Nancy Salas and thinking about Bach

One of the deepest influences on my thinking is my earliest training at the piano with my first mentor, Nancy Salas (Australia), who was a pianist, harpsichordist, fortepianist and clavichordist. From her I learned, while very young, how to read and play the musical notation of Bach and Mozart. I might add that Miss Salas was just as likely to present her students in a marathon of Bach Suites or Mostly Mozart concerti as in a festival of Bartók Mikrokosmos or the complete Klavierstücke of Stockhausen.

Nancy.Salas.photo.NLA
NANCY SALAS (1910-1990). Photo courtesy National Library of Australia

Playing the inventions, fugues, suites, toccatas, partitas of Bach, and the sonatas, fantasies, and concerti of Mozart, I studied the execution of appoggiaturas, mordants, dotted rhythms, binary variants, improvised cadenzas, and the like. As I “absorbed” these features into my performance of eighteenth-century music, my understanding of the function and meaning of eighteenth-century notations developed. This process was supported by my occasionally playing the harpsichords, clavichord and fortepiano in her home, to hear the music’s sound and to feel its touch, and our occasional reference to the treatises. Miss Salas’ goal was not to teach an “authentic” (whatever that is) performance practice – after all, we were playing Bach on the piano – but to teach the music’s meaning and context.

Some years later, during my studies with another most esteemed pianist, I played the Sinfonia of Bach’s C minor Partita during a lesson. He exclaimed, “Dear, dear! You are not playing what is written!” He proceeded to demand that I play what was “written”. Playing from memory, I found it impossible to recall the music as it was notated on the page. And even when I opened the score, I was unable to play the music, as written, with any conviction whatsoever. The experience, in its contradictions, was traumatic; its impact was lasting. There was one thing I knew for certain: Bach’s notation invited the performer to “make the music her/his own” by adding various means of embellishment. It could not be cast in stone any more than we could place a value on the length of the dot. The notated score stood for an already existing sound entity (real or imagined), whose version was “fuller” than that notated, but was by no means “fixed” or “final”.  To perform with no embellishments robs the music of its unexpected delight and expressiveness. To perform the rhythms as notated gives them an exactness they do not have, voids them of their rhetorical emphases, robs them of their historical context, and the music of its affect. Without these unnotated entities, my ability to convey the improvisatory immediacy of the Sinfonia was defunct. Bach made “sense” on the page: structurally, harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically. But played as notated, Bach lost its contextual sense: its historical, rhetorical, expressive, decorative, and improvisatory sense. The musical work lies in both what is notated on the page, and what is not notated. To understand the notation then, we must also look for what we cannot see.

2 thoughts on “Nancy Salas and thinking about Bach

  1. Great piece, Sarah. Yes, Nancy embodied the kind of musicianship that transcends physical limitations – she understood how music works, regardless of its performance medium, although she was just as committed to the sound world of the Baroque as she was to its musical substance. We were privileged.

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