Do composers really mean that one should play what they write exactly? For example, in The Well-Tempered Clavier, prelude 15.

In measure 2, last 3 notes: does Bach really intend that one should keep the left hand on the G while playing the B, then remove the G on the left hand while playing the G on the right hand, then replace the G with the left hand and play the E with the right hand?

Same principle for measure 7 with the right hand: keeping the C during the first 3 notes looks impossible for any concert pianist in the world at the speed requested, unless we cheat.

So what is the spirit of Bach: should we play differently than what he writes?

  • 1
    One would imagine Bach, of all people, would be reasonably certain of what he wrote.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 14 '20 at 18:37

Bach rarely notated whether notes were legato or staccato.

I would be perfectly idiomatic to play all the left hand 8th notes from the beginning to the middle of bar 3 staccato, in which case the problem doesn't arise.

The idea that "everything should be played perfectly legato as written" is an unfortunate consequence of the way people are now taught to play the piano. It has never applied to any other instrument (including other keyboard instruments) and doesn't apply to most piano music either.

We can't be sure what instrument Bach wrote this for, but we can be pretty sure it wasn't a piano, since in his lifetime the piano was still a fairly experimental instrument, and he disliked the ones that he tried.

On a good harpsichord played in a resonant wood-panelled room like a typical 18th century music room, the amount of resonance when the key is released makes the question academic rather than practical in any case.

This makes the point pretty well, and you can see exactly how long (not!) Newman holds down the left hand top Gs in the first two bars.


Considere a two-manual harpsichord. I think the notation is what was intended.

  • 2
    Bach didn't always write for a specific instrument, but he did own some harpsichords and clavichords (and lutes).
    – ttw
    Mar 14 '20 at 18:29

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