So, I recently had a, sadly, way too short conversation with a pianist on the train.

According to the guy, in the 17th and 18th century polyphonic keyboard works were not played in such a way that the individual voices would be emphasized, but rather in a way so that they would "blend in".

With the music in front of him/her the listener would be able to admire the mastery of the composer in building the piece out of the individual voices.

These days, though, critics seem to appreciate a pianist's ability in "bringing out" the voices.

I hear that all the time whenever Gould enters the conversation.

So, is it true that, in fact, the most appreciated players of baroque music of the 20th and 21st centuries would not have met the tastes of the time?

  • Gould is both the most appreciated and most criticised performer of Baroque music! And he's translating the music to piano, which has a quite different set of expressive possibilities to the instruments the composers knew. Enjoy!
    – Laurence
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 21:39

2 Answers 2


If you take a look at music like the two-part inventions and three-part symphonies by Bach, they make a lot of musical sense, and while they are intended as practice pieces, the prevalent problem (and increase of diffuculty when going from inventions to symphonies) is not one of hitting particular combinations of notes at the same time but rather of following several simultaneous parts. Even if we stipulate that listeners were expected to be sitting there score in hand (and at the price of good music copiers, I find that somewhat hard to believe: Bach had enough work writing down all the parts and delivered a lot just in time), the player would be expected to not distract in any manner from following the voices.

If you take a look at the first movement of Sonata III for violin solo (BWV 1006) in the original handwriting, it is strikingly obvious from the notation that even for a basically "monophonic" instrument like the violin, the player is expected in several passages to diligently distribute the voicing across two to three strings in a very particular manner even when crossing voices and echoing the same note in another voice. This same prelude has been turned into an organ prelude by Bach: the voicing remains even though the execution may be entirely different.

The characteristic distribution of voices across several strings is also prevalent in the lute version of this same prelude (the last few movements of the sonata sound a bit lacklustre on lute since they are actually monophonic): so the instrument again is expected to be played in a manner matching the voicing of the original.

Even if we are talking about instruments with fixed dynamics like a harpsichord, you will often arpeggiate simultaneous notes and can represent voice crossings by reversal of order. But larger harpsichords tend to have more than a single manual anyway, so properly distributing multiple voices is a lot easier than on a piano as long as the respective tessiture of ongoing voices don't force you to let a voice switch hands.

So if one sees how Bach lets the character of the "abstract" music surface on different instruments for the same piece, I don't find it easy to support the contentions that the voicing is just some theoretic thing in the score that the executioner is free not to bother with.

If Bach would have this view of his work, I'd have expected him to employ figured bass a lot more than he did since that pins down "just" the harmonic framework that results from playing several notes at a time.

But to put it in a nutshell: why would the common baroque cembalo go to the expense of providing two manuals if the keyboard player was not expected to bother with voicing?

  • 2
    So a big "no". Great answer. This is not Wikipedia, granted, but does this answer draw from any literature? Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 22:29

Well, the thing to remember is that the harpsichord and organ have no touch sensitivity like piano, and the piano wasn't invented yet. So any kind of keyboard music was written to be played all at the same volume, and composers made the sound fuller or emptier by managing the voicing.

If you play a Bach fugue on a piano, you can add dynamics but it won't be what Bach intended. And lots of people are, for better or worse, adamant purists about these things.

The question gets a bit trickier when you start talking about orchestration.

  • 8
    This is generally true (+1). That said, there is at least some ability to control individual voices on harpsichord and organ through articulation, by varying how connected or disjointed the notes are, and adding ornamentation. Also, many harpsichords and organs have multiple manuals which can be connected to different stops, allowing you to play with the registration in interesting ways. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 23:39
  • 3
    True, @CalebHines, although switching registrations in midstream was not usually an easy task, not to the same extent as setting up the registrations first and switching manuals, hence seeing markings other than p and f is rare (and even seeing p and f is a bit rare - most pieces were written to default to a single manual). Still, in various times and places (Cabezón's Spain, Bach's Germany), the clavichord was a common, and even preferred, instrument for daily music-making...
    – user16935
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 23:50
  • This is great, but I don't feel it completely answers the question, which deals more with intention and aesthethics then and now than with limitation of the instruments (suppose we destroy all pianos and only harpsichords are left - would a time traveller from the 17th century approve of what he heard?). Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 8:18

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