Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Bach controversy

So a friend and I got into a heated debate over whether pedal should be used in Baroque music.

For those of you unacquainted with it, the controversy is centered on the fact that the keyboards in Bach's time (harpsichords and clavichords, they were called) lacked pedals. Thus, for the classical music purists, Bach's music should not be tainted by something that did not exist in his time.

I agree with this. But that goes not to say that I am a purist myself.

My friend argues on the novel fact that Bach has been dead for several centuries. There is no use in musing over whether he would like what we did with his music, since, in her words, "he may or may not hear it, and he can't complain squat about it anyway even if he wanted to."

Well, she has a valid point there.

But there are also practical concerns for this. You see, the damper pedal removes the all dampers from all the strings, so the sound does not stop, even when a pianist removes the pressure on a key. So you can play an entire sequence of notes while holding the pedal down, and the notes will all fall in a blur, without separation. You could even close the lid, and the sound would continue to resonate. The problem with this is that in four-part counterpoint, four melodies sing at the same time, and small, detailed articulations help distinguish one voice from the other. With pedal, these articulations are lost.

And, I argue, that pedal can easily over-romanticize a work to the point that Bach sounds like Chopin or Liszt. Not good. But I also acknowledge that it can help reveal the hidden emotionalism and passion lurking deep within every piece of Baroque music. Very good.

But, again, I leave it to you. Here are two performances of the same piece, the first with pedal, on a modern piano, the other without, on a harpsichord. It is, by the way, the Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations.


  1. I wish I could weigh in on the controversy. But if I was able to play this piece at all, I would be beside myself with joy, pedal or no pedal. Although I have to admit that I am quite taken with the Dinnerstein version and I listen to it all the time. It's funny to listen to someone else play it because I am so used to her version.

    On a completely different subject, have you ever heard a glass armonica? I did last fall and it was amazing.

  2. It's offsetting to hear others, isn't it? I'm so used to Glenn Gould's interpretation of the Sarabande from Bach's fifth French Suite that I find myself copying him. A bad practice, that, seeing as it's pianistic forgery. >.>

    As to the glass armonica, only in wee little pieces here and there, sadly - small scenes from films and such. I'd love to hear one live, though. :) I did something similar once, with little glasses filled with water. This was years ago, when I was little - perhaps nine or ten. Of course, I never made any coherent music with the three or four small cups, but the the single notes were beautiful enough to hear.

  3. I think the term musical purist is given to the wrong group of people. if someone thinks that bach or anything of a certain era should only be played on instruments and the means of that era. then they shouldnt think. using the pedal correctly with baroque is fine its another thing if your messing up the fast changing harmonies in a given work with the pedal. which i've heard before.