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Performing Bach's Keyboard Music Articulation

Author(s): George A. Kochevitsky

Source: Bach, Vol. 4, No. 1 (JANUARY, 1973), pp. 21-25
Published by: Riemenschneider Bach Institute
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41639885
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Performing Bach's Keyboard Music

By George A. Kochevitsky
New York City
" A RTICULATION," a term taken from the domain of speech, indicates
a type of pronunciation, varying from very distinct (as in stac-

catissimo) to smooth flowing (as in legatissimo) .

Articulation is the most enigmatic of all problems connected with
the interpretation of Bach's keyboard music. It is indeed "terra incognita "

and there is no future hope for even a more or less satisfactory solution
of the problems which it presents.
Only in rare instances, do we get information concerning articulation
from Bach himself. In a few cases, he has indicated articulation for an
initial motive only, leaving some or all repetitions of the motive unmarked.

Here, he very possibly intended uniform articulation. Sometimes he perplexes us still more when, as Erwin Bodky has suggested, he takes "obvious

delight in changing the articulation for the repeated use of a given

motive."1 (See Examples la, lb, lc, and Id at the close of this article.)

In the title page of his Inventions, Bach called the Inventions a

"guide ... to acquire a cantabile style of playing"2 (though definitely not
all of the Inventions are to be played in such a style - for instance, the
pieces in F-major and G-major doubtlessly require other kinds of touches).

The composers of the Baroque period intended that slow pieces be

played with a singing legato - a legato which required a special effort
on the harpsichord. Playing on the pianoforte, one should not abstain
from the realization, in appropriate cases, of that which can be achieved
easier and better on the modern instrument. Emphasizing the deficiency
of the old instrument can, after all, hardly be looked upon as adhering

to Baroque stylistic principles! This piano legato should, however, be a

rather "thin" one and should never sound like the lush, "fat," almost over-

lapping legato or romantic-style playing.

As Isai Braudo has stated:

Busoni was the first (at the end of the 19th century) to raise
an objection against the ideal of the smooth and supple romantic legato and proclaimed, as the basic mode, the distinct and
masculine pronunciation, the non-legato touch, which, he be-

lieved, suited Bach's style best. After Busoni all great Bach
performers bring the art of touch to a high level.3

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Albert Schweitzer, as well as some other musicians, was of the

opinion that every Bach phrase must be delivered as if played on a bowed

instrument.4 Such an argument is not convincing. If such a plan were

adopted, the "most instrumentally indifferent music" written for the key-

board would be turned into "string-oriented music" and thus deprived

of its diversity.

Most musicologists agree that in fast, gay pieces a non legato to

staccato touch is most suitable. They also concur that the slow pieces
should be played legato; and that in pieces of moderate tempo, the narrow
intervals (such as seconds) are to be played legato, the intermediate inter-

vals (from third to fifths) portamento, and larger intervals, staccato.

Of course, such strict rules can never be fully justified. All depends
upon the character of a composition. In some pieces, the articulation should
be more or less uniform, in others, contrasting.

Some articulation rules seem to have been invented through analogy

with vocal music. In this respect it is important to remember that Baroque

vocal music was influenced instrumentally, rather than the other way

It seems to the writer that many of the articulation suggestions given

by modern musicologists are abitrary. Some have little or no foundation

in actual music. As for the suggestions of eighteenth-century authors, what
Quantz wrote about articulation probably has very little, if any, reference,
to the music of keyboard instruments. C. P. E. Bach is not explicit in this
matter either. After some "general" unessential remarks he writes: "I use

the expression 'in general,' advisedly, for I am well aware that all kinds
of execution [he meant articulation] may appear in any tempo."5 He then
goes on to repeat twice the admonition that the performer, in spite of
absence of indication for articulation, must be able to deal with this matter.

A slightly more useful hint was given by F .W. Marpurg, who

stated: "Opposed to legato as to staccato is the ordinary movement which
consists in lifting the finger from the last key shortly before touching the

next note. This ordinary movement, which is always understood ... is

never indicated."6 This kind of articulation, the "non troppo legato," is
often indicated in the Busoni editions of Bach's keyboard works.

Within each of the three basic types of articulation mentioned legato, non legato, and staccato - there should be a variety of fine nuances
of degree. Long notes should not be detached, since this would break the
polyphonic line. Very fast passages could not, of course, be played staccato

for obvious technical reasons. Sometimes it could be suggested that one


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should play two lines in a polyphonic texture with contrasting articulation

- one voice legato , the other, non-legato - thus creating a clearly distinguishable linear development.
Through different articulations, the performer can emphasize the dis-

tinction between two melody groups which form the subject, as in the
fugue in B-flat major of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier.
Such a distinction is possible to effect in two mutually inverted ways as

the examples from Czerny and Busoni show. (See Examples 2a and 2b.)
It is easy to see the advantage of Busoni's solution: the first and the third

groups thus present an identical articulation. But who can prove which
way is "correct"?
The subject of the D -Major Sinfonia on the other hand, excludes any

possibility of the opposite articulation. (See Example 3.)

Baroque sonority can be at least partly recaptured through special

training in piano techniques. The pianist should strive to achieve a

bright, slender-yet-elastic, distinctly clear, and "sober" tone with a kind

of silvery quality. Such a tone color permits a more lucid drawing of

the polyphonic line. This color can be achieved by touching the keys delicately with the very tips of well-curved fingers while playing extremely

The search for a Baroque-like timbre never should take precedence

over the striving for an impeccable, definite, clear, rather crisp, diverse-but-

never-crumbled-and-ostentatious articulation. The performer must work

especially carefully to achieve plasticity of the bass and lower middle

voices, which often tend to sound too heavy and stifling on the modern

In Baroque music one often sees short slurs connecting two notes.
The first note under such a slur is usually slightly stressed and sometimes

even almost imperceptibly prolonged. The second is softly (but not too
shortly) picked up.
In Bach's time, the sign " ' " above the note did not mean staccatis-

simo - a meaning it acquired later in the eighteenth century. It was

simply the sign for "staccato," the equivalent of the later staccato dot.

All of the above suggestions are, of course, general and subject to

many modifications. Articulation, like any other element in performance
should always be handled in accordance with the character of the composition.

Rudolf Steglich is of the opinion that "Bach rarely gave any direction

in this [articulation] respect since there were so many degrees and styles

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of legato and staccato that any symbol could therefore only represent rough

approximation." He goes on to state that "the responsive performer must

sense and bring out, the finest and best from the internal evidence of the

music itself''7 [Italics are those of the author.]

Ex. la J.S. Bach, Cantata BWV 72, frlles nur mach Gottes Willen/
Aria, "Mein Jesus will es th un /'oboe part, meas, 1-3.

Ex. lb. Bach, "Mein Jesus will es thun, "Violin I, meas. 17.

Ex. lc. Bach, "Mein Jesus will es thun , "soprano part/ meas. 17-18.

Ex. ia. Bach, Fugue III , Well-Tempered Clavier# Book I, opening

(' jfc motive of subject, meas. 1-2.

Ex. 2a. Bach, Fugua XXI, Well-Tempered Clavier/ Book I, subject,

^ meas. 1-3, Czemy edition.

Ex. 2b. Bach, Fugue XXI, subject, meas. 1-3, Busoni edition.

Ex. 3. Bach, Sinfonia 3, subject, meas, 1-3.


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1 See Erwin Bodky, The Interpretation of Bach's Keyboard Works (Cambridge,

Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, I960), pp. 216-218 and Appendix

"B," p. 386 ff. for a detailed study of selected motives with more than one holographic phrasing.
2 See J. S. Bach, holograph title page of the Inventionen und Sinfonien.

3 See Isai A. Braudo's "Articulation" section in The Questions of the Art of

Musical Performance (Moscow: Muzyka, 1969).
4 Albert Schweitzer, /. S. Bach (New York: MacMillan, 1949), Vol. I, p. 365.
5 C. P. E. Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, (New

York: W. W. Norton & Co.), 1949, p. 149.

6 F. W. Marpurg, Anleitung zum Klavierspielen (Berlin: 1765, Vol. 1, p. 29).
7 See Rudolf Steglich, "Preface" and "Notes" sections to J. S. Bach's Inventionen
und Sinfonien (Munich-Duisburg: G. Henle, 1954).


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