6.1 How can I make the concept of “the true content and affect” relevant to my performance?
As part of my artistic method, I studied Emanuel Bach’s keyboard treatise: Versuchüber die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen (Bach [1753 and ’62] 1992). Here he refers to the “content” of the music, and discusses the “true content and affect” (in German “Inhalt” and “wahre Inhalt und Affect”.) This is the content the musician must make the ear sensitive to; see the quotation. But what is this concept exactly? What did Bach himself have to say about it? And how can I – as a modern musician – bring its influence to bear on my approach to the music? I will not be offering any musicological analysis of the concept, but reflecting on how it can be applied to my artistic practice.
What did Bach say?
Bach uses these concepts frequently in the chapter on musical delivery; ”Vom Vortrage”. My impression is that he is drawing a distinction between content/true content and affects/passion: they typically occur together, but appear to represent quite distinct phenomena.
What words does Bach use to describe these phenomena? Firstly, regarding how the performer may understand the content of a musical thought or in a piece of music – he should be assisted by the composer:
”Given that one should play every piece according to its true content, and with the associated affects, composers do well by furnishing their compositions not only with tempo designations, but even with such words as explain the content. As good as this advice is, it will be of no use in preventing their pieces from being disfigured, if they do not also add the customary signs for the execution.”
”Indem man also ein jedes Stück nach seinem wahren Inhalte, und mit dem gehörigen Affecte speilen soll; so thun die Componisten wohl wenn sie ihren Ausarbeitungen ausser der Bezeichnung des Tempo, annoch solche Wörter vorsetzen, wodurch der Inhalt derselb enerkläret wird. So gut diese Vorsicht ist, so wenig würde sie hinlänglich seyn, das Verhudeln ihrer Stücke zuverhindern, wenn sie nicht auch zugleich die gewöhnlichen Zeichen, welche den Vortrag angehen, den Noten beyfügten” (Bach  1992, p. 124).
Then, on the affects/passions: It is the duty of the performer to relate to these, especially when playing music he did not compose himself:
“He will always observe this duty [of personally embracing all the affects] in pieces that are expressively set – be they by himself or others: In the latter case he must in himself feel the same emotions as the originator of the other piece felt when composing it.”
”Diese Schuldigkeit [sich selbst in alle Affecten setzen] beobachtet er überhaupt bey Stücken, welche ausdrückend gesetzt sind, sie mögen von ihm selbst oder von jemanden anders herrühren; im letztern Falle muß er dieselbe Leidenschaften bey sich empfinden, welche der Urheber des fremden Stücks bey dessen Verfertigung hatte” (Bach  1992, p. 122).
The performer is also advised to take every opportunity to listen to good musical delivery – especially of songs, in order to develop a singing style of playing (Bach  1992, pp. 119-120 and 121-122).
My personal model for understanding the concept
How am I to interpret Bach’s words on these concepts of “the true content and the affects” in music? It is perhaps typical that in my time I have been struck by the idea of all the potential sources of error and misunderstandings, and the complexity of all manner of confounding problems that crop up at the sight of “the true content”. Whereas Bach – on closer inspection – appears to be using it more as a technical concept. He is largely addressing people who moved in more or less the same cultural circles as he himself. This is why he can refer to technical terms without having to explain them.
One possibility would be to frame the concept of “content”in the context of the discourse on instrumental music that prevailed in Germany in Bach’s time: could instrumental music hold any content, or was it empty and meaningless because it did not imitate nature? Vocal music was easier for the sceptics to explain because words provided a key to understanding what the music concerned. (This discourse is discussed at length in Hosler’s Changing aesthetic views of instrumental music in 18th century Germany, 1981.) In this context, the concept of “content” is used in the sense of what the music 'says'; what it signifies or expresses.
Bach expresses himself in distinctly more technical terms when referring to this concept than the difficult complex of problems that arise when I read it: because he is actually stating that composers should help the performer to understand the content using a combination of musical terms (”customary signs” and ”tempo designations”) and ”such words as explain the content”. In other words, we are talking about a type of content that is readily conveyed in keywords and symbols.
Then Bach states that the performer should feel the same emotions as the originator of the music. Did he mean that the information received by the performer; from the score – with all manner of assistive signs and keywords to explain the content – together with the stylistic ability or taste, the ‘cultural formation’ that was trained from listening to good instrumentalists and vocalists – was sufficient for an understanding of how the other person felt? Sufficient enough, perhaps?
A summary of my understanding of these two concepts would be as follows: I believe that the “content” (Inhalt) denotes the semiotic structure; how the music is constructed and hence what it is expressing. Semiotic elements exist in several ‘layers’ of the musical structure – as in language, for example: the choice of words, sentence structure (or fragmentation) and the narrative they convey when assembled – the latter is something a composer might hint at by providing the occasional keyword. In other words, a very comprehensive but technical concept denoting what the piece expresses based on its structure.
I read the emphatic “the true” as a kind of reassurance that this concerns the original, authentic understanding, informed by thorough comprehension rather than quick-fixes and shortcuts. This is also how it is used in the title of Versuch – die wahre Art. Meaning, not keyboard playing as taught by half-schooled rogues, (Bach  1992, pp. 1-4) but thorough, proper, true knowledge. Thus, I believe that the “true content” denotes a thorough understanding of what a musical structure expresses, or ‘signifies’, if you will.
The “affects” or “passions” however, I read as denoting the emotions expressed in the music. The manner in which the musical composition affects someone emotionally as a composer, performer or listener. The music is necessarily designed so that the “content” will arouse certain “affects”.
But how should I abide by these concepts as a modern-day musician? What practical value do they hold for me?
My professional background is in Historically Informed Performance (HIP), in which the musician seeks to perform a historical repertoire on the basis of what is known about performance practices from the same period and cultural community as the repertoire was composed in (as described in “Early Music”, Haskell 2017). This approach, which alternates between reading period sources and practical experiments, was thus fundamental for me in this project too. By gaining greater insights into the context in which the music was placed, I aspire to gain a stronger sense of empathy and intimacy with the material and can consequently play it with greater conviction.
However, this increased knowledgeability combined with greater empathy and intimacy with the material cuts both ways: the more I learn, the more questions I have. The more I identify with Emanuel Bach and his era, the clearer it becomes to me how long it is since he lived, and how much the world has changed over the intervening centuries: the more I strive to get close, the more distanced I find myself.
This constant stream of new questions produces a creative dynamic which requires that I take decisions and make artistic choices.
In the following, I present 5 examples of how I worked reflexively within this dynamic between the questions of practical performance and artistic reality.
In addressing the concepts of the true contents and the affects, the duality becomes immediately apparent. I based my reasoning above on the context in which the concepts are used, and what we know of contemporary discourse. Another investigator might well apply different reasoning due to differences in interest and personal experience. Greater insight into the context is conducive to understanding of the concept, but I can never achieve absolute certainty of what Bach intended.
However, let us assume, applying the reasoning above, that Bach required musicians to familiarise themselves with, and understand, the structural elements in order to form an opinion on what the piece concerns and the feelings conveyed. And that he then wanted us to bring this into play, so that the listeners experience it.
If my understanding of his principles is more or less correct, I am not sure whether I am interpreting the content (the structures) as Bach intended, and even less sure that I am feeling exactly the same that he did when he composed it. As I gather more insight and experience – as I read, as I play more repertoires – my understanding of the context will become clearer and more relevant, and this will hopefully make my empathy with the music more well-attuned. However, all of this sophistry goes to show that I have a different attitude to the music than Bach did, and hence different emotions: Bach was the supreme master of his material. He conceived it, and he could do with it as he pleased. The more I study, reconstruct and ponder it, the more I distance myself from this supreme mastery of the material.
Moreover, when I come to play so that people “see and hear from my appearance and performance” (Bach  1992, p. 112) THAT I feel the music as I play it or, indeed, WHAT I feel about it: what did it mean “to play from the soul” for Bach or others in the 18th century (Bach  1992, p. 119)? What musical (and visible) gestures were perceived as expressive? Bach lists a number of musical devices, including dynamics, vibrato and several variants of articulations and variations in tempo (Bach  1992, p. 117).
But how far to go? How distinct should the touch and articulation devices be – showy or subtle? Listen, for example, to my recording of Andante Wq 55/6, from 1’36’’ (just to the right of this text): In the ascending line of the right hand, and then the left, Bach marked strokes above certain notes to indicate that they are shorter. At first glance, this is rather odd – it halts the flow of the phrase, arrests the pulse, because the strokes are placed at variable points in the beat. Yet this is integral to the music – Bach obviously intended this effect. The question is then how great their effect should be: the more I make of them, the greater their impact. The stroke tells us something about the length of the note (Bach  1992 s. 125), but not directly about the dynamic – this depends on the character, and is then for me to decide. If the dynamic is kept unchanged, the effect will be to create a kind of abrupt end to the phrase with each short note. This effect will be even greater if the short note is played more quietly than the rest – then it will almost be a gap in the pavement. If, however, it is played more loudly, the effect will be insistent – a series of unpredictable marcatos to trip over. These effects will in turn be influenced by how much the notes are shortened, and the length of the pause that follows them. I have used these variables in the mode of expression to emphasise the directions of the music: in the high register, the articulation is more discreet, while being more pronounced in the lower register in order to build up to the chord change following the descending line of the left hand.
How large fluctuations in tempo, and how long stretches of accelerando and ritardando? Listen, for example to Rondo Wq 56/1, from 6’43’’: Here I let the tempo follow the phrase, both up and down. I do so intuitively, meaning that I follow what I perceive as 'normal'. My perception of this normality has been shaped by the tuition I have received, and what I am accustomed to from listening to those of my contemporary musicians whom I find relevant for my own performance. Part of this influence derives from various musicians who practice or are influenced by research in historical performance practice, such as Lars Kristian Haugbro's thesis from 2006 Tempo Fluctuations in the Performance of Joseph Haydn’s Keyboard Sonata in F Major, Hob. XVI:29. My reading of this thesis also influences my insights into and attitude to tempo fluctuations as a means of expression – insights and attitudes which I channel back to the professional music scene in the form of my artistic choices.
My perception of 'normal' is also influenced by 10 wonderful years of childhood piano lessons from Hungarian Elisabeth Klein, who did not allow much tempo variation; and by prevailing attitudes in society, which regard weeping and other emotional outbursts as private, and inappropriate in public. But also by a number of other impetuses that I find artistically relevant and inspiring.
Bach's perception of 'normal' was based on the multitude of complex impetuses that made up his era and culture. The written sources we currently draw on to understand 18th century performance practice were written in order to adjust both the good and bad aspects of this 18thcentury 'normal', and will obviously be confounding if we apply them uncritically to our own cultural context, as demonstrated by Haugbro (Haugbro 2006, pp. 45-47). As long as the sources of our knowledge are relative to their own, closed context, our knowledge will be limited by our ability to understand that context. The 18th century is no more, and what we reconstruct through research are thus our own narratives of 18th century mores (Gundersen 2017, p. 11).
What of the rhythms within the bar? Were all the beats of the bar EXACTLY the same length, or were they ‘swung’ in the manner that is now the preserve of the Viennese waltz? Listen, for example, to the opening of the same piece. Here I experiment with a swing, in which the first beat is prolonged, the third is shortened and the second varies. Speculative it may be, but I see no reason why it could not have been so at the time, especially in dance music: this would then be a very rigid interpretation of the hierarchy of beats of the bar. Clearly, much work remains to be done to be able to claim that this was the practice. For now, I take the liberty of treating it as an open question.
“All these embellishments [in adagios] must be carried out roundly and in such a way, that one might believe that only simple notes are heard. This entails a freedom that precludes anything mechanical and slavish. One must play from the soul, and not like a trained bird. …”
“Es müssen aber alle diese Manieren [in Adagios] rund und der gestalt vorgetragen werden, daß man glauben sollte, man höre bloße simple Noten. Es gehört hie zu eine Freyheit, die alles schlawische und maschinenmäßige ausschliesset. Aus der Seele muß man spielen, und nicht wie ein abgerichteter Vogel. …”(Bach  1992, p. 119).
Rounded, with a singing quality and distinctly, and not least playing from the soul again, Bach. But how far were early musicians going in their extroversion? What degree of ‘soulful eversion’ was socially acceptable? Van Elferen argues that the 18th-century Empfindsamkeit concert culture demanded more emotionality than in the modern concert hall culture (Van Elferen, 2007). Bania and Skowroneck demonstrate that Bach and his contemporaries literally mean that, in order to play expressively, performers must engage personally in the emotions they seek to convey (Bania & Skowroneck, forthcoming). This principle has been one of the main premises for my work, and the background for my concert experiments. Nevertheless, I have wondered whether my own way of conveying that I am emotionally engaged as a performer would have been socially acceptable in the 18th century: I have a tendency to rock my upper body, and breathe audibly when I play. Is this perhaps a late- or post-romantic pianistic compulsion? And when I play – listen, for example, to Rondo Wq 56/1 again, from 2’35’’: I hope that Bach would have heard this powerful execution of the ascending line as expressive, in the way that I intend, and that it would not have been excessive to him.
In other words, I cannot draw firm conclusions about what Bach and his age attributed to the concepts of content and affect, or how they used musical devices for expressive performance. These concepts were, however, of sufficient importance for Bach to devote one in three chapters in the first part of his keyboard treatise to discussing performance alone – not just how to play correctly, but with feeling, and also on how to mediate music to an audience. I believe that this is indicative of his preoccupations as a musician and composer. Equally, he is not the only one to urge performers to play “from the heart”; such appeals are found in the majority of his contemporary instrument schools: This quality was a prevailing sentiment of his time.
For this reason, I do not feel I can refrain from addressing these questions, even if they are difficult to find reliable answers to. The level of detail and the subtleties of Emanuel Bach's explanations not only THAT one must play from the heart, but HOW – what devices are to be used – make it too simplistic to settle for the conclusion that “OK, Bach was preoccupied with expressiveness, so I have to focus a bit extra on that when I’m playing”.
It may seem safer to avoid questions because they are complex or impossible to find the right answer to, but it is more fun and instructive to keep asking them! Keeping questions open preserves a creative tension: the fact of not knowing inspires a spirit of inquiry, not only for a single answer, but several possible alternatives.
This is the challenge I set myself to avoid settling complacently in my own comfort zone – where I either focus on all the things I do know about 18th century performance practice, and in so doing lose interest in any further inquiry – or, conversely, give up exploring because, whichever path I take, it won’t quite be the right one. If I stop trying, then I won’t make any progress.
I do not envisage my style of playing ultimately becoming identical with the style that prevailed when the music was new. This is neither possible nor desirable, as my world is completely different from the world as it was then. Source studies provide an inexhaustible source of questions and artistic impetus – as methods for the artistic endeavour. Jostein Gundersen in Essay on the relation between Historically Informed Performance and Artistic Research argues that HIP is a research method rather than a goal in itself (Gundersen 2017, p. 5).
In sum, I am making the concepts of content and affect relevant to my performances by taking a stance on them. In forming my conception of what they might signify, I am able to embrace a diversity of possible realisations of them, which reveal themselves when I engage with the music. Yet in the broader scheme of things, my aspirations as a musician today are no different to those of my 18th century counterpart: to understand the music – its construction, the structure, the content – as best I can, and convey to the listeners what I find meaningful, moving and interesting in the music. Just WHAT I find moving and interesting would have been altogether different than what absorbed an 18th century musician, and presumably also my way of conveying it: my way of playing movingly is something I learned from listening to performances that have moved me (link). The musical impulses I took on board colour my understanding of Emanuel Bach’s music and what interests me in it, what I seek to impart though it. This is a half-conscious, semi-intuitive process that occurs unbidden – gathering emotional experiences being a lifelong process. This is how we are formed (and I wouldn’t have it any other way).
As a participant in a professional discourse in which a great many of the arguments are presented in the form of artistic choices, based on a more or less historically informed, but ultimately, intuitive conviction, I feel the urge to seek alternative solutions. I am convinced that there are a great many more ways of realising the music than I can readily imagine, including within what we know of 18th-century performance practice. And I believe that as an artist and researcher, I have a responsibility for investigating as openly as I can.