Bach as reflected in German Romanticists
Not until after his death was Johann Sebastian Bach to occupy the singular rank he holds today in public perception. During his lifetime, he was known as quite a virtuoso on the harpsichord and organ, and as an ingenious improviser, but only after Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy heralded an unparalleled Bach renaissance by reviving the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 did Bach acquire the mystique of being the Master of all composers, which set him next to Beethoven as a likewise unattainable example for the musical world of the nineteenth century.
Now composers began to study his music relentlessly, especially the Well-Tempered Clavier, that “Book of Books” – not only as the bible of contrapuntal architecture, but above all because they hoped that mastering this art would enable them to press forward into hitherto unmatched musical dimensions. Hence Bach’s piano fugues appeared to Schumann and many others not as thoroughly structured, logical stratifications, but as “character pieces of the highest nature, at times truly poetic creations, each of which has its own expression, demands its own special lights and shadows.”1
Bach, a poet? In our day and age, this statement sounds surreal, and seems to reek of nostalgia. How could it be otherwise? After all, nearly two centuries have passed from the time Schumann uttered these words, centuries in which a comprehensive exegesis of interpretation has evolved whose discoveries and principles are part and parcel of today’s Bach reception – headed by intensive efforts at keeping faithful to the original and the “correct” performing style, informed by a comprehensive knowledge of Baroque performance practice.
From this perspective, the album presented here must appear anachronistic, since its music takes us back to an epoch in which Bach was played in a free, occasionally downright carefree, style. What no one would permit themselves today was modern back then: a sense of theatrical effects, an exuberant dynamic richness and a rather elastic perception of the metrical element, as was simply in accordance with the Romantic attitude toward life.
So much, then, concerning the intellectual foundation on which Moscheles wrote the Preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier with Concertante Piano op. 137b, combining Bach’s original with contemporary music written in 1861. An amalgam of two entirely different musical universes, therefore, which – although published in unassuming pedagogical language as Melodic-Contrapuntal Studies – in fact elicited quite a bit of condemnation from contemporaries. Moscheles was well aware that he was shaking a sacred pillar, which is why he stressed from the outset that it had never been his intention to correct or, worse yet, improve upon, Bach. In the preface to op. 137 he emphasized that Bach’s fugues were sacrosanct in any case, and that he was only concerned with making the preludes more widely known. In doing so, he invoked Mendelssohn and Schumann, who had also written supplements to Bach’s works for solo violin or cello1,and thereby “given those musical paintings a frame whose golden shimmer enhances the effect of the same; and so I too dare to give the preludes a new characteristic by composing and adding a concertante part.”
Behind this politically correct timbre, however, there lies a compositional aspiration whose quality needs no justification. Moscheles sees Bach’s preludes as an experimental laboratory; he treats them without any fears of contact and unites the two parts in each prelude into a new, creative piano sound. That is why this version appears more threedimensional, probably even more provoking to the subjective listener, than his version for cello2
and piano op. 137a published at the same time. With rich variety, he combines virtuoso numbers which run riot in a pianistic Sturm und Drang (C Minor, D Minor vol. II), with circumspect entwinements of Bach’s voices (E flat Major, C sharp Major); he enlivens the music by contrasting the two piano parts (G Major, D Minor vol. I) or through their lively harmonic cooperation (C Major, D Major). As far as the musical text is concerned, only the B Minor Prelude is entirely identical with Bach’s original, albeit represented by no fewer than two different arrangements. Otherwise Moscheles lighthandedly adds occasional repeats and cross-references, changes in the harmony and some wholly new sections. Consequently, the Bach part should also be played in this spirit, which grants today’s performer unaccustomed freedom with regard to tempo, rubato and dynamic-harmonic shading.
Similar and yet quite different is the case of the Variations on a Sarabande by J. S. Bach op. 24, which Carl Reinecke composed in 1849. Although here too Baroque and Romantic elements are combined, Bach’s Sarabande3
merely provides the starting point, establishing the atmosphere before immediately receding far into the musical distance. Hence this piece conforms to the typical Romantic type of variation.
Reinecke’s eight brief variations on the Sarabande primarily work with canonic and rhythmic entwinements, as well as a high level of energy in tempo and dynamics. Thus the first variation excitingly hurries homeward, the second is already marked fortissimo but immediately leads into a new piano idea with chromatic harmonies. This in turn acquiesces in the strict dotted canon of Variation 4, followed by ghostly scurrying (Var. 5), powerful floating (Var. 6) and finally, the lyrical caesura in Variation 7. Reinecke reaches the last crescendo though a large-scale stretto, but does not close with great pomp, instead choosing to end in transfigured remembrance.
On the whole, the variations are a well-made, appealing work, whose high standing is certainly due not least to the great attraction of Bach’s themes. Reinecke once more proves to be a composer of high quality whose work in our time is gradually and justifiably once again becoming more widespread and appreciated after he had been belittled as “Uncle Reinecke” for many decades. It is true, however, that he is uniformly referred to in descriptions by his contemporaries as a friendly, modest person. Thus the concept of the eccentric “original genius” of Romanticism was undoubtedly not his temperament, since he preferred to take his orientation from Romantic Classicism and the example set by Mozart. His music takes us chiefly into pleasant climes, often even creating a dream-like counterpart to the world of reality – which is understandable to those familiar with Reinecke’s biography and the deep psychological wounds he suffered during his upbringing by a fanatical, overly dominant father. In his memoirs, Reinecke writes, “through his severity and his custom of breaking my will so that I would accept his will as having sole validity, he gave me an all too soft, yielding nature for the rest of my life.”
Robert Schumann held his colleague in high esteem, even though he was Schumann’s junior by fourteen years, and helped him to regain his self esteem by giving him both musical and moral advice. Reinecke emphasizes Schumann’s statement, “One must always set oneself the highest tasks. If one does not strive for the highest stage, one will not scale the next highest, either; I myself have always sold myself short.” That these words were not glibly spoken is illustrated singularly by the Six Fugues on B-A-C-H op. 60, the opus magnum in Schumann’s work with fugues. A strong preoccupation with Bach and with the composition of fugues ran through Schumann’s entire life – as through his entire work, by the way, for even his early strokes of genius for the piano, like Kreisleriana, the Symphonic Etudes or the Fantasy in C, are marked by a polyphonic structure which pours the free fantasizing content into a dense form. It is precisely this mixture that gives Schumann’s music its unique intensity, and thus his decision to devote himself more to the strict contrapuntal style after 1845 is even more difficult to understand. He never explicitly stated his reasons for this, but they are likely to lie in the area of self-discovery, for composing fugues represents the logical consequence of Schumann’s intended compositional development away from improvising on the piano and toward analytic-intellectual activity at the writing desk. What is more, fugues seem to have had an almost therapeutic effect on him. Even as a young man, he wrote in his diary, “the benefit is great and seems to exert a morally strengthening effect on the entire person, for Bach was a man – through and through; with him nothing is done by halves, nothing is sickly, all is written as if for all time.” Following his mental breakdowns and depressive phases of the previous year, he could thus quite well have attempted to achieve psychological stability with this work.
However, the additional possibilities of the pedal piano were what specifically and conclusively pushed Schumann’s creativity into the “fugal passion”, as he himself referred to it. Practically forgotten today, this instrument was in the mid-nineteenth century an interesting extension of the piano, which one could procure with little trouble: simply rent a pedal board, connect it to your own instrument (as the Schumanns did in 1845) and thus be able to play the piano like an organ. Schumann was enthused about the pedal piano; he believed that it “could give new impetus to piano music” and composed for it the Studies Op.56, the Sketches Op.58 and, of course, the Six Fugues on B-A-C-H as the main work. Their intellectual proximity to the Art of Fugue is unmistakable, and his idol Bach seems almost to be standing in the room. Schumann did not copy him, however, but merely keeps consistently to the strict style. On a subtle level, elements typical of Schumann are present in every fugue: for instance, the “gradually faster” performance indications on numbers 1 and 6, the unyielding motoric energy of number 2, the intimacy of sparse notes in the third, the crescendo growing to full power in the fourth or the humoresque character of the fifth fugue.
Opus 60 is today perceived as Schumann’s only work for organ (albeit extremely rarely played, for all that), even though he wrote “for organ or pedal piano” in the title. The alternative form for the type of piano he held in such high esteem has until now almost never been heard, since a pedal piano can only be found in a few museums. On the modern piano, by contrast, the fugues cannot be played by a single pianist. At this point, our own love of piano four hands and its nearly unlimited abilities came into play and we asked ourselves whether it would be possible to do the fugues as a duo? A sketchy prima vista examination already hinted at another musical form: transparent, very versatile, with clear dynamic contours and vivid depth of focus, such as only a piano can offer. And so the project was born, although the transcription was to occupy us for several months. After all, in order to achieve a good, transparent piano sound, we had to treat Schumann’s material with a certain freedom despite all circumspection: that is, change the registers, shift voices in order to reveal dynamic developments or replace the long pedal points, which quickly fade on the piano, with thoroughly layered rhythmic figures. Purists may now throw their hands up in horror, yet such procedures are simply a consequence of adaptations to the nature of the instrument. There are many precedents, the most prominent being Beethoven’s own transcription for four hands of the Große Fuge for string quartet.
We hope, at any rate, that this transcription for piano four hands will be able to help make this wonderful work more widely known, a work that had faded into unmerited obscurity even though Schumann himself once had a very high opinion of its quality and chances of success4
. Apparently, he overestimated the desire of people for fugal music, and these fugues are certainly not light fare ... In order best to bring out the individual character of each fugue, we decided, after careful deliberation, to structure this CD as a dramaturgically conceived recital and to play two preludes by Moscheles before each of Schumann’s fugues as a supplement, extension, inspiration, contrast or subconscious commentary. Anyone who does not care to partake in our experiment and would prefer to listen to the pieces in the original order has, of course, every right to experience Moscheles’ own sequence represented by the following tracklist order: 10 – 1 – 4 – 14 – 11 – 2 – 8 – 16 – 5 – 7 – 13.
But whatever the order: if this album can, to paraphrase the words of its actual protagonist, provide a euphonious harmony for the recreation of the soul
; if what is new about it can convey a fascination with the old and at the same time allow some of the “special lights and shadows” of another century to shine through, we would be overjoyed.
Lucia Huang und Sebastian Euler
Translation: Dr. Miguel Carazo
1 Robert Schumann: Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker (Collected Writings on Music and Musicians)
2 This is where Robert Schumann referred his neologism „Bachiana” to.
3 From the 1. French Suite in D Minor BWV 812
4 Excerpt from a letter by Schumann to the publisher Whistling in 1846: „This is a piece of work I spent all last year on in order to make it worthy of the high-ranking name it bears, a work which I believe may longest outlive my others.“