Johann Sebastian Bach and the piano

correct or wrong?


Is it correct or wrong to play Bach on the piano, given that at his time this instrument hardly existed? Does one betray his music by making it more expressive, or does one make evident a very rich musical content that the harpsichord or clavichord cannot clarify? These and other questions run through the discussions on Bach’s interpretation in today’s world. But few really know what Bach’s relationship with this instrument was.

Let us begin with a famous quote from Johann Friedrich Agricola, Bach’s student in Leipzig between 1738 and 1741:

“Herr Gottfried Silbermann had first made two of these instruments, one of which had been seen and tested by the late Capellmeister Giovanni Sebastiano Bach. He was favourably impressed by the sound, but at the same time complained that it was too weak in the treble and too heavy to play.

These criticisms were taken very badly by Silbermann, who did not accept that there were flaws in the instruments he built. For this reason he was in a bad mood with Bach for a long time; his conscience, however, told him that Bach was not completely wrong. He therefore decided that for the time being it would be better not to sell this instrument, and this to his credit; in the meantime he did not stop thinking about how to remedy the defects that Bach had detected. He worked on it for many years. And that this was the cause of this hesitation I do not doubt, for it was confided in me by Mr Silbermann himself.

Finally Silbermann, having made these improvements in the mechanics in particular, sold an instrument to the princely court in Rudolstadt (…). Shortly afterwards, the King of Prussia ordered one of these instruments, and finding it to his liking, ordered several more. Seeing and hearing these instruments, those who, like me, had been able to see one of the first, could see how diligently Mr Silbermann had worked on the improvements.

Herr Silbermann also had the commendable pride of showing one of the newly made instruments to the late Cappelmeister Bach and letting him examine it, receiving his full approval’. (Berlin, 1768)

The birth of the piano is linked in our imagination to the Viennese classical period, when it had already been a well-known instrument throughout Europe for several decades. Between Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention (1698) and the works of Haydn and Mozart, however, stretches about half a century of music history in which the piano had already been widely used in all the courts and noble houses of Europe: Alessandro Marcello, from Venice, ordered a piano from Cristofori in 1724; Domenico Scarlatti, a contemporary of J. S. Bach, certainly played on one of the five pianos of the court of Madrid (one of which was a piano in the court of Madrid).

As early as around 1730, the piano was developed in Germany by the art of Gottfried Silbermann: he had certainly become acquainted with the new Italian invention through the important community of Italian musicians and singers at the court in Dresden.

In its structure, Silbermann’s piano (which he called Fortepiano) is in fact fundamentally identical to the instruments built in Florence by Cristofori. In addition, perhaps because he was an organ builder, Silbermann added a series of “stops” to his fortepiano: a very special dulcimer register (Hackbrett) and a mechanism for raising the dampers.

In Berlin, at the palace of Frederick the Great, a great admirer of the Silbermann piano (so much so that he bought at least seven examples), the piano experienced its first transalpine fortune. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz preferred it to the harpsichord as an accompanying instrument, due to its ability to also dynamically support the soloist.

It was at the court of Frederick of Prussia that J.S.Bach played the new fortepiano when, in 1747, he improvised the Ricercare from the Musical Offering in the presence of the sovereign.

Copy of a Silbermann fortepiano made by Andrea Restelli, Milan 1996

Other documentary evidence clearly testifies to a relationship between the composer, who was always keen on musical experimentation, and the new instrument: in 1749 Bach received payment for selling a fortepiano to the Polish count Branitzky, probably acting as an intermediary between the latter and Gottfried Silbermann.
As early as June 1733, an article in a Leipzig newspaper announced a concert by the Collegium Musicum under the direction of Johann Sebastian Bach, with particular emphasis on the fact that a new harpsichord would be used in the concert, ‘a model never before heard’. Similar periphrases (‘harpsichord of new invention’, ‘harpsichord with piano and forte’, ‘harpsichord with hammers’) designated throughout the 18th century the piano often simply called harpsichord (the misunderstanding of names would remain for a long time: Farinelli called his fortepiano harpsichord, Beethoven used the expression Cembalo several times in his clearly pianistic sonatas, and Schubert again referred to the piano part of his trio fragment D 28 with the generic term cembalo).
Even among the instruments in J.S. Bach’s testamentary bequest, we cannot exclude the presence of a fortepiano. Among the various harpsichords listed in the notarial deed, there is an inlaid one of particular value that, according to the testamentary will, should remain with the family as far as possible (fourniert Clavecin,welches beyder Familie, so viel moglich bleiben soll).
It was precisely a Silbermann fortepiano, ‘inlaid, with an unparalleled tone, and an extraordinarily strong voice’ (ein Silbermannisches Piano et Forte, von unvergleichlichen Tone, und außerordentlichen Starke des Tones, nach Art eines Flügels gebaut, das Corpus und Decke fourniert) that was sold by a merchant, a friend of the Bach family, three years after the death of the widow Anna Magdalena.

So perhaps the common belief that performing Bach on the piano is not an even ‘philologically’ correct interpretation should be reconsidered, although logically a Silbermann fortepiano is not the same thing as a modern Steinway.

Of course it is a matter of making it clear that most of his repertoire was conceived for harpsichord or even the intimate sounds of the clavichord. I would never dare accuse a good pianist of betraying Bach: at most, of translating him into a modern language, losing some precious details along the way, as in all translations. Perhaps the price of making it available to a larger audience?