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Bach Books
Bach Interpretation: Articulation Marks in the Primary Sources of J. S. Bach
by John Butt


Bach Interpretation

Articulation Marks in the Primary Sources of J. S. Bach

Dr John Butt

Language: English ISBN: 0521372399

Cambridge University Press


HC / 292pp

Buy this book at:

Butt's book about articulation in Bach, and an organ recording

Continue a discussion from: Minims [Gerneral Topics]

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 14, 2004):
Laurence Dreyfus, on p. 91 of his “Bach’s Continuo Group” (Harvard University Press, 1987) had stated, as I had just pointed out in the previous posting:
>>Bach was consistent. In the bassoon parts, Bach invariably used quarter notes for every “reduction.” Moreover, the staccato cues in all three cantatas [BWV 18, 31, and 185] are likewise distributed consistently across the parts in the designated movements.<<

Now I have found the following two statements which corroborate and add further depth to the Dreyfus' statement which referred only to the staccato cues in the bassoon parts:

John Butt, on p. 131 of his “Bach Interpretation: Articulation Marks in the Primary Sources of J. S. Bach (Cambridge University Press, 1990,) stated:
>>Yet, as the present survey [Butt’s own] shows, and as both Dürr and Dadelsen have concluded, Bach did ‘aim’ at consistency of markings. The consistencies vastly outweigh the inconsistencies.<<

It might be interesting to consider how this would carry over into Bach’s actual performance practices where he might as easily make changes in the orchestration as he would change registrations on an organ (or from one organ to the next, from one performance to the next), but when it came to the matter of performance style (deciding which notes should be treated as dotted or slurred,) he would remain consistent. He would ‘spell out’ exactly what he wanted in terms of note duration, articulation and the use of musical figures and melismas (diminutions.) By doing so, he knew he would help to raise the stylistic level of performance of those performers who were less competent and artistically gifted (those who would follow ‘only the notes as written’) while at the same time he would prevent other highly qualified or self-promoting artists from ‘destroying’ or ‘distorting’ the essential beauty of his compositions by the use of over-embellishment or bizarre, whimsical enhancements made at the spur of the moment and not according to the level of good taste which Bach could support.

Butt, on p. 140:
>>Bach’s approach to articulation and its development within the compositional history of each piece is symptomatic of his attitude to composition itself: the details are often amplified and clarified with progressive unity and symmetry of material. However, the basic fabric and identity of each piece and its corresponding articulation are seldom altered after the initial stages of composition. As H. Grüß (“Über Stricharten und Artikulation in Streichinstrumentenstimmen Johann Sebastian Bachs,” IB V, 1988, p. 334) observes, when a movement is carefully marked by Bach (particularly if solo lines are involved,) articulation is no longer left to the whim of the performer, ‘sondern formuliert eine zusätzliche Ebene von musikalischem Zusammenhang’ (‘but forms an additional level of musical coherence.’)<<

Here we can begin to ascertain the great divergence in recent decades between those conductors/performers, on the one hand, who wish to preserve at all costs the wide range of freedom of interpretation of Bach’s scores and those, on the other hand, who more faithfully submit to Bach’s intentions by adhering more closely to the best editions of Bach’s scores that are now available.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 17, 2004):
RE: the book Bach Interpretation: Articulation Marks in the Primary
Sources of J. S. Bach
by Dr John Butt (Cambridge University Press, 1990):

[To Thomas Braatz] Mr Braatz' selective quotes from John Butt's book below, interspersed with his own paragraphs of interpretation, are misleading..... (But "what else is new?")

Here are at least three of the broader points of the book, conveniently omitted here by Braatz:

- The articulation marks in Bach's music clarify the compositional features (showing the groupings of the notes that belong together in the musical thoughts/figures). Occasionally, but less often, the markings also clarify or prescribe technical handling of the passages. The articulation marks are not restrictions on performers [as Braatz would have it, expecting us to "adhere closely to the best editions"]; and the lack of markings is not a prohibition. The marks are there to help performers understand the musical figures Bach wanted, thinking across several different media (instruments whose performing technique are different from one another).

- In much of Bach's music, the articulation marks are there to clarify things the performers would not already know from general musicianship and/or rehearsal with him. That is, the articulation marks are there to get the attention of people who might otherwise come to the music with wrong expectations. Once Bach has established a clear enough pattern, he does not mark every little thing, but rather only indicates when there is something new to notice, something exceptional. (For example, performers who know about the hierarchies of "good" and "bad" notes should go ahead and do them with the normally differentiated articulation and accentuation, unless explicitly contradicted by a slur or dots in the notation.) Furthermore, Bach's notational habits are recognizably somewhat different when preparing music for publication, as contrasted with music for his own immediate use.

- Some of Bach's inconsistencies within pieces are recognizably compositional points (deliberate contrasts), but others really do appear to be simply careless error: especially when Bach was working quickly and writing/copying onto a different page of manuscript paper (i.e. having forgotten what he had marked earlier in the piece, and not having time to go back and recheck everything from start to finish).

IN SUMMARY: For good musicians, Bach did not pedantically mark everything that is (or should be) already obvious, or easy enough to figure out with musicianship and training. [And remember, he was right there in most cases to provide that training directly.] The notation doesn't tell us everything we need to know to do our jobs well.

COROLLARY: When read by someone who doesn't come to it with that training and experience, it's quite understandable that Bach's notation is taken as much more prescriptive and restrictive than it really is/was in practice. And who is it here who's trying to forbid performers thinking intelligently, but merely follow printed instructions like minimally-trained automatons (as if that's the best way to be faithful to the music)? A non-performer (that is, Mr Braatz) who doesn't know from practical experience or training what those expected norms of performance practice are/were, and therefore who believes they never existed!

[Anything Braatz doesn't know himself, without the benefits of formal study or extensive practice in this field, cannot be allowed to exist or admitted as evidence...simply because he doesn't understand it, and/or doesn't like the way it sounds, and therefore to him it's automatically wrong historically or aesthetically. A bizarre situation. Braatz' main error is to assume that he himself knows all about the way Bach "would prevent other highly qualified or self-promoting artists from “destroying” or “distorting” the essential beauty of his compositions by the use of over-embellishment or bizarre, whimsical enhancements made at the spur of the moment and not according to the level of good taste which Bach could support." Translation: Mr Braatz doesn't understand or enjoy such "embellishment", so he calls it distortion and destruction, and pleads for restrictions. Hiobvious assumption is that Bach's wishes and intentions were automatically the same as his own, and no broader than his own. The only one here trying to prevent highly qualified artists doing our jobs (via his pseudo-proofs by selective quotation) is Mr Thomas Braatz, not Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach himself was highly qualified to compose and teach music, and he knew what to expect from performers at all levels of accomplishment; accordingly, he wrote down only what was necessary. Mr Braatz (with teaching and composition credentials of Zero) is obviously an enthusiastic fan of Bach's music, if all these doggone performers would stop doing things he doesn't like.]


Incidentally, John Butt's own organ recording of the Schuebler Chorales and several toccatas (Harmonia Mundi 907249) is IMO a terrific performance. It's an excellent example of a thoughtful and intelligent performer taking the material seriously, and still thinking creatively with it, not being bound by pedantry (even though Butt himself is one of the strongest current scholars in Bach research and criticism). These performances from the first week of January 2000 have so much verve and improvisatory sparkle! The compositions included on this disc are BWV 564, 565, 538, 540, and the six chorales 645-650.

Butt is a scholarly performer who works from the best editions and from manuscripts, and comes up with fresh musical interpretations from being extraordinarily well informed (i.e. "academic" in the best sense: thoroughly in command of the material, and inspiring in results)...not simply giving a dry reading of a score. And I thank list member Uri Golomb for recommending it, about a year ago. I have some of Butt's other recordings, on various keyboards, and haven't been as happy with some of them; but this more recent organ disc gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me. Brilliant work! So is his recent book, Playing With History, getting into the philosophical side of historical performance practice.


John Butt: Short Biography | Dunedin Consort | Recordings of Vocal Works | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Discussions of Vocal Recordings:
BWV 232 - J. Butt | BWV 244 - J. Butt
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Bach Organ Toccatas & Schubler Chorales from John Butt | New JSB Organ Recordings
Bach Interpretation: Articulation Marks in the Primary Sources of J. S. Bach | The Cambridge Companion to Bach

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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