No, Bach did not “hate” the piano. Bonus: Happy Passover wishes from the Israel Philharmonic

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to defend pianists who play Bach on a modern piano against the more zealous adherents of the HIP (historically informed performance) community, I’d be able to afford a Feurich baby grand 🙂

András Schiff, one of the more prominent “sinners” in that regard, is asked about “the elephant in the room”. He quips, “yeah, it [a grand piano] is a big elephant, but a useful elephant”, and goes on to explain and demonstrate that, in skilled hands, the grand piano combines the best features of the clavichord (Bach’s favorite stringed keyboard instrument, which is velocity-sensitive but too quiet for even the most intimate performance venues) and the harpsichord (which packs a lot more volume but is not velocity-sensitive).

Jokes aside, a musicologist named Linda Shaver-Gleason (LSG) addresses this question in a blog post titled, “Did Bach hate pianos?” In addition, Christoph Wolff’s priceless Bach biography “J. S. Bach, The Learned Musician” devotes a section of Chapter 11 to Bach’s broader interest in musical instrument development, including his own invention of the viola d’amore (a miniature cello with an extra 5th string) and of the oboe da caccia (hunting oboe). This quite aside from Bach’s lifelong interest in organ building technology and his frequent moonlighting as a hired expert for evaluating church and chapel organs. (There was no better “organ test pilot” anywhere, his clients knew.)

One of the organ builders he often had professional dealings with was Gottfried Silbermann (GS) of Dresden. The Silbermann family (not Jewish, despite their last name :)) also built high-quality harpsichords — so when GS read an article describing Mr. Cristofori‘s newly invented “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (Italian: deep harpsichord with soft and loud), he decided to build an instrument like that on its own, then in 1736 asked Bach to evaluate it.

Wolff and LSG both quote a contemporary named Agricola (Latinization of the common German last name Bauer), who wrote:

One of [Silbermann’s pianofortes] was seen and played by the late Capellmeister, Mr. Joh. Sebastian Bach. He praised, indeed, admired, its tone; but he complained that it was too weak in the high register and too hard to play. This was taken greatly amiss by Mr. Silbermann, who could not bear to have any fault found in his handiworks. He was therefore angry at Mr. Bach for a long time. And yet his conscience told him that Mr. Bach was not wrong. He therefore decided—greatly to his credit, be it said—not to deliver any more of the instruments, but instead to think harder about how to eliminate the faults Mr. J.S. Bach had observed.

He therefore decided—greatly to his credit, be it said—not to deliver any more of these instruments, but instead to think all the harder about how to eliminate the faults Mr. J. S. Bach had observed. He worked for many years on this. And that this was the real cause of this postponement I have the less doubt since I myself heard it frankly acknowledged by Mr. Silbermann…. Mr. Silbermann also had the laudable ambition to show one ofthese instruments of his later workmanship to the late Capellmeister Bach, and have it examined by him; and he received, in turn, complete approval from him.

Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Norton Paperback) (Kindle Locations 8979-8983). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Christoph Wolff goes on:

Silbermann had developed his original model in the early 1730s, but withdrew it after it was not fully approved by Bach; he introduced his new and better version in the mid-1740s. Bach then played on the new fortepianos at the court of King Friedrich II of Prussia in 1747. Reportedly, the improved instruments manufactured by Silbermann—the kind Bach helped market at the Leipzig trade fair—“pleased the king so much that he resolved to buy them all up. He collected 15.” 75

In fact, we know which piece Bach improvised at the 1747 audience with Frederick II (and later wrote down as the first movement of what became The Musical Offering, BWV 1079): the Ricercar a 3. Here is the great Tatiana Nikolayeva (RIP) playing it live in Athens:

To my Jewish readers, a happy and wonderful Passover. Due to the first COVID lockdown, we celebrated the Seder at home last year, just the two of us with our daughter connecting from abroad via Zoom. Tonight most people here will have in-person seders again: we are doing the same with old friends. The video below is by the Israel Philharmonic, who are looking forward to performing for audiences again.

Chag cherut sameach/Happy festival of freedom!

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