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Seven Types of Bach Interpretation

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Title : Seven Types of Bach Interpretation
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Seven Types of Bach Interpretation

My title is an homage to a fascinating book by William Empson titled Seven Types of Ambiguity that I read quite a few years ago and am about to have another look at. There are times when I am tempted to adopt the policy of a newspaper columnist I once followed to never read a book I have not previously read. This guarantees that one never reads a bad book.

But back to Bach: occasionally I fall prey to the urge to categorize things, to recognize basic types and try to list them. Call it the clarion call of typology. There are, of course, a myriad of ways of playing Bach and you could simply throw up your hands and say that everyone has an individual approach. But I think that means that then, if you are a real Bach lover, you have to buy everyone's CD (assuming people still buy CDs, which I guess they don't--let's say instead "subscribe to every streaming service" to be more topical). Actually, I think I want, for the purposes of this post, to sidestep the obvious solution to that problem, which is to adopt some sort of aesthetic standard, whether it be objective or subjective, and just try and come up with some sort of rough classification of different ways of playing Bach.

But before I do that, a personal confession. Even though I have been a lover of the music of Bach from my earliest days as a classical musician, the mere fact of admiration did not bestow on me any sense that I had a conviction as to how the music should be played. I even recall saying to a fellow musician with whom I performed a lot that I really didn't know how Bach should be played. She was rather taken aback at that. In retrospect, I think this feeling came from the observation that the music of Bach, in its depth and breadth, had very much more in terms of possibility than nearly all the rest of the guitar repertoire. The fact is that the only truly great composer available to we guitarists is J. S. Bach, and only a few pieces at that.

My first two categories I owe to the excellent guitar maestro Oscar Ghiglia with whom I had the pleasure of studying at the Banff Centre quite a few years ago. Many students came to the class with pieces by Bach.

  1. Play Bach as if you were going shopping. This was Ghiglia's comment to a young lady who, while certainly technically proficient, seemed to find nothing in the music except a string of notes. This is a not uncommon approach. People look at the score and see streams of sixteenths in very orderly groups and just play it with no more engagement than if they were picking out tomatoes in the produce section or sorting through t-shirts. We hear this a lot because, frankly, Bach sounds pretty good no matter how you play him.
  2. Play Bach as if it were an opera by Rossini. A student was playing the Lute Suite No. 1 one day which has a very dramatic prelude in French overture style. Ghiglia was demonstrating how to reveal the harmonic drama and when he got to this intense 4/2 chord he looked up and, as if revealing the hidden libretto, simply said: "Revenge!" It was the perfect analogy, though on another day, he taught the same piece with an entirely different metaphor.
  3. The aggressive approach, which I have at times described as "play Bach as if you hate his music." There are some quite famous guitarists, even ones supposedly known for being Bach specialists, who play this way. Every downbeat takes a heavy accent and the attitude is "I have the technique to play this music the way I want!"
  4. The Fast and Furious approach. This is similar to no. 3, but faster. It is both the temptation and the downfall of professional guitarists to play everything too fast because it reduces all the problems of phrasing and interpretation to being minor details that flash by too fast to notice.
  5. The quirky lute approach. This comes from the historically informed performance tradition. It shows itself in variations in tempo and the use of inegale. Everything is just a bit uneven and aslant.
  6. The rich, resonant, arpeggiated approach. This is how you might describe some of the best harpsichord performances. The harpsichord is limited in terms of dynamic nuance, but is capable of intricate and crisp arpeggiations.
  7. The transcendental, meditative approach which we find in some of the best performances on piano.
Yes, I have particular examples in mind. I am tempted to post them in random order and let the reader decide which correspond to which category. Or perhaps I will just let you provide your own examples? Maybe I will hold off entirely? Well, here are a couple of examples to get you started.

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