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Performing Bach's Keyboard Music: Dynamics A Postscript

Author(s): George A. Kochevitsky

Source: Bach, Vol. 7, No. 1 (JANUARY, 1976), pp. 3-11
Published by: Riemenschneider Bach Institute
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41639973
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Performing Bach's Keyboard Music
A Postscript
By George A. Kochevitsky
New York City


The performer of Bach's music should keep in mind the fact that in
the Baroque period it was the structure of the composition that determined
the dynamic levels; dynamics in Bach's pieces were conditioned structurally,
so to speak, rather than emotionally.

Bach almost never indicated his desires concerning dynamic shadings

in the interpretation of his keyboard music. For instance, in all 96 pieces
of his W ell-T empered Clavier (the 24 preludes and the 24 fugues of each
of the two books), we find only one indication of an "echo" (i.e., forte-
piano) effect. This occurs in measures of the Prelude in G-sharp Minor
of Book II. Of the three volumes of clavier music which Bach published
during his lifetime (the Partitas of Ciavierbung Z, the Italian Concerto
and the French Overture of Ciavierbung II and the Goldberg Variations
of Ciavierbung IV), only the Italian Concerto and the French Overture
contain any forte or piano indications;1 and most of these indications are
not really "echo" effects.

Terrace-like dynamics in clavier music, as well as the "echo" effects for

short phrases (in widespread use since about 1600) are conditioned not
only by the deep and essential qualities of Bach's art but also by qualities
peculiar to the harpsichord, an instrument incapable of dynamic nuance.

Bach evidently wanted the transitions from main subject materials to

subsidiary ones to be marked by sudden dynamic changes, rather than
by smooth dynamic graduations.2 Cadences which separated more or
less lengthy sections were to be clearly stated and almost never played
diminuendo. Such punctuations were to be kept at the dynamic level of
the preceding section, with any slightly perceptible ritardandos (especially
at the close of a piece or a movement) played at an increased dynamic
level (on the piano, this would be handled by means of a slight crescendo ) .
At such points, the simultaneous allargando would seem to be appropriate.

Even, however, in long stretches of like dynamic levels ( forte or

piano), slight dynamic fluctuations within the generally uniform volume
levels were not excluded. These fluctuations (inflexional dynamics)
vitalized the speechlike rise and fall of the musical declaration. Simul-

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taneous use of these two kinds of dynamic handling (structural and
inflexional) is known as the employment of "dual architectonic dynamics."3

In harpsichord performance, the thickening of the musical texture

gives the impression of a crescendo (particularly at the close of the com-
position), while the thinning of the texture is frequently perceived as a
diminuendo. Also, discord usually implies tension (i.e., dynamic stress),
while concord implies relaxation (i.e., a decrease in the tone volume).
Certainly, however, there are many exceptions to these general statements.

When "translating" such harpsichord works for piano performance,

the player will, then, frequently need to employ slight (imperceptible)
crescendi or diminuendi effects in the handling of inflexional dynamics.
Such usage must, however, be employed with the taste and perception
which comes only after long-time acquaintance and careful study of the
Bach style.

It is sometimes possible to find in Bach's manuscripts clues to his

dynamic intentions. The writer has previously mentioned Erwin Bodky s
statement that (in harpsichord music of larger proportions) rests in both
of the hands (or a fermata) frequently indicate a third dynamic level ("the
third terrace"), since the fullest tone of the instrument could have been
applied only where the performer had both hands free for coupling the
keyboards (see BACH , Vol. Ill, No. 2, 1972, p. 35 or Erwin Bodky, The
Interpretation of Bach's Keyboard Works [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, I960], pp. 90-91).
Writing about 1752, Johann Joachim Quantz states: "Thus, passages
marked Piano on this instrument [the harpsichord with one keyboard}
may be improved by moderating the touch and by decreasing the number
of parts, and those marked Forte by strengthening the touch and by in-
creasing the number of parts in both hands."4
Usually, the beginning of the typical Baroque Allegro with its straight-
forward exposition of materials, is played forte ( e.g., the long introductions
to the English Suites which even demand two alternating tone-colors -
forte and piano).
Pieces of an introverted character (those of a slow, contemplative,
sad, or plaintive affection) are preferably played piano. When performed
on the piano, such movements call for subtle dynamic inflections.
Although Erwin Bodky believes long crescendos which run through
several measures to be "absolutely un-Bachian," stating that such crescendi
were used for the first time by the Mannheim Orchestra5 (in the late 50 s
of the eighteenth century); the present writer sees the situation somewhat

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The frequent use of short, graded transitions from forte to piano and
vice versa would, of course, be quite " un-Bachian." However, the use of
the longer crescendo , though controversial, might not be out of place in
some of Bach's compositions. As a matter of fact, crescendos and dimin-
uendos had been known long before the Mannheimers; but under the
Mannheim conductor, Niccolo Jomelli, these devices achieved what Fred-
erick Dorian has termed "a new tone-poetic effect."6

A careful balancing of the parts in polyphonic music is, of course,

indispensable to a lucid presentation of the texture. As Glenn Gould has
pointed out, Bach s counterpoint is harmonically centered.7 For this reason,
the bass must be considered not only as a voice in the polyphonic texture,
but, also, by implication, as the harmonic foundation of the structure which
rises above it. Thus, the bass line acquires a quite special significance.

The dynamic inflections applied to pieces which Bach probably com-

posed for the clavichord, should be kept at levels circumscribed, on the one
side by pp , and, on the other, by mp. Each voice should maintain its own
subtle and finely executed dynamic fluctuations. Only at the cadences,
would all of the voices share common dynamic shadings. The varying
dynamic gradations of each voice ("micro-dynamics") should, of course,
be subjected to the general dynamic plan. Such use of "polydynamics"
furnishes an important means of achieving a clear presentation of intricate
polyphonic textures.

A Postscript

By the time of the 1830's, 40 s, and 50's, when performances of Bach's

compositions had, once again, become frequent, the threads of tradition
regarding the interpretation of Bach's works were mostly lost.

Each generation tends to see works of art in the light of the char-
acteristics of its own time and to execute them according to its own ideas
and feelings. The nineteenth century witnessed numerous distortions of
the text of Bach's music and many misunderstandings of its substance and
spirit. Bach's music was frequently "romanticized" and "sentimentalized."
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, a real interest
in the stylistic interpretation of early music and a proclivity for fidelity
to text began to grow. The exaggeratedly subjective virtuoso pianisms
formerly considered effective in Bach keyboard performances gradually
began to be replaced by the concept of Werk-treue (fidelity to the com-
The first element of Bach performance which attracted the attention
of musicologists was that of embellishments. In 1893 Dannreuther pub-

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lished his monumental (two volume) Musical Ornamentation. Arnold
Dolmetsch followed in 1915 with his extensive work, The Interpretation
of the Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries (a detailed discussion of the
various aspects of performance practices of the Baroque).

The interest in performance-practice problems grew considerably

during the years between the two World Wars, reaching its apogee during
the 1950s and the 1960s. This growing interest stimulated musicologists
to undertake detailed and careful studies of the treatises of the Baroque
period in the belief that a thorough understanding of such "authentic"
sources would enable musicians to achieve truly authentic performances
of Baroque music. Out of this reasearch there evolved an increased fidelity
to the text, which in time became so strong that some performers came to
believe that by following the text exactly (and, thus, avoiding anything
and everything that was not to be found in the score) they could achieve
the authenticity they sought.

Textual "loyalty" was, thus, frequently misunderstood as equivalent

to faithfulness to the spirit of a composition, and the concept that "the
artistic component" ( Gestaltungstreue 8 - the necessarily subjective insight
into a composer's intentions with the ability to read between the staves)
was important in backing up "the scientific component" ( an understanding
of historical and stylistic fidelity). Such a concept came to be labelled as

As the result of this simplistic thinking, a new generation of pianists

gravitated to a school of performance which reached the opposite extreme
of the performance concepts of their virtuostic-introverted forerunners of
the nineteenth century. The performances which resulted were often rigid,
sterile, unexpressive, and objective to the point of indifference.

Emotional appeal is, however, necessary to the vitality of musical art.

Without it, even the great musical composition loses something of its
eternal values and becomes, in a sense, a museum piece. When the per-
sonal approach is lacking, "old" music can have little more than historical

As Samuel Feinberg has so aptly put it: ". . . the musical composition
. . . fixed in a written form is never finished."9 The composition is com-
plete, of course, only when realized by a performer; and the "completed"
versions are bound to differ in many subtle ways, since the personality of
the performer is reflected in his interpretation. The writer refers, to be
sure, only to the really creative performance - only such a one has value.

This does not mean that textual and stylistic fidelity and personal

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approach are incompatible, or that such fidelity necessarily results in an
"antiseptic" performance.

The genuine werktreu performance reveals itself in an execution

that is both free from arbitrariness and in which several elements are
united: the accurate and precise reading of the text (the "objective"
approach); a knowledge of stylistic characteristics (the "authentic" ap-
proach); the taste, feelings, inspiration, personal involvement, modesty,
and sense of measure and proportion of the interpreter, as well as his pure
love for the art (the "subjective" approach). Thus, in the genuine werktreu
performance, the ideal balance between the "objective" and the "subjective"
can be achieved, with the result that the depth and essence of the music,
together with the urgency of its message, will be disclosed to the listener.10

On the road to achieving such an ideal performance (in which the

composer s intentions would be realized and the work would be presented
as a vital, living art form), the performer stumbles on many problems:
First of all, many details of Baroque performance practice are still not clear
(it is certain that some of these details never will be clarified); secondly,
Bach did not write down his ideas about interpretation, either in general
or concerning the particular performances of his own works; thirdly, no
detailed descriptions of Bach's own playing have been left to us by his
contemporaries;11 and finally (and, possibly, most importantly), the dis-
turbing fact is that most of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors
writing about performance practices are not completely reliable. Not only
do they frequently set down vague statements, but, all too often, they con-
tradict one another, and even themselves, in their treatises. Personal
inclinations, local customs, various cross-influences, and changing fashions
must all have played their part in creating this "absence of uniformity."
Robert Donington's statement that most likely "the reality was neither
systematic nor consistent," is probably true.12

It is important to remember that the information found in four most

thorough treatises published shortly after Bach's death (Johann Joachim
Quantz's On Playing the Flute [1752], Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Essay
on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments [1753], and Friedrich
W. Marpurg's Die Kunst das Klavier zu spielen [1750] and Anleitung
zum Klavier spielen [1755] cannot be unconditionally applied to the music
of the older Bach: Their authors belonged spiritually to the new style and
were its spokesmen; they saw Bach through the stylistic focus of their own
eyes. Friedrich Neumann made the point well when he stated in a lecture
that they (Quantz, Emanuel Bach, and Marpurg) should emphasize: "Z like
this to be played in this way," instead of "This has to be played in this
way," when discussing the performance of J. S. Bach's music.

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Unfortunately, much of the enormous amount of literature on J. S.
Bach (new as well as old) serves only to complicate further the intricate,
obscure, and perplexing Bach problems which already exist. The performer
should, then, hold definite reservations, while studying original sources
from the Baroque period just as he would in reading their modern expo-
sitions and elucidations. Both reflect their authors' personal tastes and
preferences and, at times, reveal a somewhat peculiar and contradictory

The question of why Bach left almost no indications concerning the

interpretation of his works is frequently raised. The answer is fairly
simple. In the Baroque period, composing and performing were not sepa-
rated. The composer himself, his pupils, or other composers, performed
his compositions. The executant was, therefore, supposed to be thoroughly
trained in composition, able as an improvisator, well developed in matters
of musical taste, and knowledgeable concerning the musical rules and cus-
toms of the time. Thus, the danger of distorting the compositions of
others through ignorance of stylistic and performance practice matters
was minimal.

The performance rules were codified and had been passed from gen-
eration to generation, partly in written form, partly as oral tradition. The
latter were usually lost, however, when a dramatic change of styles occurred.
Such a change took place near the close of Bach's career - hence the loss
of the oral traditions concerning Bach's own performance practices.

The performer of the Baroque period enjoyed more freedom than is

usually believed. The Italian Francesco Maria Veracini indicated in his
treatise, Il Trionfo della practica Musicale (ca. 1740) that many composers
would like to give the interpreter the exact prescriptions for the perform-
ance of his works. Veracini feels that this would, however, deprive the
performing artist of the natural and indispensable freedom to play accord-
ing to his own knowledge and feeling, thus provoking a very dry execu-

It must be remembered in this connection that some French com-

posers are known to have had a strong tendency to indicate ornaments, etc.,
as precisely as possible in the written score. Bach himself seems to have
been strongly influenced by this movement. Johann Adolf Scheibe's crit-
icism that Bach was . . wont to express completely in notes . . . every
ornament, every little grace, and everything that one thinks of as belonging
to the method of playing . . is well known.14 Johann Abraham Birn-
baum's reply to Scheibe's criticism further substantiates the fact that Bach's
intentions (and those of the French organists Grigny and Du Mage) were,

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indeed, intended . . to set the wanderers [those who would apply orna-
mentation inappropriately] back on the right path by prescribing a correct
method according to his intentions, and, thus, to watch over the preser-
vation of his own honor."15

There is another factor which (being completely elusive) is generally

left out of consideration, but which actually presents some of the strongest
evidence concerning the futility of trying to achieve real and full authen-
ticity in the performance of early music: Our perception of music is dif-
ferent from that of the listeners of Bach's time.

Insofar as the twentieth-century musicians ability to perceive late

Baroque music in historical context is regulated by his own musical con-
cepts (which, in turn, are the product of his total musical and general
cultural experiences), so, the musician of our time is burdened with his
familiarity of more than two-hundred years' worth of changing musical
styles. In addition to this, his entire being is oriented to a culture which
is the product of the sweeping changes in life style and mental climate
which have occurred in the two-hundred years which have passed since
the culmination of the Baroque era.

In short, the twentieth-century musician hears with "other ears" and

perceives with a mind which is differently oriented from that of the mu-
sician of Bach's time.

It must, then, be recognized that true authenticity in the modern per-

formance of old music is unattainable. As Putnam Aldrich has put it:
"Too much guess work is involved in all points of interpretation . . . [for
which reason} the blind pursuit of authenticity . . . may succeed in detail
and at the same time cause the totality of musical event to fail in its

The twentieth-century performer can only approximate this evasive

authenticity, and, as Donald Jay Grout notes, his approximation must, of
necessity, be built, not upon certainties, but upon probabilities.17

Today's performer must be well qualified to exercise his allowed free-

dom. He must depend on his insight and critical caution, honed fine by a
study of all of the information he can possibly obtain. He should, how-
ever, never be misled into a belief that the knowledge he gleans from a
study of the past is a substitute for an imaginative and vital approach to
the present.18

Furthermore, the performer must remain fully aware that since musical
notation was (and still is) an imprecise oversimplification, he must become
skilled in the kind of "reading between the notes" which will enable him

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to bring to life the music of earlier times. As Leopold Stokowski once
said, "The most important things in music are not written down."19

By drawing some conclusions from the available data, the twentieth-

century performer can outline the basic principles of Bach's style and, then,
(and only speculatively), he can determine the limits within which the
various aspects of performance may have operated.20 Such a procedure gives
enough room for the creative, free unfolding of individual differences.
It is important to remember that any significant work of art hides in itself
the implications of various interpretations, all of which are perfectly


1 The dynamic markings in the Italian Concerto , by indicating changes of manu

the harpsichord, point up the tutti-soli alternations of the Concerto and, th
not qualify as true "echo effects."
2 See Walter Emery's article, "Scholarship and Vitality in Bach Playing," in M
Opinion, July, 1949.
3 Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, trans. Ernest Newman (London: A. & C. B
1935), Vol. I, p. 364.
4 Johann Joachim Quantz, On Playing the Flute, trans. Edward R. Reilly (Lo
Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 253.
5 Erwin Bodky, The Interpretation of Bach* s Keyboard Music (Cambridge, M
Harvard University Press, I960), p. 94.
6 Frederick Dorian, The History of Music in Performance (New York: W. W.
ton, 1942), p. 151.
7 See Glenn Gould's article, "Bodky on Bach," Saturday Review of Literatur
vember, I960.
8 See E. Randerbock's article, " Was ist 'Werktreue'?" in the February, 1955, issue of
Das Musikleben.
9 Samuel Feinberg, Pianism as Art (Moscow: Musyka, 1969), p. 155.
10 See E. Mainardi's article, " ber Bach Interpretation," in the October, 1954, issue
of sterreichische Musikzeitschrift.
11 Bach's "Obituary" (written by Carl Philipp Emanuel and Bach's student Johann
Friedrich Agricola), published in Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek in 1754, does,
of course, supply some informative general descriptions of Bach's performances.
See Hans David and Arthur Mendel's translation of the "Obituary" in The Bach
Reader, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), pp. 222-223.
12 Robert Donnington, The Interpretation of Early Music (London: Faber and Faber,
1963), p. 26.
13 Francesco Maria Veracini's treatise, Il Trionfo della practica Musicale (ca. 1740),
evidently remained in manuscript form during his lifetime (the manuscript is now
held by the Library of the Conservatorio Cherubini in Florence). Luigi Torchi
published the important contents of the treatise in an article in Revista Musicale,
Vol. VI, 1899. A recent study is that of H. M. Smith, "F. M. Veracini's II Trionfo
della Prattica Musicale," Indiana University dissertation, 1963 (L.C. No. Mie. 64-
5496, Ann Arbor, University Microfilms).
14 See Johann Adolf Scheibe, Critischer Musicus, Neue vermehrte und verbesserte
Auflage (Leipzig: Bernard Christoph Breitkopf, 1745; entry for Dienstag, den 14
May, 1737), pp. 55-65 and, especially, p. 62. For an English translation see Hans
T. David and Arthur Mendel, The Bach Reader, rev. ed. (New York: W. W.
Norton, 1966), p. 238.


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15 See Scheibe, Critischer Musicus, " Unparteyische Anmerkungen ber eine bedenk-
liche stelle in dem sechsten Stcke des critischen Musicus . . . dem Hochedlen
Herrn, Herrn Johann Sebastian Bachen . . . pp. 835-858, and, especially, p. 854.
For an English translation see Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, The Bach
Reader, pp. 239-247 and, especially, pp. 245-2 46.
16 See Putnam C. Aldrich's article, "The 'Authentic' Performance of Baroque Music,"
in Essays on Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957).
17 See Donald Jay Grout's article, "On Historical Authenticity in the Performance of
old Music," Essays on Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957),
pp. 341-347.
18 See Grout, "On Historical Authenticity."
19 Leopold Stokowski, in a conversation with George Kochevitsky.
20 See Grout, "On Historical Authenticity."

About Our Authors

DR. GEORGE A. KOCHEVITSKY, pianist and teacher, who cur-

rently lives in New York City, is the author of various articles on piano
performance and a book, The Art of Piano Playing - A Scientific Ap-
proach (Evanston: Summay-Birchard, 1967).

JOHN BOE is a professor of music at Southern Illinois University in

Carbondale, Illinois.

MARK A. RADICE, who holds a B.MUS. degree from Boston Uni-

versity in piano performance, is presently working on a M-MUS. degree
in musicology.

ARTUR HIRSCH, German musicologist and author living in France,

has for many years been involved in a comprehensive study of the Cantata
of J. S. Bach.


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