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Thread: Bach's O Mensch, Bewein Dein Sunde Gross - how to articulate?

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    Bach's O Mensch, Bewein Dein Sunde Gross - how to articulate?

    I am playing this piece as an organ prelude for a church service tomorrow. I learned it years ago using the articulation of the sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes a la Albert Schweitzer - 4123, 3412, 2341 - playing legato across the beat. But I wonder now if this is proper performance practice, and whether it would be better to break the legato before the beat - 1234- to articulate the beat. There are slur markings in the music, so some legato playing would be appropriate. How far does one go in playing detached/nonlegato in an aria-like piece such as this? Any guidelines?

    Mark H.

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    Hi Mark ... Welcome to Magle Int'l Music Forums

    I've always kept the solo line legato throughout - making short pauses between the musical phrases, much in the manner of a human voice taking a breath. Then again, the church where I play is virtually dead as far as acoustics go, so too many releases or breaks in the music make it sound very choppy in a very live building, I may approach my playing technique differently

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    For the most part organ intepretation in the 17th and 18th century style should be kept strictly non-legato. Some interpreters even give their notes a slight staccato articulation (Ton Koopman comes to mind) but this is of course a matter of preference and unecessary IMO. The important thing is to articulate each ntoe clearly therefore avoid the legato effect. If your score has slur markings on it they were obviously added as a revision, since Bach never would have played in such a manner.

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    I'm not exactly sure about legato being absolutely banned in baroque performance practise. Even in its current understanding, there are examples of baroque legato, such as the resolution of a dissonant chord into a consonant chord, or keeping an (ascending or descending) chromatic line. I'd say the difference with the romantic tradition is that in the baroque, legato is one possible articulation among many (whereas in the 19th century, it rather became the articulation "by default").

    Krummhorn's point about the human voice is an interesting one. From that perspective, I might add something that is probably very personal, but anyway, here it goes: human speech is made of vowels and consonants - play everything legato, and you'll only hear the vowels; play everything overly articulated, and you'll only hear the consonants. The balance, as so often, lies somewhere in between.

    Anyway, despite the remarkable progress in our understanding of performance practise over the last 40-50 years, I don't think we should be so foolish as to believe we know The Truth.

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    As far as resolution of chords I woudln't go as far as labeling it "legato phrasing". Obviously the change should be smooth rather than abrupt in cases where it's called for (unless in a chord repetition, obviously). Another example where the "legato" comes to mind is in series of suspensions. This is done instinctively, bearing the counterpoint effect in mind. As far as a chromatic line that might also be done in a smoother fashion. However the idea with baroque performance is to generally keep a clearly articulated melodic line in general and not dowse the playing in this romantic legato phrasing which like you pointed out so much permeates the romantic style. Bear in mind a lot of this playing technique comes, like i mentioned, from the consideration for the counterpoint. Just my observations.
    Last edited by PraeludiumUndFuge; Mar-17-2007 at 02:48.

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    That's a good point: when discussing "legato or not?" in performance practise, one should distinguish between the question of legato phrasing and the question of legato articulation. These are really two different questions. The first one is indeed a big no-no in baroque music (in our current understanding of it), but my previous post really referred to the second.

    On the other hand, I don't think a romantic legato is about "dowsing". I know that a number of baroque lovers like to equate "romantic" with "glue" (or worse), but that really misses the point: legato is just the romantic's way of making the melody sing, but it should still sing clearly. For example, both Reger in Germany and Widor in France are on record of requiring clarity and transparency (down to the tiniest detail) in any musical discourse.

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    Romantic organ interpretation is not necessarily a bad thing. Rubsam for the best example I can think of, I can't say I do not enjoy having heard him (heavy rubato and all). But when you get into the picky mindset of itnerpretation (which deserves so much less attention than it gets) the more the restrained (comparing to romantic expressiveness) of older music style interpretation really gives me an appreciation for the melodic line, the counter line, and whathaveyou. It depends on the artist too. Heavily contrapuntal music (ehem, Bach) I practice to articulate clearly, hands steady on the keyboard, mind you not this jumpy almost staccato style of Koopman and of course neither the slurred or other effects of romantic style for lack of a better description (all these guys are very pianistic if you ask me). Virtuosism in the special certain era was considered, toccata like fingering speed aside, a matter of counterpoit mastery and of course as far as any literature of the time I have come across simple "expression". Better not to make a science of the latter. Me I avoid any kind of pianistic approach to the instrument on stylistic grounds (as a complete albeit picky beginner I am) however I cant say it is particularly wrong.
    And by the way I can't even recall which piece this thread exactly talks about. It's like i've been describing fugue playing all laong. Is it a chorale? (I'm too lazy to check) In any case, no slurring in Bach. Do not abuse effects like rubato. That's all as far as the little I know. And obviously the slur markings come from some kind of pianistic re-edition. That is no urtext.
    Last edited by PraeludiumUndFuge; Mar-25-2007 at 08:01.

  8. #8
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    Interpretation: on the contrary, I welcome the modern concerns for interpretation, in particular the question of interpreting different styles of music in different ways, as opposed to the old schools, where a master would teach a single set of rules to interpret the entire literature (but where different masters would have different sets of rules, each claiming that his rules were the only valid ones).

    Expression: I don't think it to be out of place in baroque music. For example, I can't imagine the Fantasia in g (BWV 542) being played without expression, and even passion. Bach is much more than counterpoint and fugues! So I don't see expression as being absent from baroque music - rather, it is the interpretative means of expression that are very different from those of romantic music.

    Koopman's jumpiness: I, too, feel he's sometimes over the top. Keep in mind, though, that one of the origins of music - especially baroque music - is dancing, so having things "jump" (figuratively speaking) is not necessarily a bad thing in itself.

    Legato in Bach: yes, it is not stylistically correct. But it can be very beautiful. Despite what I said above about appreciating the progress in our musicological understanding, I'm still quite fond of the old Bach LPs by Édouard Commette: yes, it's the old French school, with its legato "by default", its absence of agogical devices, its repeated notes played at precisely half their written values, etc., etc. Yet, I find a quality in Commette's playing, which really sings and breathes - and you can clearly hear all the voices even in a fugue. (Marcel Dupré's Bach playing, on the other hand, never did it for me: although he obeys what "on paper" appears to be exactly the same rules, his playing strikes me as dull most of the time.)

    Pianistic approach: since you are more attracted to baroque music, avoiding a pianistic approach is of course understandable. But then, I'm curious: do you play the harpsichord?

    Urtext: I totally agree about that point.

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