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So, I'm learning the prelude and fugue in G-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier I (BWV 863).

The prelude goes like this (see full score here): enter image description here

And I would like to play it like this: enter image description here

As you can see, some semiquavers would be played staccato where as crotches would be legato or portato. I do not think I have the right to play it like this, i.e. long durations more legato than the shorter ones.

In the Busoni edition, they seem not to indicate this at all (notice the dolce and legatissimo marks): enter image description here

Pianist Friedrich Gulda plays this piece in roughly the same way that I want to do. Nevertheless, as I am a conservatory student, I do not think they would let me play like this.

So, my question is: is it totally "illegal" to perform this piece as I have indicated? or could there be good reasons for it?

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    You can play the piece however you want. Bach's not going to complain. Your teacher might, but that's something you need to discuss with them.
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 16 at 21:55
  • My teacher said that I should not play the semiquavers staccato and the crotches legato, but I am not able to give real arguments on why this would be possible, if it is.
    – Lava
    Feb 16 at 22:00
  • A facile view of this question would dismiss it as opinion-based—"Interpret it however the heck you want!"—but it does in fact scratch the surface of important questions of performance practice. The short answer is that your emphasis of the starting note of the 16th groupings is picking up on valid performance practice, especially when it's a downbeat. I'd encourage you, though, to phrase runs like this in a way that distinguishes between stepwise and intervallic motion—connect the stepwise and disconnect where there are leaps. And focus more on the "big picture" phrasing than on the detail Feb 16 at 22:53
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    I'm not going to comment on actual musical interpretation, as I think you're commentaries are very good. What I am going to comment about is the use of the words "illegal" and "have the right". Last time I checked, playing whatever you want is not against the law. It might lose you points on your exam, it might lose you a competition, but it is not going to land you in jail. I think this language is very harmful, as it implies that there exist some higher body, of which you yourself don't consider yourself part of, which dictates which the aesthetics of music should be. (+) Feb 18 at 20:42
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    It's a very good thing that such body doesn't exist. We ought not to forget that music is, above everything, an art. Feb 18 at 20:43

4 Answers 4

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Your suggested way of playing is completely fine in principle. Harmonically, the first four 16th are really just an ornamentation over g# 5 (G# minor), then the next two are g# 2 (a#7/5- / g# in modern thinking) and then the e is held into f## 6 5 (D#7 / F##) where it resolves to d#.

So if I played it, I would emphasize the initial g# and then also (maybe surprisingly) the a# as that's really the first place where a harmony changes.

Either way, making a note longer than another note is completely fine and it's called agogics -- you can make the first and fifth 16ths longer in time than the other ones, you can also make the sixth one longer to build a bit of tension before resolving the quite tense 2nd-chord. You could even play the first 16th as an 8th (holding it under the following 16ths) etc.

That all is allowed in the sense that we do not have any reason to not think baroque performers would be against it. (As the other answers mention, baroque sheets aren't meant to be played to the point of the written notes, and ornamentation, agogics, ... are certainly expected.) However, making it right takes some deeper reading of the music than "the first note is certainly the most important so I'll just emphasize that".

Last but not least: I wouldn't much follow the non-historical marks in the non-original sheet music as they can quite often be actually confusing. Busoni was a romantic musician, and while he had certainly a good knowledge of Bach, he introduced a lot of stuff that doesn't really make sense IMHO.

PS: I noticed that you mention your teacher being against a stacatto play. I would agree, in particular on modern pianos. Note that for Bach, klavier was basically what we call harpsichord in nowaday's English, where the very short stacattos we can produce now weren't really a thing. I would in general stick to "baroque legato" where you leave a very small space between the notes (as opposed to "romantic legato" where they follow each other gaplessly, or even overlap each other).

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  • Really helpful, thank you.
    – Lava
    Feb 18 at 19:09
  • Thus there is no problem in playing some crotches legato and some semiquavers staccato ?
    – Lava
    Feb 18 at 21:51
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    Well, I would avoid using the words "stacatto" and "legato" as they really confuse things IMHO -- they refer to much later concepts and really mean a different thing. In baroque, you mostly go by the term agogigs, and yes, it's perfectly possible play notes in vary variable length. The point is that each note plays some role (has a purpose), and if the purpose allows, why not? :)
    – yo'
    Feb 18 at 23:33
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Baroque scores do not give detailed markings — the performer is supposed to interpret them as dictated by good taste and common rules of the time. And of course it is hard to know exactly what this would be, which is why we have people studying anything written down to allow for so called historically informed performances.

But this is way after Busoni. Busoni’s edition rather follows a style heavily influenced by the romantic period. So the Busoni editions should definitely not be seen as the only way to do it.

Now, I’m not so much an expert to determine if your reading would be historically accurate. But as long as that is not the final goal you as pianist are allowed and actually supposed to come up with your own reading. And surely your conservatory is not going to complain about your choice of legato and staccato, although your teachers might have their own ideas. Certainly there is nothing illegal about playing it this way.

If you were to get a modern edition edited by someone versed in historically informed practice you might get suggestions that are somewhat based on historical sources, but even then it is your choice.

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  • You are right. I will talk to my teacher to find a solution.
    – Lava
    Feb 17 at 7:39
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    "Busoni editions should definitely not be seen as the only way to do it": it should rather be seen as very much not how you should do it, unless you want to play it in the style of the 19th century.
    – phoog
    Feb 18 at 8:31
  • Also "as long as [historical accuracy] is not the final goal you as pianist are allowed and actually supposed to come up with your own reading": two points; first, by playing it on the piano you've already abandoned historical accuracy to a significant degree, though of course it doesn't mean that you have to abandon it altogether. Second, all of the professional period-instrument specialists I know (by far the majority of the professional musicians I know) would also say that you should come up with your own interpretation. "Accurate" adherence to historical principles needn't be dogmatic.
    – phoog
    Feb 19 at 9:14
  • Further thoughts on the use of the piano: many pianists play Bach in ways that I find unlistenable. Particularly common are the overuse of staccato or indeed the Busoni-esque romantic approach that can make the counterpoint thick and obscure. But any ahistorical choice can work if it is used in the service of the music rather than applied because "this is how it is supposed to be," and many pianists do succeed with this. I'm firmly in the period instrument camp, but I'd rather listen to a pianist who understands Bach, using whatever stylistic approach, than to a harpsichordist who does not.
    – phoog
    Feb 19 at 9:26
  • @phoog Exactly, using the modern piano on Bach is an anachronism by itself. This is important because the sonic differences and the unique traits of these instruments induce necessities in style. A modern piano has a much larger sound with more sustain compared to a harpsichord. Also you have got dynamic touch, which will allow you do differentiate voices. On a harpsichord you can do that too by second manual, timing and articulation. Thus using staccato is also a way of achieving transparency on the harpsichord.
    – Lazy
    Feb 19 at 9:48
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This is music, not basketball. If you wanted to play in the baroque style, your stylistic options would be somewhat confined, but the reality is that there are no recordings from Bach's time. Indeed, all of what we know about how Bach expected his music to sound is based on limited contemporary writings and word of mouth. And, more to the point, we have no idea if or how Bach would have changed things with access to modern instruments.

The first question you need to answer is who is your audience? Are they baroque scholars expecting an historically informed performance (HIP)? Is it your teacher who's asked for a particular phrasing? Are you having the kind of day that can only be expressed by channelling your innermost feelings through the music of a composer long dead? Are you trying to get a recording contract? Is there a special someone who would find the performance intimate, impressive and romantic? Are you building a corpus to train an AI?

If you're hoping for an HIP, here, here and here are some resources which will go into far more depth.

It sounds like your audience is your teacher, and I would not contradict them when it comes to how you play in their studio. I would even defer to them for how you play at conservatory recitals and concerts.

If you're playing for yourself, remember it's exactly as selfish as playing for somebody else, it's just a different kind of selfish.

If you're trying to get a recording contract remember that musicians are successful when they push the boundaries the right amount. If it were easy to know how much that is, we'd all be Prince. To stay within the stylistic guidelines and norms of the form enough that people say you're "in good taste" while doing enough differently that people remember you and your music hooks them is real challenge.

If you're building a corpus for an AI, just don't. It'll happen in our lifetimes, but there's no reason to help it along.

As for romance, remember that the technical stuff is never as impressive as the expression. Unless you're wooing a concert pianist, then ... maybe try basketball.

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  • Thank you. I am a student so I mainly play for my teacher, but it is possible that I play this prelude and fugue at an exam this year. I am therefore looking for a kind of historically informed performance, to the best of my ability.
    – Lava
    Feb 17 at 7:36
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In the Busoni edition, they seem not to indicate this at all (notice the dolce and legatissimo marks)

There are two ways of thinking about this kind of edition. First, you can view it as a "derivative work." That is, in your role as a recreative artist, you can set yourself the task of realizing the editor's interpretation as a work in its own right. You are presenting to your audience not only Bach's composition but Busoni's interpretation. This isn't particularly common; indeed I don't remember ever encountering it, but if I saw such a recital advertised I'd probably buy a ticket. I'd certainly click the link to the video.

Second, you can see it as suggestions. Since tastes have changed since Busoni's time, you can take the suggestions or reject them. Don't ask yourself only whether you agree with each suggestion; try to go behind them to the reason. For example, perhaps Busoni intended a crescendo to highlight a given formal inflection point in a fugue; perhaps you agree that the point requires highlighting but prefer to do it with a diminuendo. Or maybe it looks as though Busoni added a slur somewhere to highlight a certain phrase structure and you disagree with his analysis; in that case, maybe you still want a slur but you will place yours differently.

I do not think I have the right to play it like this, i.e. long durations more legato than the shorter ones.

As others have noted, you have a right to do whatever you want. It is not a matter of dogma. However ...

as I am a conservatory student, I do not think they would let me play like this.

That is a different matter. Your teacher and your examiners may indeed see it as a question of dogma. Of course, one person's dogma is another's heresy. They might condemn your interpretation while a teacher at the next conservatory might praise it. Whatever you do, you should not ignore the possible consequences of going against their teaching. Some teachers would welcome such independence; others would not.

If you conclude that defying your teacher might be risky, perhaps you could develop two interpretations of the piece: spend a few weeks playing it as you'd like to, then switch to your teacher's preferred approach. You'll surely learn something more this way.

my question is: is it totally "illegal" to perform this piece as I have indicated? or could there be good reasons for it?

There certainly could be good reasons for it. There are multiple baroque-era sources saying that the normal duration of a note in the absence of any other considerations should be half of its notated value. Some modern Baroque specialists underestimate (in my opinion) the frequency of other considerations and as a consequence their performances sound (again in my opinion) somewhat trite. It's a fundamentally unvocal approach, and another thing you often find in period sources is the ideal of emulating the human voice. So playing everything staccato obviously can't be the whole story.

I did a very unscientific survey of recordings available on YouTube, and to my surprise I couldn't find even one aside from Gulda's with staccato sixteenth notes. I was hoping to find one because I don't particularly like Gulda's interpretation, and I'm convinced that there is an interpretation with staccato sixteenths that I would like if only I could find it. My problems with Gulda's performance is partly that I find it too slow and partly that it seems a little artificial, insufficiently organic, and overly metronomic, and I disagree with the execution of the trills and other ornaments (trills should generally begin on the upper note). But everyone else sounds like they're playing a nocturne from the 19th century -- even many of the harpsichordists.

I echo 'yo's suggestion to move beyond the words "staccato" and "legato": think of the 16th notes as articulated and the 8th notes as singing. If you're leaving a bit of space between the sixteenth notes, play with the amount of space you leave. The notated articulation in your example hints at this, with the first two slurred and the rest staccato. But the staccato notes shouldn't all be the same length. The odd-numbered ones should be a bit longer. Maybe they're not so long as to warrant a slur on the page, but they can still be a bit longer than the even-numbered ones.

The same holds true of the eighth notes, if you decide that you need to play them staccato for your teacher's sake. For me at least, "staccato" implies a sharpness of attack that you could perhaps avoid. Think "detached" instead, and above all recognize that the duration of the detachment is variable, and you can use that variation to shape the phrase. On historical principles, those on beats 1 and 4 should normally be longer than the others, and I think you'll find that observing this fits with the construction of the counterpoint and the way dissonance and consonance align with the meter.

Finally, consider the instrument you're playing. The degree of articulation you use with the sixteenth notes or eighth notes could be different on a concert grand or a baby grand, on a tall upright or a short one, since the effect of the damper dropping on the string will be different. Similarly, you will want to adapt your articulation depending on the size of the hall you're playing in and its acoustics. Something that sounds choppy in your practice room might be best for a large palace hall with marble floors; something that sounds muddy in a small empty recital hall might work just fine once it is full of people.

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