

And as for JSB, no one should be deprived of intimate contact, through ears
eyes and fingers, of this greatest of all musical minds. I'm very happy if
people enjoy his music on saxophones, synthesizers, kotos, Swingle voices,
or didgeridoos. But in making that statement, I'm well aware that I'm there
taking the (deeply flawed) essentialist view that "Bach" -- namely the
product of that amazing musical intellect -- survives quite independently
of the instrumental medium. Something important and exciting does survive,
of course. But we also know how significant the instrumental medium is.
Sometimes the medium is indeed the message, or at least an equally
essential part of a rather different message, one that is equally important
and exciting.

Best wishes,
DM








*Davitt Moroney​​Professor Emeritus Department of Music*

*Morrison Hall*


*​University of California, Berkeley​CA 94720-1200*

On Sun, Jun 10, 2018 at 8:23 AM, Philip Kimber <[log in to unmask]>
wrote:

> Bach anywhere - just listen to the arrangements by the Swingle Singers or
> Jacques Loussier! All great stuff, but Bach is always great.
> Best
> Ph.
>
> ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
> Note:  opinions  expressed on HPSCHD-L are those of the  individual con-
> tributors and not necessarily  those of the list owners  nor of the Uni-
> versity of Iowa.  For a brief  summary of list  commands, send mail to
> [log in to unmask]  saying  HELP .
> ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
>

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
Note:  opinions  expressed on HPSCHD-L are those of the  individual con-
tributors and not necessarily  those of the list owners  nor of the Uni-
versity of Iowa.  For a brief  summary of list  commands, send mail to
[log in to unmask]  saying  HELP .
::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

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