Did Bach really mean that?
Deceptive notation in baroque keyboard music
by Colin Booth

Sample from the start of chapter 1: Introduction

All keyboard-players, be they pianists, harpsichordists, or organists, are aware of the “Early Music” revival — the choice by some musicians to use appropriate instruments and techniques to get into the heart of the music, and realise more clearly the composer’s intention. Most players of modern instruments respect this attempt — some do not. All players, however, have to deal with the text. A clean score, stripped of the suggestions of 19th century editors, is now seen by most players, whatever their instrument, as essential to a good performance of any composer’s work. But for truly “early” music (for the sake of argument, music written before the Classical period) such a score may well not, on its own, give today’s musicians the information they need to produce a performance which goes the way the composer had in mind. Indeed, young pianists, brought up to expect some interpretative guidance within the score, may initially wonder what to do with so many “unphrased” notes.

Faced with this, some mainstream musicians, who traditionally have had their own perspectives on Baroque music, may be inclined to revel in a freedom of approach not available to them in more recently composed music. The cellist Yo Yo Ma speaks for many:

“You can do just about anything to the music of Bach, and he still comes out ‘right side up’.”

There is a paradox here. Most mainstream players profess a reverence for the text, and Yo Yo Ma is no exception. By contrast, it is the “Early Music specialist” who may more often go so far as to play things which do not seem to be in the score! The difference lies in the fact that specialists, alongside the use of rediscovered instruments and techniques, will at least recognise that notation in early music may look familiar, but that its interpretation is a very different discipline from that required when playing Shostakovich. So it can be they, who, by discovering a different set of possibilities within the score (possibilities based on research into performance practice contemporary with the composition), may enjoy a freedom at least equally great, arguably less egocentric, and of a rather different kind.

This approach also encourages the view that the stature of Baroque composers is increased, not diminished, by taking their scores not as if they were written yesterday, but as creations presented in a musical language which is partly out of date, and which it can be our pleasure, as it is our duty, to understand as fully as we can. Further, we find that this language, like any other, was never static. Bach was not only a man of his time, but inherited a constantly shifting and growing notational and interpretative practice. Again, all Baroque composers were individuals who used notation differently, just as composers have always sought to stretch and extend the language of music in their own way.

The approach of Yo Yo Ma has its own validity: modern performers are individuals too. We are apt to forget that, just as there are as many interpretations of a Bach prelude today as there are players, so it was in Bach’s own time. Beyond deliberate sabotage, there cannot be a “right” or “wrong” way to play Bach, since we don’t live in 18th century Leipzig. Because we exist at two centuries’ distance from Bach, we must accept that there are now far more ways of performing his music than he would have known.

However, this book is not aimed at those who feel that they can do whatever they like with the score. It is intended to open some unexpected doors to those who want to “get inside” Baroque music — who want to play Bach’s music not, first and foremost, from their own point of view, but from Bach’s, or as near to that as we can hope to get. The premise of the book is that such a desire often transcends the categories which we may choose to term “mainstream, or authentic”, “modern or specialist”.

There is sometimes a clear difference in the approaches to notation between keyboard-players, instrumentalists, and singers. This study will concentrate on keyboard music, and some of the interpretations suggested here may be regarded by non keyboard-players as irrelevant to themselves. Every opportunity which I enjoy of working with singers and instrumentalists shows me that this is mistaken. But to keep this book within sensible bounds, this cobbler will stick to his last.


See the sample from the next chapter, or buy the book.