The Associated Board edition is edited and introduced by Donald Francis Tovey, who was a leading authority on all matters musicological. His notes on editions, interpretation, notation, and general instructions on ornaments are worth slogging through. He was writing at a time of romantic excess in the playing of Baroque music. We are long past that era, but can still benefit from Tovey’s insights.
The information is dense, detailed, and really useful. Not an easy read. An example, in the context of authoritative texts: “And the capacity thus to discriminate must not be regarded as a matter of taste; it is solid scientific knowledge; attainable, indeed, by nobody who lacks enthusiasm for Bach’s Church Cantatas, but of just the same order of scholarship as that which restores a lot consonant throughout the whole extent of the Homeric poems, and detects later interpolations by the fact that they show that they were written after that consonant was obsolete.”
After reading this several times, I get it, but surely it could have been a little more clearly stated. No more direct quotes. A few choice points:
- Editions: Take note of who edited the edition. Avoid Czerny’s editions. He based these on Beethoven’s playing, who would have been the first to protest the validity of this. Sometimes he joked around – sticking huge accents in for fun.
- Dynamic markings: None of these are Bach’s. He didn’t add any. The best way to go about this is to figure it out ourselves. Tovey says there are perhaps 79 ways of doing this and all of them will be right and wrong.
- Analysis: It’s all here. For every Prelude and every Fugue. Analysis geeks, such as myself, revel in this stuff. But don’t get hung up on it, he says. Don’t let it interfere with the natural phrasing, which must be explored and put to the test of the ear.
- Interpretation of a theme: 2 words. Sing it. This will never mislead.
- Articulation: the practice of playing all 16th notes (semi-quavers) legato over staccato 8ths (quavers) is “an abomination of Bach’s harmonic style.” It’s not natural and, unfortunately, not quite that easy to figure out a good articulation.
- Voicing: Forget the rule about bringing out the subject. Organists don’t. Harpsichordists couldn’t. The bigger issue is preventing failure of tone in any one part. Most of the counterpoint sounds best when all parts are evenly balanced. If only all examiners and adjudicators were on the same page here.
There’s more. Stay tuned.
And if anyone can translate “which left his withers unwrung” into 21st century English, please do
Photo credit: Ryan Edmondson