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Monday, May 26. 2008
J.S. Bach likely never wrote any music specifically for the piano, which was a newfangled instrument at the time. He did compose for the clavichord, the harpsichord, and, of course, the organ, and people term these compositions generally as "for the keyboard" - thus permitting them to sneak in the piano. Here's a good rant on the subject. (If there are any musicologists out there, please correct me if I am in error.)
So when we heard Glenn Gould playing the Italian Concerto on the blog yesterday we were not hearing anything that Bach had in mind. The clavichord is incapable of making very much noise. For fun, here's the real sound of the Prelude in C Major of Bach's The Well-tempered Clavier, which means "The well-tuned clavichord":
Posted by The Barrister in The Culture, "Culture," Pop Culture and Recreation at 08:32 | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)
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While I can see his point, arguing that playing Bach on the piano is somehow 'unnatural' is somewhat akin to saying there should be different statistics for modern baseball players because they didn't have a 'lively ball' back in the 1890's. It's the essence and continuation of the sport that counts, not the specifics. Isn't the same true with music? My guess is that Bach might be highly impressed watching someone play his Sonata in D Minor on a Fender Stratocaster, complete with fuzz, echo and tremelo. Before I'd take the 'authenticist' stance, I'd want to see Bach's own words where he says, "I only want this to be played with a clarinet." It seems to me the author is writing this as a music appreciater, but not as a musician.
BTW, both of these articles raise a very good question, and it occurs to me that the answer lies in a movie many of us have seen. Back in a bit with the clip.
The clavichord is badly mic'd and picks up the action noises, which are actually minimal. Also needs some tuning.
This is a fairly good representation of the sound when competently played, tuned and mic'd.
I like it on early English music, Purcell and before.
It's marginal for Bach Mozart etc.
This what I really wanted in the house.
Forkel, Bach's first biographer, is the main source for the report that Bach's favorite keyboard instrument was the clavichord. Forkel's informants were Carl Philipp Emanuel together with Wilhelm Friedemann and others. Although C.P.E. was known as something of a clavichord specialist, and so had an interest in promoting the family clavichord story to enhance his own reputation, there is no reason to doubt that J.S. Bach favored the clavichord. It was, and remains, the best practice instrument for the organ, as well as for those who wish to develop a firm and even touch on any keyboard instrument.
However, as anyone can tell by poking around the YouTube links that have been put up on these posts, the clavichord does have its limitations. First and foremost, it is an instrument that always seems somewhat out of tune. The nature of the action, with the pressure of the tangent influencing the pitch of the note, makes a really clean intonation out of the question. In addition, the tone itself is, to one degree or another, false, with harmonics not terribly well in tune, the impulse of the tangent creating noise and phase distortion. I'm sorry, but the tone of the clavichord is, at best, somewhat dirty and very weak compared with the clean and brilliant sound of a good harpsichord.
What the clavichord lacks in tone quality and volume, it makes up for in expressiveness. Within its very intimate and limited ambit, there is a range of dynamics and colors possible on a good instrument that would rival a piano. This gives the sensitive player a fine range of possibilities, especially for polyphonic playing.
"Good instrument" is the operative phrase here, for, as you also can tell from the YouTube links, there is a tremendous variation in obvious quality among clavichords.
As a former harpsichord maker and piano technician, I can tell you that a 5-octave, mid-18th century Bundfrei clavichord, such as C.P.E. Bach might have played, is among the most difficult historical keyboards to copy. The correct thickness and shaping of the soundboard and details of the bridges not only influence the tone, as you might expect, but very directly, and weirdly, affect the action. Everything has to be just right, otherwise the damned thing spits at you and sounds like hell when you do manage to get a few notes out of it.
But a well-made instrument in sensitive hands is a wonderful thing, and you can have no doubt why Bach and many other Germans would have valued it for much of their keyboard music. The French never liked it, being interested in brilliant and pretty things, and never having had much taste for polyphony or "learned" music.
It also should be said that Bach did value the harpsichord, because much of his music is clearly intended for the larger instrument. The French and English Suites, the Goldberg Variations, the Italian Concerto, etc., are all harpsichord music. But for that, the Germans, Bach included, never had much real love for the Cembalo, their most valued keyboard instrument having been first and foremost the organ, with the clavichord in train. From what we know, Bach's own taste in harpsichords, as documented by his vetting an instrument, ran to the dull and bland, compared to the lovely, colorful, Flemish-inspired French instruments of the period.
The Germans were not bothered by the harpsichord's demise, and were among the earliest proponents of the new piano. When Bach made his famous visit to Fredrick the Great in 1748, the only instrument Fredrick was enthused about, and on which Bach played his astonishing improvised fugue on the tricky little theme Fredrick had lying in wait for him, was the piano. Fredrick had, I believe, something like 18 of them lurking around Sans Souci, and Bach had to try every one.
It should also be said that Das Wohltemperirte Clavier means "Well-Tempered Keyboard," and specifically NOT "Well-Tempered Clavichord." Clavier or Klavier simply means "keyboard" in German. Bach's intention was obviously to make this music as instrument-neutral as possible, although there are a number of preludes that are in specific harpsichord styles. It doesn't hurt to play them on the clavichord, just as it doesn't hurt to play some of the more muddy fugues on the harpsichord. This was music intended to have the widest possible influence and audience. And I am certain that Bach wouldn't have minded too much that people play these preludes and fugues on the modern piano, although I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have liked the tone or action of such an instrument, not to mention the insipid equal temperament.
As most students of music now agree, "Well-Tempered" did not mean "Equal-Tempered." There is a good brief discussion in Wikipedia at the end of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" article about this. Bach's use of all major and minor keys was a continuation of the development of so-called "good" temperaments begun in the mid-17th century, with roots in the 16th. The various keys had different tone colors and symbolic meanings that related to the signs of the Zodiac, months of the year, Apostles, humors of the body, colors, elements, etc. And aside from these traditional Western cosmological connections, keyboard tunings were also practically related to the intrinsic tunings of wind instruments of the period. There was a well worked-out theory of "Affects," relating musical figures and keys, among other things, to classical rhetorical theory. All this was part of Bach's mental landscape, and the modern student of this music ignores it to his or her loss, and to the loss of this music if he or she happens to perform it.
But any of the 48 Preludes and Fugues intelligently played on a good clavichord, or on any decent instrument, will remind us of how little has been lost, how little ever really can be lost of this music, and the transcendent power it has to represent the best of the human spirit despite the suffering, revolution, war and horror of the 264 years since it was given to the world by one of the greatest geniuses it has pleased God ever to place on this Earth.
I don't know if it can be found any longer, but Thurston Dart, on some L'oiseau Lyre LP, had Froberger's Allemande Fit for the Manichord, which must be the most spectacularly beautiful exhibition of the clavichord art ever recorded.
I lost the recording to a girlfriend breakup long ago.