Why is Bach so great?

Personally, I could play Bach all day. But I know a lot of people hear the name “Bach” and shut down. He’s the epitome of the “dead white guy,” and every painting of Bach makes him look incredibly grumpy. However, I’m out to change your mind! Let me show you some fascinating things about Bach and give you a crash course in something known as “performance practice.”

So let’s talk about why Bach’s music is so fantastic. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a prolific German composer who in many ways is the father of Western classical music. He was a genius at counterpoint, which means lines of melodies that wind together, creating melody and harmony at the same time.

He wrote 7 sonatas (yes, some authorship is up for debate, let’s not argue those here) for flute and harpsichord. The harpsichord was a precursor to the piano—but instead of hitting the strings with a hammer, they are plucked. A “sonata” simply means a solo instrument with some kind of accompaniment, and they are one of the most common types of chamber music.

Let’s get listening. I have three recordings to refer you to today. There’s a reason for all three! Be bold and dive in to the first 30 seconds of each:

Barthold Kuijken

Jean-Pierre Rampal

Emmanuel Pahud

Time to play Sesame Street’s “Which of These Things is Not Like the Other One?”

Recording #1 is by Barthold Kuiken, a Belgian flute player who specializes in “performance practice.” An odd phrase, yes. It means a specialist in playing instruments of the Baroque or Classical periods, and performing the way musicians of the time did.

If you think nothing has changed since Bach’s time, think again. For starters, Kuijken is playing on a wooden flute. Modern professional flutes are made from combinations of silver, gold, and/or platinum. Around 1:08-1:20 of Kuijken’s recording you can really hear the woody timbre coming through (compare this with about 0:52 of Pahud’s recording).

The timing is another huge difference. As you hear Kuijken’s performance, you’ll notice he and his harpsichordist take a lot of time, even little hesitations within the phrases. Even in the first 10 seconds of each recording, you can hear the tempo differences. Pahud and Rampal especially are playing strictly in time.

What about pitch? Can you sing the first note of each of the three recordings? Are they the same? Spoiler alert—NO! Even though the piece is called “Sonata in B Minor,” the concept of what a “B” is has changed over the years. In the US today, we tune to A=440, which means that on a piano the A string is cut to a length so it vibrates at 440 Hz, and the other notes are tuned accordingly. In the Baroque period, A could be at 415, which to our modern ears sounds very flat.

(Fun side note—modern tuning still varies between countries. The US standard is 440, but in Australia it’s 441 and most of Europe is 442…but Sweden is 443. It also varies between orchestra tradition, conductor preference, instrument tendencies, and the temperature of the concert hall…but that’s another blog.)

There’s another one of these recordings that drastically stands out from the other two. Jump over to Rampal’s recording and start at around :47. (By the way, this is the recording that inspired me to play flute from a very young age.)

Hello, vibrato! Vibrato is the term for the pulses in the sound (think laughing in fast motion). The concept of vibrato has changed over the years. Again, go back to Kuijken’s recording at 0:53. Same music as Rampal, but no vibrato! OK, so let’s see what Pahud was doing at 0:47.

Still no vibrato? What gives?!

In Bach’s time, vibrato was considered an ornament, or a way to decorate the music beyond just trills or grace notes. It was performer’s choice (with guidelines, of course) and would vary in terms of speed and intensity, but vibrato was NOT a constant.

This changed over time, and in the 20th century it became common for vibrato to be used ALL the time, especially with a fast and intense sound. That’s what you’re hearing in the Rampal recording, which is from the 1950s.

However, in the 1970s, “performance practice” became popular with musicians wanting to recreate how Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, or others would have performed. The concept of vibrato is still a widely debated topic today, but it is generally accepted to perform Bach with minimal vibrato—the 1950s sound is no longer fashionable.

Pahud’s recording, although performed on a modern metal flute, is a result of that change in the way we approach vibrato. He plays the instrument he knows, but is able to still play in a style representative of Bach’s time.

Clearly this is only a quick overview of some differences between playing styles. But a reason Bach’s music is so popular and has lasted so long is that it CAN be played in so many ways. There are still many groups who perform on period instruments (such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or Apollo’s Fire), so check out their websites for more recordings.

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