Bach and Improvisation

by mjkmercer

Improvising Bach

I can’t help thinking that there is too much slavish following of non-definitive scores by players of Bach.  From the top let us be clear – Bach did not  produce Sibelius software type copies of his scores. He didn’t even mark dynamics, and often the instrument being aimed for was not clear.  Everything we hear is generally an interpretation of  those basic open scores. Usually by a scholar well versed in  Bach performance scholarship but still – not somebody who actually  knew the composer.

I find, when playing Bach, that the music wants to find its own way, you can almost sense the  composer  improvising – (brilliantly!) and that he would hate what has happened to his music.  Anecdote alert… coming shortly…

I play many pieces by Bach and they are not easy. Bach wrote nothing but for  master performers so  beginners pieces are always redactions edits or downright bowdlerisation – dismiss them at once. Get back to the best scores you can find and preferable facsimile editions where possible to see what he actually wrote.  - Then learn them, then let your imagination go and work them.

Example. The very first bars of the ‘cello suite in G are well known to every ‘cellist. It is not possible to get anywhere without coming across them and for them to become favourites. The bowing pattern for those opening bars varies according to which edition you read and yet non of them appears in the original manuscript. I found the dame when transposing the piece to play on guitar – I have free choices as to how to slur the notes and I experimented freely with it to find a reading I liked the sound of.  But this is still not improvisation –  it is taking a first step towards liberty.

My true liberation came when I decided in a repeat, to play  something that was more inspired by the music I had just played. It felt good, and it still felt Bachian and was a joy to play. The audience appreciated it too. I’d like to hear more  players loosen up their sensibilities and leave the  minute following of score to students, and for them to  let go and explore the music. Anecdote…. my friend was playing  the Goldberg variations in cambridge. In the audience was a line of elderly gentlemen all following the score carefully. I wondered if they were ticking the bars as they went by. At the end, one of them said it was okay but not very accurately played. I noticed he was following from a different edition.  You have to wonder what pleasure somebody might be getting form  reading their way through a concert and not listening.

Here is a link to an article on a similar theme.

http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/delay-is-denial/

But finally – I’ll leave with this thought – good improvisation skills can cover up the bar you totally forgot – or smear over the wrong note you just played. Don’t forget that unless you are very unlucky and playing in Cambridge – most of the audience won’t have the score in front of them and you are only ever a semi tone away from a note that will fit.