Sunday, July 3, 2016

Did Bach Hate Pianos?

In the comment section of my post “How ‘forgotten’ was Bach?”, reader Cleverson wrote:
Speaking of Bach, you could also write something against a myth that exists among some music teachers, at least here in Brazil, who say that “Bach hated pianos.” They use such a lie to discourage students from making use of specific features of the piano as an instrument when playing Baroque repertoire.
Cleverson also mentioned coming across the explanation that Bach played an early piano and didn’t like that particular model, but when he came across an improved version later, he liked what he heard.

This “Bach hated pianos” idea intrigues me, mostly because of how Cleverson says it’s used to dictate performance practice. I’ll share my thoughts on that in a bit, but first I have to take care of the myth itself: Did Bach hate pianos?

Pianos plural? No. And “hate” is probably too strong of a word to describe how he felt about the first piano he played. I did some digging and found that Cleverson is basically correct in the refutation of the myth. A Dresden instrument maker named Gottfried Silbermann read an article about Bartolomeo Cristofori’s new invention (what would become the piano), and he attempted to build one on his own. From here, I’ll let one of Bach’s contemporaries, Johann Friedrich Agricola, tell you what happened around the year 1736:
One of [Silbermann’s pianofortes] was seen and played by the late Capellmeister, Mr. Joh. Sebastian Bach. He praised, indeed, admired, its tone; but he complained that it was too weak in the high register and too hard to play. This was taken greatly amiss by Mr. Silbermann, who could not bear to have any fault found in his handiworks. He was therefore angry at Mr. Bach for a long time. And yet his conscience told him that Mr. Bach was not wrong. He therefore decided—greatly to his credit, be it said—not to deliver any more of the instruments, but instead to think harder about how to eliminate the faults Mr. J.S. Bach had observed.
(This was quoted in Christoph Wolff’s Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician on page 413.)

So, indeed, Bach played a prototype piano and offered critical feedback on how it felt and the sound of the upper register. This should certainly not be interpreted as Bach dismissing every incarnation of the piano, particularly since Bach’s exposure to the piano doesn’t end there.

As described in Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos: A Technological History from Christofori to the Modern Concert Grand by Edwin M. Good, after Silbermann incorporated Bach’s criticism into his new instruments, Frederick the Great of Prussia was so impressed with the result that he bought out Silbermann’s inventory, 15 pianos total. Frederick’s court harpsichordist was none other than Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian’s second oldest (surviving) son. When the older Bach went to visit his son in Berlin in 1747, Frederick was eager to show off his new pianos. He gave Bach a theme upon which to improvise on the piano, and that later became the basis of Bach’s The Musical Offering. Musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen went so far as to call a movement of The Musical Offering “the most significant piano work of the millennium, as it is perhaps the first piece composed for the recently invented piano -- at least, the first piece that a composer knew would certainly be played on a piano.” Even though some of the pianos from Frederick’s collection have survived into the 21st century, unfortunately the exact piano played by Bach was destroyed in World War II. 

Even more damning against the “Bach hated pianos” claim is the fact that Bach went on to become an agent for Silbermann, selling his pianos in Leipzig. There’s even a receipt signed by Bach on May 9, 1749, selling a “Piano et Forte” to a Polish count, Jan Casimir von Branitzky.

So, Bach did not hate pianos. When I asked my pianist friends, none of them had heard the claim that he did, and I didn’t really find anything like that on the English-speaking internet. Since I don’t speak Portuguese, I’ll take Cleverson’s word for it that this is something that has been going around in Brazil. So, Cleverson! I hope this is sufficient evidence for you!

As I mentioned, what intrigues me most is how Cleverson says that the myth is used to discourage student from playing Bach certain ways. After all, even if Bach hated pianos (which he didn’t!), why should that even matter? It sounds like these teachers are trying to encourage “historically informed performance,” an approach to playing music that attempts to sound as close as possible to what it would have sounded like when it was written.

As sensible as historically informed performance sounds, it’s actually a hotly-debated topic. Sound recordings didn’t exist in Bach’s era, so all we have to go on are music notation, written descriptions, and paintings. Even those have their limitations—the way we understand the world is fundamentally different from 18th-century perceptions, so our interpretation of notation and words is likely not completely accurate. Still, I believe there is merit to this approach, in that it engages the historical imagination.

The problem comes when people claim that this purism better reflects the intent of the composer. “Composer intent” is another much-debated topic (seriously, musicologists will debate anything), and once again, it’s tied to the idea that the Composer is a Great Man and an Artist-Hero. That’s more of a 19th-century construct, and Bach most likely wouldn’t have thought of his own compositions in that way. He was very pragmatic; he made use of the instruments he had at hand, and I doubt he would have been upset to find out that some works he wrote for the clavichord or harpsichord were later being played on piano. Bach didn’t expect his role as the composer to overrule logistical factors in the realization of his works. This poses a paradox: How can we be faithful to “composer intent” for composers from the time before “composer intent” was a consideration?

It reminds me of an argument I got into after giving a mid-concert lecture on Bach’s sixth cello suite. I was speaking at a performance of the suite on viola, and I mentioned that Bach probably wouldn’t have minded that it was being performed on the “wrong” instrument. Afterward, a man in the audience took issue with what I said, arguing that I should have more respect for the fact that Bach chose to write the suite for the cello, and Bach made artistic judgments based on the qualities of the instruments he chose. I disagreed, pointing out some non-idiomatic writing for trumpet in the Brandenburg concertos, and how Bach transcribed some Vivaldi string concertos for organ. But the man was convinced that Bach was the Genius, and I was disrespecting him when I said his music could be played on just any old instrument.

Well, I’m a violist, so maybe I’m predisposed to being okay with transcriptions because violists have stolen (ahem, borrowed) so much repertoire from other instruments. As a musicologist, though, I still believe that Bach was not persnickety about what type of instrument his music was played on. He would probably be amused (and bemused) that we, nearly three centuries later, even care what he thought. 

Thanks to Cleverson for the topic, and to Alejandro Planchart, Jonathan Bellman, Luke Taylor, and Bryan Proksch for pointing me toward the right sources!

If you have a musical myth you’d like me to check out, please let me know in the comments, with an email to musichistorycliches@gmail.com, on my Facebook page, or via Twitter.


Sources:

Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos: A Technological History from Christofori to the Modern Concert Grand by Edwin M. Good (1982)

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff (2000)

“Best Piano Composition; Six Parts Genius” by Charles Rosen in The New York Times (1999)
http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/18/magazine/best-piano-composition-six-parts-genius.html

For a thoughtful essay in defense of playing Bach on the piano, please read this essay by harpsichordist Rosalyn Tureck: http://www.tureckbach.com/publication-documentation/page/piano-harpsichord-or-clavichord

4 comments:

  1. Thank you very much. Just to clarify to the readers, I don't actually have made any research amongst brazilian teachers, but I supose this myth is more or less generalized because I've had two piano teachers from different brazilian states, at different schools, who told me it.

    Sad to read that the piano where Bach played was destroyed. It's just one more proof that wars always change things to a worse state. Everyone must strive to avoid them.

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  2. I had my music education in Australia, and at some stage I remember hearing or reading this. At any rate, it's the sort of music trivia I remember, and it's on my radar. I always assumed it was just because it would have been a very early version of the piano. So I was half-right. The rest of the story makes perfect sense. Bach was hired for his professional opinion on organs, so would have had no problem being forthright. I'm enjoying the blog BTW.

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  3. Thank you for your answer! I have an interesting question. If Bach were alive today, which piano type and maker do you think he would prefer?

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  4. This response is beautiful! The myth it's addressing is one that is not just being perpetuated in Brazil. I'm a piano pedagogy student attending Utah State University and I was told in my Piano Pedagogy class, Piano Literature I class and Music History class that Bach did not like the piano. There were hints that this may help us decide how to play his music on the piano.

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