Articles for music students for advice and inspiration.
BETWEEN TRADITION AND INNOVATION:
A Critique on the Interpretation of Bach’s Fugues - Donat Bayer
One of the crucial problematizations of musicology, regarding performance studies, is the relationship between a musical score and the music we hear. Although as Bowen argues ‘a score is a spatial representation of only some of the elements of the temporal phenomena we call music’1, it should be regarded as the primary source of reference for the entire repertoire of Western music2. However, as also debated by Bowen and Howat, this could not lead to the conclusion that a score is the only constitutive factor in interpretation. By the interpretation of the performer, a musical work comes into existence independently of its score. At this stage, what comes into the picture is the significance of the performer who has the power to give to a musical work its own character by considering indications of its composer as a reference point.
It is possible to claim that not only composers, but also performers, such as Ferruccio Busoni and Clara Schumann, have had a significant role in the history of western music. To clarify this argument, it might be worth remembering that composers such as Liszt, Chopin and Paganini had become key figures in the history of music owing to their impact on audiences, not only as composers but also as performers. In other words, the relationship between a musical work and the audience is actualized by means of the performer. As Bowen also points out, ‘each performance (…) is an attempt to mediate between the identity of the work (…) and the innovation of the performer.’3 Thus, the stylistic knowledge of any kind of music and the tradition of interpretation can be created only by performers.
For a performance to be regarded as successful, the significance of musicological knowledge is essential to an interpreter in terms of preserving a musical work’s identity. The innovations of a performer would be persuasive only with a strong knowledge of musicology. In this respect, the conclusions of William Rothstein’s article ‘Analysis and the Act of Performance’, ignoring the importance of musical analysis in the process of interpretation, are worthy of discussion. In his article, Rothstein points out the reasons why he ignores the importance of musical analysis by using various examples of keyboard-music by four composers: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin. Before presenting his arguments, Rothstein introduces his question as follows:
What effect should music’s structure have on the way in which music is performed? In particular, how should the results of analysis be conveyed (assuming that they should be conveyed) to the listener? One familiar response (…) asserts that analysis is useful because, knowing what a piece of music contains in terms of structure, the performer can proceed to ‘bring it out’. This in my view, is a dangerous half-truth. (…) In what follows, I shall present examples in which ‘bringing it out’ would do a performance more harm than good.4
To support his argument, he emphasizes that ‘most listeners, (…) do not go to concerts or listen to recordings to hear an analytical demonstration.’5 Thus, Rothstein’s ideal performer ‘must first of all identify with the work and must inhabit it as completely as possible, regardless of the work’s genre or tone.’6 However, it is not possible to identify with a work without knowing what a piece of music contains in terms of structure, and analyzing it musically. Any opposite attempt would be amateurish. Nevertheless, what Rothstein asserts with regard to the interpretation of Bach’s fugues might seem challenging at first sight:
When I was a child learning to play the piano, I was taught to ‘bring out’ the subject of a Bach fugue at each of its entries. In this way (…), I would at least not appear to be missing the point of the fugue. (…) For Bach delights in weaving his subjects into every part of his musical argument – beginnings, middles and ends –and he often goes to great lengths to their entries. To ‘bring out’ such hidden entries would be to reveal not erudition, but boorish pedantry. No; the performer should play along with Bach, keeping hidden what Bach took pains to conceal. (…) What I am suggesting, therefore, is not ignorance on the performer’s part but active complicity with Bach – a kind of ‘acting’ in which the performer knows that the subject is there but pretends not to notice, at least at first.7
The main objective of this paper is to investigate Rothstein’s arguments on the interpretation of Bach’s fugues, specifically those in the Well-Tempered Clavier. This short discussion will be carried out by taking two main points into consideration: a historical analysis on the interpretation of Bach-tradition and a theoretical evaluation of fugue as a musical form.
Although most musicologists argue that Bach was forgotten just after his death, until 1829 when Mendelssohn ‘revived the St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie’8, the composer never became a ‘dead’ figure in any period in the history of music, at least in musical intelligentsia. First of all, as Marshall also stresses, ‘Bach was not only a composer and performer but also a teacher.’9 No other composer in the Baroque era had such great number of pupils as Bach had. Some of them, including his sons, such as Carl Philippe Emanuel Bach, became significant composers, performers and church musicians. Therefore, the existence of these pupils, ‘proved to be fruitful for the transmission of Bach’s music during and shortly after his lifetime – since these pupils frequently trained their own students – one or two generations later.’10 Thus, the interpretational rules of Bach’s oeuvre started to spread, at least among the musicians, from the beginning of the second half of the 18th century. Furthermore, this tradition evolved not only in middle and central Germany (Leipzig, Berlin, Thuringia and Saxony), where Bach and his pupils lived, but also in other centers of music in Europe. For instance, in England, Augustus Frederick Christopher Kollman, ‘planned an edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1799 and published an edition of the Chromatic Fantasy in 1806.’11 In Vienna, by Baron Swieden’s request to make Mozart play him the Well-Tempered Clavier, the composer had the manuscript of the fugues of the 48 Preludes and Fugues.12 Likewise, as Czerny underlined in the preface of his Well-Tempered Clavier edition, Beethoven usually played these preludes and fugues throughout his lifetime.13 Furthermore, it is known that, between 1760 and 1799, some of Bach’s music, including St. Luke Passion, Christmas Oratorio, a number of cantatas, five masses, two sanctuses, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas and Suites, the Sinfonias and Inventions, C Major Overture, three Sonatas for Solo Violin, all Six Solo Cello Suites, the complete Clavierübung, Goldberg Variations, Art of the Fugue and Musical Offering was published by publishers, such as Breitkopf, Westphal (Hamburg), and Traeg (Vienna).14
During the transmission of Bach’s music, by means of his pupils, contradictory approaches arose in the interpretation of the composer’s work. All his pupils added some new notes and ornaments to their master’s music, in order to make it “trendy”. Correspondingly, all editors added wrong notes, with reference to these pupils, in their editions since the original manuscripts were inaccessible. Furthermore, in the romantic period, a new trend appeared to interpret Bach’s music in a romantic way. Even great composers displayed inexplicable attitudes to the performance of Bach’s music. For example, Schumann composed piano accompaniments for some of the composer’s solo violin works. At the beginning of the 20th century, some performers and conductors, such as Edwin Fisher and Otto Klemperer, with the help of their distinctive musicological knowledge and Bach’s original manuscripts, determined the essential rules for the authentic interpretation of Bach. As this leads to a formation of academic knowledge on the characteristics of his music, all the information regarding the Bach-tradition constituted through this knowledge is available. What Rothstein suggests as a marginal perspective on Bach’s fugues only distorts this well-established tradition.
After the historical evolution of Bach-tradition, the second point to be stressed is to examine and debate on the meaning of fugue so as to clarify Rothstein’s paradox about the interpretation of Bach fugues. Praetorius, in 1618, defines a fugue as ‘nothing other than frequent successive echoes of the same theme on different degrees.’15 Mozart, in one of his letters to his sister written in 1786, underlines the significance of a fugue’s subject by stating that ‘if a fugue is not played slowly the ear cannot clearly distinguish the theme when it comes in and consequently the effect is entirely missed.’16 Levarie, in 1946, gives a basic definition of a fugue in claiming that it is ‘nothing more or less than a composition containing a subject (or several subjects) imitated according to certain contrapuntal rules.’17 These three definitions from three different centuries clearly demonstrate the constant imperative of bringing out of a subject in the performance of fugues.
The fugues, in addition to Praetorius and Levarie’s conceptualizations, are the most complex musical structures in which the contrapuntal writing techniques are applied, and Bach’s fugues are perfect examples of this form. However, the primary constitutive characteristic of Bach’s fugues was their pedagogical motive since he composed the Well-Tempered Clavier to teach his pupils to interpret and to compose this complex structure.18 Hence, on the contrary to Rothstein’s argument, the capacity of conceiving the subject(s) and to bring it out were Bach’s essential requirements for a successful fugue interpretation. Since a fugue may dictate a continuous distribution of the theme throughout the voices, the inner parts could no longer be considered as passive and hidden accompaniment lines not to be brought out to the listener. What turns Rothstein’s argumentation into a paradox, in this respect, is the fact that to play along with Bach means to expose rather than to conceal.
After examining some passages of the Fugue in C Minor from Book II, by means of harmonic analysis, Rothstein demonstrates the presence of a perfect cadence. If a subject and a cadence take place simultaneously in one of the passages of a fugue, the performer, according to Rothstein, should ignore the subject to emphasize the presence of a cadence, which is itself a dangerous half-truth. What make a fugue’s interpretation complex are its demands from a performer. A performer should have the ability of playing a fugue by taking harmonic and contrapuntal structures into consideration. Thus, in a passage, as Rothstein explains, a performer must bring out the subject while he underlines the presence of a cadence. What has to be introduced, in this respect, is the significance of the notion of balance.19 As in today’s piano, it was possible to bring out a subject on harpsichords and clavichords, playing it with more emphasis, significance and intensity. As Quantz states, ‘[bringing out the subject by] a distinctive manner of performance (…) as well as by loud and soft’20 was one of the tasks of a performer in the interpretation. As a result, what would have led Rothstein’s argumentation into a more persuasive discussion is to consider the balance of music, a successful performance of which would transform what he regards as boorish pedantry into erudition.
To summarize, this paper firstly outlined two main problems of performance studies: the relationship between score and performance, and the balance between the identity of a work and the performer’s innovations. This formulation enables a discussion on Rothstein’s article, which could help one to articulate these two main issues, in the following ways. A score provides the performer with not only authoritative restrictions but also infinite authentic possibilities. Thus, the authenticity of a performer necessarily requires
(i) An ability for musical analysis (text analysis),
(ii) A comprehension and/or appreciation of musical traditions to carry out a contextual analysis,
(iii) A technical proficiency to be able to fulfill the demands of the instrument.
For his innovative contribution to be recognized as historically significant, a performer’s attempts should always be strategic, acting within rather than beyond the musical knowledge and tradition.
1. Bach, Johann Sebastian, The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, edited by Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel and Christoph Wolff, (London: W. W. Norton and Company Ltd., 1998).
2. Bowen, José A., ‘Finding the Music in Musicology: Performance History and Musical Works’, Rethinking Music, edited by Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Pp. 424-51.
3. Czerny, Carl. ‘Preface’, Johann Sebastian Bach: 48 Preludes and Fugues ( Book I), edited by Czerny, (Augener’s Edition No 8009A: London).
4. Donington, Robert, A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music, (Faber and Faber: London, 1975).
5. Dorian, Frederick. The History of Music in Performance: The Art of Musical Interpretation from the Renaissance to Our Day (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1971).
6. Finscher, Ludwig. ‘Bach in the Eighteenth Century’, in Bach Studies, edited by Don O. Franklin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
7. Howat, Roy. ‘What Do We Perform?’, The Practice of Performance: Studies in Musical Interpretation, edited by John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
8. Levarie, Siegmund. ‘Fugue and Form’, Bulletin of the American Musicological Society, no. 7 (October, 1943). Pp. 15-7.
9. Marshall, Robert L. The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sources, the Style and the Significance, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1989).
10. Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. The Letters of Mozart and His Family, translated and edited by Emily Anderson (London: MacMillan Press, 1985).
11. Praetorius, Michael. Syntagma Musicum III, translated and edited by Jeffrey Kite-Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
12. Rothstein, William. ‘Analysis and the Act of Performance’, The Practice of Performance: Studies in Musical Interpretation, edited by John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
1. José A. Bowen, ‘Finding the Music in Musicology: Performance History and Musical Works’, in Rethinking Music, edited by Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 425, italic in original.
2. See Roy Howat, ‘What Do We Perform?’, in The Practice of Performance: Studies in Musical Interpretation, edited by John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Howat states in his article that ‘although scores are the most fixed point of reference for our classical repertoire and what we scientifically trust least, our musical feeling, remains the strongest and final link to what the composer sensed and heard before subjecting it to notation.’ (p. 3.) However, Howat also accepts that ‘notation provides the main access to classical repertoire.’ (p. 4.)
4. William Rothstein, ‘Analysis and the Act of Performance’, in The Practice of Performance: Studies in Musical Interpretation, edited by John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 218.
12. See The Letters of Mozart and His Family, translated and edited by Emily Anderson, (London: MacMillan Press, 1985). In one of his letters to his sister Nannerl, Mozart explains how he encountered with the fugues of Bach. Accordingly, the letter clearly proves that Mozart, after his encounter with Bach’s fugues, began to play them frequently: ‘The Baron van Swieten, to whom I go every Sunday, gave me all the works of Handel and Sebastian Bach to take home with me (after I had played them to him). When Constanze heard the fugues, she absolutely fell in love with them. Now, she will listen to nothing but fugues, and particularly (in this kind of composition) the works of Handel and Bach.’ (pp. 800-1.)
18. See The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, edited by Hans T. David, Arthur Mendel and Christoph Wolff, (London: W. W. Norton and Company Ltd., 1998), p. 97.
19. For a definition of balance in Baroque music, see Robert Donington, A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music, (Faber and Faber: London, 1975). Donington emphasizes the significance of balance in the interpretation of fugues as follows: ‘Balance in concerted music is largely although not entirely a dynamic matter. In fugues and other more or less imitative music, for example, there is a method of bringing out an entry by performing it with somewhat more emphasis, significance and intensity, and only a little more actual volume; and this is usually better than forcing the entry through with much more volume. But then the other performers should be withdrawing a little into relative insignificance, in order to let the entry through. The more closely the entries follow upon one another, the more necessary it is for each performer to get out of the way of the next entry, so soon as he has made his own.’ (p. 293).