• Tanya Tomkins
  • March 6, 2014

Bach, the master improviser

js_bach_portrait_cropRecently, I judged a Bach competition for young cellists here in Berkeley. Memorization was a prerequisite for entering the competition. I found myself spending a good part of my time behind the screen with the other judges, listening to all of these wonderful, young cellists playing Bach from memory, thinking that there was something wrong with this requirement. I couldn’t put my finger on it until a couple of weeks ago when I started practicing the Bach Suites myself again – practicing mostly from memory, and it dawned on me that memorizing Bach is like a saxophone player trying to memorize, note-for-note, John Coltrane’s improvisation on “These Are a Few of my Favorite Things” (if you’ve never heard that before, it is truly one of my favorite things!). Coltrane takes a simple daisy of a melody and with highly sophisticated harmonic, rhythmic, and motivic skill and turns it into a musical garden of exotic flowers. By the time it is over, it is hard to imagine how one arrived at such a vastly more interesting and amazing place from where one began.  And he does all this in real time.

According to Bruce Haynes in his book, “The End of Early Music,” 18th-Century musicians who couldn’t improvise were considered craftsmen and not artists. They were at the bottom of the totem pole (where practically every trained Classical musician is today, by these standards). The next step up from the craftsman was the “virtuoso” – the instrumentalist who could keep playing if the music blew off the stand, or could perfectly recreate somebody else’s music. At the top was the improvising musician who performed and composed in one simultaneous act.

It is no secret that Bach was the master improviser, the Coltrane of his day (think “The Musical Offering”). In my opinion, the Bach Cello Suites are his written out improvisations on simple dance forms. TJazz-player-John-Coltrane-006hey each begin with a fantasy – an improvisation on the key of the Suite – the Prelude. He then takes the Menuets, Sarabandes, Gigues, etc. and transforms them into his unique voice, taking them to musical heights they had never seen before. I get the feeling that every day he might have done something slightly different, in the same way Coltrane’s performance of “Favorite Things” would never have sounded the same way twice.

I don’t have the ability to improvise on this music, mostly because Bach already did it for us, and, without question, infinitely better than I ever could have in the first place. It stares at the performer from the page like a direct challenge: “I dare you to top that one.”

The best I can hope for is to improve my harmonic understanding enough to be on the inside of the jokes as they go by, so that I can at least appreciate, and hopefully light the way for others to enjoy the inspired moments of improvisation that he, fortunately for us, decided to write down. Memorizing this one version that we have seems somehow to freeze these notes into a fixed position they were never meant to stay in. It has the danger of setting them in stone – in direct conflict with the spirit in which they were created.

leonhardt_taskinWhether played from memory or from a score, I think it is imperative that we remember that this music was very alive and that we are entering a great improvisor’s mind when we play it, not reciting something by rote. I remember going to hear the great harpsichordist and organist Gustav Leonhardt‘s recitals in Holland. At the start of every performance he would walk out on stage, turn on the light, and ceremoniously take out his glasses, so as better to see the music. For me it was like he was saying, “I need extra illumination and clarity to see this text that will take us back 300 years to another world.” He never played from memory, nor did he improvise, but he expertly accompanied us on many great adventures through a time gone by, where it would have been normal to be making up the music while you were performing it, and he very successfully gave us a feeling that that is what he might have been doing.

Upcoming performances of Bach Suites:Early Music Vancouver

Early Music Vancouver, March 18 & 19th, 2014SFPerformancesLogo


San Francisco Performances, March 26, 2014










Share on Facebook


Leave a comment