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The Present Day Misconceptions About Bach Performance Practice in the 19th Century - The Evidence of the Recordings Pages at the Teri Noel Towe Home Pages - Page 1 - The Traditional View of Bach Performance Practice in the Nineteenth Century

Johann Sebastian Bach

Present Day Misconceptions
About Bach Performance Practice in the Nineteenth Century

The Evidence of the Recordings

This remarkable photograph is not a computer generated composite; the original of the Weydenhammer Portrait Fragment, all that remains of the portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach that belonged to his pupil Johann Christian Kittel, is resting gently on the surface of the original of the 1748 Elias Gottlob Haussmann Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.

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1748 Elias Gottlob Haussmann Portrait, Courtesy of William H. Scheide, Princeton, New Jersey
Weydenhammer Portrait Fragment, ca. 1733, Artist Unknown, Courtesy of the Weydenhammer Descendants
Photograph by Teri Noel Towe
©Teri Noel Towe, 2001, All Rights Reserved



Page 1

The Traditional View of Bach Performance Practice in the Nineteenth Century

In his discussion of the activities of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, who championed the cause of Johann Sebastian Bach in Berlin at the beginning of the 19th century, Gerhard Herz (1911-2000), made this observation in his doctoral dissertation, Johann Sebastian Bach in the Age of Rationalism and Early Romanticism:

"Every one is steeped in his own time, and Zelter could not transcend the bounds of his generation. For him, who was the great representative of the Berlin liederschule, Bach had to be seen in this perspective; that is, he had to be modernized. Zelter revised Bach's church compositions for himself alone, in the belief of serving Bach's cause thereby. In doing so, he did not dispute the seriousness and profundity of Bach's perception. Only what was dated was to be removed." [2]

In this connection, Professor Herz quotes a letter from the Thomascantor Moritz Hauptmann to the great collector of Bach manuscripts, Franz Hauser:

"Through the orchestra, things have become dressed up too much, and the style of dress has gone out of fashion." [3]

Herz's observations are as valid today as they were more than 60 years ago when they were first published, but with a markedly different wrinkle that he, perhaps, did not anticipate. Everyone is steeped in his own time, but I think it was George Santayana who once remarked that, "The twentieth century, like the Hellenistic Age, will fall dead of exhaustion at the doors of libraries." We are obsessed in our time not with the adaptation of worthy creations and ideas from the past for use by the modern age, but with the preservation of the integrity of worthy creations and ideas from the past so that they can be passed on to future generations, whole and unsullied by what we know are, or honestly believe to be, later accretions.

For the first time in the history of music, the performance practice applied to "old" compositions is not the same as that applied to "newer" ones. No longer is it deemed appropriate to interpret virtually any piece of "serious" music in one and the same "contemporary" performance style, as had been the case, practically without exception, from Bach's own day (and before) until well into the present century. The assumption, scarcely questioned until now, that old and new music were equally subject to the currently prevailing interpretive fashions and standards, began to disintegrate rapidly in the 1920s, at precisely the time when the schism between "serious" and "popular" music became complete and irrevocable. For the first time, the prevailing performance practice for "serious" music -- dare I refer to it as "classical" music? -- was not the natural response to, the inevitable outgrowth of, the demands and challenges put forth by the composers of the day. No longer did the Gottfried Reiches, the Ignaz Schuppanzighs, the Ferdinand Davids, and the Joseph Joachims influence and reshape the performance conventions of their times in response or reaction to the demands of the Sebastian Bachs, the Beethovens, the Mendelssohn-Bartholdys, and the Brahmses of their days. The determination and the establishment of the customs of performance practice passed from the hands of the composers and the creative performers into the hands of the academics and the recreative musicians, with results that run the gamut from the praiseworthy to the reprehensible.

There is, of course, a formal "academic" tradition in music -- a venerable one that stretches back to Bach and long before -- but the majority of those "academics" were also active performers, and, well into the 20th century, they maintained dichotomous presences as public performers and as teachers. To use violinistic examples: Ferdinand David and Joseph Joachim simultaneously carried on careers as academics and concert artists. Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay have not. And the development of this separation of functions parallels the development of the divergence between "serious" and "popular" music.

Chief among the failings of today's performers is the reality that far too much "old" music is played either according to a bland, uniform "conservatory-ese" method that professional musicians learn in much the same way that a professional journalist learns essential elements of style, or it is played according to a uniform, reconstructed "authentic performance practice" that is considered standard for the period in question, without regard to the subtle differences in regional performance customs, and all too often without reference to the original performing materials.

To these sins of omission a further one must be added: Few professional musicians and musicologists today are at all familiar with the history of the performance practice as it is preserved and documented on recordings. Indeed, most assume that what knowledge and information is preserved in early recordings is of little value to the study of performance practice, particularly that of earlier periods. It is my contention that, in making these tacit and widely-held assumptions about recordings, music historians are overlooking a source of invaluable evidence. For reasons that will soon be set forth, through careful study we can learn far more than is supposed about the performing traditions held dear not only by those artists who made records, but also by artists who flourished in pre-gramophonic periods as well.

But, just as the gramophone preserved, the gramophone destroyed. Recordings facilitated the blending of national styles and traditions and thus their destruction. The watershed decade was the 1920s, when numerous longstanding performance conventions, many of which can be traced back to the early nineteenth century and before (the appoggiatura convention, for example) were discarded, often in the name of a newly found interest in and devotion to composers' "intentions" and alleged faithfulness to their "original" scores.

Those who summarily dismiss the evidence of early recordings implicitly assume that they reflect a continuum of tradition dating only from the second half of the nineteenth century. That assumption, it would appear, is cause enough to reject the testimony of these early discs as worthless and inappropriate for the music of Bach. The primary problem with this notion is that it is based on the "evidence" of a few late recordings -- almost always those of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Willem Mengelberg, and Leopold Stokowski -- recordings that were made by artists who were strong personalities, iconoclastic and single-minded recreative geniuses, whose work can hardly be said to represent the mainstream of performance practice for their own, let alone earlier, times. Those who denigrate "early" recordings as a mere reflection of mid- and late 19th century traditions, therefore, more often than not have no true conception of what those traditions actually were.

Willem Mengelberg's legendary interpretation of the Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244, recorded in concert in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Palm Sunday, 1939,
[4] is a quintessential example of the type of performance generally dismissed today as indicative of the 19th-century style. The opening chorus, "Kommt ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen" is replete with grand ritards, neo-Mahlerian plasticity, rubati within rubati and phrases within phrases, and a fastidious attention to details of dynamics within phrases. The performance lasts 10 minutes 52 seconds. The overall tempo range is dotted quarter note = 31 to 36, with a range of dotted quarter note = 32 to 34 being the norm; the ritards, however, slow the tempo to as low as dotted quarter note = 25 to 27. [5]

But is the Mengelberg interpretation, in fact, representative of the mainstream 19th-century approach?

Quite apart from the purely chronological objections to such a verdict, I maintain that Mengelberg's intensely personal vision is the virtual antithesis of the mainstream 19th-century approach to Bach interpretation.

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