A few months ago, I released another album. Nico Muhly and Alice Goodman’s The Street constitutes the bulk of the two disc set, being a large scale for work for spoken word, solo harp and chant. Unsurprisingly, much of the promotion for the album has been spent talking about how that work came about, why King’s College, Cambridge commissioned it and why it’s important as both a work of sacred music and (hopefully) a new staple in the solo harp repertoire.
What remains to be discussed is what Bach’s Second Partita in C Minor (BWV 826) is doing on the first disc. Truth be told, the label at King’s College, Cambridge wanted more Bach, as the Goldberg Variations has been doing very well on streaming platforms. (Indeed, thanks to meditation, concentration and relaxation playlists, the work lives up to story of its soporific progeny and enjoyed some 4 million streams in 2022 on Spotify alone.) So… which Bach?
Fortunately, there wasn’t any question in my mind about what I wanted to play. Like the Goldbergs, it was was a work I had learned as a precocious teenaged pianist, having been borderline obsessed Martha Argerich’s live recording from the Concertgebouw. Her articulation and drive were totally infectious and fascinating to me, and for a long it was the definitive sound of Bach in my ears. (Not to mention the fact that the energy only increases throughout the rest of the program, including a hair raising performance of some Ginastera.)
Fast forward to my time at Juilliard, I took the partita up to see how I might push myself technically, but also how I might incorporate all the historical performances ticks and “-isms” I had imbibed in the historical performance program at Oberlin. I got kick out of playing with boomy resonance of my instrument to create swells of sound, desynchronizing melodies and bass lines to make the Andante and Sarabande sound like the gentle chaos that one gets in chamber music, and phrasing rhetorically, as if there individual syllables under each note, turning tunes into sentences. Inevitably, I ran into the fact that the harp, while blessed with extreme sensitivity to touch, isn’t cut out for Martha’s tempi. It just can’t reliably emulate the level of articulation or speed we expect to hear from the harpsichord, pianos and other Apollonian typewriters. This is to say: I was having fun, but not quite sure where I might find aesthetic justification for taking one of my favorite pieces to the harp.
True friends are those who you can go without seeing and pick up where you left off. I’m lucky that I’ve had a continuous messaging thread with one friend since we were teenagers. A fellow Cambridge organ scholar (who now has a successful career as an historical keyboardist in Switzerland) and fellow nerd, he has been traditionally reliable to come up with (1) amusing Guardian/Sun articles about the pets and consumption trends of Central Asian dictators and (2) fun facts about early music. In one of our Facebook messenger exchanges (I in the Juilliard harp studio, he somewhere in Stuttgart), we were discussing outrageous examples of continuo performance practices which would be deemed laughable today. These days, we tend to prefer clean and neat contrapuntal playing (which we have sources for), but every so often we see examples where keyboardists went to town and suggest students play as many as ten notes at a time while (making for a wildly muddy performance).
My friend rightly noted, “Playing like this would be a great way to never get invited to play anywhere for a second time. Next thing, I receive another photo (see below). “This is by Müthel, Bach’s last student (sort of).”
If you know what you’re looking at, you’ll know it’s a tad outrageous. Pictured above is what I was sent: an highly ornamented manuscript of the Sinfonia from 1749, the scribe’s hand being that of Johann Gottfried Müthel, a pupil of Bach’s at the very end of his life. (Below you can see the handwritten version next to the the “original” published edition in 1731. You’ll notice just how much more real estate is taken up on a page by Müthel’s handwritten edition.)
I had known about this source from my time at Oberlin, but at the time had been more invested in the source which precedes it in Müthel’s hand: another re-ornamentation, that of the Sarabande from Partita V in G (BWV 829).
At least with BWV 826, the ornamentation is generally regarded to fall flat on the harpsichord, which is perhaps why I wasn’t able to find a recording. (The necessity to lift fingers out of the keys causes strings to be dampened, and so all the lush harmonies which cause the the filigree scintillate get a bit lost. At the harp, it’s not too bad, as the problem of continual resonance tends to actually work in the renditions favor.) With BWV 829 however, issues of texture are not as present. We just tend to to stay away from Müthel’s version because, well, there are many who think it’s tasteless or out of the original style of the Partitas as Bach originally published them.
Müthel’s versions tend to make us uncomfortable as they are (in all likelihood) transcriptions of performance practices undertaken by his teacher. Granted, over the last few decades, there has been increasing openness to the fact that we know Bach revisited his scores later in life to show students how to ornament or extemporize.
For instance, after Bach’s death, Jakob Adlung wrote in 1758 that Bach’s works for “violini soli senza basso, 3 sonatas and 3 Partitas, are well suited for performance at the keyboard.” This perhaps echoes Johan Friedrich Agricola’s account of Bach’s violin works from 1754, reporting that Bach “often played them on the clavichord, and added as many harmonies to them as he found necessary. (This practice is at the clavichord is confirmed by Forkel, who related that Bach “considered the clavichord to be the instrument for study and for all music played.”)
We also have the numerous examples of how Bach reused his own music and sometimes the music of others. The Violin partitas and sonatas turn up as sinfonias, organ pieces and lute pieces. Cantata movements are republished as organ solos in the Schübler Chorales. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater turns up as a German setting of Psalm 51 (with an extra viola part, to boot).
But what we perhaps pay attention to less is the smaller, lesser known instances of revisitation or revision. Works appear in more than version, with both visible and and audible stylistic changes. The Pièce d’Orgue (BWV 572) has examples of copyists transcribing incredibly florid ornamentation some years after the work was written. The effect is scintillating, as each voice is able to distinguish itself by adding some more harmonic tension and rhythmic flare in a seemingly stately texture. It looks less like Bach, and more like the music of the French organ composers he kept in his library, with delicious names like DeGrigny, Nivers and Boyvin.
(Indeed, another source’s title page contains a credit to Jean Sébastien Bach. And at the bottom of all of the editions page, the organist is given the instruction “tournez” to turn the page.)
In BWV 831, we can see a French overture in C-minor with the normal three note patterns of anticipation that let us know that something important is about to happen.
But in another version, these jumpy rhythms are cut in half. Where there were sixteenth notes, there are now thirty-second notes. The anticipations are more biting and incisive, and again more in line with the conventional practice of taking short rhythms and making them shorter. (One might also note that the second version appears in B-minor, a half step lower than C-minor, an ironic phenomenon as our modern historical performance conventions have us perform French music at A=392, and Bach at A=415.)
And some decades after jotting down some naughty hymn accompaniments with student Johann Ludwig Krebs (that once got him suspended from his job as a 21-year-old turn up in a students’ hands), they turn in the hands of Johann Gottlieb Preller, beautifully laid out as if they are solo works of creative genius, and not the scribbles of an unhappy adolescent from some 30 years prior.
Of course, because In dulci jubilo is so famous, we don’t think twice about the fact that the “realization” or “expansion” we’re used to hearing every Christmas is a product of manuscripts largely written down in the late 18th-to mid 19th centuries.
I shan’t ramble much further. The examples abound of how Bach would play hopscotch with his own music, altering, revising it and even changing its stylistic swag. And yet, these revisions don’t get performed all too often. Or if they do, their altered states are conveniently forgotten or ignored, so as not to mess with some image in our mind of a “serious,” “organized” or “grounded” genius. To me this is slightly crazy, as the some of the most revealing documentation we possess about who Bach might have been and how plasticity might have been a core feature of his creative process.
I think this is what fascinates me most about music from the past, especially baroque music: when we play a work of Bach (or any other composer, for that matter), we often a snapshot in time, a window into his creative interests at one or another point in his life. More often than not, we tend to crystallize the more obvious historical moments, often coinciding with dates of publication or the dates when pen was first put to parchment by the master. Of course, these works change in our own lives: we age, we mature, we reinterpret, we grow. But what if a piece of music were the same in the life of a composer? How did they revisit their music? How did they change? Why?
(P.S. yes, the Sinfonia opens with some heavy breathing improv based on some juicy tunes by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. I have no historical justification, except that I hope it will further upset the HIP purists who send me hate-mail about playing Bach on the harp.)