“That you are a woman and have done so much in Bach‘s music, I take my hat off to you, but that you are an American and have achieved so much, I take my shoes off to you.” This spontaneous outburst was addressed to me by a European shortly after I began to play in Europe. It represented the typical astonishment, which I met generally, that an American should be so deeply involved as I am with Bach‘s music.
In August 1955 I left the United States for a concert tour in the British Isles and the Scandinavian countries which was to keep me abroad for five months. Little did I realise that this tour would extend itself so greatly that London would become my home and that it would be over three years before I stepped on to my native soil again.
Two engagements at the Edinburgh Festival in September 1955 were mainly responsible for the swift accumulation of events, in particular, my performance of the Goldberg Variations. This I played at eleven in the morning, without a break and with all repeats. It is not for me to recount what happened then, but since that appearance, I have played in almost every country in Europe. My most recent tour in September-October took me to South Africa after which I returned to England for a week-end before departing for America.
In the last three years the fact that I am an American has been mentioned less and less. Two years ago, the general comment was, on learning that I am “only” a first generation American — “Oh, that‘s the reason!” Now my nationality is so rarely mentioned that in Zurich where I played for the first time last year, everyone assumed, having heard of me through my concerts in England and the Edinburgh Festivals, that I was English. At the International Contemporary Music Festival in Venice, a similar assumption was made for the same reason by the Italians, plus the fact that I appeared with the Dennis Brain Quintet. With them I played the Concerto for Piano and Woodwinds by Wallingford Riegger which I had proposed for the programme, and with Dennis Brain a Sonata for Horn and Piano by [Peter] Racine Fricker which Brain had proposed [illegible] Department invited me to play at the American Theatre at the Brussels World‘s Fair, I was delighted to accept, not only for its own significance but also because my appearance there re-identified me as an American, in Europe.
What are the programmes that Europeans have asked me to play most of all? Naturally, all-Bach, although I have played other works such as the Brahms B Flat Concerto, several Beethoven Concertos, the Handel-Brahms Variations and Fugue and several times, Aaron Copland‘s Piano Sonata. Everywhere the Goldberg Variations become a special event. In three years I have played them about twenty-five times. I play them always with all repeats and the one work constitutes the entire programme.
In Bach‘s music the repeats are essential. The longer one studies the practices of his time, the form and structure of his art, and the roots from which all these developed, the more clearly one realises that the repeats are, in almost every case an integral part of the musical conception. This is inescapably true in the Goldberg Variations, which are so alive with contrapuntal variety. The canons are built in two voices, the bass forming a complementary third part, except for the canon on the ninth which is confined to two voices. In order to comprehend the complexity and nuances of the canons and their inversions, we must hear both sides of the story. These cannot be shown in one playing. Can one ignore the different variation endings that Bach has himself written for the repeats? I think not, for this music is not conceived in1 the forward movement of romantic form. They are integrated structures more self-contained than the variations of later 19th century styles. They stand on their own but at the same time relate indispensably to each other. Without repeats the Goldberg Variations are a tour de force. With them the music is fulfilled, becoming the Odyssey of variation form that it truly is. The Suites and Partitas demand the repeats as well. When one thoroughly comprehends the practices and meanings of the vast art of ornamentation, repeats emerge as part of the very texture of this art. The form of Double is a repeat, ornamented, in Bach‘s own hand, in the Suite form. In the Partita in E Minor the first movement has no repeat marks but they are indicated in all the other movements. How interesting that in this perfectly constructed movement Bach repeats the opening Toccata section at the end with slight variations. The Capriccio on a Departing Brother [BWV 992] is another pertinent example. Although it is constructed on the traditional principle of short movements, six in all, repeat marks appear in only one of them — the Aria on the Postillion‘s Horn. Clearly, this is a conscious direction to the performer. To ignore these directions in Bach is to treat them as mere conventions. This they did become in2 later Sonata Form where the repetition does not have the same significance nor variety of treatment. We must bear in mind that the modern meaning of ‘repeat’ is simple duplication. In Bach‘s day ‘repeat’ entailed embellishment or variation in innumerable ways and degrees depending on the imagination of the composer-performer. These are a few aspects of this important subject, too often misunderstood and deserving a longer essay.
Bach‘s art combines highly disciplined forms, mediaeval spirituality and Baroque exuberance. The great fascination in the study and performance of his music lies in the subtle balance of scholarship and imagination, set rules and musicality, objective study, emotional depth and breadth of spirit. Bach clears away the clouds of nostalgia of the nineteenth century and the nihilism of the early twentieth century bringing us face to face with our own time where subjective-objective are no longer conflicting opposites but mutually complementary and interdependent elements forming a completed whole. The fact is self-evident in the music itself which invites one to embrace its wholeness. National traditions and local tastes are secondary to this underlying quality of mind and feeling today. Perhaps this is one reason why my Bach playing has meaning for Europeans and why they tend more and more to forget my nationality.