Bach’s slurs are are a means of expression and not mere technical tricks and we have lost the art of Rhetoric, says Anner Bylsma
Yesterday at the Amsterdam Cello Biënnale this mysterious manifesto appeared all over the bar, only for the pieces of paper to be cleared up by the bar staff (and then to reappear). It is addressed to ‘The self-thinking plumber’ and bears the name of Anner Bylsma, so we can assume it is he subverting the norm, as he has done throughout his 80 years.
I hope you can read the contents from the picture, so I won’t transcribe it all, but the focus is on interpreting Bach’s bowings: ‘Bach was a great string player and a frugal man. In the Cello Suites, the slurs in a group of 16th notes are usually over two notes in every possible way, often over three notes as well, and only very, very rarely over four notes. Only in scales and the like a greater number of notes may be slurred.’
Bylsma writes: ‘Bach’s music is spoken music. It is a “Klangrede”. Separate notes are syllables; slurs are too, but they also give emphasis and sometimes help to avoid undesirable glissandi.’ He writes that ‘separate’ and ‘slurred’ are means of expression, not ‘technical’ tricks, and his passing shot is that ‘The modern “value-free” Solfège, successor to what used to be called Rhetoric, is a musical disaster.’ This was a theme of one of the discussions he participated in during the week, as he poured scorn on the way beats are all taken with equal importance now. It's a powerful concept and has already affected the way I've been listening to the performances.
Do you agree? Is music too regular now? Are we missing a sense of Rhetoric in modern performance?