The Spirit of the Masters

by Harold Bauer

There is nothing more interesting and all the realm of pianoforte playing in the individual appeal that the great master makes towards those who approaches works in the proper spirit. It is not so different from that appeal which the illustrious men and women of today would make to us were we fortunate enough to meet them personally. If one could, by any chance, meet Beethoven, hear him play his own works, learn of the intellectual and personal experiences he underwent in bringing his wonderful masterpieces into being, one would certainly come to play Beethoven better.

The student about to begin study upon a new work by some of the great masters of the past, should first of all assume an attitude of reverence for a great art creation, respect for the master and respect for the production of his genius. He should strive to learn all that it is possible to learn about the life of the master at the time the composition was written, as well as the condition of musical art at that time. Upon these things, quite as much as upon the correct and expressive performance of the notes, does intelligent interpretation depend.

The student who takes up a new work in the same spirit as he would take up a popular magazine intended purely for the transient attention of the reader, will never hold the interest of those whose interest is worth preserving. This is perhaps a flippant age, and students, particularly young students, cannot be too strongly urged to cultivate reverence for the grandeur of the art and those who contributed the greatest works to it.

Bach – Mozart – Haydn

How is it possible to understand Bach, Haydn and Mozart without studying their methods of writing for the instruments of their day? The modern piano resembles the clavichord, harpsichord and spin that mostly and that it is encased in a box, has a keyboard and has strings. There the resemblance ceases. The spin that often did not even have legs. It was a tiny instrument which could easily, in many instances, have been stored away inside the case of a modern concert grand piano. The damper pedal did not exist, and if the reader will call to mind certain contemporary pictures in which this spinet was represented, he will notice that the auditors are usually gathered around the instrument, and that they are frequently bending down their heads so that none of its dulcet sweetness may be lost upon their years.

Imagine such an instrument in Carnegie Hall or the auditorium in Chicago. It would be like a canary bird singing in a great stadium. To perform works written for the spinet as though they had been written for a modern grand piano is a great mistake, but there is no question that the use of the damper pedal is desirable, even though the composers of the. Possibly never dreamed of the pedal as we now know it.

At the same time, we do not in this day fully realize the bigness of the harpsichord as Bach knew it. We cannot even approximate on our own pianos some of the effects of the large harpsichord. The harpsichord was originally a kind of a large zither, with a keyboard and a mechanical action for plucking the strings. But as it developed it became more than this. While the smaller forms of the instrument, which were known as finance and virginal’s, were limited in their scope, the large harpsichord had two keyboards, each set of keys being capable of producing a kind of tone different from that of the other. There were several pedals, which operated special contrivances for changing the quality of tone, one of them being the octave pedal, so that while playing in one register, one could couple on tones and octave above. Thus Bach’s Italian Concerto, containing the following passage, which appears in our notation does:


could, by means of the octave coupler, be made to sound thus:


giving effect of breath quite different from that suggested by the mere notation. Such a thing is this the student must bear in mind, and one playing works where the coupling pedal might have been used, strive for breath of tone and sonority.

Again, and playing the works of Mozart and Haydn, it must be very obvious that many of them were intended for an instrument that was caressed rather than beaten. The artist’s task therefore is to create something which will take the imagination back to those delicate performances of exquisite melodic passages that were heard in the aristocratic calls of yesterdays long gone.

You see, the whole dynamic scheme is altered. It is like a leap from the October thunderstorm to the balmy June morning. In most of the music of that day the melodic line was an effort to simulate the voice. Instruments of all kinds were revered if they were made ‘to sing.’ As imaginative effort is a part of artistic sense and artistic appreciation, this should be understood when one is preparing a new work by Mozart, Haydn or their contemporaries. When the music makes it possible, let it sing. The student should also learn the special significance of the passage writing of that period. It is a great mistake to ignore the musical values of this passage work, and when the nature of the instruments of those days is better understood it will be readily seen the passage work was not merely decorative, but essential.

There can be no doubt that Mozart and Haydn deliberately employed ornamentation’s very extensively indeed for the purpose of creating the impression that tones lasted longer on their instruments, which had, of course, Limited sustaining power, compared to the piano today. Lower C octave struck upon a modern piano will continue sounding from 40 to 90 seconds, depending upon the force of the stroke and the sustaining power of the instrument. In the instruments of the time of Mozart and Haydn, the tone duration was only a few seconds. Although those decorative shapes are not devoid of expression, it seems to me that altogether too much important as is laid upon their exact performance, far more importance than the old masters themselves would have attributed to these graces, ornaments, etc.

Long volumes and lengthy articles have been written about them, and long and tedious arguments have been conducted over such a subject as a proper performance of some turn in Bach, which would undoubtedly amuse the old cantor immensely, could he by some magic wireless telephoning me in unseen auditor at the fruitless discussions held by musical archaeologists over trifling matters. About all that is necessary is an understanding of the embellishments described in K. P. E. Bach’s The True Art of Pianoforte Playing. So much has necessarily changed in the nature of the instrument in 200 years that delay too much stress upon the decorations is like taking some little detail of a Greek temple capitol and forgetting the beauty of the Parthenon regarded as a whole.

One of the significant things to be learned from the works of composers who wrote for the harpsichord was that they constantly had in mind for five different qualities of tone. This makes the necessity for precise phrasing important. That is, they obviously cannot change from one quality of tone to another in the middle of a phrase. Therefore differentiation in phrasing was more marked at that time it has ever been since. This should accordingly be remembered in playing such works at the present time on a different instrument.