Unbending Bach

Unbending Bach

A sheet of musicDescription automatically generated with medium confidence

Manuscript of C. P. E. Bach’s “Farewell to My Silbermann Clavichord”. (Berlin State Library by way of IMSLP).

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the most famous Bach of the eighteenth century, more celebrated than his father, Johann Sebastian.

C.P.E. Bach never left Germany, but his renown stretched across Europe. He was lionized by musicians and poets, sought out by philosophes. Soon after his death, a monument to his achievements was planned though never built.

Bach’s followers were many and ardent. As a percentage of the present-day population his admirers are smaller, even if in absolute numbers there must be far more devotees—and players—on this eight-billion-person planet than during the Enlightened eighteenth century.

Any public praise for C. P. E. Bach’s music, like that presented in a conversation between the engaging critic David Allen and the wide-ranging pianist Marc-André Hamlin published this week in the New York Times, will be cheered by this Musical Patriot!

The Times article includes a fine photographic portrait of Hamelin taken by Kayana Szymczak.

The Canadian virtuoso—like C. P. E. Bach, a composer and performer of his own works, turbulent and witty and sometimes both—is seated with his back to his own piano, legs crossed and holding a score. Light from a window obscured by a bookshelf of scores in the foreground checkers the piano’s case and keys and examines a square patch of Hamelin’s stubbled cheek, the rest of his somewhat skeptical look visible in the shadows. It’s a Bachian countenance: play is serious and fun.

Bach had a vast collection of portraits of musicians living and dead, and I don’t doubt that he would welcome the Hamelin photo into his holdings. The faces hanging from the walls of Bach’s Hamburg house attested to his own place in musical culture and history—and to his own sociability. (A study of Bach’s collection and its significance by musicologist Annette Richards will be published this year by University of Chicago Press).

An invitation to visit the German Orpheus, to see his pictures and hear him play, was the highpoint of any musical itinerary. The intrepid English music historian Charles Burney gives us a long description of a musical evening with Bach in 1772:

“M. Bach was so obliging as to sit down to his Silbermann clavichord, and favorite instrument, upon which he played three or four of his choicest and most difficult compositions, with the delicacy, precision, and spirit, for which he is so justly celebrated among his countrymen. In the pathetic and slow movements, whenever he had a long note to express, he absolutely contrived to produce, from his instrument, a cry of sorrow and complaint, such as can only be effected upon the clavichord, and perhaps by himself.”

Burney’s next paragraph contains the most finely wrought and famous portrait in prose of any musician:

“After dinner, which was elegantly served, and cheerfully eaten, I prevailed upon him to sit down again to a clavichord, and he played, with little intermission, till near eleven o’clock at night. During this time, he grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played, but looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance. He said, if he were to be set to work frequently, in this manner, he should grow young again. He is now fifty-nine, rather short in stature, with black hair and eyes, and brown complexion, has a very animated countenance, and is of a cheerful and lively disposition.”

But Bach was not getting younger. He had seen the fragile state of his father’s finances and the reduced state that his stepmother and half-sisters fell into after Sebastian’s death. C. P. E. Bach was keen to have his wife and unwed daughter taken care of. His father was a chronic last-minuter in musical matters. C.P.E. Bach was the opposite. Suffering from gout and knowing his father had died at sixty-five, he sold his beloved clavichord when he was sixty-seven, eight years after Burney’s visit and seven years before his own death.

Bach marked his parting with his trusted musical tool of many decades with a rondo: “Farewell to My Silbermann Clavichord” (Abschied von meinem Silbermannischen Claviere).

A colleague of Johann Sebastian Bach, Gottfried Silbermann was the most famous German maker of keyboard instruments, especially organs, in the first half of the eighteenth century. Like his more famous son, Sebastian had favored the clavichord for his private musical entertainments, and also acted as an agent for Silbermann’s new-fangled fortepianos (known then as the “harpsichord that could play loud and soft”).

The new kid on the keyboard block did not displace the old timers immediately. The clavichord continued to gain in popularity and repertoire even as the production of fortepianos throughout Europe began to shift into high gear towards the end of the eighteenth century.

The clavichord had advantages over the newcomer, some of them eloquently described by Burney. It was also cheaper, its mechanism simpler—and therefore more expressive—than the upstart piano.

Unlike the piano action’s many parts, the clavichord key is a simple lever, like a teeter-totter with the finger depressing one end and raising a brass hammer called a tangent at the other. The strings sound only as long as the tangent remains in contact, which also means that the player can move those strings up and down and create a vibrato that the Germans called Bebung. For these expressive capabilities, the clavichord forfeits the power of the piano, though within these softer shades there was infinite dynamic variety to be coaxed from the instrument by a master of Bach’s ability. There are no concertos for clavichord and orchestra, yet no one ever complained about the Silbermann clavichord not being loud enough, as Burney’s rapturous account confirms.

Hamelin lavishes deserved praise on the Abschied, and the Times article prints the first page of the piece in the hand of Bach’s chief copyist; his own writing was becoming increasingly craggy.

The basic form of such pieces is one of the oldest in music. A theme is stated, then moved away from in an episode of different material, before returning to the opening, which is often varied, slightly or significantly. This journeying away and returning home can be repeated any number of times. But in the end, final leave will have to be taken of the theme—and of the departing friends and visitors. And, at last, there is the ultimate farewell of death, the silence that follows a life of music.

Allen rightly asks Hamelin how it is then that he can play the piece on the massive modern piano, a hundred times heavier than the lithe clavichord. Hamelin “appreciate[s] playing an old instrument,” but concludes that this extraordinary music “survives on the modern piano.”

Strikingly odd to modern keyboard players eyes and utterly foreign to her fingers is the notation of phrase-marks with three dots under them—this signals the crucial effect of Bebung that traces and makes more poignant the notes of the ancient figure of lament as they recur throughout the piece.

The Abschied is not only about the quavering, sorrowful sound that the expert application of the finger and arm weight produces at the clavichord but about the feel: the physical touch of the key metaphorically touches the listener. By contrast, after you strike a note on the piano there is no changing the result.

(Oddly, the article links to a candelit performance of the piece on clavichord that also ignores these vibrato markings, except for in the final, low bass note in which the left-hand pulses until, and even after, the string has fallen silent, in an intimately theatrical enactment of departure from the instrument.)

Allen rightly asks Hamelin about the inability of the piano to do anything like what Bach’s score asks. “I try to compensate elsewhere,” says the pianist.

In the accompanying letter to the aristocrat who bought his beloved clavichord at a good price fixed by the canny composer, Bach claimed that the piece could only be played on this particular instrument. That was both hyperbole and excellent marketing. Even as the purveyor was promising a proto NFT-uniqueness he was having the Abschied copied for his own use, perhaps even further sale, and played the piece on another of his clavichords for visitors.

All thoroughly trained, the Bachs knew how to construct music that would, to use Hamelin’s word, “survive” interventions and updates. Bach, father and son, were musical experimenters and even contributed their expertise to the development of the new keyboard instruments of their time.

But as craftsmen they also knew that one needs the right tool for the job, none more difficult and touching than saying goodbye.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com