Bach on the Piano

Playing the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue

J.S. Bach, Fantasia in d BWV903, manuscript copy
J.S. Bach, Fantasia in d BWV 903, manuscript copy by J. F. Agricola, ca. 1740.

The odd beginning of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903: scales up and down, brusque and brisk. Many pianists emphasize the brusqueness and briskness. Alternatively one may bring out the harmonic implications, the chords or arpeggio’s hidden in the scales. Every scale is an arpeggio, with passing tones.

J.S. Bach, Chromatische Fantasie und Fuge BWV 903, Lodewijk Muns, October 2022

Scales, Arpeggio’s…

Scales and arpeggio’s are typically the keyboardist’s practice material. As such, they are ready to hand for improvisation; insubstantial, but effective. Almost as if the hands were thinking for themselves.

These thinking hands keep moving closely together, in passages that could essentially be played by one hand, until they come to linger around the middle of the keyboard. Still restless, the fingers are playing chords up and down, as if waiting for clear directions from the mind: this is the way to go.

J.S. Bach, Fantasia in d BWV903, manuscript copy

The manuscript sources of BWV 903 here use an abbreviated notation. The chords are written as simple block chords, the word arpeggio, ‘harping’, tells the player to go on breaking them up and down. This is a feature of baroque harpsichord style that can be easily and effectively adapted to the piano. Profiting from the pedal (the right, damper lifting pedal), one may increase sonority, double the bass in octaves, apply dynamics (forte, piano), and emphasize a certain ‘voice’, usually the top, sometimes the middle or the bass.

The Chromatic has made its successful transition from the harpsichord to the piano early on. When Felix Mendelssohn played the piece in February 1840, the audience “in a frenzy” demanded a repeat (“ganz rasend und stürmisch”, he wrote to his mother on March 7). Later that year, in a letter to his sister Fanny, he enthusiastically describes his success with playing the arpeggio’s in a pianistic manner. “… in this way the single harmonic sequences sound splendidly on the stout modern grands” (“auf den dicken neuern Flügeln”, letter of November 14, 1840). He takes the trouble of writing out a few arpeggio’s in full. Notable is his practice of initially arpeggiating each chord twice; an example that has found no following, to my knowledge.

His contemporary Franz Liszt too played the Chromatic in his concerts. According to one critic, the music theorist A.B. Marx, he “stormed through fantasia and fugue as if in a bacchanalian frenzy (the fugue twice as fast as one is used to – and capable of – hearing it) …” Marx was irritated by the arpeggio’s as they were usually played. For him, the seriousness and coherence of the work demanded that the chords be played as briefly arpeggiated block chords, “rock masses” in the wayward passagework.

Marx was contradicted in the same musical journal by the scholar and musician F.K. Griepenkerl, who had published his own edition of BWV 903 in 1819. Continuous arpeggiation is, according to Griepenkerl, the historically correct execution. A curious detail is that Griepenkerl makes the duration of each arpeggiated chord dependent on the varying number of notes: this destroys the metre, but creates a “higher kind of rhythm”. Most performers have chosen the more obvious solution of maintaining the beat by playing faster and slower groups of notes, depending on the number of voices in the chords.

…And a Speaking Voice

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