Bach v Handel v Scarlatti v Telemann (and so on)

My most advanced student and I sat down the other day to decide exactly which works would go into his diploma program (exam in November/December) and which would get the flick. My student had been working on the Bach C minor Partita, but as much as we both loved the Capriccio we were struggling with the notion of turning the other required movements into part of his performance program. It all just seemed so turgid, with a displeasing noise to signal ratio.

Could we get away with dispensing with this major work from his program? How would the balance of the recital be affected by taking this out of the equation? We pulled out the syllabus and thought about replacing this selection with a Prelude and Fugue. And we had no trouble identifying some Preludes on the list that would show off this student’s strengths and sensitivities to best advantage. It’s just that when we came to think about him learning a Fugue it just didn’t seem right. For him.

Now, I usually find that fugues are a bit of an IQ test – it doesn’t really matter what the personality of a student, a very clever student will find joy and beauty in a fugue. But this student is as smart as they come, and fugues simply aren’t his thing. I can see that quite clearly, even though we’ve only been working together for a couple of years. His insistence that he doesn’t like fugues is also not immaterial to this judgment.

So back to the drawing board.

A lone Handel Suite (No. 8 in F minor) sat on the list, pretty much the only alternative if we were to include a Baroque presence in the program. I pulled out the Henle collection and to our mutual delight we found that the spirit of this suite exactly suited the student. The suite still has a fugue in it, and has pretty much the same kinds of forms and movements that we’d been working on with the Bach, but the mood, the tone, the energy of the music was of a completely different nature, and we happily agreed that this was the new direction needed.

I’ve been practicing the suite since that lesson (I had only a passing familiarity with the various movements) and discovering that while there are plenty of tricky passages and technical challenges the music feels ‘easier’ – not so much easier to learn as easier to relate to. I’m kind of a Bachophile (or Bach maniac, if you will), so this discovery is challenging my sense of musical identity in a fairly substantial way.

Meantime, I’ve (finally) been reading Charles Rosen’s Piano Notes, a book that was published in 2002 and that I first came across in a massive chain bookshop in a London shopping mall in 2006 when I should have been collecting some groceries. Having gone out of my way to buy the book in unlikely circumstances (and delaying dinner for a group of 4 to boot) one might think I’d have read it without delay. Of course, it’s just this week I’ve plunged into this profound and refreshing book about playing the piano.

Right there in the first chapter Charles Rosen talks about the ‘gymnastics’ of Scarlatti. ‘Gymnastics’. Never a truer word spoken, about Scarlatti at least – his music is the absolute embodiment of the gymnastic spirit. Many a gesture in a Scarlatti sonata feels as if one is performing a complicated tumble with the ambition of landing again on the balance beam once the skillful leap is complete. I’ve always loved playing Scarlatti. His music resonates with the larrikin in me.

But if given a choice I would generally choose Telemann over Scarlatti. So very many of his keyboard works feel natural to me, like meeting someone whose sense of humour, taste in movies or political orientation exactly matches your own. Telemann moves the way I like to move, physically (the gestures required to perform the music) and harmonically/rhythmically and structurally. Scarlatti feels more like quirky friend.

Meantime, Rameau mostly seems like a complete alien*.

Bach brings tears to my eyes while Handel induces my lips to smile. I feel happy delight with both Telemann and Scarlatti, one because he does what I would do, the other because he does what I would not.

Can it all be explained by a Myers Briggs assessment? By the times in which we live? By the teachers we’ve had along the way? By our star signs?

All theories welcome…

*Disclaimer: I have not played a fair percentage of Rameau’s keyboard music, so I would be very excited to be dissuaded from this current position. Please share your Rameau favourites with me!

POST-SCRIPT: Yes, I know. I start talking about Charles Rosen’s fabulous book and then just leave it at that. I will certainly be talking about Piano Notes some more in the weeks to come.

7 thoughts on “Bach v Handel v Scarlatti v Telemann (and so on)

  1. Good post, got me thinking.
    Some of my thoughts are about which music I’m drawn to – not a keyboard player, very much an amateur musician with an interest in listening to stuff I’ll never play. So, Mahler’s romanticism and Biber’s strangeness are what I’m drawn to today. But it does change.

    And then the teacher in me pops up. I teach medicine, not music, and this is where I learn heaps. For a student, isn’t getting to grips with fugue as a form just something you have to do? Even if you don’t like it, it would be almost impossible to avoid them throughout your career, wouldn’t it? My parallel would be, say, not particularly enjoying treating thyroid problems, but you know you will have to at some point. And so at some level, being a professional means doing some stuff well that you don’t feel like doing.

    How do you teach a good student struggling with a particular aspect? How do you get over the barrier so they can become at least good enough?

    Thanks for being thought provoking. And for making me hunt through my CD collection for some Rameau…

    • Ah, there’s the part that’s really interesting about this particular student’s choices: the Handel suite *has* a fugue in it (which the student will learn and perform as part of the diploma exam), but it feels quite unlike the Bach fugues – so we’re ticking the ‘fugue’ box without touching a Bach fugue – and to some teachers that would seem like cheating, so central to the idea of fugue-i-ness is Bach’s 48.

      To the question about helping a student come to grips with something that they don’t personally resonate with – as compared to being a doctor, in music there is nothing resembling life and death about one’s professional praxis, just authenticity, connection and communication. There’s no rule that says you have to be an all-rounder… Beyond this, there are many things in music that just make more sense once you’ve lived around 30 (some might say 40) rotations of the sun – what works for a 17 year old student won’t necessarily be what works for that same individual when they are in their mid-30s. Unless a student wants to be a professional pianist there’s really no need to get too distressed if one particular form or genre doesn’t float that student’s boat. [Surely there's a better analogy, other than boating, I could have used there....]

  2. Thanks Elissa,
    I think you’re right – there is development over time (I certainly think I’m a more musical player now than I was as a teenager). And one of the wonderful things about music (as opposed to thyroid problems?) is that everyone’s response is so individual – which is why for me, music is about being human. And even the greatest professionnal pianists are known for what they do well – I don’t remember Brendel being praised very often for his Rachmaninov (though I could be wrong about that, of course). Though I wonder if, as a teacher, you have to have something to offer onn pices that don’t do it for you.

    I’m going to try to use the word Fugue-i-ness more often – it’s reminded me that, though I think of Bach, the two fugues I get heaps of pleasure from are Elgar’s “Devil of a fugue” in his Introduction and Allegro, and the end of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is very exciting.

    Thanks again

  3. I would say that it’s a very common experience for different personality types to be drawn to different composers from within a single generation or basic style. I was drawn to Handel because of his theatricality and the almost “orchestral” gestures in his keyboard music. And his dance movements were often much closer to the source (i.e. you could imagine dancing to them). All that makes a lot of sense to me, because dance and theatre was a big part of my path to classical music.

    I liked Bach too, but for different reasons, mostly the rhetorical richness. I also realised, later on, that the Bach works/movements I was drawn to were often the ones that were closest to the French style, e.g. the Partita in D. I didn’t always enjoy the dance movements, which were too ornate for my taste. Scarlatti I enjoyed for his physicality. From the same pattern book there is Padre Antonio Soler who shares many qualities with Scarlatti but with the addition of a harmonic quirkiness that makes me think of CPE Bach (without sounding like him). When it came to Emanuel Bach himself, I found that I really only liked the pieces of his that were in minor keys. Go figure!

    Now. The French baroque composers. That’s a whole different kettle of fish and probably has less to do with player personality. Apart from the odd character piece (e.g. Daquin’s Coucou) I played no French baroque music on keyboard or flute until I was at university. So when I did play it I was coming from a historically informed/original instrument perspective. And although it’s a gross generalisation, I would say: just don’t bother trying to play Rameau or Couperin or the others on piano (or on modern flute).

    There is perhaps a handful of French baroque keyboard pieces that genuinely work on the piano but the others all demand the harpsichord – not just its colours but its physical technique and intrinsic gestures.

    (Aside: one of those few pieces which I heartily recommend to pianists is Les Baricades misterieuses by François Couperin. Delicious and effective. When I get a piano it will be its baptismal piece!)

    I know there are pianists who give plausible or even very engaging interpretations of French baroque music, but you’ll find in many cases that they have the harpsichord/historical style background to bring it off. Angela Hewitt would be one such.

    For example, one thing that’s absolutely central to French baroque music is the matter of notes inégale (baroque swing), which in my long-ago experience was unknown to, and therefore went untaught by, the majority of private piano teachers. In some ways playing a French baroque piece is like playing one of those published piano versions of pop songs. The song can be notated to a point, but for the performance to sound remotely right and satisfying you actually have to add to/depart from the notation in all sorts of ways, which means that the style and the original sound needs to be in your ears.

    It’s also commonly believed, and I’m inclined to agree, that the key to success with French baroque music is being able to speak the French language and having its rhythms and inflections at your fingertips.

    **
    Anyhow, since you’re welcoming theories, here’s the frindley theory which explains why Bach, Handel et al work on piano but the French baroque composers don’t really.

    Some music succeeds in its bones (think JS Bach, think Beatles). The things that make us love these works and which draw us in are at a very fundamental level of melody, harmony, rhythm and pulse. And such music can “take” a lot of varied treatments. You can play pieces like this on different instruments, arrange them, use them as the basis for jazz improvisation, you name it.

    Some music succeeds because of its surface, its skin (think the French baroque, think ABBA). The value is in the style, the gesture, the ornaments, the colours, the very mode of performance. This kind of music is much less malleable and often resistant to being rearranged, or having its performance style changed. It works when you play it “authentically” with the original performance practices of its creation and on the instruments intended. The further you depart from that the less satisfying it is.

    In the Couperin piece I mentioned above we have a rare instance of the beauty being located in the music’s bones and textures. Which is probably why it works very nicely even away from the harpsichord.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this- got me thinking. I now teach piano but used to specialise in harpsichord as well. Somehow Rameau works for me on the harpsichord but is a disaster on the piano. Soemthing to do with the sound, the texture…. But a lot of French baroque seems to be far more effective on the harpsichord than piano….I have always loved Scarlatti (yes I’m one of those, who likes showing off and standing on my head when I’m playing!) and until a few years ago, couldn’t bear playing it on the piano- whereas now, having “grown up” a bit, (or is it that I can’t afford to buy my own harpsichord!?) I now love the different sounds and richness a piano can add to Scarlatti. Handel I’m not so into- Bach I worship…. explain that one! (I love singing Handel – just started singing lessons after a 15 year gap!) I need to go and check out my Telemann- only played a few little bits when set for exams!

    will also be using “fugue-i-ness”!

  5. I’m not a classical musician, just a self-taught soul singer — although my dad was a brilliant, child prodigy pianist. So I heard a lot of his repertoire as I grew up since, even though he abandoned his professional ambitions around the age of 17, he continued to practise until he died.

    Having said all that, I really enjoy your ruminations, Elissa, despite the fact that sometimes the technicalities escape me. Many thanks.

  6. Re:

    “Can it all be explained by a Myers Briggs… our star signs?”

    I think a lot has to do with the teachers we have had along the way.

    It sounds like your pupil came to you with his aversion to fugues already formed. Maybe fugues were infused with too much of a sense of duty. It’s easy to happen: if you play this prelude you will have to play the following fugue. And the fugue is usually harder.

    That’s not really such good psychology is it? “Eat your dessert and then I will make you eat your spinach/broccoli/[name your food of obligation].” But it can happen easily, and in some ways is inherent in the form – not least because fugues generally require more learning.

    I can only really think of one fugue (Bk II, F major) which I have learnt before the prelude. There are some others where the fugue is more fun or more catchy than the prelude (eg: Book I, E flat major – probably a special case cos the prelude is also a fugue) but there are plenty of preludes I’ve enjoyed and never really got on to the fugues.

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