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Ask Ruth Waterman

Yes, I love fado (from Portugal), tango, Brazilian, French chansons, trad jazz… all these have great character. When I’m travelling, I like to pick up recordings of local folk music. One singing group that doesn’t quite fit into any of these categories is from France: Souinge – worth looking for!

Absolutely! It’s so difficult to know what a composer had in mind when we’re trying to bring his compositions to life, that any clue is a godsend.

Dance music has often found its way into the concert hall, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily loses its dance character. Some of Chopin’s waltzes are eminently danceable to; others are not. Perhaps the question should be: how closely does this particular piece of music embody the characteristics of the original dance? And obviously we can’t answer without having some knowledge of the dance itself.

Since Baroque dances disappeared from our everyday culture, we have lost the knowledge of them that was ingrained in Bach and his contemporaries. Without this knowledge, a good musician today might try to tease out the character and sound and rhythm of the different dances; but the evidence shows that this is unlikely to succeed. For instance, the way the loure is normally played these days is, I believe, quite mistaken in terms of tempo, articulation and character. But without knowing the particular loure step, as well as specific playing instructions of Baroque musicians, it’s not surprising that we’ve gone astray.

I was extremely lucky to learn to dance the various Baroque dances when I was still a student, as I was able to glean much about their general character as well as the crucial issue of tempo relationships. For instance, the first thing that struck me was that the step on the downbeats is almost always onto half-toe, causing the body to rise rather than fall. And balancing on one leg on half-toe needs control and poise (otherwise the body does risk a fall!). These basics alone affected my playing, goading me to search for a style of bowing and sense of rhythm that would reflect this feeling of lift and elegance.

Once we know the dances and the music that was written for them, we can then see whether Bach’s dances are typical or not. Mostly they do follow closely the conventions of each dance; and when they diverge, it is fascinating and instructive to understand the significance of the divergence.

For instance, the E-major gavotte feels very much like a normal gavotte at first, but there are immediate oddities that serve to puncture the courtly conviviality; like the shocking major 7th on the initial downbeat. Knowing a conventional gavotte makes it possible to appreciate Bach’s playfulness and unconventionality, which in turn affects our understanding of the composition and how we play it.

One final thought: a dance is no less a dance if it has no title. A waltz that has no title is still a waltz and not, say, a tango. But just consider if we didn’t know the difference between the performance style of a waltz and a tango: the Blue Danube would end up mangled beyond recognition! (Or does the Blue Danube actually have any characteristics of a tango? In which case…)


I imagine there’s a place in my memory where all the concerts I’ve played are stored. But I don’t seem to be able to get unlimited access! I remember a barn in the countryside with the audience sitting on hay bales and donkeys braying outside (particularly during the slow movements, of course); and a natural stone amphitheatre in Utah, accessible only by river – the piano as well as the audience had to be brought in by boat!

I confess I have been known to whip out the violin and play impromptu in unlikely places. The lowest place I’ve stooped to play in must definitely have been the Channel Tunnel: when the French inspectors came round, they put their walkie-talkie microphones close to the violin so that all their colleagues could hear my heartfelt rendition of La Vie en Rose!

As with music and writing, it seems that the act of painting demands exclusivity: no other creative activity is on the cards while the brushes are wet. So my days are either for intense looking, intense listening, or working with words; unless they are for doing none of these things, which is fine and seems necessary – my creative brain needs a break too.

Humans are complex beings. Artists can be just as bigoted, stupid, or unskilled in social relations as the rest of us. The thing about art is that it can inspire those who create it, practise it, and experience it, to great heights. It allows and encourages the best in us to shine.

Appreciating someone’s best side does not imply anything further: it doesn’t mean we like the artist as a person, agree with his/her beliefs or think that he/she is free from the sins and foibles of the human race. Gesualdo may have been a murderer, Mozart may have had his silly side, Wagner may have been anti-Semitic, but their music can still touch us. If we can dissociate Wagner’s music from the role it was forced to play in Nazi Germany after his death – if we can hear and appreciate the music as just music – we gain one more source of enjoyment and spiritual nourishment. I don’t think there are any ‘shoulds’ or ‘should nots’; the choice is individual, it applies to Jews and non-Jews, and it is influenced by a multitude of beliefs and attitudes both conscious and unconscious.

The world is filled with bigots who never create great art. Now if only more of them would choose the road of the artist than the road of the politician!

You should really ask them, not me! But since you’ve asked, I imagine they are referring to the sophisticated counterpoint that Bach loves to use. His fugues and canons are constructed like interlocking 3-dimensional, or maybe 5-dimensional, jigsaws. He is said to have been able to spot immediately all possible permutations of any theme – whether it could be sounded simultaneously with its inversion, or its contraction, and which countersubjects would fit with it, without causing horrendous discords. Not that he avoided all discords, but obviously he aimed to avoid the kind of gobbledegook that would result from trying to write any old theme as a canon: Frére Jacques works well, Beethoven’s Fifth does not! He chose his themes carefully, but he was also brilliantly skilled in how he played with them. Bach certainly had a ‘mathematical’ brain if we mean logical and pattern-making and puzzle-solving.

On the other hand, I think that reviewers use the term ‘mathematical’ in a derogatory way, meaning lacking in emotion or expression or spirituality. And in this, they are of course completely mistaken.

For instance, Bach wrote fugues on very varied themes. In the solo violin sonatas, the A-minor theme is short and bouncy, whereas the C-major theme is twice as long and is based on a deeply spiritual hymn (Komm Heiliger Geist). So they need to be played in completely different styles, the first with perhaps a twinkle in the eye, and the second with a sense of awe and rapture. I have to admit that we performers must take the blame for promulgating the ‘Bach-is-a-dry/difficult/mathematical-composer’ belief, in that his fugues and canons are often played in an emotionally bereft way, with the initial theme declaimed in a stern, forbidding manner.

Bach’s son Carl PE said, “One of the reasons I love Bach’s music is that it engages the intellect as well as the emotions. It is like a cathedral which captures aesthetic and spiritual qualities but stands only on the basis of sound engineering principles.”

The issue here is that the qualities needed to write great music are not the same as the qualities needed to perform that music. Composers may try to deliver the ideal interpretation that they hear in their heads, yet fail because of nerves or self-consciousness or lack of technique or any of a myriad reasons. I know that, speaking for myself, I do not perform my own creations with as much commitment, or even respect, as I do those of others. Composers can be likewise diffident, and even more so if they don’t have enough time to practise or perform. Or they can take for granted some of the surprising features of their music: I once heard a humourless broadcast of Dohnanyi’s Variations and was shocked to hear afterwards that it was Dohnanyi himself playing. Maybe he was thoroughly tired of having to play the same work over and over again and had lost his sense of humour about it. Or maybe he was having an off-day.

My main point is that it’s advisable to listen to a composer’s performances with as much discrimination and care as any other performance, that composers cannot be relied upon to deliver an outstanding performance. That said, what would we give to have been able to hear Bach playing his Well-Tempered Clavier or Beethoven playing his Hammerklavier?!