Problems and Chance


(Walter Blankenheim, from the program for Bach-Festival, 1997, Saarland/Germany)

Performing the Keyboard Works of J. S. Bach on the Modern Piano

The wealth of Bach’s keyboard works has yet to be exhausted and this has reasons that are deeply rooted in the characteristics of our concert life.

The interpreter finds himself in a conscious dilemma:
He should perform the music at its best; beyond that (which may surely be more important to him) he should present himself and his artistic abilities. The public, following convention and at once his judge, furthers this process through “critical listening”; this leads to a principle of competition among performers. In other words, the eyes and ears of the listener (often in this order) are essentially focused on the performer and his/her potential. This stands at the center of the concert activity. As a result, the music becomes the medium through which the person portrays himself, rather than having the music merely present itself. This applies without exception to composers as early as Haydn and on through Stravinsky. The aura of the interpreter’s personality becomes its own in the concert setting, and is, more or less, the lasting experience for the audience.

Since the aforementioned “artistry” does not apply, the interpretation of Bach’s work obviously follows other rules. The origin (and nature) of Bachian composition appears to resist tolerating the above-mentioned circumstances. The interpreter only stands in the service of the composition. His otherwise legitimate desire to present “himself” cannot happen in this music unless he plays the composer “falsely”.

The playing of Bach and its subsequent acceptance by the listener necessitates a change of positions on both sides: the interpreter must understand what he plays, that is, he must first work through the almost completely neutral element of “problem and chance” in order to play it meaningfully. This understanding of the structural elements, as well as his feeling for music content (and its experiential worth and energy) must be convincingly communicated. This aspect of the work can only ne convincingly realized when it is not disturbed by any external interventions caused by the player. The listener must be directly confronted by the work, without the hindering “artistic side effects” that make one aware (or that focus on) the performer, who has no choice but to present the absolute aspect of the music (which is certainly a great challenge).

In the course of his professional life, Bach was confronted with requirements placed on him by both the nobility and the church-requirements that were not always comfortable for him.
The amount of his compositions is beyond all imagination. It is assumed that the writing of his compositions was carried out in the same velocity as his ideas sprouted – a comparison with Mozart’s genius lies cloth, both however being the opposite if Beethoven who was a seeker and a struggler of his musical matter, he required time.

In spite of any restrictions placed upon him, one might say that Bach was sent for all who can and wish to hear music. His Composing was molded within the context of Protestant Lutheranism, but not so was his direction. His music is heard throughout the entire world, even if occasionally with a certain “respect” that perhaps distances him from the listener; however, no one doubts the universal greatness of Bach. He is the composer with the most extensive future.

The interpreter of his music may be understood as a “living structure, whereby the individual temperament (of the performer) is given room for very personal accents that may be called:

energy and relaxing
structure and feeling
historical perspective
brilliance and the joy of making music
poetry and sound

Walter Blankenheim