Musical Morality

June 12, 2017 at 2:08 pm

When I was a wee lad, my father gave me a CD of Bach’s harpsichord concertos as a birthday present. Yes, I was a nerd.

Fast-forward 25+ years to my middle-aged self, over-educated, and packed with esoteric tidbits of musical knowledge. I pull out the aforementioned CD for a birthday listen. Only there is something quite wrong about what I hear.

… this harpsichord is playing with sensitive dynamics!

You might have heard that the piano used to be called the pianoforte – literally, “soft-loud.” This is because before the piano’s keyboard predecessors (the organ and harpsichord) didn’t have velocity-sensitive keys (to oversimplify the matter). No matter how hard you hit the key, the resulting note will always be the same volume.

Now, those of us who play the harpsichord are used to creating the illusion of dynamics by altering our articulation and shortening/elongating notes, among other things. But this recording is not an illusion … there is some witchcraft here! If you listen carefully at 6:40-6:55, you can hear the harpsichord get gradually softer – it sounds as if someone is silently closing the lid of the instrument, muffling the sound. Or, perhaps the recording engineer just turned down a volume know to make the upcoming crescendo more effective.


The big question is, is this morally right? Ok, so this is not exactly a life-and-death situation here, but it does make you think. Possible arguments (in no particular order):

  1. Historic Authenticity: Bach certainly didn’t have a volume knob to turn down, and it’s unlikely he had someone standing next to the harpsichord to slowly close the lid in order to create a decrescendo. So this performance is “wrong”?
  2. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity: If Bach could have turned a volume knob, he would have. This performance sounds better with the added dynamics. So this performance is “right”?
  3. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity, part 2: If Bach had access to a 13-foot Steinway, this would be a piano concerto instead. So it is equally “right” and arguably better to play this on the piano?
  4. There are hundreds of factors that go into every performance according to the resources available and needs of the performers/audience, blurring the lines of “right” and “wrong” into a big smeary gray area.
  5. Who gives a care anyway?

As for me, I’m with #4. I’m not sure a pure historically authentic performance (#1) can be achieved because we cannot help but look at the past through our present selves. Assuming a dead composer would agree with our ideals (#2 & #3) is dangerous, pretentious, and stupid. And as for #5 – I do in fact give a care!