Senza pedale ma con tanti colori
(Without the pedal but with plenty of colours)
By András Schiff
Playing J. S. Bach’s keyboard music on the modern piano, pianists are confronted with various fundamental questions. The answers to these are never simple.
For example: what is the “correct” instrument for the Well-Tempered Clavier? The clavichord, the harpsichord, the organ, the pedal-harpsichord?
Is it permitted to play Bach on an instrument that he couldn’t have known? If it isn’t, whose permission do we need to ask?
What is the right tempo and character for a particular prelude or fugue, and how do we find it? How wide is the dynamic range in this music, and does this vary from instrument to instrument or from venue to venue?
How do we phrase or articulate a certain passage or a fugal subject? Is there need for more ornamentation? For less? For none?
Which edition is the best one?
Each of these questions—and many more—needs to be asked and thought about. Answering them convincingly requires experience, intelligence and—to quote C. P. E. Bach—“buon gusto,” good taste. Decisions need to be made, and it takes courage to say: “this is the way I want to play this piece,” knowing that it will not be to everyone’s liking.
One of the biggest problems is the sustaining pedal, and not just in Bach. This ingenious device enables the player to raise the dampers from the strings, allowing them to vibrate freely with any notes being played. Beethoven was the first great composer who specifically asked for its application. In his Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op.27 No. 2, the entire first movement is to be played “senza sordini,” with raised dampers (with pedal).
The effect is magical; the harmonies are washed together, creating sonorities that are truly revolutionary.
It would be reasonable to assume that pianists would follow what the composer had asked for; after all Beethoven was quite a decent musician, and he certainly knew what he wanted. Wishful thinking, since in fact 99% of them fully ignore the creator’s instructions and diligently change the pedal at every change of harmony. WHY? Because, they argue, this effect would have sounded different on Beethoven’s fortepiano than it does on its modern successor. Have these people played on Beethoven’s Broadwood? No, they certainly haven’t, but they pretend to know. Well, I beg to differ, because I’ve played and recorded on it. The sound, the volume and the mechanics may be different, but the actual musical idea is exactly the same. A dissonance remains a dissonance, regardless of the instrument.
What does all this have to do with Bach? Quite a lot. The sustaining pedal was not at his disposal on any of the keyboard instruments of his time. That means that the pieces that he wrote could be played without the use of the pedal which didn’t exist. Consequently, the very same works can also be played on the modern piano, with eight fingers, two thumbs and no feet. (The one exception is the A-minor Fugue in Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier; its final bars can’t be played with two hands alone, this being a composition for the organ. Here the use of the sostenuto pedal—the middle one of the three—is advisable.)
Does this mean that we have to disregard this “crown jewel” of the instrument when playing Bach? Not necessarily.
It can be used intelligently and discreetly to assist the lack of sonority, especially in venues with dry acoustics. However, let’s not underestimate the danger of damage that can be caused by indiscriminate use of the pedal. The piano is not an automobile, where the right foot is permanently on the accelerator pedal. When string players (and singers) use vibrato all the time, on every note, it’s unbearable to listen to. The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation.
Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice-leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it.
To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well worth trying. Bach certainly didn’t want his music to sound easy; it’s demanding for players and listeners alike.
An eminent pianist colleague of mine recently reprimanded me for my “abstinence.” His argument was that all the great pianists of the past have played Bach with lots of pedal, and we must follow their example. To me, this reasoning is not very convincing. The late George Malcolm, a great musician, best known as a harpsichordist, taught me to play Bach without pedal and to enjoy the delights of purity.
Once a successful young virtuoso pianist came to him asking if he could play for him Bach’s D-major Toccata. Malcolm agreed, the young man took his place at the keyboard, put his right foot on the pedal, raised his arms, and here Malcolm suddenly exclaimed: “Stop!” “But I haven’t played a note yet!” said the victim. “No, but you were just about going to.”
To me, Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours. In my imagination, each tonality corresponds to a colour. The Well-Tempered Clavier, with its 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, provides an ideal opportunity for this fanciful fantasy. Let’s imagine that in the beginning there was innocence, and therefore C major (all white keys) is snow-white. The last piece of both books is in B minor, which is the key to death. Compare the fugue of Book 1 to the Kyrie of the B-minor mass. This has to be pitch-black. Between these two poles, we have all the other colours: first the yellows, oranges and ochre (between C minor and D minor), all the shades of blue (E-flat major to E minor), the greens (F major to G minor), pinks and reds (A-flat major to A minor), browns (B-flat major), grey (B major) and finally black.
Of course, this is a very personal interpretation, and each of you may have a different opinion. Nevertheless, if some of us happen to believe that music is more than just a series of notes and sounds, then a little bit of fantasy is welcome.
Firenze, May 2012
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JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born Eisenach, March 21, 1685; died Leipzig; July 28, 1750
The Well-Tempered Clavier
Thu, Oct 27: Book 1
Composed c. 1722, rev. later; 110 minutes
Sat, Nov 1: Book II
Composed c.1740, rev. later; 144 minutes
In the presence of this consistently contrapuntal music, we may find ourselves listening contrapuntally, the music’s lines carrying us effortlessly forward while also referring us back, the succession of preludes and fugues rising step by step to present us with new things and remind us of old ones. We are listening to a collection that was studied by Mozart and Beethoven, and by virtually every composer since, and to a collection that surely will have more to offer to composers yet to come. And we are listening to a performer who has spent his life here.
We are listening to a compendium, or pair of compendia, whose origins go back to 1720, when Johann Sebastian Bach notated pieces into a little book he was using in training his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, then a boy of ten. Two years later, he reinscribed some items from that teaching material into a new volume of preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, and called it The Well-Tempered Clavier. His purposes were manifold—fugal, one might say. There was the matter addressed in the title, that of finding a temperament (and we cannot be sure exactly what he had in mind) in which it would be possible to play the entire contents without retuning the instrument. Then there was the educative function: to offer something, to quote the title page, “for the use and profit of young musicians desirous of learning as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.” It is also possible, given the date, that Bach presented the book as a showpiece when he went to Leipzig in February 1723 to be interviewed for the position of cantor, which was as much a teaching post as a liturgical appointment.
Around 15 years afterwards, he decided to revisit the project and put together a whole new survey of keys and practices, which he seems not to have brought to a definitive conclusion and not to have given a title, hence its long and thoroughly just association with its predecessor as the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the two together forming “the Forty-Eight.” His aims this time may have included that of catering for a new generation, the generation of his own younger children, among them two more who were to make their lives as composers: Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian.
Conceivably he could also have been catering for a new instrument, since by this stage he had some familiarity with the piano, which, however, needs no such justification for its fitness here. Bach’s great inquiry into so many nuances—of touch, of interplay between hands and between contrapuntal lines, of character and of expressivity—has helped form keyboard technique as we know it, and his music belongs to the instrument of Beethoven, of Chopin, of Debussy, of Kurtág—especially when that instrument is played with the mastery and sensitivity for which András Schiff is renowned. Bach’s is supreme finger music, and from beginning to end Schiff makes no use of the pedals, using his hands alone to hold notes down and control resonances.
Schiff is also an artist to make us recognize how so much of Bach’s music is song or dance. Grandeur and intimacy are also here. Wit, too.
Things in The Well-Tempered Clavier always come in pairs, but pairs that, unlike butterfly wings, display an essential asymmetry, if an asymmetry that will sound inevitable, even natural. Prelude and fugue are gate and path. The gate leads to the path, allows us to sense the path beyond it. Striding the path, we remember the gate that allowed us through. Gate, because a prelude generally has a consistency of substance, a sameness, a repeating figure, a regular rhythm of chord change. Path, because in a fugue we follow the subject as it travels from one voice to another, from one tonality to another.
Part of the wonder of The Well-Tempered Clavier is, of course, in the variety of gates and paths, the former showing astonishing diversity of character. Consider, for example, the characters of the following preludes as gates: The Country Gate (I: E major, with its folksong air, sunlit but with clouds passing), The Swinging Gate (I: G major), The Feather Gate (I: A minor), The Dancing Gate (II: C-sharp minor), The Trumpeter’s Gate (II: D major) and The Labyrinth Gate (II: A minor).
In the first book only the E-flat major and E minor preludes are notably longer than their fugues, whereas in the second book, more than half the preludes exceed their fugues in length. Wholesale repetition—in, for example, the G-sharp minor prelude from this second book—provides an opportunity for the performer to try a subtly different approach. Other preludes are similarly in two sections, each repeated, a type introduced with the last prelude in the first book and reappearing ten times over in the second. The two-section forms also signal a greater nearness to dance in this later book—though by no means every such prelude is a dance, and there are dances, too, among the other, non-repeated preludes.
Every prelude, whatever its nature, is a beginning. Every prelude comes, of course, to an end, and that end is always the same—tonic harmony, tweaked into the major if necessary. But something, we know, will come after, and in that respect listening to a prelude has an element of listening forwards. Similarly, our listening to a fugue is to some degree a listening back. And there are many instances where Bach appears to have been writing for such directed listening. For example, an intensely affecting prelude with a wild close (I: E minor) is answered by a different kind of skirmish, with falling chromatic scales, in its fugue, which in its two-part texture, unparalleled anywhere else in the whole collection and collapsing frighteningly to one part (in octaves) at crucial junctures, has a wildness of its own. If a fugue could ever be described as savage, it would be this.
Striking as this pairing is, though, there are many others (perhaps, indeed, there are 47) that encourage expectant listening in the preludes and recollective listening in the fugues. Poignancy has its response in chromaticism again, but quite otherwise, in the next minor-mode pair (I: F minor), the fugue here touching all 12 notes in its first 16 beats. To mention a few other examples, there is a fugue seeming to take up from its prelude’s close (II: F sharp major), and, equally binding, there are contrasts of stateliness with the rugged (II: G minor) or of extraordinary wandering with decisiveness (II: A minor).
Another way to imagine how prelude and fugue are dissimilarities allied might be in terms of a stream or river, where listening to a prelude is like keeping one’s eyes on a stone or other object through the coursing water, while a fugue gives the experience of moving with that water. Then again, some of these fugues suggest not so much an outdoors of paths and rivers but more an interior tranquility, of like-minded companions in a small room joining to sing—to sing, as it might be, a chorale, for many of the fugues are on subjects that have the stout presence of such melodies (e.g. I: C-sharp minor, I: B major, II: C major, II: E major), though the exercise could alternatively be a folksong (I: F-sharp major, I: G major; II: G-sharp minor) or an exuberant round (I: E major, I: F major, II: E-flat major, II: G minor).
Some of the preludes have more the nature of solo arias, but others, like the above-mentioned fugues, evoke a close vocal gathering, and all are quite as contrapuntal as the fugues to which they lead. The fugues themselves are normally in three parts or four, except for the already noted two-part example and a further two, also from the first book, in five parts (I: C-sharp minor, I: B-minor).
Bach’s organization of the first book, in particular, is evident: the volume culminates in that first of the preludes to have two repeated panels, followed by what is by far the longest fugue—a fugue that, moreover, models the endless staircase that has brought us this far, and that could now take us on, by the same step, back to the C major of this book’s opening or on to the C major of the next. It is no accident, then, when a prelude not only prepares its own fugue but recalls the last. The resemblances, however, go beyond immediate neighbors, as do the contrasts. They are there for us to discover as we listen along and across, down into and up at, these threads of time in which the humanly made could be—can be—at once marvelous and rational, cheerful and profound, domestic and sublime.
© 2012 Paul Griffiths
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Born in Budapest, András Schiff is world-renowned and critically acclaimed as a pianist, conductor, pedagogue and lecturer. Indisputably one of the most prominent proponents of the keyboard works of J. S. Bach, Mr. Schiff will embark on The Bach Project over three periods throughout North America: October-November 2012, April 2013 and October-November 2013, comprising six Bach recitals and an orchestral week of Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn at the piano and on the podium.
The complete Project will visit Symphony Hall in San Francisco, Disney Hall in Los Angeles and New York City in partnership between 92nd Street Y, the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall and Great Performers at Lincoln Center. Individual recitals will be presented in nine cities across North America. His recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier for ECM was released September 25 to universal acclaim.
An exclusive artist for ECM New Series since 1997, Mr. Schiff’s recordings include the complete solo piano music of Beethoven and Janáček, two solo discs of Schumann and his second recordings of the Bach Partitas and Goldberg Variations. He is recording Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for release in 2013.
Mr. Schiff has appeared with most of the major international orchestras and conductors, but now performs mainly as conductor and soloist. In 1999, he created the Cappella Andrea Barca, which consists of international soloists, chamber musicians and friends. He also works every year with the Philharmonia Orchestra London and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
Since childhood, Mr. Schiff has enjoyed playing chamber music. In 1995, with Heinz Holliger, he co-founded the chamber music festival Ittinger Pfingstkonzerte in Ittingen, Switzerland, and in 1998, he created the music festival “Homage to Palladio” at Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico, designed by Palladio. He has been artist in residence of the Kunstfest Weimar and pianist in residence of the Berlin Philharmonic.
In spring 2011, Mr. Schiff attracted attention because of his opposition to the latest Hungarian media law. In view of the ensuing attacks on him from some Hungarian Nationalists, he has made the decision not to perform or return to his home country.
Mr. Schiff has been awarded numerous international prizes, and his relationship with the publisher G. Henle continues with a joint edition of Mozart’s piano concertos and The Well-Tempered Clavier.
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