Performing the Keyboard Works of J. S. Bach on the Modern Piano

(Walter Blankenheim, from the program for Bach-Festival, 1997, Saarland/Germany)

The wealth of Bach’s keyboard

The wealth of Bach’s keyboard works has yet to be exhausted and this has reasons that are deeply rooted in the characteristics of our concert life. Here are some thoughts regarding this.

The performer faces a dilemma, of which he or she is fully aware: the music should be honestly and fully conveyed; but beyond that—something that may surely be more important to the performer—he or she has to display their artistic abilities and personality. The audience, following convention and at once the judge, furthers this process through critical listening, leading to a principle of competition among performers. In other words, the eyes and ears of the listener (often in this order) are essentially focused on the performer and their personality. This stands at the center of modern concert life. As a result, rather than merely presenting the music, the mu­sic becomes the medium through which performers portray themselves. This applies without exception to composers from Haydn and on through Stravinsky, and in a typical concert setting, the personality of the performer is, more or less, the lasting experience for the audience.

The interpretation of Bach’s works ob­viously follows other rules, because the characteristic “self-display” is extraneous. The nature of Bach’s music appears to resist tolerating the above-mentioned circumstances: the interpreter stands exclusively in the service of the composition, and the otherwise legitimate wish to present the ‘self’ cannot happen in this music, unless the composer is played “incorrectly”.

Interpreting Bach and the subsequent reception of the music by the audience necessitates a change of positions on both sides: the interpreter must ‘understand’ what he or she plays, that is, in order to play a work meaningfully, the interpreter first needs to process the almost completely neutral text, identifying the problems and opportunities presented by the work. This understanding of structural processes, as well as the feeling for musical content and ‘energy’ of a work must be convincingly communicated to the audience. The audience can only really experience the composition proper, when it is not disturbed by external interventions by the performer.

The listener must be directly confronted by the work, without the hindering ‘artistic’ side effects that make one aware of, or that focus on the performer. The performer is thus required to assimilate the music absolutely—which is cer­tainly a great challenge! Bach was a man of flesh and blood, who in the course of his professional life was confronted with requirements placed on him by both the nobility and the church, requirements that were not always comfortable for him, and on top of this, he was the patriarch of a large family.

The sheer number of his compositions is mindboggling. It is assumed that the writing down of his works was carried out at the speed ideas occurred to him—a comparison with Mozart’s genius lies close; both being the opposite of Beethoven who searched and struggled in shaping musical material to his satisfaction, and required more time.

In spite of any restrictions placed upon him, one might say that Bach was a ‘godsend’ for all who can and wish to listen to music. Bach’s position within the con­text of Protestant Lutheranism was predetermined, but not restrictive: his music is heard throughout the entire world, even if occasionally with a certain ‘respect’ that perhaps distances him from the listener; however, no one doubts the universal greatness of Bach.

He is the com­poser with the most extensive future. Interpreting his music may be understood as ‘animating structure’, whereby the individual temperament of the performer is given freedom for very personal accents that may be called:

  • energy and relaxation
  • structure and feeling
  • historical perspective
  • ornamentation
  • brilliance and the joy of making music
  • poetry and sound
 Walter Blankenheim