Vaughan Williams on an authentic performance of Bach

Vaughan Williams gave a broadcast talk on Bach entitled “Bach the Great Bourgeois.” It was later published in The Listener. Vaughan Williams, who was involved in performances of works such as Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion as part of the Leith Hill Festival, offered some insight in contemporary approaches to Bach performance:

WHEN I was a small boy I was brought up almost entirely on Handel, and especially the Handel Festival. I once heard a Bach Gavotte at a village concert and asked whether it was right to put such a name on the same programme as the great masters, and my aunt told me that Bach was quite a good composer: but of course not so good as Handel (this being die accepted view in those days); and with lite strange incuriosity of a child I left it at that and made no further inquiries until I went to school at ten years old. There I was taken in hand by the music master, Mr. C. T. West, whose name I shall always hold in reverence. He soon realized that I did not much care for the ‘Maiden’s Prayer’ or “True Love’ and one day * momentous day for me he brought me a Bach Album edited by Berthold Tours. Here indeed was a revelation; here was something undeniably belonging to no period or style, something for all time. This is where Bach differs from other composers. They, with the exception of a few outstanding Beethoven works, be- long to their time, but Bach, though superficially he may speak the eighteenth-century language, belongs to no school or period.

There is a tendency nowadays to ‘put Bach in his place’. He is labelled as ‘Baroque’ (whatever that may mean) and according to the latest orders from Germany he is to be performed as ‘period music’ in the precise periwig style. This is all part of a movement to ‘play- Back as he wrote it’. To do this would be impossible even if we wanted to. Our violins are pkyed on quite a different principle; our horns are soft and our trombones are loud. I should like to see Mr. Goossens confronted with one of those gross bagpipe instruments which in Bach’s time stood for an oboe. The harpsichord, how- ever it may sound in a small room and to my mind it never has a pleasant sound in a large concert room sounds just like the ticking of a sewing machine. We have no longer, thank Heaven, the Baroque style of organ, which we are told, with very insufficient evidence, was the kind of instrument Bach pkyed upon. (By the way, I see there is a movement afoot to substitute this bubble- and-squeak type of instrument for the noble diapason and soft mixtures of our cathedral organs.)

We cannot perform Bach exactly as he was pkyed in his time even if we wanted to, and the question is, do we want to? I say emphatically, No! Some music dies with its period, but what is really immortal endures from generation to generation. The interpretation and with it the means of interpretation differ with each generation. If the music is ephemeral it will disappear with any change of fashion. If the music is really alive it will live on through all the alterations of musical thought.

Cited in: Cumberlege, Geoffrey (1953) Some thoughts on Beethoven’s Choral Symphony with writings on other musical subjects by Ralph Vaughan Williams. London: Oxford University Press, pp.122-123.

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