Blog / Interpreting Bach

Interpreting Bach

Posted on 30 Jul 2018 by ACO

ACO Artistic Director Richard Tognetti in a portrait style with his eyes closed.
Photo credit: Jack Saltmiras

"Does reverence inhibit modern interpreters?"

In an excerpt from our Concert Program, writer Martin McKenzie-Murray talks to Richard Tognetti and Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie, the two minds behind our upcoming reimagination of the Goldberg Variations, about the debate surrounding the topic of 'authenticity' when it comes to interpreting Bach's music.

In many of Bach’s scores, duelling elements resolve themselves — but in the centuries since his death, there have been morphing, unresolved disputes as to how best to interpret him. And a question emerges: Does reverence inhibit modern interpreters?

Like Shakespeare, little is known biographically about Bach. We know the depth of his faith — he left a busily annotated Calov Bible, the most explicit expression of his Lutheran thought. We know of his commitment to his craft — he trekked 400 kilometres through snow to watch the famed organist Dietrich Buxtehude play in Lubeck. We know of his influence — Beethoven and Mozart were taking notes, and Goethe said of him that it was “as if the eternal harmony were communing with itself, as might have happened in God’s bosom shortly before the creation of the world.”

Together, this may lead us to wonder where the line exists between a healthy respect for Bach’s mastery and dull fetishisation of his gifts. Like most endeavours filled with passionate people, baroque and classical music has its turf wars. Matters of interpretation have long been political. How should one arrange Bach? Transliterate him? Modernise him? Should one? How much does reverence inspire — and how much does it inhibit? I spoke with both arrangers about the idea of authenticity.

“People talk about authenticity,” Tognetti says. “‘Just what the composer intended.’ Excuse me? We have no idea what the composer intended. You know, there are people who claim they can work out how certain words were pronounced at the time of Shakespeare’s performances at the Globe — ‘historical pronunciation’. We have that in music, too.”


An image of Candaian Consuctor Bernard Labadie
Photo credit: Dario Acosta

“How I look at it is: not for one second would I ever change the gift that Bach’s given us. I’m an originalist, actually. The script really is worth revering if you think it works. But that doesn’t mean the script can’t be adapted, and that you can’t make it sing and zing for other people who might enjoy it more if it’s adapted.”

Labadie suggests that the insistence on musical “authenticity” is, ironically, confected. “One has to understand the concepts of arrangement for a musician in the 18th century,” he says. “It’s very, very different to how we see it nowadays. Somehow we’ve been contaminated by the certain rigour that comes with the utmost respect for Bach. Because we know what he is and what he means in the history of music. But any 18th century musician would not have been inhibited by that feeling. Handel borrowed to light the fire. Bach was doing the same thing — he was borrowing from his family, other composers, he was doing it throughout his whole career.”

“Bach had no inhibition — his purpose was always to sound as idiomatic as possible. He can make some striking transformations, but not always. Sometimes the music can be transcribed as is. It really depends upon the material in his hands."

"But there’s no reference to ‘authenticity’. That was something invented in the 20th century. The idea of authenticity, of going back to the roots — they were the roots, they just didn’t care. They didn’t have this idea that they can’t touch what we have. For them, music was a living material which they could transform whenever they thought it was needed.”


This is an excerpt from our Goldberg Variations Concert Program, which is available for free at every concert throughout the tour.

The tour begins next week, with stops in Newcastle, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. Full details and tickets via the link below.

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