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Bach, Harpsichord, And Piano

Posted by acdtest on July 24, 2003

Bach, The Harpsichord, And The Piano

y article on Glenn Gould’s two readings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations brought several interesting comments. Said one reader:

Bach’s compositions performed on the piano are to Bach’s compositions performed on the harpsichord what McNuggets are to chicken. The music that Bach composed for the harpsichord sounds clunky and ponderous when it is performed on the piano. Only the harpsichord has the peculiar dynamic and the rapid and even decay necessary to properly interpret Bach’s work.

As a matter of fact, I almost agree with that. But only almost. I’ve a great love for the harpsichord. I even went so far as to have one built for me a while back (by William Dowd of Boston; a double-manual concert instrument). While it’s true that when Bach’s keyboard music is performed on the piano the result is typically not a happy one, the fault does not lie with the piano, but with pianists. When properly played, the piano is just dandy for the performance of Bach’s keyboard works, and indeed for the performance of the entire Baroque keyboard repertoire.

For those who doubt my word on this, let me attempt to make my case in this way.

First, Bach’s keyboard works (including those for organ) seem to survive, even thrive, under all manner of transcription. So superb are their construction that their fundamental musical aesthetic is not diminished one iota even when subjected to transcriptions as outré as those done for Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer, and Ward Swingle’s Swingle Singers. Or when subjected to the somewhat less outré but nevertheless Romantically excessive transcriptions for piano by Ferruccio Busoni, and even the grotesquely bloated ones for full orchestra done by Leopold Stokowski. In all these, Bach emerges unsullied and triumphant — always.

As concerns the Goldberg Variations specifically, it’s one of the very few works Bach wrote explicitly for the two-manual harpsichord with its full complement of registers — two 8′, one 4′, and one lute stop — as well as, presumably, the additional and very German 16′ register (Bach’s own harpsichord was equipped with this last). What can be accomplished with relative (underline relative) ease on this two-manual instrument becomes hugely difficult on an instrument with but a single keyboard. But that difficulty notwithstanding, the Goldberg has been done, and done excellently well, on such keyboard-challenged instruments.

The harpsichord, both in its two-manual and single-manual incarnations, is a natural for realizing the multiple contrapuntal lines of a Bach keyboard work. Its method of tone production is the principal reason why. Unlike the piano, the strings of the harpsichord are plucked from beneath by a device called a plectrum (made of either quill or hard leather in the period instrument), rather than struck by a felt-covered hammer as in the piano. The strings of the harpsichord can be plucked in one way and one way only, no matter what the harpsichordist does with his fingers at the keyboard (that’s not entirely true, but true enough for our instant purpose). A string is either plucked or not plucked, a kind of binary affair, and the sound produced is the same always: very precise attack, and short decay due the instrument’s low string tension and relatively flexible sounding board. Perfect for the clear and precise delineation of multiple contrapuntal lines.

Not so the piano with its hammered strings. For starters, what the pianist does with his fingers at the piano keyboard has a profound effect on the sound made by a string when hit by the hammer. The sound produced by the struck string (actually string groups, how many strings in the group depending on the octave) varies greatly, and can range not only in loud-soft dynamic (the original precursor instrument was called a fortepiano, and the full name of the modern instrument is not piano but pianoforte — piano=soft, forte=loud, get it?), but also in its quality of tone. The attack can be soft and surpassingly delicate, or can be as if made by the wrath of Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, or anywhere in-between, and in all cases the decay, unless damped (by releasing the key), is fairly long and resonant due the instrument’s high string tension and relatively rigid sounding board, a circumstance not so perfect for the clear and precise delineation of multiple contrapuntal lines.

Well, I seem to have managed to scuttle my own argument here, haven’t I. Not so, actually (surprise!). The key (no pun intended) to understanding why not is embodied in the above sentence that reads in part,

…what the pianist does with his fingers at the piano keyboard has a profound effect on the sound made by a string when hit by the hammer.

Just so. Under control of the proper ten fingers, the hammered strings of the piano can be made to sound just as precise as the plucked strings of a harpsichord. It’s something incredibly difficult to achieve consistently (and in fact requires that the piano’s key action be carefully adjusted to the task), but not impossible, as Glenn Gould performing Bach on the piano makes manifestly and magnificently clear. Under Gould’s skilled hands Bach’s keyboard music played on the piano no longer sounds “clunky and ponderous” and blurred, but has all its multiple contrapuntal lines revealed with the same clarity and precision that would obtain naturally and without special effort on the harpsichord. And while the piano lacks completely the rich effects of the harpsichord’s multiple registers, it has their analogue in the infinite adjustment of quality of tone and loud-soft dynamic achievable by keyboard touch alone — things at which Gould was a master — a technique denied the harpsichordist no matter how great a master of the instrument he may be.

And so, as I’ve above asserted, the problem of Bach’s keyboard works performed on the piano is a problem not of the instrument, but of the performer alone.

And that, dear reader, is my case for Bach’s keyboard works performed on the piano. Not quite Q.E.D., but close enough to make no-never-mind.

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