[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 1:25 PM Eastern on 8 Mar. See below.]
Concert pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk of Think Denk rips Harold Fromm, Visiting Scholar in English at the University of Arizona, a new you-know-what for his recent essay in the Hudson Review, ”J.S. Bach In The Twenty-First Century”, and, by extension, rips us a new one as well for our article of the same name labeling said essay superb and recommending its reading (Mr. Denk links our article in his).
It seems Mr. Denk’s two primary objections are 1) to Dr. Fromm’s credentials (he’s, after all, no professional musician, much less a professional pianist of accomplishment), and 2) to the “pontificating” tone of Dr. Fromm’s argument and the supposed inaccuracies contained therein. (We guess that makes three primary objections, but who’s counting.)
While we can’t help but agree with Mr. Denk that Dr. Fromm has indeed adopted a pontificating tone in his argument, and agree as well that such a tone tends to be thoroughly annoying, most especially to professionals in the domain that is the subject of the argument, we can’t exactly condemn Dr. Fromm for its use without sounding the hypocrite as we’ve been known in our writings to adopt such a tone ourself. We do, however, take issue with Mr. Denk as regards what he considers to be inaccuracies in Dr. Fromm’s essay, which inaccuracies Mr. Denk goes about skewering via the technique of (mis)representing those supposed inaccuracies in straw man type terms the better to skewer them — the very technique he accuses Dr. Fromm of employing (shades of Freudian projection!).
Consider this example:
Dr. Fromm writes:
Bach’s Italian Concerto provides a perfect demonstration of all these qualities, with furious propulsion punctuated by dense chords in the outer movements and arioso lyricism in the middle (exploiting two keyboards), written into the music, no “expression” needed, just the player’s skill on the harpsichord. An “expressive” piano performance that turns it into one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words subverts its most distinctive and powerful properties.
Writes Mr. Denk in rebuttal:
[M]ore central to the problem of this passage, I am sure the reader will realize, is Harold’s [Fromm’s] use of the word “expression.” I am sure Mr. [sic] Fromm is somewhat uneasy about his use of this word, too, since he always puts it in quotation marks, as if that will fix what is wrong with what he is saying. ANYONE who tells you there is “no expression needed” to play the Italian Concerto is an idiot. Just play the notes, they say! [...] This kind of statement, that everything is “written into the music,” reveals a desperate ignorance of the millions of small interpretative and expressive decisions that go into even the most basic realization of a musical score; it goes against the underlying contract of notated Western music.
Let’s be generous, and assume Mr. Fromm puts “expression” in quotes to designate a certain type of expressivity. So that there is no mistake, in defining this type of expressivity, he invokes the Songs without Words... “music for ladies” is the hidden implication here, and if you don’t think so I have a bridge to sell you... Later he refers to the “genteel Gallic” Casadesus family and the “melting, exquisite, precious, Chopinesque” pianist marring Mozart. Do ya get it yet? Not only are you egregiously playing on the wrong instrument, but the way you are doing it makes you a Frenchified girlyman.
Well, in the context of this essay, where Dr. Fromm puts the term “expression” in quotes, he’s clearly referring to the inappropriate, pianistic sort of expressivity typically employed by pianists in their performance of Bach's keyboard works; an expressivity more appropriate to piano works of the 19th century; an expressivity that’s indeed “subver[sive] [of Bach’s keyboard works’] most distinctive and powerful properties.” We’ve elsewhere said pretty much the same thing ourself as in this post on Schepkin’s performance of the Goldberg; viz.,
So, beyond the business of the repeats and the self-invented embellishment, what was it I found so ultimately disappointing about Schepkin's reading? The very thing that makes all readings of my experience of this work performed on the modern piano ultimately disappointing, Gould's 1955 reading most singularly excepted: the performing pianists simply cannot forget they're pianists as they must when performing any Baroque keyboard work by Bach especially, and the Goldberg most especially of all.
And by that I do not mean they should forget how to work their instrument as pianists; indeed, all their pianistic skills will be called on in extreme measure in order to overcome the impediment of their instrument in realizing this music as it needs, even demands, to be realized. What these pianists must, but seemingly cannot, forget as pianists are the various standard pianistic techniques employed to produce what has universally come to be accepted as beautiful and expressive piano playing and sonority, among them the techniques of the pianistic legato and cantabile achieved by fingering alone, or in combination with, or alone by, discrete use of pedal and a certain lightly tripping staccato; effects impossible on the instrument for which these variations were written, and therefore inimical to this music.
But perhaps the most damaging pianistic device of all one universally employed by all pianists for all keyboard music, the keyboard music of the Baroque not excluded (again, Gould singularly excepted) is the pianistic realization of the notion that all music is made up of melody and accompaniment, with the melody always expressed, to greater or lesser degree, in some measure of relief in terms of loud-soft (forte-piano) dynamics. No pianistic device is more destructive fundamentally destructive of the essential contrapuntal structure, the polyphony, of any Bach keyboard work. In short, it's musically the very kiss of death for a Bach keyboard work, and nothing, no matter how otherwise salutary, can overcome or compensate for its employment (or, rather, misemployment).
Mr. Denk can rail all he wants against this view of the matter, but it’s a view that’s anything but ignorant or ill informed or offered thoughtlessly, its “pontificating” tone notwithstanding.
Or consider this example from Mr. Denk’s article.
Dr. Fromm writes:
Bach wrote his keyboard and organ music for instruments capable of linear performance only, uninflected by touch.
To which Mr. Denk writes in rebuttal:
For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this phrase “linear performance” might mean. Does it mean you play looking forward in a straight line? I suppose lines are to be distinguished from curves, whorls, ovoids, and other shapes? He says “uninflected by touch,” but he CERTAINLY can’t mean that, since variations in articulation, in attack, in the nature of the connection from one note to the next—in other words, things inflected by touch—are among the absolute essential expressive devices on the harpsichord, without which the harpsichordist might as well give up, have several martinis, and go home. I guess he means dynamic contrast?
Here I come (at last) to the meat of my matter. Mr. [sic] Fromm proposes that Bach wrote his keyboard music specifically “not to be inflected by touch.” Now, let’s even leave aside all the keyboard music that is a transcription of music for other instruments—which is quite a bit of music. Let’s give Fromm an undeserved break, and brush that off the table. Do we imagine that Bach sat down to write keyboard music and composed, specifically, music that should be absent of dynamic inflection?
After which Mr. Denk goes off on an extensive screed on the matter of dynamic contrast and inflection which manifestly is NOT what Dr. Fromm was referring to by his, “instruments capable of linear performance only, uninflected by touch.” Clearly, what Dr. Fromm was referring to was the incapacity of instruments such as the Baroque organ and harpsichord to respond to touch as regards a note’s initial sounding on those instruments — the note’s attack — both instruments being totally insensitive to touch as regards that quality; a quality to which the modern concert grand is exquisitely sensitive as regards touch.
Well, you get the idea.
We can understand Mr. Denk’s annoyance with Dr. Fromm’s essay, Mr. Denk being an uncommonly well-informed professional musician and a concert pianist and all, and a fine one at that from all reports. But that doesn’t excuse his willful straw-man-ing (we know; there is no such word) of Dr. Fromm’s points in order to make his own, not to speak of his pettifogging complaints concerning Dr. Fromm’s skills as an essayist and inclusion of matters familiar to musicians even though they wouldn't be to the general music-loving audience to whom the essay is addressed.
We’re just sayin’, is all.
Update (1:25 PM Eastern on 8 Mar): Our eMail tells us we’ve given the impression here that we’re against Bach’s keyboard works being played on a modern concert grand, and therefore in agreement with Dr. Fromm’s, “And, of course, playing Bach on today’s grand pianos is ... egregious.”
Au contraire. We’ve no such objection. It’s the typical pianist’s use of that instrument in the performance of Bach’s keyboard works to which we object as we made perfectly clear in this Sounds & Fury article which we here recommend to your attention.