Bach and the Clavier

Bach and the Clavier
by Joan Benson
Clavier, Volume 29, No. 2, February 1990

In the world of Johann Sebastian Bach, as in the world of this magazine, the word “clavier” implies any keyboard instrument. Bach himself played on the widely contrasting claviers popular in his day: the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ. In 1747 he also improvised on and approved of the early Silbermann fortepiano owned by King Frederick the Great.
My experience in playing Bach’s clavier music has been highly varied. As a young musician I performed Busoni transcriptions on the modern piano, and audiences found my free, romantic interpretations exhilarating. Later I became a protégée of pianist Edwin Fischer, whose fame reached America through his superb recordings, including Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier…

…Once while playing a Bach fugue in his master class I had a memory lapse that forced me to improvise my own ending. This pleased Fischer more than if I had simply played the correct notes.

Eventually, to Fischer’s regret, I turned to the clavichord; for me it best expressed the subtle beauty and profundity of Bach’s music. I never dreamed of playing Bach on the early Viennese fortepiano, but as I followed the development of this clavier, I discovered that Bach sounded serenely spiritual on the antique pianos of the Mendelssohn-Schumann period.

In contrast, several years ago I performed on the final concert of Scotland’s Findhorn Music Festival, which included both popular and classical musicians. A well-known marimba player added a whirlwind of notes around Bach’s C major Prelude from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier as I played it on the modern piano, varying my sounds to blend with his music.

It is clear that Bach can be played in many different ways and still be effective. Over the last three centuries changes in keyboard instruments have changed the performance of his music.

With a few notable exceptions Bach did not specify which clavier he intended for his keyboard works. According to Johann Forkel, however, “Bach preferred the clavichord to the harpsichord, which though capable of great tonal variety, seemed to lack soul. The pianoforte was still in its infancy and too coarse. Both for practice and for intimate playing he regarded the clavichord as the best instrument and preferred to express on it his finest thoughts. He found the harpsichord, or clavicembalo, incapable of the gradations of tone obtainable on the clavichord.” Yet Bach never indicated that a particular work was to be played on the clavichord.

Many of Bach’s clavier works were written more for teaching purposes rather than for actual performance; The Well-Tempered Clavier is a prime example. After Bach’s death his son Carl Philipp Emanuel showed Charles Burney “two manuscripts of his father’s composition, written on purpose for him when he was a boy, containing pieces with a fugue, in all 24 keys… at which he labored for the first years of his life without remission.”

For a short time after Bach died, the music of Bach’s sons became more popular than his own. In England Johann Christian Bach’s galant style was the rage, while in Germany Carl Philipp Emanuel became the Bach. His sensitive, expressive style, based on the larger, late 18th-century clavichord, emphasized dynamic shading and emotional shifts in a way that affected piano playing to the time of Beethoven.

Contrary to popular belief, however, father Bach’s music was not buried with him, only to be resurrected by Felix Mendelssohn. As time passed his music was adapted to current keyboards: the late clavichord, the soft, articulate fortepiano, the robust modern piano, and more recently the revived claviers of Bach’s time. Similarly, ways of playing and interpreting his music changed according to the fashions of the day. Part of the greatness of Bach’s music is its capacity to encompass these centuries of change.

As early as 1785 Ernest Wilhelm Wolf wrote in his Guide to Good Performance on the Clavichord, “Whoever… practices preludes and fugues of J.S. Bach for technical mastery at the clavichord, can expect them to be truly useful, in terms of the art of harmony and sublime expression.” In the same decade Baron von Swieten brought Bach’s fugues from Berlin to Vienna. In 1782 he introduced these works to Mozart, who performed them at the Baron’s informal musicales. The 11-year-old Beethoven excited critics with his skillful playing of The Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven also played Bach fugues to end van Swieten’s evenings with what he called a “final prayer.”

In 1802, shortly after The Well-Tempered Clavier was first published, John Field played a Bach fugue for a dinner party given by the piano-builder Clementi in his London home; the guests had come from all over Europe and the Middle East. The same year Clementi took young Field to Paris, where his performances of the Bach 48 from memory astonished the French musicians. Field’s playing on the warm-toned yet delicate Clementi pianoforte was called a “dreamy perfection,” “sensitive and precise,” with fingers “like raindrops scattering pearls on velvet.”

By the second decade of the 19th century, the piano was larger with a fuller, singing tone, yet the soft pedal was capable of delicate sounds. Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny had been introduced to Bach’s clavier music as children. In 1821 the 12-year-old Felix played The Well-Tempered Clavier for the aging Goethe; at 13 Fanny played all the preludes by memory as a birthday surprise for her father. As they grew older, Felix loved to listen to his sister play Bach: “I could not help thinking of his solitude …of his pure, mild, and vast power, and the transparency of its depths.”

In Italy Fanny introduced the clavier music of Bach to Charles Gounod, who came to worship the composer as a god. For him, The Well-Tempered Clavier was “the law to pianoforte study… the unquestioned textbook of musical composition.” Later, by casually improvising a melody over the C major Prelude, Gounod created an Ave Maria that was to take the musical world by storm.

In Germany Schumann and Brahms shared Mendolssohn’s reverence for the music of Bach. Robert Schumann considered The Well-Tempered Clavier his “daily bread.” In 1840 he wrote, “I make my daily confession to this high priest with a view to purifying and strengthening my musical nature.” After his marriage he shared his understanding of The Well-Tempered Clavier with his young bride, the pianist Clara Wieck. Later she performed the C minor Fugue and the G Major and A minor Preludes and Fugues on the opening sections of her piano concerts. She achieved a beautiful legato in Bach’s music but used some staccato as well.

Clara Schumann taught The Well-Tempered Clavier to her serious students and greatly influenced the young Johannes Brahms. Unlike Clara, Brahms played Bach with a constant legato; this seemed to suit the deep key dip of the modern piano.

Brahms’s playing of The Well-Tempered Clavier is described by one of his pupils as “a revelation of exquisite poems. He performed not only with graduated shadings but with marked contrasts of tone. Each note helped form a feeling; deep pathos, light-hearted grace, sentiment (as distinct from sentimentality) was always there.” One of the most profound experiences of Brahms’s life was to observe and aid in the flowering of the Leipzig Bach Gesellschaft, which in 60 volumes issued from 1851 to 1890 tried to reproduce faithfully all of Bach’s music.

Certain 19th-century pianists and composers did not join in the general reverence for Bach. Eugene d’Albert wrote in the preface to his edition of The Well-Tempered Clavier that “there are many things in the art of Bach that are no longer natural to us. People who listen for hours without showing any boredom are either hypocrites or peasants. Bach knew nothing about the subtleties of passion, sorrow, and love, and he never thought to express them in music.”

Franz Liszt diverged from the Mendelssohn-Schumann-Brahms school in his compositions, and he took a different approach to Bach as well. Liszt and others began to exploit the virtuosic possibilities of Bach’s music on the modern piano. Transcriptions, imaginative editions, and flamboyant performances of the clavier music attempted to make this concert-hall keyboard sound like a modern organ or orchestra.

Not all 19th-century virtuosos accepted this approach. One of the most famous pianists “ of the era, Anton Rubeinstein, consulted the Bach Gesellschaft and began to look to the past. “I cannot help believing,” he said, “that the instruments of the past had sonorous colors and effects that we cannot reproduce on today’s pianos. I am always seeking to ‘register’ the works of Bach on the piano by means of various touches. I try to give the music an organ-like character by means of pedaling.” Rubinstein added that “we cannot have an exact idea of what these harpsichords, clavichords, and spinets were like, nor do we know (the most important thing) the way to manipulate them.”

The interpretations of Ferrucio Busoni represent the ultimate romantic approach to Bach’s clavier music. At 14 Busoni saw in the first four preludes of The Well-Tempered Clavier the “four elements: water, fire, earth, and air.” On the 200th anniversary of Bach’s birth he shocked a conservative Leipzig audience with his wild renditions of Bach; his later playing gave listeners “a sense of perilous adventure,” according to his friend Howard Dent. “He played the first prelude of the 48 and it became a wash of shifting colors, a rainbow over the fountains of the Villa d’Este. He played the fugue, and each voice sang out above the rest like entries of an Italian chorus, until in the last stretto the subject entered like… trumpets… across a haze of pedal-held sound that was not confusion but blinding clearness.”

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein spoke of Busoni’s “pale, Christ-like face and his diabolical technical prowess” in playing Bach. “His uncanny touch could produce at one moment the sonorities of an organ, at another those of a harpsichord.” Busoni, however, had no desire to make Bach sound as if played on a harpsichord. “He felt it was not the function of the pianoforte to whisper or talk. He wanted it to sound like an Italian song.”

It was this singing quality that appealed to me when as a 20-year-old pianist I played Bach-Busoni in concerts. At the same time I was intrigued to study Bach’s original organ score and compare it to Busoni’s sonorous piano transcription with its added octaves.

When I later discovered I would rather play Bach’s music on the introspective, subtle clavichord, I was not alone. Without knowing it I became part of a movement that, partly in reaction to the romantic period, tried to return Bach to the claviers of his time. At best, however, this return will always be tinted with our own subjectivity.

Busoni said, “Never look back.” Yet it was Busoni who earlier in life was photographed at a harpsichord in his Berlin apartment and who almost played an Arnold Dolmetsch Beethoven-model fortepiano in concert.

Arnold Dolmetsch served as a natural link between the early clavichord and its revival. His grandfather, a leading Zurich musician, had taught all his children to play Bach’s preludes and fugues on a clavichord. By the end of the 19th century Dolmetsch was restoring and building clavichords and harpsichords in England, and he gave small, candlelit, costumed concerts on old instruments. In 1905 he joined the Chickering piano company in Boston to build authentic replicas of antique keyboards. The same decade he began touring with the clavichord across the United States.

Dolmetsch believed that much of Bach’s clavier music could “only make its proper effect on the clavichord… which under the fingers of some gifted players reflects every shade of the player’s feelings as a faithful mirror.” He found the modern piano unsuitable as a clavier instrument for Bach because its heavy action made clarity and counterpoint difficult. For him the piano’s “vague, luscious effects,” as in pedaled arpeggiation, were the most beautiful use of the instrument. Dolmetsch regarded the harpsichord as the right instrument for Bach’s ensemble music because “it blended so beautifully with the instruments of his day.” He also found it a “revelation to hear Bach’s music on a well-preserved old organ.”

Through his writings and instruments Dolmetsch’s influence continues to this day. It has been my privilege to give a number of concerts on his excellent clavichords in the United States and England.

Other 20th-century musicians believed the proper clavier for Bach was the harpsichord. Wanda Landowska felt that it was on this “king of keyboard instruments” that the voices of Bach’s music could be heard with all their “purity, logic, and independence.” She found the piano transcriptions of Busoni “disfiguring” and agreed with certain musicians and musicologists that Bach would have preferred the “old boxes” to concert grands. She said, “If we lack air in the thick atmosphere of exaggerated romanticism, we need only open wide the windows of our magnificent past; it will refresh our soul.”

Between 1902 and 1910 public discussions were held in Europe as to which clavier was est for Bach, the clavichord or the harpsichord. Wanda Landowska spurned the clavichord as an instrument meant “to accompany a little voice or as an instrument for beginners… Bach’s heart did not indulge exclusively in sweet dreams… Why insist that the timid, melancholy clavichord… was his only favorite? Why not let its bebung fade away under the moonlight of adolescent romanticism?”

In 1950, Landowska convinced the music publisher Kalmus to change the English translation of Das Wohltemperirte Klavier from the currently used The Well-Tempered Clavichord to the The Well-Tempered Clavier. She believed this work was only for the harpsichord, because “the polyphony of the fugues needed the variety of registration capable of producing sharp outlines, silvery tones, or majestic fullness which are impossible on the weak clavichord. The harpsichord with its architectural planes of sound allows us to erect arches wherein parts float, converge, and meet in absolute freedom.”

As early as the 1930s Landowska’s pupil Ralph Kirkpatrick questioned the heavy action of her modern Pleyel harpsichord, with its many color-changing foot pedals that never existed in Bach’s time. He found that Landowska’s high finger technique, based on that of the modern piano, had little to do with the clavichord. As a Harvard undergraduate Kirkpatrick had become enchanted with the school’s Dolmetsch clavichord, and throughout his life he felt that “nothing has done more to sharpen my ear, sharpen my imagination than playing Bach at the clavichord.”

Boston’s Erwin Bodky found that the controversy over the correct clavier for Bach led to confusion. Pianists went to extremes: some tried to imitate the harpsichord with terrace dynamics, strict metronomic timing, and no shading or pedal; others turned to post-Busoni romanticism because it seemed pianistic. Bodky’s answer was to assume that Bach wrote each of his highly varied keyboard pieces with a specific clavier in mind. In his book The Interpretation of Bach’s Keyboard Works he assigned each work to definite instrument.

Bodky believed that on the harpsichord, music needs the color changes of different registrations or it becomes monotonous and dry. With the clavichord, however, the player can give attention to each note, using dynamic shading to enhance phrase shape.

Much has happened in the field of early music since the 1960’s. We have had more opportunity to study and profit from valuable treatises, extensive research, and antique and replica keyboard instruments. Today the articulated playing of Bach’s clavier music on original instruments, though often belied by modern settings, has become the vogue.

No one should be surprised that I prefer the clavichord for The Well-Tempered Clavier. I feel it permits me to bring out the special qualities of each prelude and fugue, down to the most delicate detail. I know, however, that we cannot go back to the 18th century. We cannot play Bach’s music in a world free of automobiles, planes, televisions, computers, space flights, and smog. We do not have the ears of his time, which never heard, much less became accustomed to, electrical amplification. We have to accept Bach within the limits of our own complex age.

I am convinced, however, that the subtlety and expressiveness of the clavichord can act as a counterbalance to the noise and aggressiveness of our world. Today’s keyboard performers, whatever clavier they choose, can gain a deeper understanding of Bach by playing his music on the clavichord.

“Bach and the Clavier”
by Joan Benson
Clavier, Volume 29, No. 2, February 1990
copyright 2005, Joan Benson; all rights reserved

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