This musically uplifting session began with Louis B. Nagel giving a lovely performance from the six Bach French Suites.
I was a few minutes late, and it was so enriching to walk into a room with the glorious music of Bach wafting through the air!
Louis’ primary focus for today is on contrasts. He began with one of the allemandes. An allemande is defined as a moderate dance in flowing form. Bach didn’t use tempo markings in his dances. He was giving the performer full range to express how he felt about the music. Each of the allemandes is very different.
In contrast to the allemande we have the courante. Some of them are written more in the style of a courantee with its French influence rather than the others which are primarily in an Italian style. Louis wonders whether it was perhaps the inclusion of these French style courantees in the suites that prompted someone to call the set “French Suites.” He said he has no scholarship behind that speculation, but it just makes him wonder since the other dances are so clearly in an Italian style.
Louis played another of the dances and ad libbed the ornaments on the spot. He doesn’t think the repeats should be played identically to the first time through. Pedagogically, he added that he has heard students play Bach in such a way that the ornaments overtook that which was being ornamented. It should not be so planned and contrived as to not allow the performer the freedom to play it as desired in the ornament. Ornaments must be played without sacrificing the structure.
He continued to play some of the individual dances, making a variety of remarks about each one.
The most important thing about the dances is the contrast. He is “hop, skipping, and jumping through them to demonstrate those contrasts.”
Articulations are so very important. Bach doesn’t write dynamics. The expressive device of the period (the harpsichord) differentiated between articulations but not dynamics. The articulations illuminate the line of music so music more effectively even than the dynamics. We can’t – and shouldn’t – deny dynamics with our present instrument.
He talked briefly about the pedal and some people’s insistence that it not be used in Bach’s music. “Please don’t do that!” he begged. “Bach did have pedal.” Louis went on to demonstrate some finger pedaling. Don’t deny yourselves or your students the beauty that can be created through the use of the pedal…as long as the lines remain clear. Bach’s music has to beautiful at the piano in our language today.