The Point of His Counterpoint

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician

By Christoph Wolff (Norton, 599 pages) First published in The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2000

On Friday, concerts and recitals all over the world commemorated the 250 anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. And rightly so, Bach is not only the commanding figure of the late Baroque, he is one of the giants of Western music. From his day down to our own, with a few periods of wrongful neglect in between, his cantatas, oratorios, concertos, chamber music and keyboard works has inspired a near—religious devotion from his listeners. Among much else, his music provides a seemingly endless source of contrapuntal purity, architectural elegance, spiritual ardor and a controlled expressiveness that we may properly call profound.

Christoph Wolff’s Bach: The Learned Musician is a work of clarity worthy of its subject and his music. It is accessible to scholars and performers certainly but also to Bach lovers who may not possess a specialized musical vocabulary. It is, in short, a wonderful book, offering the historical context to Bach’s busy life and providing many facts about the great composer’s humanity. I doubt that any other work will challenge its completeness and authority for years to come.

Bach was born in 1685, the youngest of eight children, in Eisenach, a town in what is now east—central Germany. He was orphaned within 10 years and lived for a time in his brother Johann Christoph’s house before heading off to school on a musical scholarship. By age 17, he was a virtuosic organist who soon entered upon a succession of posts in various German duchies and principalities.

Notably, from 1709 to 1717, Bach was organist at the Duke of Weimar’s castle, where he composed the Orgel—Buchlein (chorales built upon Lutheran hymns) and several cantatas. It was in the period of 1717—23, though, while in the service of Prince Leopold at Anhalt—Cothen, that his composition reached a major phase, with the first book of the Well—Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos and the sonatas for solo violin. From 1723 to his death in 1750, Bach was cantor of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church and school, where he composed the St. Matthew Passion, the Magnificat, and most of the many cantatas for which he is so well—known.

Mr. Wolff sheds light on many aspects of this long career. We see the musical vitality of Bach’s father, Ambrosius, who directed a music company in Eisenach and performed with an accomplished ensemble whose members included, for a time, the young Johann Pachelbel (of the over—played "Canon"). As for Johann Christoph, he is often portrayed as despotic during the time he cared for his brother. There is, for example, the story of the young Bach copying by moonlight his elder brother’s "forbidden" music – a collection of keyboard pieces – and incurring Johann Christoph’s wrath when he was discovered. But Mr. Wolf concludes that there was no "long—term discord."

Mr. Wolf is good at conveying life at the courts where Bach spent part of his musical career. In Weimar, Bach was caught between co—reigning dukes with "incompatible personalities." The making of music, like the membership of the court capelle over which Bach had charge, was subject to ducal whim. Even so, Bach thrived, winning at one point a substantial salary increase, although he ended his tenure in a fit of temper that landed him, for a short time, in jail.

In Cothen, Bach’s situation seemed ideal. He was no longer a "mere" court organist and concertmaster but an exalted capellmeister. Although Cothen was in many respects a dull place, in comparison with thriving Weimar, its ruler, Prince Leopold, was described by one observer as "a great connoisseur and champion of music." And the court capelle was infused with Berlin virtuosi snatched up by young Leopold after they had been dismissed by Wilhelm I of Prussia. But in 1721 the prince chose to marry a young woman not at all interested in music, and Bach "noticed a change in the court’s attitude." Even after her death Leopold seems to have lost affection for Bach and his music.

Bach’s long tenure at Leipzig included an enormous burden of teaching – both choral and instrumental music – as well as the task of overseeing the music in four of the city’s churches. From early on, Bach decided to use "mainly his own works for the required church performances." Thus the enormous cantata output of these years. For all the creative fecundity, Bach was at odds with the authorities more than once and continuously frustrated by his inadequate compensation. His complaining letters to the king of Poland, a man of Russian connection, made me wonder if perhaps he was making a bid, indirectly, for a position in St. Petersburg.

Bach was astonishingly healthy through almost all of his life, but he declined rapidly in 1749—50, suffering, it is now supposed, from a form of diabetes that affected his eyesight along with much else. He underwent two eye operations – imagine, no anesthetic – that left him even more incapacita"ted than before, and a stroke devastated him in July 1750. On his deathbed, he asked to hear performed on a nearby pedal harpsichord the chorale, "Wenn wir in hochsten Noten sein." As Mr. Wolff writes: "Listening to the piece, he realized that it could benefit from some improvements in a number of contrapuntal, melodic, and rhythmic details." And so he "dictated the changes deemed necessary in order for him to be ready to appear before his Creator’s throne."

Of the three pillars of Western music – Bach, Beethoven and Mozart – it is Bach’s music that is the most difficult to perform properly, in part because we have long been uncertain about 18th—century performance practice. Studies in recent years, though, have brought much detail to light, and many fine performance have followed. Newly found multiple versions of the same work – e.g., the Fantasia in G for organ – give us new clues about the style and ornaments added by the performer in Bach’s time. Mr. Wolff’s book is just as important regarding the facts and details of Johann Sebastian’s life and times. I recommend it most highly.

—  Anthony Newman

Anthony Newman

Stravinsky and Atonality, Part I

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

Anthony NewmanMuch has been written about Stravinsky’s harmonic systems, mainly by Kholopov, a 20th Century Russian theoretician, who avoided the term bitonality and used the term polarity to describe goals of musical motion rather than harmony. The purpose of this article is to describe what is audience friendly (both a general and sophisticated audience) and listenable in works of Stravinsky and why. As we approach the border of non-tonality there are many techniques which resonate with a normal musical audience, even if we actually straddle the border of tonality. My conclusion after years of composing and playing is that what we call serial atonality is not audience friendly and I doubt that it will ever be. Comprehension in language is in large part due to repetition – of words, syntax, similar sentences and expressions; and comprehension in music depends on repetition of harmonic patterns, sequences, cadences and recognizable melodic ideas.

For example, in the works of Stravinsky, if one listens to the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments or the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra and then listen to his serial Movements for Piano and Orchestra, the first two, to a normal audience appear as not only friendly but works of genius or at least big talent, whereas the third appears just the opposite. What is it in the works of Stravinsky up to about 1951 that have a general audience appeal? The answer is that up to his atonal period (1951), almost everything he wrote has a melodic kernel, often like a folk song that is memorable. And even though surrounded by wild and often atonal accompaniments, one remembers the little tune fragments. Except for Glorification of the Chosen Victim there is not a single section of The Rite of Spring that does not have these little melodic fragments.

To expand on this I’m going to discuss each section of his monumental work The Rite of Spring, circa 1912, and describe its compositional process. Stravinsky, who was always a contrapuntal composer, said:

It seems to me that pure counterpoint is the only material from which it is possible to hammer out strong and stable musical forms… Forms built on a modulating development or on harmonic transitory passages are unstable and always have an incoherent character… Not harmony but counterpoint represents the true constructive material.

In The Rite of Spring Stravinsky utilizes the following few, rather easily stated techniques:

  • Folk tunes derived from Russian and Lithuanian folk song
  • Long pedal points
  • Whole sections based on one chord
  • Parallel major and minor thirds on top of each other
  • One to four bar chaconne bass lines, on top of which are differing harmonies and in the case of Procession of the Wise Elder, a four bar passacaglia theme which brings us, with only one interruption, to the ending of the first half
  • Major and minor triads a half step away from other major and minor triads start the second half

I am now going through the composition in order (using the piano reduction and numbers by Leyetchkiss, published by Schirmers).  The Adoration of the Earth, the opening tune which is actually a dead ringer for a famous Edith Piaf song La Vie en Rose of the 1940s, is like half of a theme dwelling on an ‘a’ and never descending in the typical classical style. It is accompanied by parallel fourths.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

The point of this archetype is that as long as the tune is memorable any accompaniment against it still leaves the memorability of the tune as what I call listener friendly. Indeed one can play almost any parallel fourths against it substituting for what Stravinsky wrote and still get the same effect. At number 9 another half melody recurs; again I posit that any accompaniment against it, as long as it is not traditional, can produce an unusual and arresting effect. 

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

In this case it has nothing to do with the melody itself but is more like a wild improvisation. At number 13, Dances of the Young Girls, the entire section is built on two 7th chords a half-step apart. 

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

For the next 83 bars one can clearly hear this one big chord. At number 25 against the same chord is now a memorable melody, again without an internal descent and again which sounds like a folk tune.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

The texture at number 31 moves away from this initial big chord and starts to move away with differing chords, but with all the chords moving very slowly.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

This is in distinction to most harmonic movement of the classical period which is far faster. Stravinsky uses this as one of his favorite techniques, just listen to the opening of Petrushka.

In The Mock Abduction again the section is built on basically one chord. At number 43 we have again parallel major thirds against parallel minor thirds.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

At number 49 is one of his chaconnes, this time occupying only one bar, again with what sounds like a folk tune placed against it.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

At number 49 there appear to be two chords which form the basis for the movement.

In Games of the Rival Clans, the section is derived from a giant 13th chord: GBDFACE.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

At number 62 the section is built on top of a double pedal point: E and F#.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

This continues until two measures after number 64 where it breaks into a four bar passacaglia tune…

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

…which occupies us until number 72 where the passacaglia idea now becomes shortened down to one bar, which material forms the basis of the section until the end of part one. 

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

In the beginning of part two the technique used is triads against other triads a half-step below or half-step above. At number 86 Stravinsky shows us one more of his techniques: repeating a phrase, but by repeating also the first note or first little phrase so it is sounded twice.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

At number 91, Mystical Circles of the Young Girls, the technique used is again major against minor thirds.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

At number 104 the technique is the one chord idea upon which the section is based.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

At number 121, The Summoning of the Ancients, the section is based on a D pedal point…

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

…which continues into the next section that slowly moves to other pedal points starting at number 132…

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

…but returns to a quite prominent D pedal point at number 142, Sacrificial Dance which ends the work.

Rite of Spring Title Page Manuscript

The chords most commonly used by Stravinsky are triads ‘stuffed’ with other notes of the scales such as diminished 7ths with an added step or fourth above, or both and any chord with added half steps above and/or below any notes of the chord as well as shifting normal bass parts, a tiny bit ahead or behind.

In the next part of this article I will demonstrate how one ‘composes’ a Stravinsky-style work up to 1950!

— Tony Newman

Anthony Newman

What is Atonality?

Anthony Newman

Musical aesthetics and time periods are defined by their arch- types: small harmonic progressions or outlines of harmonic and melodic material which when heard remind one of a certain period of music (sounds like Mozart!), especially the Baroque, the Classical or the Romantic aesthetics of music. Towards the end of the 19th century certain types of music became more and more chromatic, that is they started to use other musical ideas outside of what we call now common practice . In Germany, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg developed from a Brahmsian aesthetic while Strauss and Bruckner’s works had a Wagnerian genesis. Although there was much secondary dominant motion (fifth motions, besides V-I), the actual key center of a composition became more and more ambiguous. One could almost place final cadences in a variety of differing keys. In Schoenberg, this tendency was to lead to free atonality and eventually serialism, whereas Mahler stayed within his free chromatic harmony to the end. Richard Strauss, borrowed his language from Wagner, moved like Schoenberg to the edge of the cliff of free atonality, but unlike Schoenberg never jumped off.

In Russia, Igor Stravinsky, in forming his first aesthetic, derived some of his language from Rimsky-Korsakov, which utilized Russian folk music, colorful orchestrations and tritone melodies and harmonizations. He then pioneered and exhausted his second aesthetic within the Rite of Spring. This work, the most iconic of the 20th century, features the usage of rhythmic rows – there is some historical relationship to the isorhythmic style of the 1400s – rhythmic oddities, and whole sections built on a single harmony, and a new concept of orchestration.

Stravinsky went on to develop another two aesthetics: neoclassicism (Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms, both masterpieces within this genre), and later a partial atonal style after 1950. It has been said that his experiments within atonal music were partly due to a need to keep current with the rest of Europe and not be viewed as old-fashioned. In England Edward Elgar basically took Brahms’ aesthetic as his own.

One should remember the following facts about music before 1900:

  • The aesthetic of music encompassed the whole of the musical world.

  • Works were improvisable, that is, great composers of the past could improvise works in their own aesthetics that were at least equal to the middle level compositions.
  • Their aesthetics all had some features in common – for example, voice leading progressions built initially on those of the Renaissance, progressions by fifths and fourths, progressions up-and-down by thirds and strong cadences, i.e.  V-I, II-V-I, etc.

Great music is a combination of a great aesthetic plus a great talent born into that aesthetic. One without the other is not enough.

The lack of an essential unified aesthetic in the 20th century after about 1910 meant that every composer was a pioneer of his own aesthetic that lacked the years, sometimes centuries, of foundational work done by his predecessors. Debussy is a good example of this. Lacking a historical background of Impressionism, his aesthetic archetypes would of necessity be fewer. Notice that other lesser composers around him for example D’Indy and Widor, chose to plagiarize earlier or existing styles, with varying degrees of success.

Schoenberg, reaching farther and farther into free atonality, for example Opus 11, decided to systematize chromatic procedure, which appeared more and more haphazard regarding pitches and chords, by pioneering his famous role procedure in which he selected his pitches and chords by means of a pre-existing role of notes built on the 12 chromatic tones of the scale. The harmonic results of the system are a kind of gray sound that hangs over the composition. Here is the opening of the fourth Quartet, with the tone row spelled out in the top voice, followed by another version with another row written by student composer. Does one really sound better than the other? I don’t think so!


schoenberg excerpt


schoenberg excerpt

The following are characteristics of atonal music:

  • It has no tonal background and no common cadences; melodies are derived from a series of notes rather than some kind of inspired , or a Schenkerian  descent of the melody from the dominant or third back down to the tonic, as are almost all famous and great melodies.

  • No sequence writing is used.
  • The tendency for a lack of speedy music, because scalar figures which form the basis for all brilliant music are not available or usually not available within the series of notes preestablished or sometimes called a 12 tone row.

Oddly enough, Schoenberg’s treatment of motives and usage of fragment processes remained rather Brahmsian, or classical in the widest sense. In his later works, he abandoned tone row technique in favor of a tonal style. I believe he found his serial style ultimately unsatisfactory. All the way into the 1960s and 1970s his tone row procedure became academic, that is, as a modus operandi for contemporary composition. Composers in the 1940s started to move away from adopting atonal techniques combined with more or less classical treatment of melody and motives, by developing row or serial processes for the other elements of music: areas of pitch, dynamics, rhythm, thickness of chords, and attack. I taught this style at Juilliard when I was about 28. Webern was perhaps the first important composer to “fix” his pitches in Concerto, Opus 24, and Olivier Messiaen, in the late 1940s, in Mode de Valeurs et d’Intensities, “fixed” all six of the constituent parts of music into rows.

This then led to a group of composers designing a new aesthetic for music which had nothing to do with older music whatsoever; the famous European experimentalists were Luciana Berio (I was his teaching assistant at Harvard!), Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and to some extent Henri Pousseur. In North America, the leaders in the revolution were John Cage, Elliott Carter and Lucas Foss. With the breaking apart of all tradition in the formation of musical aesthetics, there came to the fore the issue of the worth of such music, and the issue of maintaining an audience for this new music. I have taken Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Strauss’ Four Last Songs , works of the 1940s, certainly arguable choices, as the last works written in the 20th century to achieve general stability in repertoire; and having included in this section as examples of the only works which have achieved this status.

One must remember that in the past patrons commissioned music that they needed to like. Our new compositional tendency is to ignore an audience and simply to write music for oneself or one’s friends. As I’ve said before the part of the brain that is touched by great music is the same part that becomes awed in the presence of great art of any sort. This is especially true in the achievement of joy and/or rapture in music. I will say point-blank that truly nontonal music is absolutely unable to achieve joy. Composers like Stravinsky and Bartok were able to write great music which, although approaching the border of nontonality, did not go past it. They also wrote music that did go past it, music which has not become stable repertoire!

The works that have achieved great celebrity of Stravinsky are the Firebird, Petrouchka, The Rite of Spring, the Symphony of Psalms, Oedipus Rex, the Concerto for piano and winds, his opera The Rake’s Progress , and to some extent his two symphonies. Works of Bartok which have achieved the same celebrity would include the ifth and sixth string quartets, the Concerto for Orchestra, the third Piano Concerto, the Sonata for two pianos and percussion, and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste.

In the next installment of this essay, I will discuss The Rite of Spring in its various sections to see what makes this music attractive to an audience and what is different about it from nontonal music.

Anthony Newman

Embellishing is Different from Ornamenting, Part II

Anthony Newman

When we go back to the late 1500s we see trills and ornaments basically defined as double slashes or single slashes. It is easiest to see this in the Fitzwilliam virginal book. I think these two ornaments, the double // being basically a trill that probably starts on the main tone, and the single / probably being a mordant or a lower note trill, were  improvised often by the performer, and sometimes written into the manuscript itself. As ornamentation became more complex, tables were published to show the interpreter the various signs for various kinds of trills or trill like ornaments.
Thus we have seen in the first part of this essay a table by JS Bach, and the French table from which it was gleaned. By the time we get to the 1700s, trills are described as played from the upper note always in France, nearly always in Germany, but often from the main tone in England, Italy, and Spain.

These are my conclusions for the music of JS Bach, and to some extent the music of Handel:

Trills should be played on the beat and for the most part from the upper note. Slurred trills are begun on the main tone, but can also be played before or after the beat. A good, reliable and simple rule to follow about trills is: trill from the upper note unless the note before the trill is the upper note which immediately follows. Here’s an exception: in Haydn’s musical clockworks, circa 1790, all trills, except those approached by schleifer (ascending third), are begun on the main tone, as shown in his setting of the cylinders for the clock works. Most likely the upper note trill was simply considered “company line” as was the treatment of appoggiaturas. Sources often copied one another for example, Leopold Mozart copied whole paragraphs from Tartini’s violin treatise. In quick tempi, trills most comfortably start on the main tone.

Quick trills, called schneller by C. P. E. Bach, are played like triplets off the main tone. If the trill note is approached from the step above, play it off the main tone in fast tempi, off the upper note in slow tempi. If slurred to the previous tone, start on the principal note – before in faster tempi, or after the beat in slower tempi, depending on the context. These apply to the most frequent situations. Students are referred to specific chapters on trills in Quantz, CPE Bach, and JG Turk.

Trills can be shortened to a single appoggiatura, as mentioned by CPE Bach. When approached from the lower neighbor, one often fills in the interval of the third with a passing tone. In French music a trill on a long note starts slowly and the speed is soon increased to its fastest tempo.

How do you end a trill? If the trill stops before its written value ends, then there is a break, called point d’arret. Then the ending with upbeat nachschlag or anticipation is added. In his French overture in volume 2 of the Klavierubung, Bach wrote a rest before the end of the opening trill. The other way to end a trill is with no break before the ending. In such cases the trill is written in one slur with the ending. The slur indicates that there is no break in the trill. It is better to not count the beats in a trill, or to practice counting them, unless it is a short trill. Mordants are executed as lower note trills. The number of repetitions depends on the length of the note.

Appoggiaturas: Again the passages about appoggiaturas are collated from our sources. The student is urged to read the voluminous appoggiaturas theories from Quantz, Turk, CPE Bach, and Agricola. The true appoggiatura is always on the beat, and the Italian word tells us that the appoggiatura is leaning or slurred onto the note following. The length of the appoggiatura depends on the context. Quantz, Turk, and CPE Bach say that it should receive half the value of the main note, two thirds if the main note is dotted. CPE Bach says that formerly appoggiaturas were written as eighth notes. I personally believe the long appoggiatura belongs to the newer gallant style and that JS Bach’s style of appoggiatura is short and very occasionally before the main part of the beat. This short style before the beat is typical of the early classical period style.

The appoggiatura is always slurred into the next note and is slightly louder when played on an instrument capable of dynamic variations. The appoggiatura is sometimes shown as a small hook or double hook encircling the note, but most frequently as a small note. There are ornamental passing tones incorrectly termed appoggiaturas. These notes are played before the beat and are frequently found in French music, sometimes called notes de passages. Context then determines whether a small note is in an appoggiatura or a passing tone. In the works of JS Bach, the length of the appoggiatura is usually convincing if it is played from ¼ to ½ the value of the non-dotted note to which it is attached, 1/3 the value of a dotted note.

The two ascending steps ornamental sign called a schleifer may be played on or before the beat, depending on the context. Classical style authors often preferred them on the beat. French composers frequently write the schleifer as two small notes before the main note, suggesting by the notation that it be played before the beat.

– Anthony Newman

Anthony Newman

Embellishing is Different from Ornamenting

Anthony Newman

The words embellishment and ornament are often used interchangeably today, but we will use them as they apply to two quite different elements. Ornaments could be indicated by standardized notational signs such as those for a mordant or a trill, and there were many examples of tables which give more or less exact directions for the realization of each ornamental sign. This is the often cited table given to WF Bach by his father (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Table of Ornaments from Klavierbuchlein fur Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

They include the signs for trill, mordant, mordant and trill, turn, lower note approach to a trill, upper note approach to a trill, approaches to trills with mordants at the end of them, appoggiaturae, and the latter combined with trills. Cadence ornaments were often left out, or simply not copied, to be filled in by the performer. Probably the ornament table that JS Bach copied was that of Henry D’Anglebert written in 1689 (figure 2). 

Figure 2

Figure 2. Henry D’Anglebert’s “Pieces de Clavecin,” 1689. “Marques des Agrements et leur signification”

Embellishments or diminutions, on the other hand were decorations originally improvised by the performer. For instance, a passage written as follows from Bach’s English suite in G minor (Figure 3) could in fact be performed as shown (Figure 4) e.g. as suggested by the performer.

Figure 3

Figure 3. English Suite in G Minor, S. 808: Sarabande

Figure 4

Figure 4. Les agrements de la meme Sarabande

Another example is the English Suite in A Minor (Figure 5), where the Sarabande again is given an embellishment by the composer (Figure 6). In binary movements with repeat marks, we can embellish or add ornaments in the repeats, though perhaps with less elaboration than in the last example. This tradition unquestionably continues to 1800 and perhaps as late as 1850. Most likely Mendelssohn embellished, and most likely Brahms did not.

Figure 5

Figure 5. English Suite in A Minor, S. 807: Sarabande

Figure 6

Figure 6. Les agrements de la meme Sarabande

Generally we can say that Handel, who lived in cosmopolitan London, left embellishment more to the performer than did Bach who lived in a more provincial city. Bach tended to write out the embellishments he preferred, and was criticized for this by his contemporary Scheibe. The addition of ornaments and embellishments, where they are not written in by the composer, is dependent on knowing what the composer has written in other, similarly embellished passages, and the necessity of proper metrical stress.

Ornaments Punctuate; Embellishments Decorate

Ornamentation is possible in all vocal parts. Normally, the top part is most often ornamented, but all structurally important voices can be ornamented. This is certainly required in the playing of fugues, where the fugue subject must be ornamented in the same place in all successive repetitions of the material. This does not mean that the same ornament must necessarily be used each time, or even that the ornament should be of the same length as the initial one. Bach, for example, imitated trills “short” in the pedals. The ornamented area of a fugue subject should be embellished throughout the fugue, even if minimally. One can study the addition of ornaments in the works of JS Bach by simply looking at copies made by his students. There can hardly be any question that his music was embellished freely by them, and I think undoubtedly with his permission.

A good example to study for earlier music is Corelli’s opus 1 sonatas for violin and continuo.  Here single notes are ornamented with dozens of 32nds (Figure 7). A good later example is WA Mozart’s 6th Sonata in D for keyboard, last movement, slow variation, which like the Corelli example ornaments single long notes with many 32nd notes.

Figure 7

Figure 7. Arcangelo Corelli: Violin Sonata No. I

The issue about embellishments and the realization of ornaments is enormous and so I will write this section in two large parts. To be continued…

— Anthony Newman

Anthony Newman


Anthony Newman

Obviously it is feasible to play Bach on the piano. This has been done for over 100 years by professionals, by devoted amateurs, and by delighted students, and the results have been as wide-ranging as those that accompany most human endeavors.

Most people agree that the music of Bach can be performed on any instrument, and that some musical impact is always felt. Bach’s music has been performed on balalaikas, by jazz choruses, and by huge romantic orchestras. Some are offended, but many more are powerfully effected.

There is no reason why devotees of authenticity should insist that Bach be played only on the harpsichord or organ. People with access to a piano certainly outnumber those with access to a harpsichord. There is no question that there are enormous differences between the piano and Baroque keyboard instruments, and that these differences present the student, the teacher or the performer special problems.

First it is important to realize that even though the clavichord and piano are struck to make the strings vibrate, the piano is not an enlarged version of the clavichord, an instrument contemporary with the harpsichord and which Bach played. The pressure of the finger on the key of the clavichord can be altered to make the tone not only louder or softer, but to make it rise slightly in pitch. The effect is that with pressure, the sound becomes louder and actually more intense. What we perceive as intensity is actually a slight raising of pitch. This has to do with the method of action in the clavichord. The little metal piece on the back end of the key is raised against the string when the front end is depressed. The louder the sound, the higher the pitch; and the softer the sound, the lower the pitch. But with the piano, once a key has been depressed, the finger has no further influence on the sound.

The most important differences between the piano and Baroque keyboard instruments are in the areas of dynamic range and of overtone patterns. The name of the modern instrument, now called piano, although earlier it was called forte piano and then later piano forte, shows that the characteristic of dynamic modification through touch was the most important one in the minds of the musicians and the instrument builders of the 18th century. The range of experimentation in instrument building through the 17th, 18th and 19th century was enormous, leading to many different kinds of instruments. When we talk about our piano, we should make a distinction between two different instruments: the forte piano with a wooden frame, and the modern piano with an all metal frame not to mention the many transition instruments in between.

Bach played on forte pianos built by Gottfried Silberman at the castle of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. We in fact have a receipt with his signature for the sale of a forte piano in 1747. Bach found the treble too weak and the action too heavy, but Silberman experimented and improved his instruments, to the extent that later Bach approved of the changes. CPE Bach and JC Bach both performed on such instruments, and JC Bach preferred them to the harpsichord. We know that Frederick the Great had a large collection of pianos, unfortunately destroyed in the Second World War. In fact he bought all the pianos that Silberman had for sale and could build. Indeed the two large fugues from the musical offering were composed for this kind of early piano.

Below you can hear Anthony Newman play the first movement, Allegro maestoso, from Mozart’s Sonata No. 9 in A Minor, K. 310. This recording was made on a Clementi fortepiano built in 1803. Listen to Mozart on the Fortepiano.

But we must remember that the sound of the early pianos, with their small, leather covered hammers – the instruments used by Mozart, Haydn and the young Beethoven – is much closer to the harpsichord sound that it is to the sound of the modern piano. The harpsichord and the forte piano have a more developed upper harmonic series than the modern piano. Close position chords sound thicker and heavier on the piano than on the harpsichord, where the strength of the higher overtones gives the effect of spreading all sound out over a larger range of pitches. The important overtones of the piano our modern piano are closer to the fundamental pitch.

During the early part of the 19th century, firms that made instruments consulted with composers and performers in efforts to develop pianos more suitable to the growing demands for larger sounds and a different kind of virtuosity. It was not until the mid-19th century that a piano with an all metal frame was built. This device, as well as felt covered hammers and covered bass strings, totally altered the sound of the instrument and led to the piano as we know it today. As we have seen, strong beats and measures were emphasized in the Baroque style by playing the louder, on instruments such as the violin, which allowed for dynamic variation, or by stretching them in time, for example on instruments such as the harpsichord, which did not have dynamic variation. That gives us to possibilities with the modern piano: 1. We can pretend that the piano has no dynamic range, avoid dynamic variety except where a register change would have been made on the harpsichord, and use rhythmic alterations exclusively; or 2. We can make use of the dynamic range of the piano, and because we are indicating strong beats or structural subdivisions with dynamic variation, we can avoid the rhythmic alterations. Or we can use both!

However the most problematic issue on the modern piano is that whereas the harpsichord used registers which played an octave higher or an octave lower or both, the modern piano of course does not do this. It is not uncommon for audiences to feel on listening to modern Bach performances on the piano that somehow the music does not really utilize the facilities of the modern piano. Of course it does not since it has no octave higher or lower stops. This lack of doubling produces a dullness in the music simply by virtue of the instrument. There are a full two octaves on the modern piano above any notes that Bach wrote for the harpsichord, and there is a full octave below any notes that Bach wrote for the piano. Experiment by playing any imposing piece of Bach with two or three pianists one an octave higher one an octave lower. Given the right doublings doesn’t the music sound better and grander? This is in a nutshell the problem of playing Bach on the modern piano. So what are we to do about this? We can add octave doublings in various manners to make a more imposing effect of the music, and effect which would have been realized naturally on the harpsichord.

As was mentioned before in playing Bach and Handel on the modern piano we can pretend that the piano has no dynamic range and make use of rhythmic alterations exclusively. Or we can make full use of the dynamic range of the piano, and because we are indicating strong beats or structural subdivisions with dynamic variation, we can avoid rhythmic alterations altogether.

It appears to me that neither of these decisions would be satisfactory, but that in each piece, almost in each passage, the performer will make a third choice, sometimes using dynamic variation, sometimes rhythmic alteration, and often combining the two. As the forte piano was beginning to be used during Bach’s time, and came into its own during the Classical period, we can be sure that the Baroque style of rhythmic alteration was used without the slightest question in the early classical period. From the works of Mozart and later composers it would appear that dynamic changes gradually came to substitute for rhythmic alterations. Remember the famous Beethoven assessment that Mozart’s piano playing was “fine but choppy.” This is undoubtedly because Mozart played in the normal strong- weak progressions that may have been expected by performers trained in the Baroque tradition.

Here is the famous quote from Kirnberger as related to him by JS Bach: “In even meters with two beats, and in triple meters, there are melodies in which it is clear that entire measures are alternately heavy and light so that one feels an entire measure to consist of one beat. When the melody is so constructed that one feels the entire measure to be a single beat, then the two measures must necessarily be set together to make a single one, with the first part being long, and the second part being short.” This is categorically the most important statement about strong and weak bars in the Baroque because it comes from the Baroque’s greatest composer.

Sometimes rhythmic alterations do not sound well on the piano. Holding notes past the written value can be both successful and peculiar on the modern piano, because of the greater variety in tone; and there is no question notes were held beyond their written value to make harmonic effects on the harpsichord as shown by a performance practice introduction by Rameau. Slur groupings are also difficult to produce satisfactorily on the modern piano, for it is immediately apparent, when listening to the harpsichord, whether a group of notes is slurred or detached. On the piano the distinction is not very clear unless emphasis is placed on the first note of each slur group.

To what extent should the pedal be used to playing Baroque music on the modern piano? The classical harpsichords have a natural echo sound, a lively acoustic. The strings were not dampened on the after lengths by felt, as in the piano so that this lively acoustic was built into the instrument. The piano, in contrast, has quite a dead acoustic, and the pedal was developed to counteract this and then amplify upper partials. This would not have been the case on the earlier forte-pianos. So it seems to me to be correct and musically useful to use the pedal sparingly when playing Bach. I prefer to use the pedal in playing Bach on the piano for structural reasons, to emphasize strong and weak beats or measures, or it to bind together a prevailing harmony. It seems silly to not utilize what the piano has to offer, including peddling, and the use of octaves.   

— Tony Newman

Anthony Newman

The Question of Tempo in Baroque Organ Performance

Anthony Newman

Some 40 years ago when I was first starting to play and record, especially when my first recordings came out on Columbia records, I was often criticized for my quick tempo playing of Baroque music. Of course it is very hard to put exact metronomic tempo markings on works that are 300 years old. The only markings that we have come from the time of Handel where a student of his placed timings on what would be the equivalent today of music box recordings. The specific example I’m thinking of is in the Earl of Butte and his mechanical organ. These tempi are preserved because the cylinders with the music had a specific time in which to be played. For example the allegro of Handel’s first organ Concerto was to be played at quarter note equals 147, quite a brilliant tempo, and quite a bit faster than any recordings of this piece. The great Bach biographer Forkel says that Sebastian Bach played very quickly, (sehr schnell).

What has happened in the last 40 or 50 years is the original instrument movement. This took place basically in Amsterdam and London, with the reintroduction of original instruments for nearly all the major works of the Baroque, all their major composers, even including the works of Mozart and Beethoven. With the advent of such groups as Musica Antiqua Cologne, and the many original instrument groups in Amsterdam and London, we see much much faster performances of famous works of the Baroque and classical periods. In fact the infamous Beethoven tempo markings are often played by these original instrument groups. Beethoven’s tempo markings have survived to tell us that he liked very very fast tempi in fast movements, and that for example most of his adagios are 60 to the quarter note, and the same adagio tempi applies to Mozart. The Mozart tempi come from his student Hummel, and later from Carl Czerny, both of whom give basically the same adagio tempo for all of Mozart’s last six symphonies.

What has happened with the organ is that it has not gone through an original instrument revival as far as performance practice is concerned. In other words whereas the sounds of old organs are now often replicated the style of performance is still dictated by a 200-year-old rather slow and rather legato style of playing which comes from the romantic period, and which tremendously influenced the French organ tradition as well as the English organ tradition. This is not to say that there are and were not magnificent organists in both these countries, but rather to say that the Baroque tradition of performance practice failed to reach into their times.

What is different I believe about Baroque organ performance is that it was not different from any other instrumental performance, and that the organ did not have a special way to be played. I think it often the case that within this tradition the works of Bach and Handel were and are often played nearly twice too slow. The easiest way of demonstrating this is to study tempi suggestions in the treatises of Quantz, Leopold Mozart, C.P.E. Bach, and Turk. In these treatises we see that time signatures themselves had specific tempo qualifications, and were further influenced by a series of specific meaning Italian words: adagio, largo, andante, allegro, vivace, and presto.

What we call romantic legato style simply did not exist in this time, and is the major detriment in organ playing that specializes in Baroque music. Handel spoke of Baroque music as being all separate unless slurring was involved. C.P.E. Bach is quoted as saying, ”the notes which are neither detached nor slurred nor to be sustained are held down as long as one half their value.”

This should put the final nail in the coffin of legato Baroque organ playing. After all it comes from Bach’s most important son. The often quoted famous statement of J.L. Gerber, that J.S. Bach played in legato style, simply meant the slurring of fastest note values, as opposed to their being played staccato, not that the larger values were connected. Besides being hearsay, that is one of Bach’s students commenting to one of Bach’s friends, the statement has always been taken out of context as if a legato style actually existed at the time. The first true legato style does not come into prominence until Beethoven.

It is droll that after 40 years of playing in what I believe to be a Baroque style, I’m still getting the criticism of playing the organ works of J.S. Bach too quickly. In all these recordings I cannot find a single piece that is played faster than 126 to the quarter note, given a texture of 16th notes. One must also realize that the organ is very separated from the rest of music, that is people who go to hear symphonic concerts or piano recitals rarely go to hear organ recitals. And the converse is often true. What this means is that the give-and-take of hearing and playing with other instruments only slightly applies to the organ.

Anthony Newman

Why Isn’t Atonal Music Popular?

Anthony Newman

Here’s a question: what kind of music can’t express true joy or true sorrow? The answer is atonal music. I had two interesting experiences within the last three weeks. First of all I heard a new piece written by a Chinese composer, played by a Chinese orchestra, which was completely tonal, sounding like Brahms. It reinforced my opinion that new music is in a complete state of disarray, with no one agreeing, or almost no one agreeing, on the way new music should be written. The audience reaction was pleasant but not particularly enthusiastic.

Yesterday I heard a concert that included new atonal music. The audience reaction was only polite, a bystander telling me she was waiting for some “real music”. What has happened in new music, from around 1915 to the current day, is that composers have decided what new music should be, rather than having some audience participation in that question. How did this happen? To some extent from 1945 on, the traditional works of classical music have been turned into a museum: in other words people go to concerts to hear the same works of music written between 1700 and 1915. Why has the 20th and 21st centuries given us so little standard repertoire? The last standard repertoire would have been in the 1940s, possibly with Bartok’s Concerto for orchestra and Strauss’ last Songs.

Anthony Newman: Cello Works

Atonal music is effective in movie scenes and as very small interludes in tonal works. Tonal works not only includes the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Verdi, but also the works of Stravinsky and Bartok which border on tonality. Sometimes they include non-tonal sections which are noisy and rhythmic, and in that way exciting. Non-tonal works by famous names include all the Stravinsky music after 1950, any works of Schoenberg including and after Opus 23, excluding the very late works where he abandoned 12 tone writing for more or less traditional tonal music which includes the “Band” variations and the Variations for organ. The works of Boulez, Stockhausen, and lesser-known composers of the outspoken and sometimes outrageous non-tonal works written after 1947, have simply not become common repertoire.

I would say that if music does not have convincing harmonic background and a memorable topline melody, it not only displeases a majority of listeners, but also has no chance of survival because it is simply inferior. This does not mean that the harmony has to be in any way traditional: for example Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex does not have traditional harmonies, but is in every way convincing harmonically. Bartok’s Orchestra Concerto also lacks traditional harmonies, but rather features folk melodies harmonized in his unique harmonic style. Because of this and his own genius, the work has become common repertoire and is enjoyable to almost any musical audience.

When you’re trying to sell something unattractive you better be in a powerful position. The last remnants of non-tonal music find themselves ensconced in University music departments, where the head composer dictates the style, and the students had better follow or risk ostracism or even expulsion.

Anthony Newman: Cello Works

The first step in listening to a new composition is to determine whether the style is attractive to oneself. The second issue is whether or not it is a fine composition. The fundamental assessment of music is its ‘quality’ and not whether one agrees with its style. In the early 1900s, works of Rachmaninoff, such as the second and third piano Concertos, were often made fun of by so-called advanced composers, with works like Schoenberg’s piano Concerto touted as the way to write new music. As we know, the Rachmaninoff concertos have found themselves to be stalwarts of the common repertoire, whereas the Schoenberg concerto is almost never heard for the reasons stated above.

There is no question that very intellectual listeners can find atonal music interesting and compelling, but it is not for general audiences. My own experience as a composer, having written atonal and serialized music during my stay at Harvard, is that a general audience simply doesn’t want to hear 12 tone or atonal music. Since the 1980s I have written a large amount of music that is basically tonal and audience friendly. My non-tonal music is hidden on the shelf in my closet! Since the people that write non-tonal music are often aggressive, I’m sure they will react to these statements in an unfriendly way, but this is my experience having been in music, indeed concert music, for 50 years. Recent brain studies dealing with non-tonal music show that, in a large percentage of the participants, the pain area of the brain is activated when listening to atonal music. Tonal music, like language, has the quality of predictability; one sort of knows what’s coming next. Non-tonal music does not have that quality, and for many, is simply confusing and annoying. I have some friends – in fact dear friends – who are non-tonal composers, and I simply say ‘pace’ to them.

— Tony Newman

Anthony Newman

Please Join Me Live on the Internet

Anthony Newman

I want to let you know that my joint recital with the phenomenal young pianist, Yunqing Zhou will be broadcast free over the Internet live this Saturday, May 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm EDT from Nyack, New York. The broadcast is being made available by Carnegie Concerts and Livestream.

Yunqing Zhou

The concert will include the premiere of my “Ambassadors for Peace” Suite for piano four-hands. My new work was inspired by some of the world’s great peacemakers, including Abe Lincoln, J.S. Bach, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. The work is in five movements and includes two fugues, one built on the B-A-C-H motive.

You can access the concert at:

I hope you can join us.

Anthony Newman

Bach’s Complete Keyboard Works

Anthony Newman

My two recent big projects are the complete organ works of Bach in collections, and the complete harpsichord works of Bach also in collections. I’ve spent most of my adult life including my late teen years as a Bach specialist, involved not only with performance practice, but on the kinds of instruments JS Bach played, especially in his youth. There is a series of performances on recording that I did in my early 30s, some of the Worcester school in Danbury Connecticut, some at SUNY purchase, and some on organs in Europe.

My research into Bach performance practice, and indeed into performance practice of the German Baroque in general, yielded some startling results. For example the length of note in performance according to sources around the era of the Baroque is about half the value of the note indicated. The two major sources for this include Leopold Mozart and JJ Quantz. An even more important sources that of one of Bach’s sons, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach. In his treatise he states that the note performance value is about one quarter of the indicated value. This means that there was no real legato style, unless the notes were slurred, or unless the term tenuto was used. This term was not widely used until the classical period. This means that the legato style of organ performance was not part of the Baroque era, and probably did not come into usage until the romantic era.

The 19th and 20th century usage of legato in organ playing permeated even Baroque music, although it is improper historically to play in that way. But one is bucking an enormous establishment tradition, especially that of the French tradition, and to some extent the English tradition. In addition there is nothing indicated in treatises to state that the organ was played more slowly than other instruments, unless in a big acoustic. I think that organ players gradually slowed down the tempos of Baroque music until the end of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, especially in France where Baroque music was simply played slower even in a non-acoustical setting then was proper for the period of the Baroque. In addition to these two important facets ,the copies of Bach’s organ music and harpsichord music by his students are filled with additions of ornaments that show the music was ornamented when performed, outside of the written notation. The students copies of show thi s and it is inconceivable to think that the students ornamented the works of JS Bach but Mr. Bach did not. So in these three ways: legato performance, tempo, and added ornamentation, I differ from my contemporaries. But it is hard to change from what one is used to, and so the older style of organ playing: legato, slow-ish, and un-ornamented still pervades establishment organ playing.

The organ that I initially used, a tracker organ built by Henderson – Wilson, is a copy of the sound style of middle 18th-century organs. It has brilliant mixtures, indeed very high one’s, which add a blazing clarity to the music at hand. Unfortunately, the last time I was at the Worcester school, the organ was not there and no one seemed to know what had happened to it. So my recordings on that organ may be the only ones that anyone will hear to remember the sound of this wonderful instrument. The other two organs I have used, one at SUNY Purchase, an organ built by Riegern, and the organ at St. Matthews Church in Bedford New York, a Stephen Russell organ, have a similar “point of view”. On these three organs I have made perhaps as many as 14 CDs, some for specific companies, some for private usage, and some other ones which I retain today which I use in the big collection of CDs soon to be released that have all of Bach’s collected works for the organ: three sets of chorale s, 24 preludes and fugues, six trio sonatas, and two works played on the pedal harpsichord: the Passacaglia and Fugue, and the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor. For those who want to hear every last piece, in the future I will make a CD of the very early set of chorale preludes, and assorted preludes in other collections as well as secular works. The harpsichord used for most of these works was built by Philip Tyre, although as an alternate I have included earlier recordings of the Italian Concerto and the toccatas in C minor and D major, played on an instrument of Eric Herz.

The harpsichord collection of 10 CDs includes the three large sets of suites: French, English, and the Partitas, both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Also included are the Toccata’s, the Italian Concerto, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, and the B Minor Overture, and two concertos. I will also include a separate CD of the smaller works which are not in collections.

While many of my recordings are scattered around the Internet, relatively few have been placed directly by my representatives. These are being collected and you can access some of them at I hope you get a chance to check these out and please let people know about these free newsletters – sign up.

Many, many thanks,
— Tony Newman