University of California - San Diego - Regents' Lecture No. 1 (1966)
Lecture 1 - January 26 - Part 1
From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University
Apparently we can't do without these contraptions. This is going to be taped, I am told, and I haven't the vaguest idea whether this is getting over to the man at the machine, but we will just trust to luck. I have been informed that I was going to talk to a very intelligent group but more likely one that was not technically trained in music. However, we still have an enormous amount of possibilities for discussion and for thought, and I thought that the best way to deal with this situation is to explore the literature of Bach. I am sure that most of you have some awareness of the vast scope of his music, but I think that it might do us all some good to see the enormous gamut of writing that exists in Bach, probably wider and broader and deeper — and I say this without prejudice — than any other composer in out Western music. The first thing that I'd like to establish is something about the way music is composed. You've all heard about structures of preludes and fugues, and toccatas, and the general tern of cantata and so forth and so on. And today there are so many program notes in programs and most everyone who loves music and who is interested in Bach in particular, does a bit of reading. My dread about you is your level of mis-information, so that I am going to start with a group of ideas which are a kind of basis of performing music from which many musicians depart to play Bach, and then I hope to spend all the rest of my time with you on what goes on inside of the music and on musicological matters.
We must refer to earlier practices when we are dealing with music for which the tradition has been lost. And this idea is sometimes lost sight of. The tradition of thinking in Bach's forms, not only the ways of performing Bach, but thinking in those forms, which is infinitely more important, was totally lost — entirely cut off. The date of his death, 1750, happens to be quite a convenient date for a change in thinking in all the arts, and in other fields as well. And from that point on for about 75 years, Bach was almost unknown, except to a very small group of musicians. So in order to clear the air, in order to begin to understand what this music is about, in order to begin to understand something about the performance of the music, it is necessary to study as a scholar, as a historian. Now perhaps this is not surprising to you, but it is always something of a shook when it is said to many performers because performers are not particularly history-winded. They have been more recently frightened into respecting the musicological field but it is very rare that musicologists and the performers talk to each other. So we have to bring these two together.
Now, for instance, I will tell you some of these bases of approach to Bach that I have personally experienced. One of them is hearing a woman after a recital of one of say colleagues who played all-Bach, leaving the hall say — "Isn't it wonderful that he can play for two hours and make it sound all the same!" Now this is one definite approach — because this is the approach of what is called simplicity, where everything is in a moderate tempo — nothing is ever loud, nothing is ever soft, nothing is ever fast, nothing is ever slow. It's not too lively, it's not too sad, everything is rather moderato. Now this is an approach that does not belong to just one person; this has gone on for about a hundred years. That's one of them. Now then I have heard a conductor say to an orchestra at a rehearsal for an orchestral work of Bach, saying "Remember Bach was a German. He drank a lot of beer. Play fat tones."
Now there is a third school. I was engaged some years ago to play in Manchester with the Manchester Symphony. It was their centenary year I believe, and they were having great celebrations and wonderful concerts all through the year. And they engaged Hindemith to conduct the orchestra and they engaged me to be soloist at that pair of concerts, and I was going to play the Bach D minor Concerto. And Hindemith, as I am sure many of you know, was very much interested in this period. He was a wonderful viola player and he used to play the viola d'amore in orchestral concerts, with the performances of of the St. Matthew Passion. One would sometimes see on the stage of Carnegie Hall Hindemith sitting there playing the viola d'amore. So he had a very special interest in this, and no doubt the managers of the orchestra thought this was a brilliant idea — to bring Hindemith and myself together. I was very much interested and looked forward to it very much. At the beginning of the rehearsal before we had played one note, Hindemith said to the orchestra "Gentleman, you see Bach has written no dynamics." Now this is perfectly true. This is one of the great problems in interpreting Bach — t'here are no indications for performance — almost none. Once in a great while you will see a little phrase marked; once in a great while you will see a forte or piano. But, on the whole, the score is bare. All you have are notes and sometimes you hardly have any notes. That we will discuss another time. You have only a skeleton and you must fill in the actual notes. So Hindemith said to the orchestra "Gentlemen, as you see there are no dynamics. Bach wrote no dynamics. We must follow Bach. Therefore we play with no dynamics." Now that's about the neatest trick of the week because it's not possible. The minute you make a tone, you have some level of dynamics. What it means practically to a performer again is that you play mezzo forte.
So now, there is quite another kind of group and that is those who have become historically aware, a little bit. And there's a group that says that Bach is very good for you — and this has gone on for over a century — is very good for you, for your wind, and is very good for your fingers and therefore you listen or you study with this in mind. Then there is the harpsichord group who say that Bach must be played on the harpsichord because this Is the instrument for which it was written — and that would take — I can write a book on that one. Just briefly the fact is that in Germany the keyboard instruments mostly played were the organ in the church and the clavichord in the home. Germany was not a country of harpsichord playing. France was. In France it was the court that led the whole style of music and Couperin was the harpsichord composer, not Bach. So that the question is much more wide than a single instrument. Besides every harpsichord differed from every other one and the term "clavier" which is the term which one sees all the time since about the 14th century even through the 19th century, is a generic term meaning "keyboard", and that means any keyboard instrument. So there are — it is a very much wider picture than a single instrument.
Now there are those who say Bach should be thought of only in terms of violin music because he had this marvelous sense of melody and this wonderful sense of lines and Schweitzer is one of those who has promoted this idea largely, but there are others as well. And then, of course, there is a group who says it must be played only on the clavichord because Bach usually played his music on the clavichord at home and this is where he conceived his music so it must be basically conceived for the clavichord. Well — in our time this has become a very large question — what instrument shall be used for the performance of Bach. Well. In London about three or four years ago at a lecture at London University, Thurston Dart, who maybe you might know of, who is a very fine musicologist, was asked ''Well, we realise that Bach should be played on the harpsichord, but what if we don't have a harpsichord. What if we don't own one and we can't play — we can't get to play Bach, and we want to. We want to go over this piece and this Prelude and Fugue. What shall we do? We have only a piano at home. So Dart said "Well. We needn't be too rigid. You may do in the privacy of your home."
Now Landowska who has been — really she has been attacked very much in recent years and somewhat during her lifetime, toward the end of her life and especially after her death. We cannot refuse to face the fact that Landowska was enormously influential in bringing the harpsichord to public attention, and this was a good thing, and a very important thing, and a very valuable contribution. At the same time, she did have the harpsichord strung with piano strings, not with the kind of strings with which one must string the harpsichord. And she also had an arrangement of pedals which is rather amusing because, although — I think for the moment that perhaps some of you are not aware that there are pedals — what we call the registration pedals — on a harpsichord. There may be 3, 4, 7 or 8, especially in our time, and these pedals are pressed down to get certain effects fundamentally of quality — side effect is quantity — so that if you want a change of quality, you press this pedal or that pedal according to what they do. I will talk much more about the harpsichord and its possibilities another time. But in any case these things exist — and before the 16th century these were mostly, hand knobs which made different registrations; and in Bach's time also there were a great many harpsichords that had hand knobs more often than foot registrations. But the point is that you would pull the knob or you even had a knee lever that you would push or press the pedal for a different effect of quality. With Landowska — she had seven or eight pedals — the instrument was so arranged that all the registrations were on all the time and if she didn't want one particular quality she would press the pedal which would then mute that quality. I remember being horrified when I discovered this. I had gone to Paris to look at the Pleyel harpsichords (because this is where she developed her whole idea about the harpsichord) and discovered that if you wanted to silence something, you had to press it all down. And then on the other hand, she was a very great player of the instrument. I still consider her the greatest performer on the harpsichord that we have had even at the present — because, despite the fact that she did this sort of thing, she did develop a profound knowledge of the instrument and these things that she did were much more for the public, for large halls and general effectiveness. But she had, at the same time, a true and profound knowledge of the instrument and despite the fact that she had this nonsensical arrangement with the pedals, she did understand registration with an enormous subtlety. And one other thing that she knew profoundly which I — almost no one today can equal — and that is her understanding of ornamentation.
Now ornamentation is almost a life-study in itself. I am sure all of you have heard something about the problems of ornamentation, or that such a problem does exist. And all of you who read music have seen these squiggles and these trills and these various symbols which remain incomprehensible still to most musicians and performers, and which form a whole body of controversy in themselves. This is one of the fascinations about Bach. I mean there is no end to it and there is no end to possible controversy. But the fact is that Landowska did know ornamentation and she did understand it and she did know how to apply it in the music and perform it. Now we have had the situation in recent times when musicology has grown and great musicologists have been developed and we have wonderful source material uncovered and some very fine books indeed that we can go to to study about the period of Bach and pre-Bach so that you can find books that tell you about ornamentation and what these various symbols mean. It's not So simple as that. They rarely mean one thing. They are usually a type and they mean — they can mean several dozen, different things and you must learn to recognize the situation in which they appear to know what to do with them. But that's a little aside. The point being that you cannot learn out of the source or the text how to play the symbol in the music from a book. It is unfortunate but it is true, and today where book is God it is a hard thing for a person who wishes to know something about this to understand why it is not possible. It is possible to take the — Oh, let us take a basic simple way of performing a simple ornament and transfer it into performance and play it correctly and It will be all wrong.
It is a little like the Danish language. I remember when I first went to Europe, my first concerts were in the Scandinavian countries and my first series of recitals was in Copenhagen. And I went over by ship and I was very ambitious and I had a book on the Danish language and the Swedish language and the Norwegian language and the first that I studied was the Danish. And I thought that I had made a little progress, but when I landed in Denmark and I heard that language, I didn't understand how anyone could communicate with each other. That is a language that you cannot learn out of a book because the pronunciation cannot be written down, cannot be indicated. The point is that they seem to pronounce no consonants at all. It sounds like all vowels and the Danes themselves say that "our language isn't a language; it is a throat disease." The Danes themselves say that. (I know the Swedes say it, I know that) But the Swedish language is more in the front of the mouth — more exploded and there the consonants are very strong. Well perhaps it is another continent (?). The fact is that ornamentation is a little bit like Danish. You cannot really apply whatever knowledge you have, of it from study in a book.
What is necessary — you do have to study the history and you have to study many aspects of history in order to understand ornamentation. You, cannot simply study the symbols of ornamentation. You have to know something about the harpsichord, about the organ, about the clavichord. You have to know something about the polyphonic music and you have to know a great deal about the forms of the 17th and 18th centuries. I mean the dance forms that you find in the Suites and about fugue form and how that developed. You have to know a great deal about harmony but the kind of harmony that Bach grew out of — not the kind of harmony that you study in the harmony class which is based on 19th century harmony. That means that you must know something of the Gregorian modes — this is of utmost importance. You cannot deal with ornamentation if you do not know something of the Gregorian modes. So you see a great deal is involved. And even if you have this knowledge as knowledge and you do not have equipment as a musician and a performer, the application is not going to fit. I have heard people play who have the knowledge and when it is in the music as they play it, it is as though — it sounds as if they never heard of the fact that an ornament should begin on the beat. What it means is this. We have come out of the 19th century after all — We cannot get rid of that fact much as many of us would like to, and we have this in our background so that one hears ornaments or trills quite unconsciously off-the-beat, before the beat that is, and a whole new rhythmic orientation has to take place before you can begin to play ornaments on the most simple and basic level with any authenticity and any real musical relevance. That is the first thing. And then, of course, the understanding of what notes to employ because these ornaments are not written out. Perhaps I'll write a few on the blackboard — But I think there are no tools — Oh, thanks. One of the basic ones is this [space left for example, but not recorded] and then you get a variation of that which is this [space left] and then you get one that looks like that and then sometimes you get it going on for a long time.