I would like to suggest some guidelines for using dynamics in the music of Bach (and others) at the piano. The only absolute rule, in my book, is to play expressively! When all is said and done, we are making a transcription from 18th century instruments – and 18th century ears – to 21st century ones, and I sincerely doubt that the 18th century musician felt restricted, that the answers were to be found in some dusty book.

Texture

The subject of dynamics in Bach playing relates to choices about the louds and softs in a score where the composer has not explicitly instructed these by way of performance directions (such as f and p, crescendo and diminuendo). We have to determine the dynamic level (and the tempo) from the general character of the music, taking into account the texture. Thick textures are strong, thin textures lighter.

The opening of the C minor Partita has an implied dynamic level of forte. We would reach this conclusion even if we did not appreciate it was a French Overture (with all its associated grandeur), because of the big, thick chords and springy dotted rhythms. It would be hard to play it otherwise. Within the overall dynamic of forte, there is an implied crescendo to the second beat in bar 2, because of the structure of the phrase. Harmonically, this is the moment of greatest tension; melodically, it is the highest point (this is reinforced by the tonic pedal C in the bass). Then, allow the tension to release at the cadence on the third beat using a small hairpin diminuendo:

The second section, now in two voices, is obviously intended to be softer and more melodic:

The final fugue (in three voices, the subject robustly rhythmical) is strong again. On a harpsichord, the addition of a voice will automatically make the playing sound louder.

Bach’s Own Use of Forte and Piano

Even though Bach does occasionally use forte and piano, this is in works where a two-manual keyboard is specified. Quite simply, forte means the lower keyboard and piano the upper. While the upper manual is, on most instruments, usually softer than the lower (though not always that noticeably so), it is the change of tone colour that is more important than the drop in decibel levels.

Terraced Dynamics

Terraced dynamics (a term invented by Ferruccio Busoni) means a sudden change from one dynamic level to another without either crescendo or diminuendo. Think in terms of contrasting blocks of sound, with no blending or gradation, the effect you get going from one keyboard of the organ (or harpsichord) to another. In conservative quarters, this is still considered the only correct way of adding dynamics to Bach’s music. Speaking pianistically, within the block of sound, I believe it is absolutely fine to play with inflection – it would be disastrous to think that in a forte passage each note had to be equally forte. This is akin to speech, where even within a phrase spoken loudly, there will be syllables only lightly touched on. The weight given to the important syllables is what determines whether we perceive the whole as loud or soft. A decibel reading of the final “na” in “banana” will be more or less the same no matter how loudly or softly I exclaim the word; it is the middle syllable that decides the loudness or softness of it.

The Use of Crescendo and Diminuendo

What about making crescendos and diminuendos? Are we allowed to do this? Of course, unless you really want to bore your audience!

1. Ask an 18th century musician to sing a Bach fugue subject, for example, and of course they would shape it dynamically. The natural tendency is to get louder as the line ascends, and softer as the line descends (this is not an absolute rule, though). It would be ludicrous to aim to sing it on one level, simply because of some erroneous thought that the harpsichord cannot do what comes naturally. As I mentioned in my introductory remarks last week, the harpsichord is absolutely capable of shaping a line, not by variations in key speed as we pianists do, but by a variety of touches from legatissimo to different lengths of staccato (what I call degrees of separation) and subtle timings. The player can create an accent either agogically (by delaying the note, and/or lingering on it) or by creating a silence before it. The greater the separation, the more accented that note is. Before we judge this as trickery, this illusion is no more devious than what we do. We believe, do we not, that we can make a crescendo in a melodic line at the piano?  The bald truth is that each of the sounds we make begins to decay immediately, so we cannot create an actual crescendo like a wind or string player can, only the illusion of one. It is artful, deceitful and magical!

If you are not sure how a line should be shaped, I suggest singing it. It does not matter about the quality of your voice, singing it will show you the natural breathing places and the high and low points of the phrase.

2. In ascending sequences, it is natural to make a crescendo. Equally, not to respond to the downward gravitational pull of descending sequences by allowing them to diminuendo feels perverse. The crescendo in this sequence from the B flat major Invention seems inevitable to me:

3. In scale passages that move to the extremes of the keyboard, I always feel a crescendo is implied. This has to do with scaling heights and plumbing depths, moving away from middle registers into realms exotic. This passage from the first movement of the Italian Concerto is an example:

Dance Movements

Each of the movements in a typical suite has its own individual characteristics which help us determine the general dynamic level, tempo, character and Affekt. The livelier dances (courantes, gigues) lend themselves to dynamics in the forte direction; likewise the gentler ones (minuets, sarabandes simples) to piano. Some comparative listening on YouTube or Spotify is excellent research. For those who want to explore this further, there are two useful books written by 18th century theorists which discuss this and many other related areas:

  • Johann Mattheson: Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739)
  • Johann Gottfried Walther: Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig, 1732)

Repeats

There is nothing more boring than hearing a performance with all the repeats, where the repeat is played identically to the first time around. In addition to ornamentation and embellishment, and changes in voicings, dynamic variety is very much a possibility. Personal taste plays a big part in this.

The Una Corda Pedal

I have noticed people have a horror of using the una corda pedal. In baroque music, it is especially effective as the colour change obtainable from its use mimics a registration, and as such it can be kept down for an entire section, or used for an entire repeat. It does not have to be used only for soft playing – put the una corda down and play firmly, and you take the harsh edges off the sound without making it necessarily softer.