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How to Play Bach on the Piano


Have you ever wondered how you should read a piano score by Johann Sebastian Bach? If you play the piano, you are probably aware that Bach is one of the greatest composers for the keyboard, and that the study of his music is an essential part of every classical pianist's education. But there are a number of questions that need to be answered before you can do justice to Bach's piano music.

First of all, the fact that he didn’t actually write for the modern piano, but for its predecessors, harpsichord and clavichord, is something that you will always have to bear in mind, though of course without unduly limiting the possibilities of your instrument. Secondly, his way of writing down his music differs quite a bit from the way later composers have done it, also creates a need for a number of informed decisions by the performer.
This article would like to answer some of the questions that may arise when playing Bach on the modern piano, and to give you some of the tools you need to breathe real life into his wonderful music.


Should I use pedal when playing Bach?

The harpsichord or clavichord doesn’t have the same possibilities as the modern piano in terms of sustaining notes that aren’t held by the fingers. This means that for the most part, it is certainly not necessary to use pedal in Bach. All the harmonies are there under your fingers, and you don’t need help to keep a base note sounding while playing chords further up the keyboard, for instance. Bach’s so called polyphonic writing creates the harmony by letting the separate voices run alongside each other, and this process risks being muddled by the pedal.
In other words, the general rule would be that in Bach, a note should only sound when you are pressing the key. You shouldn’t use the pedal to sustain notes for longer than is possible by the stretch of your hand. However, you can use the pedal for other purposes. The pedal creates overtones by letting all the strings vibrate together. Without it the piano can sound rather flat and dull. The harpsichord is an instrument extremely rich in overtones, and if you want to translate that to your modern instrument, you will have to use some pedal. Use it when playing chords, and in other places where it doesn’t interfere with the clarity of voices and articulation.

Should I use the dynamic range of the piano when playing Bach?

Another difference between the older keyboard instruments and the piano is that you can use your touch to make the sound softer or louder. On the harpsichord or organ, this was impossible. What you could do on more advanced instruments with two or more manuals, was to use a number of different stops to increase or decrease the sound, and play on different manuals with different hands or use them for different sections of the piece. Which means that the least the modern pianist should do is to imagine that he has got at least two or three different dynamic levels to play around with in any given piece.
Another way to look at it is that you should play the instrument you have got in front of you, and use your creative imagination to really adapt Bach’s music to the possibilities of the piano, playing diminuendos and crescendos, pianissimos and fortissimos and all you can think of. This is a completely adequate position to take on this issue. One could argue that if Bach had had access to a modern Steinway, he would have used it to the full and not tried to make it sound like a harpsichord.
On the other hand, if Bach had been using a Steinway, he wouldn’t have composed the music that he did. The music itself does set some limits to what is appropriate and what is not. Perhaps a middle way is what you should be looking to achieve here.

Bach Italian Concerto on the Harpsichord

Bach Italian Concerto on the Piano

How should I articulate when playing Bach?

A page of piano music by Bach may look almost unfinished if you compare it to a page of a Beethoven or Chopin. Not only are there no pedal signs or dynamic indications, but rarely any articulation markings either. (See an autograph manuscripts of a Bach Invention.) Now, this has nothing to do with the old instruments. Articulation was essential on the harpsichord, and it remains so for the modern pianist. There are two main reasons why there are practically no slurs or dots in Bach’s scores. First, he trusted performers to be able to make their own decisions about this sort of thing. Second, he probably quite often viewed his written notes not as a complete and final version of the piece, but rather as something that could be worked out in detail with his students during lessons.
For us, this is of course both a big problem and a great opportunity. We need to try to find out about the performance practices of the time in order to play Bach’s music in line with his intentions. On the other hand, we can really make use of our imagination to give the music a stamp of our own personality and preference. In the most famous pieces, there is a wealth of generally accepted, traditional articulations that you can partake of just by listening to a couple of different recordings. But remember that you don’t always have to resort to imitating others - it will be much more rewarding to try to find some solutions of your own.

Piano vs. harpsichord poll

Your thoughts about playing Bach on the piano

What do you think is the greatest challenge that the music of Bach puts to the modern pianist? Perhaps you have some other tips or questions regarding this subject. It would be great if we continue discussing these intriguing issues in the comments section below!


Tom on June 13, 2012:

As a harpsichordist, I really have to add that a note played on a harpsichord does not "sound only as long as you hold the key", like you are trying to recreate on the piano.

The physique of the instrument make that when you played a note on a harpsichord, the harmonics keep on sounding. They sound a bit longer when you hold the key pressed down than when you leave it. That's why sometimes, we hold a note longer than the actual written value. To give a famous example: in the prelude in c minor of the WTC (book 1), we tend to keep the first notes on the first and third beats as if they were a quarter, in stead of a sixteenth. On a piano you can either do the same, or... use a short pedal!

You also say that playing loud or soft on a harpsichord is not possible. That's only half true. If you push harder, the sound will be louder and more metallic, though the difference in volume is of course not as big as on a piano. We can also recreate a feeling of "loud" and "soft" by playing with tiny tempo changes, legati or non-legati, playing "in" the keys or "on top of" the keys etc.

Don't get me wrong, I do like your article! I just thought I had to share this with you and your readers :)

Kenneth Munn on January 23, 2012:

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Harpsichords and Pianos have a lot in common - keys. That is their only point of commonality. Behind that board that shuts off the inside from the player the keys change completely. The piano uses hammers and an escapement mechanism which just happened to have been developed by Bach as a consultant to his friend Gottfried Silberman, which makes the piano a percussion instrument. The keys of the harpsichord extend right along to the strings, over simple inverted V pivot, and strike them with plectrums made from goose quills on the downward stroke, making the harpsichord a member of the guitar or lute family. Bach tried a few of Emperor Fred's tunes out on his friend Gottfried Silberman's pianos but decided to stick to what he new and liked.

That great harpsichord virtuoso, Gustav Leonhardt who died recently, maintained that Bach should never be played on a piano, and he roundly condemned those that did.

We are fortunate in having one of the greatest modern harpsichordists in the BBC young geniuses scheme, Mahan Esfahani.

chasemillis on March 27, 2011:

This is great! Whenever I get older and grow more fond of Bach/other classical pianists, I'll refer back to this Hub. Sorry but I'm only 18 and not quite into classical music just yet. I'll get there though. Piano rocks

Piano Street (author) from Stockholm, Sweden on December 01, 2010:

Very good question! A lot could be said about this, and perhaps the best thing would be to make another Hub about the whole tempo issue - which we will probably do, so look out for that.

A few general comments in the meantime:

For an "historically authentic" performance, you should probably rather often choose to play on the quick side. Many pieces are often played "too slowly" because of a still lingering Romantic ideal.

On the other hand, you must remember that you are entirely free to interpret Bach your own way, and don't have to follow in the footsteps of either Gould, Say or any other expert. Chose a tempo that you think makes sense and that you can handle technically.

Finally: Gould was well known for his use of controversial tempi. They often made his interpretations fascinating and thrilling: by all means listen and learn from this pianistic genius, but don't try to imitate him too closely!

Marc Porrot on December 01, 2010:

Thanks for this post. One thing I wonder is about whether one should play Bach slowly or rather quickly ? As you mentioned, there are few leads about how to play Bach in general and when you listen to the same piece played (both beautifully ) by Gould and.. Fazil Say (the latter must weight twice more !), the result is so different. In most of the piano practice CDs I get, it is played really quick and it adds up to the difficulty considerably.

Mark Johnson on September 23, 2010:

Thanks for sharing this, I'll now be able to prepare for my next week piano test much better. When my teacher sees me, she will be surprised !!

Go bach!

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