Did Bach Even Play the Piano?

did bach play the piano

The 21st century has heard many renditions of J.S. Bach's music on the piano. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to separate his compositions from the piano or even imagine them being played on another instrument. However, some believe that Bach never wrote with the piano in mind, so his music should only be played on a clavier or harpsichord.

Naturally, you may begin to wonder what version is true. Did the major performer even know what a piano was? Did he ever compose a piece for it to be played on a piano? Should his heritage be preserved by playing his works only on an organ or harpsichord?

We will delve into the life of J.S. Bach and answer all these questions below.

A Brief History of J.S. Bach

So, one can see both sides of why his works are often played with the piano and why some performers are reluctant about transcriptions.
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Johann Sebastian Bachat was born on March 21st, 1685 in Eisenach, Germany, where he got a choral scholarship at St. Michael's School. 

He composed the cantata Gott ist mein König in 1703, which pushed his career ahead. Unfortunately, the now popular Brandenburg Concertos was not as well received when he composed it. J.S. Bach composed pieces in every major Baroque genre, such as sonatas, cantatas, concertos, and suites. 

He also composed countless organ, keyboard, and choral works. His keyboard concertos were very unique. Some of his most important works are the Goldberg Variations and the Passions. Bach's era saw the death of a specific style of German classical performance, partly due to the emergence of the piano. 

He eventually died on July 28th, 1750, in Leipzig.

Did Bach Play the Piano?

As mentioned above, Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the later composers of the Baroque era. Many new musical instruments and musical styles were emerging. Around the 1700s, a new musical instrument came to the limelight known as the piano.

Origin of the Piano


The piano is both a string and percussion instrument. It's a descendant of the monochord, but it has ties to instruments like the harpsichord, dulcimer, and clavichord.

Both the harpsichord and the violin were first made in Italy. The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731). It was named "clavicembalo col piano e forte," meaning a harpsichord that plays soft and loud noises. Just like the piano, it was funded by the Medici family of Florence.

While Italian composers got early piano exposure, J.S. Bach lived and worked in Germany. Still, information may have disseminated slower back in the 18th century, but the news still got around. So, J.S. Bach, a star in the classical industry, must have first heard about the piano through translated journals or travelers' words.

The Role of Gottfried Silberman

did bach play the piano

Gottfried Silberman (1683-1753) was a notable builder of instruments, especially keyboards. He built keyboards like harpsichords, organs, and even forte pianos. One of the most notable instruments Silberman worked on is the remarkable organ in Hofkirche in Dresden, Germany. Silbermann worked closely with the vision and descriptions of Cristofori to develop the fortepiano. 

A popular story in the Musica Mechanica Organoedi (1768), told by Jacob Adlung and Johann Friedrich Agricolais, is that J.S. Bach traveled to see his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, in around 1730. He played the Silbermann fortepiano during his visit but was not impressed. He mentioned that the treble end of the instrument sounded weak and that the keys were difficult to play. Still, he enjoyed the beautiful sound.

Silbermann got this feedback and, while not pleased, noted it in improving the sounds of the fortepiano. There are accounts that Frederick the Great was so impressed with the improvements that he purchased several instruments from Silbermann, including 15 pianos, during the 1740s. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach played one such Silbermann fortepiano while accompanying him during a concert in around 1747.

As claimed by the Berlinische Nachrichten con Staats-und gelehrten Sachsen, Bach met with Frederick the Great during his visit. He played the improved version of the Silbermann fortepiano again and was well disposed to it. Another account states that J.S. Bach improvised a fugue on a theme the King gave during that visit. This piece has been remade into the well-known The Musical Offering.

Charles Rosen would later refer to The Musical Offering as “the most significant piano work of the millennium, as it is perhaps the first piece composed for the recently invented piano- at least, the first piece that a composer knew would certainly be played on a piano.” This particular piano that Bach played was destroyed in World War II.

There's another hesitant account that J.S. Bach may have even sold some pianos for Silbermann in Leipzig. It is said that he signed a receipt on May 9, 1749, selling a Piano et Forte to a Polish count, Jan Casimir von Branitzky. However, there's no way to verify this claim, especially since there are no concrete stories of frequent interactions with Silbermann to create a business relationship.

Still, one can conclude that Bach had enough encounters with Silbermann's fortepiano. Bach played the fortepiano, although he didn't live long enough to experiment or explore different compositional techniques with it.

Did Bach Compose for the Piano?

It's a popular assumption that J.S. Bach composed the Das Wohltemperirte Klavier or The 48 Preludes and Fugues with the piano in mind.

Klavier is taken to mean piano, but in reality, it means keyboard. The original title by Bach himself is Das Wohltemperirte Clavier - the clavichord. So, while this is often delivered in a piano rendition, Bach did not compose it with the piano in mind.

Moreover, many people have suggested that Books 1 and 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier were created specifically for the fortepiano. This is because Bach wrote piano and forte markings in the Prelude. Still, these markings could have just meant Bach wanted to play the piece on a double-manual harpsichord. In this case, one keyboard would be set softer than its counterpart to achieve echo results.

Another reason for the assumption is that Bach wrote this piece to celebrate the new well-tempered system of tuning that replaced mono-tone tuning. But, this was not a characteristic peculiar to the fortepiano alone; there were also new ways of striking harpsichord and clavichord strings at the time. Andreas Werckmeister (1645–1706) and other people developed this new system of tuning instruments.

However, C.P.E. Bach, the son of J.S. Bach, composed several pieces for the fortepiano during his lifetime.

What Piano Model did J.S. Bach Play?


J.S. Bach played the earliest version of the Silbermann fortepiano, an underdeveloped version of the fortepiano. These pianos differ from the modern version. This version has no pedals; una corda, or sustain. Instead, they used hand-operated levers. This naturally followed the operation of organs.

The keyboard is similar to a harpsichord. The keyboard length was around five octaves, which is highly restricted compared to modern keyboards. It was pretty similar to the 1749 FF/e3 model.

Contrary to how clavichord and harpsichord strings were struck, the fortepiano was played by hitting small leather-covered wooden hammers. Perhaps, this is why J.S. Bach considered the keyboard difficult when he first played it.

Divergent Opinions on Playing Bach's Music with the Piano

Popular pianist, Charles Rosen, stated that "the actual instrument one uses is nowhere near as important in Bach's music as it would be in, say, a work by Debussy.'' According to him, Bach didn't think sonorities mattered and could make a violin concerto into a keyboard concert and then rearrange it into organ and chorus.

The Goldberg Variations may be considered the most fluid of Bach's works. This work gives people a lot of variations and freedom, so each rendition sounds like completely different music. Genzo Takehisa,a fanous Japanese fortepianist has recordings of some of Bach’s keyboard works performed on his Silbermann fortepiano replica.

Also, Malcolm Bilson delivered a unique rendition of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 846, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (No. 1, 1722) on a replica of a 1749 Gottfried Silbermann fortepiano in 1980. For this alone, Bach's music transcends time and has a fluidity that only the best works have.

On the other hand, there are commentaries that Bach's music should first be played on the original instrument for which it was intended. Some believe that his works were written for the clavichord, a different instrument from the piano.

For one, the clavichord is a very quiet musical instrument that one may barely hear in a small room, while a piano can entertain a large theater. The sounds are different, so they believe that despite the several piano renditions of Das Wohltemperierter Klavier - 48 Preludes and Fugues, the only way to enjoy it is to play it on clavichords. Doing the opposite is to appropriate his music.

Final Thoughts

Bach's name is cemented in the music score library. Bach played the piano during his life, but there's no evidence that he ever composed for the piano. Still, he composed fluid virtuoso music and was quick to make instrumental renditions for different compositions. 

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