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J.S. Bach and tempo in his Little Preludes

A few days ago, I posted a You Tube of Bach’s Little Prelude in F, BWV 927, which is popular among pupils in the Intermediate range of study, though to be candid, these “Level” classifications should be taken with a grain of salt. Why? because all Bach’s compositions require an understanding of voicing and counterpoint that deepens with seasoned exposures. In essence, as eternal students, we commit to layered learning and study spanning a lifetime.

That said, the whole universe of Bach’s tempos can be a challenge to those of us wanting to play his music with a degree of authenticity. (Recommend: “On Bach’s Rhythm and Tempo” by Ido Abravaya:

My first inclination was to draw on the vast body of Bach’s choral works for tempo reference: Oratorios, cantatas, etc. as well as the solo concerti for violin, flute along with the composer’s collections of chamber music. (The Brandenburgs, for instance, contain dance-like movements)

Elaine Comparone, world-renowned harpsichordist and scholar suggested that I consult Quantz in my research endeavor, so I raced off to Google where I found the following:

Although the header pertained to ORGAN works, I benefited from tempo choices linked to DANCE movements and metronome markings.

Comparone, likewise characterized some of Bach’s music in a dance frame even when the composer didn’t specifically attach a French or Italian adjective to his manuscript.

For BWV 930 in G minor, she referenced the “Courante” as well as “harmonic rhythm” as cues for tempo decisions.

Courante: a) “Italian variety, in a rapid tempo and in simple triple time. b) French variety, similar to the above, but with a mixture of simple triple and compound duple rhythms, the latter pertaining especially to the end of each of the 2 sections. Occasionally, in Bach’s keyboard examples the conflicting rhythms are found together, one in each hand.”

Attribution: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Third Edition, Editor, Michael Kennedy

Here’s Angela Hewitt’s dance-like reading:

Gould, by contrast, was thinking more of the vocal model in his chosen tempo.

I must confess that my original perception matched Gould’s even before I hastened to You Tube to check out his performance.

My latest recording, however, turned out livelier:

In BWV 926 (d minor) Gould fleshes out a definitive rhythmic dualism. He plays this Little Prelude rather briskly, suggesting, for me, at least, a sprightly dance movement. (His detachee–detached note approach is emphasized)

The artist, known for his many original, and sometimes unorthodox performances, perceives a stream of triplet 8ths at the beginning of this work, though the notes are seemingly comprehended as parcels of two to the quarter note (in 3/4 time)

He then reverts to duple division of the beat, fleshing out a perception that is uncommon to most performances of this Little Prelude. (two against three in the larger sense) If we agree with Gould’s interpretation as authentic to Bach, then the composer had something whimsically sophisticated up his sleeve. (Comparone favored Gould’s rhythmic disposition)

Here’s Angela Hewitt’s reading which I prefer in it’s more singable frame:

(I love the way she “relaxes” alternate measures in the opener, and responds so beautifully to the harmonic rhythm dimension of this work)

I adopted this same spirit in my rendition, before locating Angela’s You Tube offering.

Having matched up in tempo and character with an artist I revere as one of my favorite Baroque period interpreters, I was a bit puzzled by the tempo she chose in BWV 927 that I mentioned at the beginning of this writing.

Hewitt is so intrinsically musical that she seems to pull off any reading at whatever tempo frame she chooses.

Yet I can’t fully grasp the counterpoint in this rapid speed.

My own humble choice seemed to be one where two voices could be more easily followed, though a You Tube poster to my website asserted that I played the composition “too fast.”

Gould’s reading seems to corroborate my more conservative underlying beat, though taken a tad faster: go to 3:30 in the track.


Another Little Prelude:

BWV 999 (The broken chord pattern permeated C minor) is played in a very brisk tempo by pianist, Halida Dinova: Go to 1:46 in the track

Compare to Hewitt’s tempo (which I prefer)

The question remains what tempo would Bach have envisioned, and what character reference would he have chosen for any number of his compositions?

A partisan of separating the vocal model from that of the dance especially in these shorter works, I would favor such a point of departure.

Finally, does the character of the composition upend the metronome marking assigned to the piece? (or should they have equal weight in conjunction with Key/Major/minor tonality?)

I leave readers with food for thought.