Composer Andrew Ager attached this comment to one of my posts on Glenn Gould, but I think it deserves its own place in the ongoing and never-to-be-resolved discussion on how the music of J.S. Bach should be interpreted on the piano.

If Bach really said this, then it frees many of us from the tyranny of dryness in the performance of the composer’s keyboard music. It suggests the triumph of good taste, the prime interpretive goal of any Baroque or Classical-era performer, according to the ethos of the day.

(UPDATE) I had a moment to go check the reference and see that this particular volume of the Bach Forschung (Research) is a collection of notes, letters and other documents that belonged to Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, J.S. Bach’s ninth son (1732-1795). As Ager points out in the comments below, this is a recollection by J.C.F. Bach.

Bach’s knowledge of the ancestor to today’s pianoforte is a fact. He played one in King Frederick the Great’s music room in Potsdam, on the same visit in 1747 when the monarch challenged him to create what became A Musical Offering.

Ager writes:

“There is a little-known addendum to Bach’s apparent lack of interest in the early pianos of his time, which comes from the Bach Forschung, Band IX (Berlin, 1974), in which one reads: ‘With his usual mixture of visionary foresight and practicality, Bach made it clear that he understood that the development of the piano was inevitable, and that it would give rise to an entirely new school of keyboard playing.

“He is quoted as saying. ‘I fear that my works for keyboard will be performed in ages yet untold by pianists, if that is what they will be called, in a dry and artificial manner resulting from attempts to
sound like a harpsichord. This is absolute nonsense and contrary to logic.’

“Bach continues: ‘The time I spent at the piano was nonetheless delightful, mainly on account of the novel device known as the damper pedal, which facilitates a truly beautiful sonority whilst in fact aiding clarity of counterpoint.

‘In short, to play my works without pedal, is mere sterile pedantry – let this be known clearly. It also allowed the free addition of bass octaves and a tasteful legato. Another facet of this new instrument is that it dispenses with many of the questionable ornaments which serve merely to accentuate the relatively feeble sustaining power of the harpsichord.

‘I would say the future performers of my works upon the piano should consider themselves free to repeat notes at pedal-points as desired and to omit ornaments which are only suited to the harpsichord — all this according to good taste, of course.

‘It is one of the few regrets of my later years that I will not live to see the full development of this superior and magnificent instrument, which is to the harpsichord as the printing-press is to the quill.’

“This is a historical reference that should be posted in all piano studios.”

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6 Responses to J.S. Bach collection suggests composer approved of modern piano’s many possibilities

  1. Lukas Foss insisted in performing his Bach performances on the piano. He was an outstanding Bach interpreter which many people didn’t know until an orchestra scheduled to perform one of his works was not up to the task and he performed on the piano to complete the program. It was so astounding I was able to immediately booked a tour of recitals. Ann

  2. Paul says:

    Um, are you quite sure this quotation from Bach is genuine? Not that I disagree with it — far from it! It’s just that I find it implausible that Bach actually said it.

  3. thomas p says:

    The language, even as a translation, seems highly dubious. I would like to see the original source. I think Mr. Ager is up to mischief.

  4. Andrew Ager says:

    Indeed – I was able to read the source while in Berlin in the summer of 2011. I was waiting until evening when I was to have drinks with the Canadian tenor Joseph Schnurr, who has lived there for a number of years, and passed the time in the Stadtsbibliotek, where these collections are freely available. The passage in question struck me, because it is clearly a transcribed recollection of a conversation between JS and JCF Bach. The English translation is taken from collected essays and notes by the American Howard Metekin, who was a student at the Humboldt University in the early 1990′s.

  5. Song says:

    Thank you for the very interesting quote, Mr. Ager. I too find it implausible, though I agree totally with what this quote says about pedaling and ornamentation. I actually went to the library and got a copy of the Bach-Forschung 9, edited by Herausgegeben von Ulrich Leisinger (Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach: Briefe und Dokumente, Leipzig und Hildesheim: Bach-Archiv Leipzig und Georg Olms Verlag AG, 2011). This edited collection of the documents only came out two years ago. However, with my very limited German, I won’t be able to get much out of it, and even with the help of an Index at the back, I wasn’t able to locate the quote translated by Howard Metekin that you posted here. I wonder if you’d be able to give me further details about its document number (the documents are arranged in 5 categories from I to V) to help me find the quote. I’ll post the original German here for those who find the translation somewhat dubious and would like to see further about Bach’s reaction to the use of modern piano. Thanks so much.