A View Beyond Reproduction for Authentic Bach Performance

by Rosalyn Tureck

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

One of the chief identifying characteristics of this century is our consuming interest in the past, supported and enhanced by vigorous and persistent research. Our historical alertness has reached into many branches of learning. One which has been fundamentally affected and enlarged in this century is historical musical research, with its increasingly refined techniques aimed at duplicating musical performance of past ages. The subject of performance practices of previous eras has become a major field of study, and within this study, the music of Johann Seb. Bach, because of its prodigious quality, represents the high point of our concern with authentic performance. His music also provides the most outstanding examples of changing formulations in musical conceptualization, and of diversity of performance styles throughout the years since his death in 1750.

The return to the past for the purpose of uncovering original performance practices of another era represents an objective approach to the problem of musical interpretation and its underlying concepts. This signifies a considerable clear mindedness in dealing with a difficult problem. The results of our historical studies have been chiefly positive. The labours of 20th century scholars have brought continuously increasing enlightenment to an era which had been befogged by ignorance for a very long time. Full credit must, therefore, be accorded to the accomplishments of musical historians and to their measure of responsibility in the current recognition by the performer and the musical public of the indispensability of research in the quest for authenticity in performance style. Today, one would expect the latter fact to be self-evident. In actual fact, recognition and acceptance of research as a correlative requirement for Bach performance was not always assumed within a musicians consciousness of his responsibility as a performer.

The deeper causes for this lack are connected with the Western European development of performance attitudes and practices, too numerous and complex to enumerate in a short article. However, two simple but outstanding points will shed light on past omissions. One was the lack of communication between scholar and artist-performer. The other was the performer's fear of becoming, so-to-speak, too 'conscious' in performance and too concerned with learning music from books which, according to this notion, would inhibit musical spontaneity. Both of these attitudes are not yet dissipated today although they should be, and they slow the stride towards enlightened Bach performance for the wide public. However, on the more sophisticated level of current research and performance which progresses nevertheless, the time has come to view the wider aspects of these related fields and to consider the results of their influence, which for better or for worse, are far-ranging.

The desirability of drawing aside the veils created by ignorance or misinformation , which cloud the attainment of a historically valid performance style, is perennial. In our time a major effort has been focussed on the concept of reproduction both instrumentally and in performance practices, as the solution for fitting performance style. Applied specifically to keyboard music, the piano has been totally ruled out in some quarters. However, it is already wight years since the July 1971 issue of the Musical Quarterly offered an article by Christoph Wolff, entitled "New Research on Bach's Musical Offering", which revealed evidence that Bach did indeed conceive music for the piano, and did, in fact, compose for this instrument. This article opens, as well, an additional vista of Bach's association with the piano. It proves conclusively that Joh. Seb. was a sales agent for the Silbermann pianofortes. The proof is firmly based on the publication in the Polish Musical Journal, Muzyka, in the year 1967, of the original evidence of a voucher dated May 9, 1749, recording the sale of a "Piano et Forte" to Count Branitzky.

A new dimension has thus been introduced through acute musicological research, to the subject of Bach's instrumental interests in composition and to the concerns of the contemporary performer, in regard to Bach's own attitude towards instrumental usage. It also demonstrates that Job. Seb. did not have a single minded intention about instrumental sonorities. And it confirms yet again his own freedom from single toned intentions in instrumental performance. Moreover, this freedom is available for all to see in his transfer of so many of his own compositions, as well as those of other composers, from one setting to another. The repeated change of instruments, sonorities and textures of polar differences from setting to setting of the same music, not only from instrument to instrument but also from vocal to instrumental, etc., too many and too varied types to enumerate here, (Norman Carrell has done so admirably in his book "Bach the Borrower" [Note 6])- proves irrefutably his own flexibility in envisioning and performing the same music in greatly varied instrumental timbres and contexts. Thus, Bach's own diversified performance settings provide the most accurate documentation for his freedom of vision and alternate treatment of sonorities and textures in composition and performance.

The evidence of his works alone, quite apart from other sources, demonstrates that he did not think - as did later composers of the 19th and 20th centuries - in terms of a single sonority for his music. In some cases, there may be as many as 3 or 4 settings. One example of this usage is the famous D minor Clavier Concerto, referred to today as Harpsichord Concerto. Its first and second movements appear in the first two movements of the cantata "Wir mussen durch viel Trubsal", but the keyboard setting is for the organ. The first movement is virtually identical in both works. The solo part in the second movement of both cantata and concerto is also unchanged, except for a few minor variants of embellishment treatment, but in the cantata Bach superimposes a four-part choral setting over the organ solo. However, this major difference does not alter his treatment of the instrumental solo materials in the organ or the concerto version despite the fact that the cantata movement is given an entirely different overall sonority, texture, volume and tonal balance with orchestra, organ and chorus, from that of the solo concerto with solo harpsichord and orchestra. We are quite sure that a setting for solo violin was made as well, although no manuscript exists. This again presents a totally different set of sonorities, textures and balance. No more differing sonority, volume, texture and instrumental technique can be conceived than those between organ, violin and harpsichord. Does this practice of Joh. Seb. which is widespread throughout his works, bespeak the intention on his part to assign a composition to a single instrument, and to only that one sonority and texture? If the realization of his intentions were confined to a single sonority and balance, he would not have re-set continuously fresh versions of opposing textures, balances and volume. The list of compositions in which transfers were made, even from and to solo vocal works, from solo and ensemble instrumental settings, is long and complicated. Have we not in the 20th century imposed on Bach our own single-mindedness - our own desire for neat accuracy, for clear and exact specifications, and a safe historical harbour - via a 20th century view of the efficacy of duplication?

There is a legendary correspondence between Couperin and J. S. Bach which, had it been preserved, may have provided all future music historians and performers with strong props, at least, if not solid foundation for truly authentic performance of their music. But, alas, the mischievous forces of history were at their busiest, when the notion was implanted in the mind of someone in Couperin's household to regard Bach's letters as effective lids to jam jars, to which purpose they were employed in their entirety. If this tale be true, we are forever deprived of the most direct verbal expression Bach may have recorded of his musical concepts and performance requirements. In actual fact, we must depend chiefly on other written sources regarding these and on the most reliable source of his own performance practices as he wrote them into his own music.

The chief influence of the emphasis on reproduction to date, in respect to Bach's instrumental music, has been a total withdrawal not only from the piano, but from all modern instruments to those of the 17th and 18th centuries. This is by no means a universally agreed principle, but it constitutes a mid and late 20th century position which is tightly held by a particular school which is based entirely, or to a very large degree, on the concept and practice of duplication of the historical situation. And the general assumption of those who adhere to the principle of historical duplication is that reproduction of sonorities similar to those that Bach heard is in itself creating a world of authenticity. In actual fact, the realization produces different results from the desired wish. Until recently modern made instruments were not close enough in their sonority and texture to be successful reproductions. They were more often than not simply indicators of a type of sound. The modern performance style and techniques on reproduced instruments were also slow in representing 17th and 18th century performance practices and their historical, psychological, aesthetic orientation. The great benefits of continuous research have improved this situation to a large degree. But as modern reproduction of antique instruments has become more refined in the late 20th century, and performance on these more enlightened, it is becoming clear that true duplication is a forever-receding phenomenon akin to attempting to catch the real moon in its reflection in a motionless pool. We may approach the past with a large accumulation of data about it, but with all due respect to our most sincere efforts, we cannot be the product of the 18th century, neither psychologically nor aesthetically, no matter how closely the externals, such as tangible instruments, are produced and past traditions of performance practice are approximated.

Duplication is, in actual fact, impossible to achieve. For like it or not, we are creatures of our own time. We bring ourselves to whatever we do; we cannot succeed in erasing our own identities. The education of a 20th century person is rooted in a very different soil from that of an 18th century person. Much can be learned through historical studies, and deep insight can be gained through personal identification with an era long past, but reconstruction is not synonymous with duplication. The very nature of the life process and the relation of man to his environment makes duplication of the past impossible.

Everyone who is associated with harpsichord performance knows the problems connected with modern public concert performances. Although it can be heard in certain - though not all - large halls as a solo instrument, the subtle qualities of the harpsichord are lost in large spaces. This was not so in the 17th and early 18th centuries where performance took place in rooms rather than concert halls built for mass audiences. Many modern harpsichord builders and performers strive for as loud a tone as possible in order to accommodate the instrument to modern performance circumstances. Even so, when a harpsichord is coupled with a chamber music ensemble of modern strings played with modern string technique, the balance is an agonizing problem. Artificial means of electrical amplification have been applied frequently, a most dangerous and distorting course where authentic sound is the goal, or, alternatively, the lack of tonal balance has been accepted. But neither of these practices reproduces the sound that Bach heard and are therefore unauthentic, besides being thoroughly unmusical. Additionally, the musical characterization and the spiritual qualities of Bach's music are factors which beg for more thought in modern reproductive performance and are, at the very least, equal in importance with mechanical reproduction and stylistic approximations of historical performance practices. A more effectual, practical attempt to gain resemblance to 18th century sound and performance conditions is to perform in smaller rooms which can respond acoustically to not only the volume but the subtle qualities of harpsichord sound. Here again, the true balance of ensemble is achieved only by strings and winds modelled after 18th century models and employing the performing techniques of that time. This type of effort is now increasing everywhere but development is still required in these studies and performances.

I am in full agreement with, and a strong supporter of, the renaissance of antique instruments and performance on them that has taken place in our century. My own musical education has included since my early teens the study of the harpsichord, clavichord and organ. Having grown with these instruments (as well as with the piano and electronic instruments) I have always identified spontaneously with the psychological, aesthetic orientation of the older instruments as well as with their musical and technical characteristics. I believe that every pianist should study the harpsichord, clavichord and organ, as an indispensable part of his preparation as a professional performer or teacher, that string players should be skilled in instruments of the viol family, etc. Today these are the province of individual specialists, professional or laymen, or groups who promote efforts toward antique reproduction. The expertise of the professional musician on modern instruments should include antique and modern - that is, if Bach's music is to form a normal part of performance and teaching repertoire in a modern world - any modern world, present and future. In other words, to truly reach for the spirit as well as the letter of Bach's world, a modern keyboard player, for instance, must be a true clavierist, skilled in all clavier instruments and their individual performance characteristics as well as the general performance practices of the period. A harpsichordist should be equally at at home on the clavichord, but few are heard in this interchange. Today organists sometimes become harpsichord performers, the reverse exchange is rare, and the performing skills of the clavichord and piano are totally outside their ken. Pianists may become harpsichordists but omit or ignore the clavichord and the organ.

Carl Phil. Emanuel Bach wrote in his "Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments", first published in 1753:

"Every keyboardist should own a good harpsichord and a good clavichord to enable him to play all things interchangeably. A good clavichordist makes an accomplished harpsichordist, but not the reverse." [Note 1]

One page previous to this statement, Philipp Emanuel writes:

"It is at the clavichord that a keyboardist may be most exactly evaluated." [Note 1]

The increased modern knowledge of earlier keyboard instruments has led to a too narrowly focussed specialization on the harpsichord. The clavichord, greatly beloved by Joh. Seb. Bach and of irreplaceable importance for the understanding of style in the performance of his music, is today the Cinderella of the 18th century instruments. The colossal experience of performing Bach's music and responding to it must include but not be narrowed by a limited view of historical instrumental usage. Moreover, knowledge and experience of and performance on antique instruments and modern representations of these instruments is only a beginning and not the fulfilled end of authentic performances.

To return to the positive achievements of research. A second influence of inestimable value that continuously refined research has produced, is the interest in historical performance practices based on original documentation. Along with this is a largely tacit assumption that these adhere to the antique instruments. But historical performance practices, as documented in earlier centuries, are more than simplistic directions confined to specifically named instruments. Firstly, in relation to keyboard practice, these directions, rules and elucidations do not, on the whole, single out different formulations for the harpsichord and the clavichord. Although in the popular mind these instruments are closely related, in actual fact no two instruments ever devised by man are more fundamentally different - opposed even - than the harpsichord and clavichord - the former with its clipped tone produced by a plectrum action, and the latter with its exquisitely singing tone produced by means of a flat brass tangent which presses the string in a vibrato action from the finger on the hey. However, the performance practices apply to both instruments. The significant fact is that performance practice applies to the music, to the structures and designs in which the music is composed. The performer may and indeed is free to make adjustments according to educated personal taste, but the basic rule for performance of each embellishment symbol, for instance, is not altered by the difference in instrumental techniques. The difference of action and sonority of each instrument sometimes leads to occasional superficial modifications or variants but the instrumental characteristics do not change the essential principle of realization of the embellishment symbol. For the rules govern the performance of the music rather than the technical aspects of plectrum, tangent or pipe.

I believe the historian of the 21st century will look back on this century acknowledging the great strides made in the accumulation of well documented data and the improvement in performance style in Bach's music. But errors will also be noted. One of the great errors of this century has been produced by its exuberant discoveries of the past. For with its enlightening research and performance efforts, the emphasis tends to become limited to specific 20th century interests in research areas and applications. These inevitably serve to confine and limit the wider area of Bach's own creative psychology and practice. Another error has been brought about by the 19th century attitudes of either/or, which are still a strong influence in some areas of 20th century musical thought. With the either/or syndrome, the great instrumental questions were reduced to:

  1. Shall performance be on antique or modern instruments?
  2. Shall it be on the piano or the harpsichord?
  3. Shall it be a duplication of Bach's time or uninhibited modern style?

In my opinion, these questions were, and are, the wrong questions and they inevitably impede the progress to a deeper fulfillment of the diverse intentions and infinitely rich concept and content of Joh. Seb's music. The antique and contemporary worlds must exist in association with each other. To move in different channels, each side preserving an unbridgeable gap, simply impoverishes the significance of Bach's music to the human being of any era. And professionally it creates schism which limits rather than expands the understanding, the performance and response to this music. One example of this limitation is the virtual abandonment, often in despair, of the Bach repertoire by most solo pianists and conductors of international status.

The piano of today has undergone a long development since the Silbermann piano that Bach knew. Certainly its tone and action have developed and changed in its progress through the last two centuries. On the other hand, the term 'harpsichord' conjures up a fairly single-toned style of sonority in modern minds. But, in actual fact, the tone of Italian made harpsichords, even of the same period, have differed enormously from the cooler tone of the Flemish. I have played and Italian harpsichord of the early 18th century whose color, with all possible discounting effects of age, could only be described as rich brown velvet. The Flemish Dulken, for instance, produced quite a different sound from the brighter brilliance of the French Taskin harpsichord. The English Kirkman was perhaps the most silvery of all. Raymond Russell in his book "The Harpsichord and Clavichord" describes the Italian tones as more robust than the northern instruments. And judgment of authentic historical tone becomes still more confusing when we know that, as Russell expresses it:

"When examining a Ruckers harpsichord today we should remember that very few are in anything like their original condition." [Note 2]

17th and 18th century harpsichord tone is therefore NOT so single channelled and not so certain of duplication as might be thought. Moreover, fashions in harpsichord sound ideals change in our time even in five to ten years. On the other hand, although modern harpsichords differ in refinement of sonority, materials and workmanship according to their individual maker, they are probably more similar in tone to each other than were the varied indigenous national and provincial styles of England and the continent in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The modern piano is indeed larger in physical size, in volume, and richer in its capability for varying tonal sonorities, due in part to control of volume and texture by the direct action of fingers, hand and arm. But the greatest difference in performing Bach on the piano today is due less to the instrument than to the modern style in which this instrument is taught and played. This style was born and developed in the romantic era of the early 19th century, expanding continuously with additional and varied characteristics reflective of the technical and aesthetic directions of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. The piano is endowed with the capacity for many performance styles, many more than are generally acknowledged, and these varied styles emerge totally from the techniques employed, and from the aesthetic sense of form and structure which dictates the musical approach and interpretation of the particular era of the performer. The current view of piano tone and piano performance suffers greatly from the single-minded and confined conception in which piano style is imprisoned. This view is as limited and limiting as is the single-minded contemporary approach to the employment of earlier sonorities. The approach is not different - one being authentic and the other unauthentic. It is, in fact, an identical frame of reference -single-minded, specifically allocated and limited.

My own view of Bach on the piano is probably more puristic than that of those who perform only on the harpsichord. In performing Bach on the piano, my insistence on thorough and continuous study of earlier performance practices via original sources plus meticulous application of these in performance is uncompromising. And I can never accept Bach on the piano when performed in the limited range of romantic, virtuoso piano style inherited from the 19th century or the colossal brilliance or dry mono-color of the 20th century.

Performance in my view must interlock with every aspect of a composer's art. In order to realize Bach's structures, his sense of form, and the variety of textures which are implicit in his music, I found it necessary to create a technique of playing this instrument which has no dependence on heretofore known methods of piano playing. The fire which nourishes my involvement in Joh. Seb.'s genius impelled the forging of a totally new technique on the piano in order to realize - to fulfill -the structural and spiritual intent of Bach's music. Historical studies have always been, in my view, and still are of equal importance, so that scholarship and the technique and goals of the artist are continually mutually complementary. This new piano technique involves developing firstly among many factors, the fingering technique of the early 18th century, which is entirely different physically from that of the 19th and 20th century fingering. Indeed it is Bach's own style of fingering. But the isolated application of earlier fingering practices on the part of the modern performer is insufficient. The fingering must relate to the deeper structural demands of the music. Additionally, phrasing, articulation, touch, dynamics, sonorities, embellishment, musical characterization, tempo suitable to Bach's music - all emerge and grow from a combination of historical scholarship, involving the study of earlier performance practices and instruments, and based equally on Bach's own contrapuntal, harmonic and rhythmic configurations. The latter, the actual content of the music, has received too little attention, the greater favor having been given to scholarly historical studies. But the content of the music demands, in my view and practice, equal attention with historical studies in depth of analysis, perception and personal identification.

Clarity, which is so large an issue today, is a point on which the piano has been considered inadequate. It appears necessary to state the self-evident fact that it surely is inadequate when performed with the sense of form, the pianistic techniques and the tonal approaches of the 19th and 20th centuries. But its clarity is breathtaking when the fundamental conception identifies with the sense of form and structure which are the product of Bach's mind, itself formed by the historical processes of the 17th and 18th centuries and even earlier. And when goals of sonorities, of polyphonic texture, of the counterpoint of rhythms, of embellishment intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the music, are matched by a mode of musical thinking fitting these structures and physical techniques capable of producing contrapuntal performance shapes with only ten fingers, with no aid from registration as on the organ and harpsichord, or varying orchestral colors - when those fundamental requirements are perceived, the either/or question of harpsichord or piano loses power and impetus.

The amalgamation of structural perception, historical scholarship and this approach to the piano clears away much of the 19th and 20th century debris. The specific perennial pianists' queries such as: may one make crescendo-diminuendo in Bach - ritard and accelerando - how much legato, how much staccato - what manner of detached touch - what articulation shapes, etc., etc. - these questions fall away like empty husks. For these are negative questions based on either/or attitudes brought to the subject, rooted in 19th and 20th century concepts and piano style. A totally new technique, multifaceted and capable of being true to Bach's music, dispenses with these perplexities. This new skill and tonal approach is indeed difficult as is the mastery of every highly developed technique on every major instrument. But, when mastered, it brings to a music so timeless as that of Bach a medium of communication which is at once beyond period associations and yet intrinsically intertwined with his musical concepts and performance practices.

Putnam Aldrich suggests that the performer of Baroque music "finds that what he needs most in his struggle toward authenticity is his ability to equip his audience with Baroque ears." [Note 3] Yes, but the performer and the musicologist must precede the listener in their overall identification with the Baroque total world. He continues:

"... true authenticity is obviously a chimera. Too much guesswork is involved in all points of interpretation to admit the possibility of reconstructing a Baroque work with anything like scientific accuracy." [Note 4]

and he ends stating:

"... while the 'authentic performance' must stand as an ideal ...nevertheless the blind pursuit of authenticity at all costs has its dangers as well as its virtues. If allowed to become a fetish, it may succeed in a detail and at the same time cause the totality of a musical event to fail in its purposes." [Note 5]

Success then lies not in reproduction of literal circumstances, and an attempt to re-live the past. On the other hand, one must never be idiosyncratic, or flaunt current musical fashion, such as employing the most superficial elements of modern media, whether they be piano, modern strings, etc. or even electronic media, in order to go beyond reproduction. The goal and the achievement must depend on both uncompromising historical scholarship and positive perception of the aesthetic orientation and practices of previous eras as well as the current living world.

The solution for performance on the piano lies in greater objective knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument itself than is necessary for the performance of 19th and 20th century music. Finally it requires the total integration of music and scholarship coupled with psychological-aesthetic identification. It requires an educated skill and expert performance techniques of both the antique and the modern worlds.

Historical reproduction is infinitely valuable in its usefulness to posterity, besides being meaningful and exquisitely enjoyable within its own context, and these efforts should be always with us. But it does not possess the power inherent in the spontaneous urgency of living, burgeoning media of communication. But the gauge for approximation of historical reproduction will change with the intellectual and aesthetic interests of each era. Amalgamation of the historical with current media and the realistic recognition of current concepts provides a liberating view from a conditional historical world and frees the power of direct spontaneity and self-expression. These combined with full integrity to Bach's composing and performing intentions constitute the hallmark of a great performing art, equally significant for its authentic expression of the past, its communication in the present, and its discourse of all that is beyond the human measurement of time.


  1. Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Essay on the true Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. Berlin 1759, trans. by William J. Mitchell, pp. 36-37.
  2. Russell, Raymond. The Harpsichord, and Clavichord. London: Faber & Faber, 1959, p. 46.
  3. Aldrich, Putnam. "The 'Authentic' Performance of Baroque Music." In Essays in Honor of Archibald Davison. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Dept. of Music, 1957. p. 169.
  4. Ibid, p. 170.
  5. Ibid, p. 171.
  6. Carrell, Norman. Bach the Borrower. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967.