The Interpretation of Bach’s Works (1906)

by Wanda Landowska

translated by Edward Burlingame Hill [1]


Consider for a moment the various contradictory opinions as to how to interpret Bach:

“The works of the great Cantor are like a majestic cathedral. To interpret them one must think chiefly of bringing out their grand contrapuntal outlines without preoccupation with detail.”

Bach’s works remind one of fine and valuable lace. We must bring out its scientific complication.”

“The works of the great Cantor are built in granite; they are positively herculean. To remain faithful to a style that is so grandiose, inelastic and cold, one must not be influenced by any other sentiment than the desire to be completely impersonal.”

But why not breathe fresh life into these severe beauties? If Bach were living today, perhaps he would be more emotional. If he were acquainted with our modern instruments, he would undoubtedly modify many things. Since he is dead, we should give his music the fulness of sonority and the emotional intensity of our modern temperament. There should be more dramatic effect. More octaves in the base, more tragic intensity of interpretation.”

“To preserve the characteristics of the epoch,” say the sober virtuosi, “We must not employ the pedals which did not exist in those far off days.”

“The old instruments had more pedals than those of today.”

And so on. It would be impossible to quote all the prejudices which are to be met with in the conservatories, the concert-halls, or among the critics. That which is most widely current is that Bach was the Czerny of the 17th century — a genial Czerny who wrote piano and organ exercises that were very difficult and exceedingly useful in developing the left hand and the fourth finger. But many musicians pay little attention to these contradictory ideas on Bach. They consider the question settled long ago, for they follow the best tradition of the great pianists, especially Rubinstein.[2] Perhaps it might be interesting to learn the attitude of that master and virtuoso in this matter.


Rubinstein’s Attitude Toward Bach

“All the great composers up to Haydn” — says Rubinstein — “have left us in complete darkness as to their intentions on the subject of the performance of their works; and there is no means of knowing anything definite about it. Today you will not find two musicians who agree even as to how the embellishments should be played. Philip Emanuel Bach wrote a book on this topic; but he had in mind only the instruments of his time. Unfortunately we cannot acquire an exact idea of these harpsichords, clavichords, clavicembalos, and spinets, for we do not know how to play them, a knowledge indispensable to criticism.”

But Rubinstein does not go so far as Saint-Saëns, who advises us to be content with reading scores, and to abandon the performance of works of which we can furnish only a false or inefficient interpretation. On the contrary, with the best intentions, he seeks a remedy for the evil, and attempts especially to obtain the delicate sonorities of the past on our latter-day piano. “I cannot help believing,” he said, “that Bach’s piano had special arrangements to produce different effects of sonority. I always feel tempted to vary the “registration” of dynamic effects through different styles of playing and by adroit use of the pedals.”

The present writer possesses the two books of the “Well-Tempered Clavichord” with copies of the marks of expression and commentaries made by Rubinstein for his series of historical concerts. Side by side with some ardent appreciations, sometimes too fanciful, as in the fugue B-flat minor (Book 2) to which Rubinstein imagined “the song of a moujik (peasant) on his cart in the middle of the steppes” we find some vague instructions—very vague as to execution. It is evident that his method of “registration” was not exact: it was dependent upon his chance intuitions. But on nearly every page of his writings one can see what importance he attached to an acquaintance with the old instruments.

“No,” he said “The modern piano is not the instrument on which to play these old classics. Since the works of this or that epoch were conceived for the instruments of their time, and by which only they could be faithfully reproduced, I conclude that they must lose when played on the pianos of today. If Philip Emanuel Bach had written a book on the Real method of playing the Clavier with expression it would then follow that expressive performance was possible on the instruments of his time.”[3]

Rubinstein seeks in vain, but discovers no possibility of closer acquaintance with these old instruments. And yet we possess fine specimens in a good state of preservation. “But,” says Rubinstein, those instruments which are to be found in the museums of London or Brussels cannot give us an exact idea of their qualities, for time alters the sonority of a piano to such an extent as to render it unrecognizable.” That is true, but the old makers have left behind them accurate specifications for the construction of their instruments and even treatises on tuning them. In general, Rubinstein goes too far in asserting that we have no means of knowing anything positive about the older music. Their epoch is not so remote from us; the 17th and 18th centuries were distinguished not only for the number of their creative geniuses, but for their remarkable theorists, and, if anything, we should complain of the number of documents available, for a lifetime would hardly suffice to know half of them. Fortunately this task has been rendered easy for us by experts such as Spitta, Dannreuther, Pirro, Seiffert, Fuller-Maitland, Shedlock and many others.[4] If we are sometimes in doubt as to the execution of this or that ornament, this misunderstanding of a mere detail is quite as likely to happen in music that is more modern. As for Bach, he has clearly indicated precisely how the ornaments should be played, in the examples given on the first page of theClavierbüchlein (Little Book for the Piano), written for his son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, his system of playing from figured bass in the Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach, as well as a theoretical work on this subject, treated with greater breadth and also in greater detail under the title: “Rules and Principles of Four-Voiced Playing From a Figured Bass, or Accompanying for Pupils by Johann Sebastian Bach, Royal Court Composer and Capellmeister, also Director of Music and Cantor of the St. Thomas School at Leipzig.”


The Atmosphere of the Bach Period

But I do not wish to imply that acquaintance with the old instruments and exact knowledge of embellishments and figured bass, suffice to execute their music; far from it. There are more serious obstacles which Rubinstein did not take up at all. To begin with, it is our general ignorance of the manners and customs, the motions, the prevailing mental attitude and the atmosphere of the epoch. We very rarely hear the genuine music of the Leipzig Cantor. We are compelled to listen to modernized Bach, arranged according to the musical fashions of today, approximated to the conditions of our time. We are within two centuries of Bach, nevertheless his epoch is ancient history vague and totally distinct from that in which we live, different in life, art, impressions and ideas. What we seek eagerly, what we like and what we admire, often did not find favor in those days.

Intensity of expression and breadth of sonority are the qualities now most sought after, most admired in every musical performance. Nevertheless these ideals of contemporary art were not in high favor two centuries ago. In prefaces to their works or in treatises on playing the harpsichord, the authors recommend above all, grace, finesse and precision. “Experience has taught me,” says Francois Couperin, “that the hands which are the strongest and capable of playing the most rapid passages are not those which succeed best in expressing tender sentiment.”


Bach’s Ideal Compared with the Modern

In his search for perfection, Bach did not imagine an instrument with increased sonority, but one with a tone as supple and flexible as possible. In his preface, dated 1723, for the “Inventions,” Bach said that they were written to teach correctness in playing and to aid the pupil in acquiring a singing tone; he disdained those composers who thought only of finger-gymnastics, and called them “Clavier-Husaren” (in our slang, “Knights of the Key Board.”) He insisted that the three principles which guided the Roman rhetoricians were necessary for a fine interpretation—accuracy, clearness and grace. When Bach is played today, intensity, thundering basses and exaggerated contrasts in dynamics are the most noticeable qualities. Grace, intelligence, naive faith and sublimity have become too unimportant in our coarse, commercial life to be considered in interpreting works of genius.

Music is growing too popular, too democratic. In Wagner’s words, music has ceased to be the pleasure and ministering servant of a few select persons of refinement. It has become everybody’s pleasure, and “everybody” prefers noisy effects, sensations which stun, and above all sonority, tremendous sonority. There must be virtual explosions, torrents of sound and electric displays in order that the fatigued listener may not fall asleep!


A Comparison Between the 17th and 20th Century Instruments

This exaggerated regard for intensity and noise has been a prominent factor in the so-called improvements of other modern instruments. For example, take the modern organ, and immense constructions operated by water or electricity. In his book on Bach, Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a remarkable organist and a competent authority in all that concerns the organ, gives up an entire chapter to this very question.[5] Bach’s works are not improved by the sonority of the modern organ; the fundamental stops play too important a role in comparison with the mixtures, they are too numerous and at the same time have too great a volume of tone. In Bach’s time the mixtures were not only equal in number to the fundamentals, but they were much more euphonious than our modern mixtures, and had a tone that was both intense and subtle and which reproduced marvelously the part writing in a fugue. These fugues, according to Mr. Schweitzer, played on the organ of today, become as heavy and massive as engravings reproduced in crayon. As for our concert-grand, that machine goes to deafen an entire audience. Compare its massive legs with the fine and fragile lines of those of the harpsichord and you will find the difference in taste between the two epochs summed up.



[1] This study was originally published in The Etude Music Magazine (September 1906): 562-3. The following introduction was provided by the editors of The Etude: “Some months ago The Etude printed an article on Mme. Landowska’s harpsichord recitals which arouse so much enthusiasm in certain music centers in Europe. She has made searching studies in the music of the clavichord and harpsichord periods, as well as the instruments themselves, and has made of herself an authority on these subjects. Although the players of today must play Bach’s compositions on an instrument much different from that for which they were written, they will much more readily penetrate the spirit of the older music if they can gain an idea of its special features. The present article and another section of it, which will appear in The Etude for October will aid, greatly, in forming an estimate of Bach’s clavier works and the style in which they should be played.” [Editors]. [Back]

[2]. Landowska does not specify which text or lecture she cites. The writings of Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) include: “Die Componisten Russland’s,” Blätter für Musik Theater und Kunst, 29 (11 May 1855); 33 (25 May 1855); 37 (8 June 1855); “Istoriya literaturď fortepy’yannoy muzďki,” Muzďkal’noye obozreniye (St Petersburg, 1888–9; German trans., 1899, as Die Meister des Klaviers); Avtobiograficheskiye vospominaniya (1829–1889) (St Petersburg, 1889; Eng. trans., 1890, as Autobiography of Anton Rubinstein (1829–1889)); Muzďka i yeyo predstaviteli (Moscow, 1891; Eng. trans., 1891, as A Conversation on Music: Music and its Masters). See New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 29 September 2003), [Back]

[3]. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) published Die Kunst das Clavier zu spielen [Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments] in 1750 in Marpurg. English translation edited by W.J. Mitchell, (New York, 1949). [Back]

[4]. Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) was a music historian; he wrote about Bach, Palestrina, among other subjects, and edited complete works of Schutz. Edward Dannreuther (1844-1905) was an English pianist and music critic, author of Musical Ornamentation (London, 1893). Andre Pirro (1869-1943) was a French organist and scholar, the author of a history of 14-16th century music. Max Seiffert (1868-1948) was a German musicologist specializing in Baroque music; he published editions of Scheidt, Sweelinck, Buxtehude and others. J. A. Fuller-Maitland (1856-1936) was an English musicologist, writing on German and English music from 15th to 19th centuries. He edited music by Byrd, Purcell, Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and other sources. J.S. Shedlock (1843-1919) was an English music writer, the author of a history of the sonata and studies of Beethoven. [Back]

[5]. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was an Alsatian organist, musicologist, and doctor. Active in the Paris Bach Society, he published on music between 1905 and 1913. His study of J. S. Bach, appeared in 1905 and was translated into numerous languages. J.S. Bach, le musicien-počte (Leipzig, 1905; Ger. trans., enlarged 1908; Eng. trans., 1911). In 1913 founded a hospital for lepers in Gabon, Africa where he resided until his death. [Back]

Wanda Landowska (b. Warsaw, 5 July 1879; d. Lakeville, CT, 16 August 1959) was a Polish keyboard player and composer, leading the revival of the harpsichord and early music. Piano player since the age of four, she studied piano with Kleczynski and Michalowski in Warsaw, composition with Urban in Berlin. In 1900 she moved to Paris and dedicated herself to researching early music and its interpretation; she publicly played the harpsichord for the first time in 1903 and repeatedly toured the world with her early music recitals. See B. Gavoty and R. Hauert, Wanda Landowska (Geneva, 1957), Denise Restout, “Wanda Landowska,” in Women Composers: Music Through the Ages, ed. S. Glickman and M.F. Schleifer, vi (New York, 1999), 382–8. Landowska’s writing have been edited by Denise Restout and published in a collection, Landowska on Music (New York, 1965).