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J.S. Bach collection suggests composer approved of modern piano's many possibilities

By John Terauds on September 28, 2012

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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