Bach in the Twentieth Century

By Rosalyn Tureck

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

The controversy about whether Bach's music should be performed on baroque or modern instruments has carried with it the assumption that one school of thought rules out the other. Several years ago at a press conference in Edinburgh a journalist asked me: "Wouldn't you like to take an axe to the harpsichord?" This attitude is nonsense in my opinion. On the other hand, I have in public played Bach on the piano almost exclusively, and in view of the long-standing expectancy that a Bach pianist would inevitably rule out the earlier instruments, this questioner may not be entirely condemned for his naivety. The fact is that I have played the harpsichord and clavichord since I was sixteen, and have never entered the partisan groups which keep the fires of controversy alive, and which attempt to place me in a specific, enclosed category.

That I was not a pianist who had come to Bach via the 19th century was obvious to the informed public, and my discovery and development of a new pianistic style has been recognized as emanating from knowledge of Bach's music and period, not from the romantic or virtuoso pianistic styles. But the sheer appearance of a piano on the stage for a Bach program still provokes extreme anxiety in some quarters, and sometimes extreme antipathy—just as the appearance of a harpsichord evokes a state of reverence and a sense of assurance that an authentic performance is bound to follow. The latter reaction is as untrue as the former is unnecessary.

In the last two years I have been performing publicly on harpsichord and clavichord. The inevitable question has already been put: "Does this mean you are coming over to our side?" For me, this "either-or" attitude has always been deplorable. All evidence shows that Bach's attitude towards instruments was inclusive rather than exclusive, and this evidence forms one of the historical and musical bases of validity from which I work.

Bach's music is fundamentally abstract: not abstract in the theoretical sense, but in that its existence and endurance is based on its fundamental musical terms, rather than that of a confined period or instrumental style—as for instance Couperin's is, or Chopin's. Therefore Bach's music can be performed on all instruments worthy of this honour, provided the scholarship and artistry brought to performance are equal to the high level of his art. Although I have developed a style of playing Bach on the piano, my performance on harpsichord and clavichord as well as piano emphasizes the all-embracing view of Bach as music which reaches beyond the confinement of a particular instrument or period.

In the field of Bach performance today, and in the future, the chasm between baroque practices and contemporary musical communication must be bridged. The need is for less division, more breadth of view. I see the champions of baroque instruments narrowing and deflecting the conception of the true baroque period more and more; instead of performing on an increasing number of period instruments under more finely considered baroque conditions of performance, which would widen and deepen the understanding and empathy of the public with Bach's period, they are compromising his period with the inevitable requirements of current concert conditions, and claiming an authenticity which is not present.

Most harpsichords are made today with modern material; most harpsichord makers strive for a big tone which will fill the large modern concert hall and satisfy 20th-century ears. Latterly the addition of a microphone does not appear to worry those who use it, despite the fact that electrical amplification changes the effect and quality of the instrument. The modern harpsichord-plus-amplification produces, on the whole, a tonal sonority and atmosphere which are not those that Bach heard. Yet, if these instruments are to be brought into the concert field, it is inevitable that modern harpsichords and microphones be used; it cannot, however, be claimed that the sound is authentic or representative of Bach's intentions. If these claims are to be made, there is only one way: manufacture or restore as well as possible the types of instruments which Bach played and heard within his confined geographical travels, perform in the style of his time upon them, and present concerts in the proper size rooms under the acoustical conditions of his time.

The only admissible claim for modern concert-hall performances on modern harpsichords played by contemporary performers is: this is a 20th-century effort to approximate a particular baroque sonority under modern conditions of manufacture, concert hall requirements and 20th-century scholastic and artistic orientation. A true claim and, with the effort that sometimes attends these performances, an honorable one.

The clavichord is almost never employed and seldom mentioned, with the result that the larger part of audiences throughout the world who are interested in Bach and attend harpsichord performances have never heard a clavichord. Bach's keyboard music takes on a single-tone conception by the harpsichord champions, and this conception is not authentic Bach. It is not possible to turn away from the evidence of his own scores which employ the same movements or works for different solo instruments over and over again. The historical facts are that the clavichord had an equal, and in Germany a greater place in the performance of most of Bach's clavier music that the harpsichord; and that Bach's employment of keyboard as well as other instruments was much more flexible than that of 19th- and 20th-century composers. To place Bach's clavier conception mainly in the realm of harpsichord sound, whether in the authentic 18th-century or the modern 20th-century harpsichord sonority, is to limit his enormously broad vision to a single track. And since Bach's own creative flexibility was at the opposite pole to the process of narrowing down to a specialized prescribed sonority, this is a step away from Bach's own conceptions and practices, rather than a fulfilment of them.

The need today is for amalgamation of ideas rather than separation, for inclusiveness which leads to breadth of vision, rather than exclusion which places restraint upon Bach's creative vision. The piano, harpsichord and clavichord have always lived together in my mind without clash. Fundamentally they need not conflict, because of their individually distinctive characteristics. The difference between clavichord and harpsichord is actually greater than the difference between piano and harpsichord, or piano and clavichord. Yet the earlier instruments lived together happily for centuries among musicians of varying styles.

The attitude of immutability nourished by harpsichord champions affects the attitude towards the interpretation of Bach's music, and this is one of the most important factors in its narrowing influence. The harpsichord has serious limitations about which 18th-century musicians did not hesitate to complain. Why should we, then, consider the harpsichord as so ideally fulfilling the sounds envisaged by the 18th-century composer? Would a 20th-century harpsichordist say of his instrument as did Couperin, the greatest harpsichord composer of his time as well as a great performer, in his treatise L'art de toucher le clavecin:

As the sounds of the harpsichord are isolated one from the other and as the power of each sound cannot be increased or diminished, it has hitherto appeared almost inconceivable that a player can play with expression upon the instrument (donne de l'ame a cet instrument—literally 'give soul to this instrument').

We in turn do not hesitate to complain about the piano. No doubt several centuries hence, when inevitably instruments will be different from those we know now, the aura of reverence will shine upon the piano as it does upon the harpsichord today, two centuries removed from Bach.

The clavichord on the other hand, so beloved in Germany, had the singing expressive attributes which the harpsichord lacked. Even more important, the same works played on these two fundamentally different instruments can often inspire different moods and influence differences of tempo, phrasing, dynamics, and ornamentation. On the harpsichord the inner phrasing of a line cannot be produced through the play with tone on one or more notes so natural to the clavichord, on which the player thus binds the line, instead of dividing it as is often necessary on the harpsichord for the same structural and musical effect. On the piano the possibilities of tonal accent and binding a line in legato are much closer to the ways of the clavichord than of the harpsichord.

Tempo is also affected. Couperin recommends that lyrical and tender pieces be taken somewhat faster on the harpsichord than on other instruments. Because of the nature of the instruments, the same type of works may be played a good deal more slowly on the clavichord; on the piano, a tempo somewhere between the two may suggest itself. Similar considerations apply to lively movements. For the C-sharp major Prelude and Fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier the clavichord could not possibly bear as fast a tempo as is possible on the harpsichord. The piano can bear the harpsichord tempo, and the touch may be varied from legato to any degree of staccato. The dynamic level may range from p to f as on the harpsichord, according to the individual's choice of character, for the Prelude and Fugue may be played delicately or brilliantly. The clavichord would not allow expansion of dynamics or brilliance. Thus the concepts of interpretation and the possibilities of performance vary among the instruments of Bach's time as well as of ours.

That piano tone is objected to on grounds of its being woolly is less the fault of the piano than of the pianist; transparency can be achieved on the piano through touch. But critics of our time forget how transparent the tone of the piano was from Mozart's time right down to Chopin's. Only after Chopin did it take on its purple hues demanded by the styles of later composers. In its present stage of development, emphasis on the tonal clarity of the piano is again returning, and heaviness of sonority, at its height in the years between the wars, is not to be found in pianos manufactured during the last ten years. A pianist who knows the possibilities of his instrument and the delights of touch can produce a transparent quality more naturally on our mid-century piano than on the type manufactured before 1940. Actually the reverse of hot woolly tone is more often the case; complaints against the cold tone of today's pianists is frequent. This coldness is due to forcing the contemporary piano's tone beyond its natural clarity or brilliance. Tone cannot be pushed or forced to any desired quality or quantity on any instrument. Its nature must first be understood, and when it is, it yields to proper touch. If it is forced, an alien or opposite quality such as hardness or coldness usually appears.

For Bach performance, piano playing need not be academically imitative of harpsichord or clavichord. Ideally, the performer incorporates the qualities and styles of sonority of the earlier instruments in his musical approach. These form a complex and rich frame of sonority which is unconsciously absorbed, yet ever-present in the imagination and which can be translated through almost endless possibilities of variety of touch on the piano.

C. P. E. Bach embraced all the keyboard instruments. In the introduction to the second part of his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, his opening statement, point 1, is: the organ, harpsichord, pianoforte and clavichord are the keyboard instruments most commonly used for accompaniment. Point 2 refers to the bowed clavier, which he admired and hoped would be added to the current list of accompanying instruments. Point 3 refers to the indispensability of the organ in church music; point 4, to the effectiveness of a harpsichord for recitatives and arias, particularly those in which a simple accompaniment permits free variation on the part of the singer; point 5, it is also used for arias and recitatives in chamber and theatrical music. These quotations are employed today to justify the use of the harpsichord although the specification about 'simple accompaniment' is not emphasized. Point 6 receives little attention; 'the pianoforte and clavichord provide the best accompaniments in performances that require the most elegant taste. Some singers, however, prefer the support of the clavichord or harpsichord'.

This musician, with one foot in his father's past and the other in the more modern future, is catholic in his taste, education and musical demands. We today would benefit by emulating the wider vision of the Bachs.