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Bach Preludes And Fugues - Speed Relationships

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I have been asked about the statement by some teachers (in Germany, as it happens) that Bach's Preludes and Fugues must be played with a strict simple speed relationship (like 1:1, 2:1 or whatever). This was in the context of the 48, but I guess is being thought of more widely.

 

I've never come across this idea as an absolute requirement. Does anyone here have either a view on this or an authoritative source for it?

 

Paul

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I don't have an authoritative source, but my gut feeling is that this is just silly dogma, and likely to confine music to a straitjacket, when one's personal instinct should dictate tempi.

 

It's rather like people stating that the tempi in the three sections of the "St. Anne" Fugue in E flat should all be related. How and, more importantly, why?

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
It's rather like people stating that the tempi in the three sections of the "St. Anne" Fugue in E flat should all be related. How and, more importantly, why?

 

Perhaps its because of the subject.

N

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So, is the argument that the subject of the first section should be at the same tempo in each of the three sections?

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
So, is the argument that the subject of the first section should be at the same tempo in each of the three sections?

 

For me it is all found in the time signatures and thus self explanatory.

N

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I would be interested to hear Bach's P&Fs played two times slower

than usually, on a rather ponderous, "teutonic" central german 18th

century organ (Wagner, Trost...), without any attempt to french

or italian "lightness" (despite obvious influencies, but rather on

musical Substanz than in style.)

"Substanz" -this word might be the key-. A substantial Bach, a meal

with sparse spices, rather than spices without meal. (but with the traditionnal

Tierce Mixtures, of course, without which Bach appears naked).

 

Any takers ?

 

Pierre

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For me it is all found in the time signatures and thus self explanatory.

 

I can see where you're coming from but I don't feel it necessary, nor perhaps even desirable to confine each section to a common pulse.

 

The same argument can be - and is - extended to the Sei gegruesset variations where I find performances which insist on having the cantus firmus at the same tempo throughout rather limiting and can lead to tempi for certain variations which just feel unsuitable and limiting.

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
I would be interested to hear Bach's P&Fs played two times slower

than usually, on a rather ponderous, "teutonic" central german 18th

century organ (Wagner, Trost...), without any attempt to french

or italian "lightness" (despite obvious influencies, but rather on

musical Substanz than in style.)

"Substanz" -this word might be the key-. A substantial Bach, a meal

with sparse spices, rather than spices without meal. (but with the traditionnal

Tierce Mixtures, of course, without which Bach appears naked).

 

Any takers ?

 

Pierre

 

On such organs that is how one can almost only play. The instrument always must dictate or else the playing sounds so dreadfully wrong. Ears are as important as fingers and toes in every case. Strong actions make for strong playing.

N

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On such organs that is how one can almost only play. The instrument always must dictate or else the playing sounds so dreadfully wrong. Ears are as important as fingers and toes in every case. Strong actions make for strong playing.

N

 

Indeed....

And this is the kind of organs Bach had.

 

So what ?

 

Pierre

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
I can see where you're coming from but I don't feel it necessary, nor perhaps even desirable to confine each section to a common pulse.

 

The same argument can be - and is - extended to the Sei gegruesset variations where I find performances which have the cantus firmus at the same tempo throughout rather limiting and can lead to tempi for certain variations which just feel unsuitable and limiting.

 

Oh dear. There is no argument. That's my conclusion for the work. But it might change in the next decade.

As for Variations. The music tells you what speed is the happiest. The combination chosen likewise tells you optimum speed, articulation and performance. Each has a personality of its own and will change of course as it gets performed on different organs on different days. But for a Fugue there has to be some cohesion. For a start the second and third sections overlap. However, so long as I am convinced by others when they play, I have no problem. It's when the second section in 6/4 goes so fast that I begin to fell quite uneasy. 6/4 is a grand tempo** ( note BWV 678 - and transfer the same pulse to the middle of the fugue) and never sounding as if one is about to miss the last bus back to Leipzig. Then the 12/8 is a strong gigue that grows out of the 6/4 pulse Oh so naturally. Well for me it does!

All the best.

N

 

**I always teach this section first to students as it draws in the outer sections so much better.

 

 

The same argument can be - and is - extended to the Sei gegruesset variations where I find performances which have the cantus firmus at the same tempo throughout rather limiting and can lead to tempi for certain variations which just feel unsuitable and limiting. Exactly. For me they are players for whom the music has reached no inner parts. You hit the nail on the head. Bravo.

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That's my conclusion for the work. But it might change in the next decade.

 

:(

 

Mine might too!

 

I can very much agree with you about the middle section often being played too briskly, and can agree about the third section growing out from it. But it is reconciling these with the tempo of the first section that I find less than convincing. Is your argument that the basic pulse should be the same throughout, or am I missing something? The latter is quite possible!

 

ATB

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In medieval music theory changes of tempo within a piece were very much dictated by strict proportional relationships and this approach persisted through to the end of the Renaissance. For the clear-headed, it's all in here. They appear to be valid for Monteverdi too (there are learned articles which I've never been sufficiently interested to absorb). The challenge to modern performers is to make these tempo relationships work. It can at times be very difficult.

 

Frankly I don't know how long the theory of proportional relationships survived, but I would be very surprised if it were still alive and kicking as late as Bach. But if it were, any relationships would have been governed by the time signatures used. For example, if your prelude had a time signature of "C" and the following fugue one of "cut c", the beat would remain the same, but the fugue would be twice as fast. There would be no grounds in musical theory for employing a similar doubling of the speed if the time signatures were the same.

 

Like I said, I can't see it for Bach. But I would be interested to learn of any contemporary evidence to the contrary.

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT

How absorbing when I should be packing for the airport!

 

This Trinitarian work is of unending pleasure and one of constant dialogue amongst us all. Refreshing. What I say is only my meagre distillations over the years.

But in a nutshell, I find that the pulse of the counter-subjects the most intriguing. 1. 4/2 crotchets 2. 6/4 quavers (the subject diminished and syncopated) 3. 12/8 quavers and semi-quavers (the subject augmented and syncopated. The connection of proportions between all of them (counter-subjects) could suggest a relationship of crotchet to crotchet between the first and second sections; a minim to a dotted crotchet** between the second and third.

If it were a bigger nutshell and I had more time, I would write more. Thankfully, you have been spared.

 

All the best.

N

 

** But I must say that sometimes on large organs with grand acoustic and strong actions under coupling this has been more slow. It also depends on the circumstance of where it goes in a programme or Service.

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Frankly I don't know how long the theory of proportional relationships survived, but I would be very surprised if it were still alive and kicking as late as Bach.

This, I guess, is the heart of the matter. Ellen Harris argues persuasively for proportional speeds throughout Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, which is not so much earlier; but I've not seen it argued for Bach*.

 

Paul

 

* Apart from the sections of the St Anne fugue, as is being discussed - but this isn't quite like what I am interested in pursuing.

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I think the trouble is (probably) that where strict proportional tempo relationships are possible they will sound convincing. Well they would, wouldn't they? - what works, works! But the corollary is that just because a relationship is effective it doesn't mean that the composer was necessarily following some established theory. It may still be just a coincidence and the Trinity fugue could be a case in point.

 

The issue of how long proportional theory might have survived is intriguing. If I have time tomorrow I might have a rummage through my library and see if I can come up with anything.

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Apart from the sections of the St Anne fugue, as is being discussed - but this isn't quite like what I am interested in pursuing.

 

Sorry, Paul. I didn't mean to get your thread hijacked! :ph34r:

 

It may still be just a coincidence and the Trinity fugue could be a case in point.

 

Yes. I maintain that there are no strict tempi relations implied between the various sections, and that any attempt at this has to be rather contrived! :(

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
I have been asked about the statement by some teachers (in Germany, as it happens) that Bach's Preludes and Fugues must be played with a strict simple speed relationship (like 1:1, 2:1 or whatever). This was in the context of the 48, but I guess is being thought of more widely.

 

I've never come across this idea as an absolute requirement. Does anyone here have either a view on this or an authoritative source for it?

 

Paul

 

Sounds a touch cranky to me. In such circumstances there is no such word to be used as 'must'. The music/subject/texture/written pulse/style says it all to the player. I know a number of players/teachers that pursue endless theories, mathematical relationships etc. in such works and after an long discourse one has not heard a note of music!

I am all for gathering up as much information to help the understanding of music and the performance of it, but not at the expense of the music itself (which sometimes happens). I think that if you dig deep enough you will always find something to match your theory. I think of it as the Nostradamus syndrome. I am always of the belief that if you are receptive, the dots and the sound will show you the general way.

The 48 for me, change every time I turn another page. And something new springs forth - imperceptibly - on every occasion.

 

All best wishes,

N

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I agree. When a student I was urged to keep tempi proportional or equal in Bach's D major Prelude (532a) and Fantasia in G minor (542a), and even in some freer works, eg the 'big' Bruhns E minor. It never worked for me - one section was either too fast or (more usual) far too slow and lifeless.

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Sounds a touch cranky to me. In such circumstances there is no such word to be used as 'must'. The music/subject/texture/written pulse/style says it all to the player. I know a number of players/teachers that pursue endless theories, mathematical relationships etc. in such works and after an long discourse one has not heard a note of music!

I am all for gathering up as much information to help the understanding of music and the performance of it, but not at the expense of the music itself (which sometimes happens). I think that if you dig deep enough you will always find something to match your theory. I think of it as the Nostradamus syndrome. I am always of the belief that if you are receptive, the dots and the sound will show you the general way.

The 48 for me, change every time I turn another page. And something new springs forth - imperceptibly - on every occasion.

 

I think this answers the question and sums up the matter perfectly.

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My understanding is that some of the 48 were not composed as a pair, but were placed together to help make up the collection. Indeed, some were transposed for the occasion, (unfortunately for those who would like to discover Bach's temperament by analyzing intervals that were used or avoided in the 48).

 

In such cases, there has to be a convincing musical reason for using a related tempo.

 

Now, within a movement of Bach's music, I find there has to be a strong case for me not to look for and try a unifying relationship. I'm convinced that the E-flat major fugue has tempo relationships between the sections because I have heard it performed so convincingly that way (and for analytical reasons, too). Some bad performances where this was tried does not change my thinking, that in good hands, this is the way to try to perform the work.

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Yes. I maintain that there are no strict tempi relations implied between the various sections, and that any attempt at this has to be rather contrived! :(

Yes, but on what historical grounds?

 

I am all for gathering up as much information to help the understanding of music and the performance of it, but not at the expense of the music itself (which sometimes happens).

I hope that goes without saying. However, I often sense an attitude of regarding historical performance practice as irrelevant because it gets in the way of a performer's preconceived (which usually means anachronistic) view of the music. This is no different from the dumb blonde singer I once mentioned who couldn't see the point in analysing the music she sang.

 

I think we should always bear in mind that the conventions obeyed by the composer must have sounded musical to them, that a given composition encompasses more than just the dots on the page and therefore if we are to perform that composition we need to adhere to all these aspects. Now I realise that we can never be in possession of all the necessary historical information, nor would I want to deny the role of individuality in performance, but I do think we need to be acutely conscious that every bit of individuality we introduce takes us further from the "composition". To ignore historical conventions as being too much bother or cramping one's style is a cop-out. It is essentially the Virgil Fox/Stokowski approach - not necessarily unmusical or unenjoyable, but anachronistic and ultimately irrelevant.

 

As far as tempi are concerned there must be a way of making the historically correct ones sound musical - because we may reasonably assume that composers did not set out to write unmusically. We may actually not always be certain what these should be, but that is really a separate problem. I confess I have occasionally had to throw up my hands in surrender, admit I don't know and do what seems musical.

 

But the value of seeking to understand historical conventions and trying to make them work is not so much in the observance of the minutiae as in the way this observance shapes our general understanding of, and approach to, a style and, thus the degree of licence we may feel justified in taking. This is why we no longer play Bach the way people like Schweitzer and Vierne did.

 

I think that if you dig deep enough you will always find something to match your theory.

I think this is true quite a lot of the time. People get PhDs for it. I look forward to the day when someone "proves" that Schweitzer's and Vierne's speeds are what Bach expected.

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Yes, but on what historical grounds?

 

I don't think historical grounds really come in to it. I just don't see any obvious reason why one would be obliged to work to any tempi relationships - they just don't seem an integral part of this fugue in my way of seeing things. If you want to apply historical grounds, you could then try to argue that the fugue should have a strict tempo relationship with the prelude, which I think just as unnecessary and unlikely! :(

 

People get PhDs for it. I look forward to the day when someone "proves" that Schweitzer's and Vierne's speeds are what Bach expected.

 

I've been wondering what would be a suitable subject on which to read for a PhD! That sounds a bit of a challenge.... :blink: However, I suppose a starting point could be the extant examples of organs which were around in Bach's time and which need to be played rather more slowly. Well, only another 79,963 words to go.... :ph34r:

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In today's Bach performances, many "notes are lost", we cannot

simply hear them; they are lost, like in Liszt's fast passages -and there

these notes are really meant as a kind of "flying dust", a halo, and not

really there to be distinctly heard from the previous or the next one-.

We may reasonnably assume it is not so that Bach "viewed" his P&Fs...

 

My point is this:

 

1)- Take the most dense passage of the piece, where the texture ist

the richest.

 

2)- Have it played on one of those heavy-toned, colorfull Trost or Wagner organs,

which, had they not those crisp attacks, would be exactly as "muddy"

as a late-romantic organ.

 

3)-Search for the fastest possible tempo there which still allows a listener

in the nave to distinguish all the parts.

 

Then you may imagine you get something credible. And, again, I shall eat

the hat I do not have if we do not end up with something about two times slower compared

with today's customary Bach playing (ta-ti-tu-tatititatatutatiti-ta-ti-tu-tatitititata...)

 

Pierre

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Yes. I maintain that there are no strict tempi relations implied between the various sections, and that any attempt at this has to be rather contrived! :lol:

 

I don't think historical grounds really come in to it.

Whether or not strict tempo relationships were implied depends on what the composer expected when he wrote the piece, so of course historical grounds come into it. What I think you are really saying is that you wouldn't let the composer's wishes compromise the way you wish to respond to the music. Now if so, that's fair enough. I think we all do this, simply because, with the best will in the world, I don't see how we can avoid it; it's just a matter of degree. But it would be better to admit openly what we're doing. I think we ought to be careful about projecting our views back onto the composers - it ain't honest and won't promote understanding.

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Whether or not strict tempo relationships were implied depends on what the composer expected when he wrote the piece, so of course historical grounds come into it. What I think you are really saying is that you wouldn't let the composer's wishes compromise the way you wish to respond to the music. Now if so, that's fair enough. I think we all do this, simply because, with the best will in the world, I don't see how we can avoid it; it's just a matter of degree. But it would be better to admit openly what we're doing. I think we ought to be careful about projecting our views back onto the composers - it ain't honest and won't promote understanding.

 

But that requires us to accept that that is what Bach intended! And I don't see much proof (if any) that it is what he would have wished. But I'm happy to be proved wrong.....

 

:lol:

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