University of California - San Diego - Regents' Lecture No. 2 (1966) - Part 1 of 3

LECTURE II - February 3, 1966

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

[Part 2 | Part 3]

... in exploring the music of Bach with you — in the opening up the whole concept which led to the very structures that Bach himself used and worked in, and the capabilities of instruments, and the styles of performance. How that's all very ambitious and — however I try to keep this non-technical and at the same time I shall continue to talk about very technical subjects. And if you find that there are things that seem to be difficult to understand, we shall always have a session towards the end so that you can ask questions. Perhaps you would like to have an idea of the works I plan to cover in these weeks. I will go through more of the Preludes and Fugues with you for various reasons of illustrating structures and above all the concept of fugue because if you do not have a clear idea of the basic concept of fugue, you can't begin to make any real inroad into the understanding of Bach, let alone the performance of Bach. Today I am going to cover the partita form and I'll play for you the C minor Partita, the second one. This is well known; it is quite clear. I am sure most of you know it, have heard it many times but we shall study its structure and see what makes it tick. Then I shall probably go through the Goldberg Variations with you if you like, and I should like very much to cover all the Inventions — that is, mostly the two-art Inventions; and the St. Matthew Passion as representative of a very different side of Bach because the choral aspect must be considered and glimpsed a bit; possibly part of the Art of Fugue. If there are any forms which interest you particularly, that you would like me to talk about, perhaps you could let me know.

Now as we go through these main streams of listening to the music, finding out a little bit how that music is constructed and what this means in terms of performance, we will pass by probably, I hope, the entire spectrum of all the problems involved in Bach. We can only touch, we can only pass as we did to some extent last week — that is the problem of ornamentation about which I talked some last week. Today I will talk a little bit more of the problem of instruments which is probably the most popular problem connected with Bach. This is the one that audiences are most concerned about or that they hear most about is whether Bach should be played on the harpsichord or the piano. This is the simplest presentation of the problem which one hears about mostly. But behind that is a little wider aspect of it which really means shall Bach be played on the instruments of his time or on the instruments of our time. And that implies a much deeper concept of whether one is concerned with this instrument or that instrument. It becomes the approach to the whole idea of recreating anything in music; then it becomes based on quite different foundations of thought. And so I will start with the simplest first, and then we may work down to the wider and deeper bases.

The first is: Shall Bach be played on the piano or the harpsichord. Now let us consider again the most simple and the most factual aspect of this question, which is, first of all, the sound of the two instruments — that is the immediate sound. The sound of these instruments is determined by its action. Now in the piano we have what is called hammer-action. And when you strike a key you have a hammer attached to the other end and that comes up and hits the string — hits the string, mind you. Now it depends how prejudiced or unprejudiced you are about the piano how much you emphasize that word hits. Now on the harpsichord, when you press the key, instead of a hammer coming up to hit the string, you have what we call a jack which comes up and plucks the string. Now that is what makes all the difference. Now this jack can be made of different materials. In most of the earlier harpsichords, that is from about the 15th century into the beginning of the 17th century, and through the 17th century as well actually, you had [?] which were used for jacks; you also had leather and these were the two main materials. And in Bach's time, one, perhaps, more often found quills, but there was no rigid rule about it.

And this is what is the trouble with the whole problem about instruments and about Bach and about ornamentation and about dynamics and orchestras and viola and violins, etc. There were no specific rigid rules. If there could be one description, one statement about the attitude towards the music and the actual performance of the music in the 17th and 18th centuries, and earlier as well actually, it could be this: it was complete flexibility. There was not this specific attachment to a sound, to an action. Composers did not write for a specific sonority; they did not write for the possibilities of only this instrument as opposed to that instrument. And the performers who were mostly composers as well, because there was not the fine line drawn nor the wide gap by now between the performer and composer — they were usually both and much of the time equally distinguished as both performer and composer.

The approach to the instrument itself — which instrument one played — was much more flexible for lots of reasons. First of all let us start with the term, the word "clavier". Now that's a generic term and that means "keyboard"; that means any keyboard instrument. It was applied to the harpsichord, to the clavichord and to the organ. Now those are the three basic types of keyboard instruments, but in between there are many, many different kinds. Now when you hear this talk about whether Bach should be played on the harpsichord or the piano, one always hears the harpsichord and the piano. Now this is absolutely not only incorrect, but it is absolutely inaccurate. There is hardly such a thing as the harpsichord or the piano unless one wants to reduce it to this very fundamental base of the action, and it is not really used in quite those terms. Regarding the harpsichord, there were all kinds of harpsichords. There were one-manual harpsichords, there were two-manual harpsichords, there were three-manual harpsichords; and there were harpsichords with hand stops, with knee stops, with foot stops. There were harpsichord without any stops, and there were harpsichords with any degree of one to quite a number of stops. Now when I say stops, if you don't understand what I mean in relation to the harpsichord, think of organ because this is where the terminology originated and to some extent, the idea. Registration is another term that is connected with the harpsichord but comes really from the organ.

Now you are all familiar with the organ with its hand stops and with its pedal manual. "Manual" is a somewhat technical term meaning keyboard; so there are hand manuals and foot manuals. On the organ we have a pedal manual and on the earlier organs — well the organs — lets limit them to the 17th and 18th centuries — again there you had organs with one manual only or one manual and pedal manual, or two or three with pedal. I have played all kinds in Germany. A couple years ago I made a research tour in East Germany and I visited every town in which Bach lived and worked, and I went to all sorts of tiny villages where there were organs in churches of 17th and 18th centuries which were still in very good condition and some of which had been very well repaired and one learned a great deal about the enormous compass and tremendous variety of instruments that existed at that time, such that there is no specific that one can grasp onto. It's a terribly — playing Bach is a terribly unsafe thing to do; and talking about Bach is a very unsafe thing to do; and working with Bach is terribly unsafe. There is no security in terms of saying this is right and that is wrong. The only way that you can get to any reasonable understanding is to understand these questions and problems in a much larger context, not only larger instrumentally but musically and even beyond music. I will go on and touch on what I mean by this statement as we go along.

So, there we have this great variety of instruments. If you play on a harpsichord with one manual, you do not have what is made so much of today in the argument for playing on a harpsichord and not a piano — you do not have any contrast; you do not have forte–piano; you do not have loud–soft. In other words you could not play the Italian Concerto on that harpsichord because — those of you who know the Italian Concerto in a general idea of it — it was composed with the idea of being a concerto for one instrument — a concerto without orchestra. The idea being that you had the orchestra opening, then the solo and then a play supposedly between orchestra and solo — and for this you had the contrast of big and small. And this is written very much into the music. But you cannot play the piece then on a one-manual harpsichord because that manual has only one quality of tone which cannot be altered and which — and most of the time you cannot modify it at all. If you are a superb harpsichord player — but you must be a superb one — then you can modify very slightly at times, but this is the extreme subtlety, little nuance here and there of sound. Don't expect if you study the harpsichord for two or three or even five years that you may be able to do this. You will read now and then that it can be done, and it can be done, but it is unusual and takes great skill.

Again the way the harpsichord is constructed is a mechanical way. It is a completely mechanical instrument. I do not mean this in any derogatory sense — just as if I say something may be "romantic". I don't mean that in a derogatory sense either. And if I say something is filled with emotion, I don't mean that in a derogatory either. The harpsichord is a mechanical instrument. Each manual is built in such a way that it produces a certain quantity of sound which is unchangeable, and a certain quality of sound which, as such, is unchangeable. Now if you have two manuals, the second manual will have a different quantity of tone and a different quality from the first. This is one of the basic aspects of the harpsichord. Now you have registrations or stops which, as I say, can be operated by the hand or the knee or the foot, depending a little on the vintage of the harpsichord. These stops also change the quality and quantity of the tone but they remain constant until you change to another stop or until you take off that stop. Now if I had a harpsichord here, of course, it would be ideal; but I think, no doubt you are all somewhat familiar with harpsichords. But very few people realize the enormous difference between harpsichords and the possibilities of harpsichords. Now remember that you cannot change the quantity or quality of tone once you have pulled a stop, unless you cancel out that stop by pushing it back or by changing to another stop. So it becomes the plan of sound that you work out for any piece that you play on a harpsichord is based on a mechanical system of sounds and you cannot change in between. Now this has certain advantages and certain disadvantages.

Now to return to the Italian Concerto — one often hears the statement that the Italian Concerto cannot be played on the piano. It is a one-manual instrument and you cannot make the changes that are expected in the piece. Well you certainly can't make them on a one-manual harpsichord. And a one-manual harpsichord was much more the rule in the 17th and 18th centuries than the two-manual harpsichord. Now we also have to consider geography. Bach was a German and he spent all his life in a quite confined area of Germany. He also, however, was tremendously interested in everything that was happening around him. There were some deep influences from Italy and England and France and North Germany and South Germany in his music. As a matter of fact [Carl Friedrich] Zelter, who was the teacher of Mendelssohn and who was the one who brought Mendelssohn's attention to Bach to begin with; Zelter should have had a little more acclaim than he has. Mendelssohn did a magnificent piece of work with Bach in bringing him to the public, but Zelter was the one who was truly responsible for all that. However he was already a 19th century thinker and he said about Bach — there was too much French influence in Bach, there was too much of Couperin in Bach; but fortunately this influence did not go very deep. There was a lot of it but it was all on the top and if we clear off this French influence like froth, we will find the true German shining below. With the result that he did a bit of this skimming off of the froth and I would consider him the first transcriber.

To him, therefore, must be attributed the beginning of the Evil — capital "E" — which then continues and grows through the 18th century and from which we today are suffering seriously. Because we have had such a reaction to the 19th century, we are still not over it. And we have so reacted against the romanticism of the 19th century, the individuality of the 19th century — some of which was really very good — that we have gone into this kind of clinical attitude towards music, towards a great deal of art, so that what we are aiming for is something very clean, very clear — which is fine. Every artist wants that. I mean, the better the artist, the more clear his work is — but it isn't all that sterilized.

Now one of the reasons, I think, that we in our time are interested in the sound of the harpsichord is that it is considered a clean and clear sound. The piano is considered plushy, with a hot tone, a romantic tone, etc. Now this is very out of date; it is terribly much behind the times because the piano has had a history too; the piano has gone through a long development. The piano is not the piano just as the harpsichord is not the harpsichord. Do any of you know what the piano of Mozart sounded like? Have any of you played on one of the early pianos? Do you know that it is closer to a clavichord than any other instrument? Do you know that the action was very, very light; it was like a feather — that the instrument was small and it was delicate and it was fragile and if you hit too hard, you would break it. Think of the music of Mozart! I have played on one of Mozart's own pianos and the action is so light and the tone, as this instrument is constructed, is so mellifluous that you hardly have to do anything about making legato.