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Cantabile Bach

Cantabile Bach [BeginnersBach]

Jack Botelho
wrote (November 16, 2005):
"Sometime in 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach, Capellmeister to his Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cothen, inscribed the title page to a small handwritten volume of keyboard pieces which were to be understood as

'Straightforward Instruction, in which amateurs of the keyboard, and especially the eager ones, are shown a clear way not only (1) of learning to play cleanly in two voices, but also, after further progress, (2) of dealing correctly and satisfactorily with 'three' obbligato' parts; at the same time not only getting good inventions, but developing the same satisfactorily, and above all arriving at a 'cantabile' manner in playing, all the while acquiring a strong foretaste of composition.'

The fifteen pieces for two voices which followed (BWV 772-786) were arranged in ascending order by key and were each labeled an 'Inventio'."

Dreyfus, Laurence: Bach and the Patterns of Invention Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1996. p.1

I find Bach's invitation, almost insistence, on arriving at a 'cantabile' manner of playing of the above collection of works both striking and important for indicating how Bach himself wished these pieces to be realized auditorily. In light of the serious difficulties facing musicologists employing stylistic analysis of ancient music (as opposed to very successful structural analysis), it makes sense to re-claim the term "style" to refer to the manner in which works are realized by the musician in performance and to merge it with an aesthetic consideration for what may be termed "stylistically informed performance practice". Generally speaking, aside from JS Bach's keyboard pieces in the French style, his intentions for the auditory realization of his mid-period works on stringed clavier instruments were likely to be in the polished, cosmopolitan (Italian) cantabile style of the time, a style which is well documented and taught by the music aesthetician J.J. Quantz in his treatise on playing the flute. Bach does not mention this style himself, probably for the reason that it was a mainstream performance practice, and aside from a natural antipathy toward higher-paid foreign musicians, but mostly out of natural German self-respect, he would never want or need mention it on the title pages of his publications.

Steven Foss wrote (November 17, 2005):
[To Jack Botelho] Cantabile manner of playing is open to interpretation, the cantabile means Singing. Was he referring to a form of articulation rather than an Italian way of playing?

Does it also mean legato?

Why did K P E refer to his (and to his Father) playing of melodies to be like "a string of pearls," each note seperate, with a distinct beginning and end before the next note. (As opposed to overplaying, note release the note until after the next note had sounded, as mentioned by Richard Troeger in his book on Keyboard Intrepretation)

Although Glen Gould over did the non legato style of playing Bach, the overlegato or 19th century style of Piano legato is somewhat out of place in the Preludes and Fantasias (which would be renamed Inventions and Sinfonias when collected). The Cantabile style of playing maybe only very slightly non legato touch, as I have yet to see Italian keyboard works in Bach's form. The String of Pearls works very well for delineating both inner voices while allowing outer held voices to be more audible.

The pieces are in the same keys as Cecil Forsythe mention as being the easiest for playing on the Violin in his book on Orchestration.

(I have mentioned too often the borrowed motive from Vivaldi for the F major Invention)

George Martin borrowed some of the F major Invention for the Beatles song All You Need Is Love, along with Clarke's Prince of Denmark's March. The Beatles also used a high Trumpet Part in Penny Lane (and the trumpeter, too) after hearing a Performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 2

Jack Botelho wrote (November 18, 2005):
Steven Foss wrote:
< Cantabile manner of playing is open to interpretation, the cantabile means Singing. Was he referring to a form of articulation rather than an Italian way of playing?
Does it also mean legato? >
Thanks for your replies and your continued support of my contributions to this forum, a forum in which I have felt blissfully free of any kind of attack, personal or otherwise.

Although I know very little of the issue of performance practice, I think you raise some very good questions (but again, who am I to say?). The entire issue of a cantabile manner of performing Bach on stringed clavier instruments will be one to be debated long after all of our deaths (oh what a morbid way to put it) I think.

Dreyfus does mention that in Bach's era there was a very vibrant conflux of forms and styles, and some of these attempted reconciliations of style and performance practice may have been an ideal which proved very problematic in practice.

Thanks again for your insights; I look forward to more discussion on this point. It goes without saying but without your informed input this forum would be in a state of most serious shortfall.

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Last update: ýJanuary 31, 2006 ý09:14:16