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Bach's prelude in C major, being beginners' favorite, seemingly shouldn't be controversial as to how it should be read. This is why Glenn Gould's interpretation came to me as a shock with each arpeggio ending abruptly. Virtually every other performance has smooth transitions between every chord (for example, Lang Lang, Schiff, Goulda – the last one being clavichord). Therefore I decided to check what the score really says.

first bar of the prelude

My beginner's reading is that it is Gould who is right, for the following reasons:

  • high note of each chord is a sixteenth note just like the ones preceding it, as a sort of confirmation there's even a pause saying "play no further",
  • lack of pedal marks (obvious given the period in which it was written),
  • lack of legato marks

Is there anything in the score that justifies the majority interpretation? Or does it come from some implicit assumptions known to experienced musicians?

3 Answers 3

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Gould's interpretation is his, but it is in no way more "right" than others, any more than his singing along is right or wrong - it is simply a feature of his recordings that appeals to some and not to others.

  • The pedal wasn't invented in Bach's time, and whether or not to use it when playing his music on a modern instrument (or whether to do this at all or not) has long been an controversial but unprovable question.

  • Gould does in fact not play the sixteenths alike that are notated alike. He adds a pronounced staccato on the last one that makes it a lot shorter than the previous ones. This separates the to halves of the bar clearly, but there is no reason to assume that this is more or less true to Bach's intentions.

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  • I don't focus on the authors intent because I'm aware that's too hard too guess, my question is about consistency with the score as it's written. Thanks for pointing out that Gould's sixteenths aren't born equal either.
    – Szymon
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 15:25
  • @Szymon The whole point of a score is to communicate the composer's intent. However, different composers and different eras have included or excluded details differently, which is why there are different interpretations in performance. To leave out author intend renders the question trivial. Obviously Gould is following the score accurately, but so are all the others. The differences don't lie in the score; they lie in what's not in the score.
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 15:35
  • @Szymon You may find this of interest: What does it mean to "play what is not written"?.
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 15:37
  • @Szymon Of course it's not so simple, because "author's intent" and "score as it's written" are entangled. The score certainly records some degree of authorial intent, but there's an additional job of uncovering just what they meant by it (and that's where the whole field of "performance practice" comes in). Among the things that various authors and periods "mean" differently is how literally they expect the performer to respond to what's written. Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 16:51
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Disclaimer: I'm not a Glenn Gould biographer and can't speak with authority about how he perceived his relationship to the original work.

But regardless of how he felt about it, all of his Bach is very much "interpreted." It is his Bach, and largely frees itself from any ironclad guilt about "the right way" or "Bach's way." It's not unlike a modern production of Shakespeare—when Joel Coen, Kenneth Branagh, or Baz Luhrmann create their version of a play, the results are very much something that started with Shakespeare, ended with them, and can't be mistaken for anyone else's.

The wonderful thing about operating in this mode is that no one can (legitimately) say that you shouldn't have made a certain choice. They might say that they don't like it, they might say that one shouldn't operate in that mode at all, but as long as you're in "this is what I make of it, and anything goes" mode, then you can do whatever you like.

Okay, all that out of the way, it's still true that Bach wrote (as far as I can tell, there are several "original sources") that sustained C and E. Gould is just taking a very literal reaction, making the other sixteenths quite separated. So his articulation is not merely the result of his own whim, but motivated by what he sees on the page.

At the same time, I don't know that one has to have that extreme a response to the differences in how Bach has notated the members of the arpeggio. If others choose to pedal straight through the chord, I don't see that that's inappropriate.

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Whether it's true to Bach's intention or not I don't know, but to answer your question unequivocally: no, it's definitely NOT a more literal reading of the score.

As written in the other answers; his last notes of the arpgeggio's are staccato's. And to my ear not only the very last ones either. There are situations where the difference between non-staccato and staccato 16ths can be unclear, but this is not it, since we can hear very clearly the shorter attack(s) and release(s) of the last note(s)

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