Bach Performance in the Concert Hall

by Rosalyn Tureck

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

Bach performance has a complicated history. Two hundred and seven years have passed since Bach's death during which time the changes which have taken place in every era of thought have been so fundamental and varied that the performer and music-lover may well be bewildered by contradictory opinions existing today. These contradictions have naturally been brought about by the problems arising out of change, for instance, the performing artist is confronted with difficulties in performing style which have been inherited from the 19th century. Actually, we are now far enough away from the romanticism of that century and well enough advanced into the 20th century to have left both romanticism and violent reaction to it behind us. But old ideas die hard, and it takes time for the ideas of a creative solution to spread. The outstanding difficulties of Bach performance are due to the evolution of intellectual and aesthetic concepts, musical forms and structures, as well as instruments, all of which were undergoing radical changes by the middle of the 18th century. Although musical factors are always the main consideration, the establishment of music making in a concert hall has played a part in the development of Bach performance as a whole. And, as we all know, the attitudes towards Bach playing have varied greatly through the years.

Concert life as we know it today began a little over two-hundred years ago. It is a phenomenon of our Western modern world. Concert life is an activity of the secular and republican world which has produced an atmosphere very different from that of the court or the church. The very difference in surroundings and atmosphere, as well as the size and height of the concert halls, nourished the development of instruments and new instrumental combinations culminating with the large, multi-coloured orchestra and opera, which employed the resources of soloist, chorus and full orchestra. For the concert soloist, the important development lay in the enlargement of tone and technical possibilities. How did this evolution affect the style of performing Bach? To begin at the beginning, Mendelssohn's performance of the St. Matthew Passion must head the list of any review on the performance of Bach. It may well be considered the most important performance in our history. Taking place on March 11th, 1829, it was the first public performance of a major work by Bach since his death seventy-nine years before. Its success brought Bach out from the tiny academic circle which knew and respected him to the public world which had not known him at all. But, much as we are indebted to Mendelssohn for that performance, it was of a style that we might call today, a "primitive". Since it was the first attempt to present a kind of music about which the entire tradition had been lost, to an audience who knew little or nothing about Bach, practical considerations came first and the work was greatly cut. According to Schweitzer - "The majority of the Arias ware omitted; of others, only the orchestral introductions were given; in the part of the Evangelist everything was left out that did not relate to the Passion. The Recitative 'And the veil of the temple was rent' had been orchestrated by Mendelssohn".

Publication of Bach's works began slowly in the early 19th century, but the performance of his music was virtually at a standstill, even in the church. During this time, a few articles and the Forkel biography appeared but Bach's music, when played or discussed at all, reached a very small circle of artists and theoreticians. Mendelssohn's initiative was later supported by Schumann who was to play a major part in the formation of the Bach Gesellschaft which gave the world the great Bach edition and of which Brahms said "The two greatest events of the 19th century has been the founding of the German republic and the Bach Society". After disentangling many directions and knots in the turbulent 19th and 20th centuries, I believe that a really clear line in the history of Bach interpretation can be traced. The following is an outline of the pattern which the history of Bach performance has taken. Obviously it cannot be presented in its fullest treatment here.

[Carl Friedrich] Zelter forms the base of the tree. He introduced Goethe, who was his friend, and Mendelssohn who was his student, to Bach's music. He was the first 19th century figure to give impetus to the public appreciation of Bach by way of a great musician - that is, Mendelssohn. Zelter thought however that Bach was too French in style, claiming that Couperin's influence corrupted Bach. But he felt it was of no great import because one could manage to skim off this influence by removing certain passages etc., and thus find the pure Bach shining underneath! He explained these thoughts written in a letter to Goethe on April 8th, 1827. Zelter was the first really influential figure to make changes in Bach's music without qualms and as he saw fit. He changed it according to his taste and his time. Beethoven is the next influence of fundamental importance for behind Czerny, he stands. A painstaking teacher and composer of vast collections of finger exercises and salon pieces, Czerny was a sincere and conscientious musician. He was also the most outstanding musician representing performance style and goals in the second quarter of the 19th century. In his famous edition of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" he lists the sources which contributed to his editing, one of which is as follows: "We have indicated the time and style by profiting from a vivid recollection of the manner in which we have heard many of the fugues played by the great Beethoven", The lapse of time between Czerny's actual study with Beethoven, in 1803, was about twenty-seven years - the publication of the edition came in 1830. Czerny taught Beethoven's nephew from 1816 to 1818. Although Czerny did not have the great mould of mind that Beethoven did, and many years had elapsed before he compiled his edition, yet, a teacher so worshipped as Beethoven was by Czerny must have left an indelible impression. Beethoven's own music is the clearest indication that the styles were vastly different - Beethoven is universally recognised as the great romantic. There is no reason for us to expect that Beethoven would have played Bach otherwise than romantically.

In 1850 the Bach Gesellschaft was formed in order to gather together the manuscripts which had became scattered all over Europe and to publish a definitive edition based on original manuscripts. This effort was one of the first, and certainly the most important first project in the now century-old branch of musicological scholarship in Bach. The enlargement of knowledge about Bach's music, his musical sources, instruments etc. led to a curious phenomenon. The discovery that doubling was a usual practice in Bach's time both on the organ and on the various keyboard-pedal instruments, led to freedom in adding doublings all over Bach's music. Alas for Bach! For doubling in pianistic language is octaves and the 19th century conception and performance of octaves is Lisztian.

The late 19th century had great faith in itself and in progress. Busoni, in his edition of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" says that Bach's means were inadequate and the time had come to bring Bach's music to its "full perfection". Inevitably a luxuriant development in transcriptions grew from this point of view, first mainly for the piano and later into our time, for orchestra. Despite the fact that interest in Bach was developing and would have grown without its help, the transcription made Bach a popular item on concert programmes. For in transcriptions by men of this era, von Bülow, Tausig, Liszt, Busoni, all the instrumental and dynamic devices which were familiar were used. Great octave passages, whole sections of filled in chords spread in wide register, extreme dynamic changes, great ritards and heroic endings - all of these were devices of romantic-virtuoso music but they were used as a literal transfer of doublings and out of a desire for completing Bach. The same romantic-virtuoso style was taken over by other instrumentalists and finally by the orchestra. Playing a Bach transcription on the piano brought much virtuosic success because the octaves were just as showy as in Liszt, besides being enhanced by the additional aura of elevation and religious feeling that Bach's name has always been associated with. Altogether this attitude is artificial and ignorant but it worked in the concert hall when the emphasis was on the performer. Following in the footsteps of the piano transcriptions, Stokowski made out a case for the orchestra. He had begun his musical life as an organist and in his day the Baroque organ received comparatively little attention. Stokowski transferred to the orchestra the registrations of the large 19th century organ in conjunction with the transcribers' devices of filling in and doubling. Naturally this was all as effective in the concert hall as Wagner was and it took no mental effort on the part of the audience because it was a familiar style. Besides, if people like this sort of thing they are equally happy in listening to this style whether it occurs in Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Wagner etc. Transcriptions per se have their place and are legitimate in every sense of the word. Bach was one of the great transcribers of his own and other people's music. But the transcriptions of the late 19th century style are hardly transcriptions. It would be more fitting to classify them as works of the transcribers, based on the works of Bach.

During the 19th century, another element was at work - the puristic. It expressed itself in an attitude which regarded Bach as finger and mental exercises. It was as strong a direction as that of the transcribers but it made so little effect in the concert hall that one could only practice this asceticism in private. However, one offshoot of the puristic attitude is the belief that the duller the performance, the purer it is. Sweep yourself clean of all ideas, all feeling, all reactions, and you have "unadulterated" Bach. However, a hygienic attitude does not work in art - it simply cannot live in sterilised conditions. Just as Zelter could never succeed, as he fondly thought, in skimming off the froth of Couperin's French influence in Bach, so the later puristic attitude also presents no solution. The 20th century reacted violently against what it considered license on the part of the romantic transcribers and virtuoso performers. Following the trend towards accuracy which pervaded every field, the purists of the 20th century based their ideas on playing the score exactly as it appeared. However, we have come to know that there is hardly a work of Bach for which we have the one final, authentic manuscript. There may be anywhere from two to a dozen or more manuscripts in different handwritings of the same work. In Bach's own hand, there may be several manuscripts of the same work and differences in each copy. Therefore, those who are fully informed in such matters realise their significance and do not speak of a score as though there were only one right choice. If one is not sure about the manuscript(s) on which it is based, following a printed score can be sheer folly. Knowledge of ornamentation alone reveals that music notation was not written with note-for-note precision. Ornaments were meant to be added by the performer, values were sometimes meant to be changed, and above all, the fact that no phrasing and dynamic marks were indicated does not mean that the performers of Bach's time played without phrasing or dynamic changes. Following a score precisely as it appears, and adding nothing to it, aside from all other considerations, is by no means therefore the most correct or accurate way of reading a Bach score. The truth is that the demands upon the artist in simply reading (not to mention eventual performance) a work of Bach's is exceedingly great. For this reason, more first class editing of his music is needed since very, very few performers know how to read Bach manuscripts. Very great mistakes have been made by those who have followed scores, even reputable scores, to the letter. To follow a score carefully is an honourable beginning, but it is by no means a guarantee nor a solution to a fine Bach style.

As a direct result of musicological study, the solution to Bach performance appeared very hopefully to be performance on early instruments. Although there is much to be said for it for purposes of study, this has proved to be impractical for the concert performance. Violinists have not taken up early instruments or styles. The few who used the curved bow have not abandoned the 19th century techniques of violin playing which are based on the musical and technical demands of Paganini and Bruch. They have not learned the whole way of violin playing of the 18th century and the use of a curved bow is not enough to justify a claim of authenticity. The keyboard players have worked harder over the renaissance of early instruments. The harpsichord has come very much to the fore and the claim is made by some musicians and musicologists that Bach's keyboard music should be played on the harpsichord only. But what has happened to the clavichord? It rarely appears in a concert hall. Yet the clavichord was more than equal to the harpsichord in importance and usage during the 17th and 18th centuries. Germany developed a cosmopolitan life much more slowly than France, England and Italy with the result that most music was made either in the home or the church. In Bach's country and time, the most used and best loved instruments were the clavichord and organ. The harpsichord was much more to the taste of the French. The great writer for harpsichord in the 18th century was Couperin, not Bach. Couperin was to the harpsichord what Chopin was to the piano. Bach, however, wrote for all instruments, transcribed his own and other's works to instruments of fundamentally different character, such as his sonata in A minor for solo violin transcribed for clavier in D minor. We all know that there are many dozens of such examples. Clavier is a generic term meaning keyboard and Bach was the least likely musician to tie himself down to one instrument. The clavichord has been neglected in favour of the harpsichord because it is hopelessly impractical in our time. It cannot be heard at all in any room seating more than fifty or a hundred people. The harpsichord can be heard fairly well in a room seating about three hundred. In a modern concert ball, however, all its beauty of tone and subtle differences of quality are lost and one hears mostly the click and noise of the action. This is not harpsichord tone and it is a great pity that many people think it is. In view of the fact that most people hear a harpsichord only in a concert ball, it can never be said that they really know what a harpsichord sounds like. The string orchestra of today, whether or not it may used curved bows, still plays with modern violin technique and its attendant vibrato and bowing style. Setting a harpsichord in the midst of such a group produces a result of utter anachronism. The appearance on the stage of the harpsichord and the performance on it with a modern orchestra cannot support a claim of authenticity. Under these circumstances the harpsichord is heard, if at all, as a sharply clicking sound against over brilliant string sound - this is by no means good enough for the great music of Bach. If one is satisfied with this sound, then one makes very meagre demands of the harpsichord as well as of the music.

17th and 18th century instruments are very beautiful. The study of these instruments should be obligatory for all music students, and music lovers will want to know them and understand them to some degree. But the instruments should not be subjected to distorting surroundings and circumstances. The clavichord is in the shade because it is hopelessly useless for concerts. The harpsichord has been pushed forward because it is much more useful. Its usefulness is limited, however, and usefulness does not justify stretching to distortion. The problem of Bach in the concert hall is not solved with the use of the harpsichord.

An instrument is not the key to a composer's music, as many people would like to believe. Art is more difficult than that. A composer can only be reached in a much deeper way, through the inside of his music. This means through all the structural elements of his music, not by way of instruments which is an external approach. With Bach in particular, whose music is so abstract and so independent of colouristic sonorities, the emphasis on specific instrumental colour is one which the 20th century has placed upon him. It is not Bach. The 20th century musician and listener, having followed the great colouristic developments of the last hundred and fifty years, is deeply influenced by colour and instrumental sounds. Bach was not. Until we realise this we cannot begin to make the necessary connection which ultimately requires reaching into the inner ideas and meanings of Bach and at the same time communicating them with spontaneity and significance to the modern musician and general audience. The structure and feeling of Bach must remain clear, communicated through instruments which do not form a barrier to spontaneous communication because of their remoteness or distortion.

Therefore the solution to Bach performance in the concert hall lies in using present day instruments which fit our halls and way of making music. But these instruments must be played with techniques which grow out of the structure of the music rather than from vague instrumental associations which may be "harpsichord-music", "violinistic" etc. Legitimate colour and sonorities will suggest themselves when the structures of the music are understood. They can be successfully fulfilled with a modern instrument provided one takes the trouble to play an instrument with a technique, tone and style which grows from the true structure of the music itself, rather than a preconceived idea of the music or the instrument. This is a difficult task and it calls for new performing techniques and styles. But this is the realm of the performer and his constant work. He cannot escape new techniques and styles. It forms also, an aesthetic and philosophical attitude towards music which is an inescapable conclusion far beyond local problems of instruments. A wider and deeper understanding of Bach's music is needed more than a microscopic instrumental view. Having developed a technique of playing the piano which has grown out of Bach's music, and a musical conception which has arisen from the same source, I know that it is possible. A performing musician need no longer remain in "No Man's Land" with Bach.