Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to the Editor of the Daily Telegraph

Letter No.: 
20th February 1958

London N.W.1

Sir -

First let me thank your critic for his kind and appreciative notice of the performance of the St. John Passion by the Dorking Bach Choir on Feb. 15.1  I only wish to take exception to one sentence; he seems to consider the use of the pianoforte instead of the harpsichord for continuo as a jarring factor.
To my mind to use the harpsichord or viol da gamba for continuo seems to reduce the St. John Passion to a museum piece to be put in a glass case. Surely this work should be produced in such a way as to give modern hearers the same emotional and spiritual effect which Bach himself produced on his contemporaries.
I have no doubt that if the grand pianoforte of our day had been available to Bach he would have used it in preference to the harpsichord. This I believe was the opinion of Donald Tovey.2
Opinions may differ as to the intrinsic beauty of the harpsichord, but there can be no doubt that the pianoforte, with its infinite gradations of tone, from the almost orchestral fortissimo to an almost inaudible pianissimo, performs the function of a continuo much better than the harpsichord with its hard, unyielding tone.
The same applies to our oboes with their lovely tone, which no one hesitates to use instead of the course-sounding oboes of Bach’s time; why make an exception of the harpsichord, which is now fashionable?
It seems to me that to use the resources which we now possess reverently, and with true musical insight, is right; not only in the interests of the performers and hearers of our own time, but also as the highest tribute we can pay to the greatest composer the world has yet produced.
It is well known that Bach was dissatisfied with his orchestral resources and was often obliged to put up with what he could get. A striking example of this occurs actually in the St. John Passion where the wonderful lute obbligato may, according to the composers’ footnote, be played also on the organ!
I believe it is our privilege and our duty to use all the improved mechanisms invented by our instrument makers to do full justice to this immortal work.3
Yours faithfully

Ralph Vaughan Williams

1.  John Warrack had written a notice of the performance in The Daily Telegraph of 17 February, p.10, which, though otherwise laudatory, included the statement: ‘Accustomed as we now are again to harpsichord tone, the piano sounds oddly in the recitatives and certain other things are bound to jar a little’.
2.  In 1914 Tovey wrote in an essay  ‘On the Performance of the St Matthew Passion’ (most recently published in D.F.Tovey, ed. M.Tilmouth, The classics of music, Oxford, 2001, p.691): ‘... Should one wish to insist that the modern pianoforte is not a proper substitute for a genuine harpsichord, one would immediately find oneself at odds with the view of Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who quite definitely preferred a piano for continuo purposes.  The reasoning behind this opinion is even more apposite today with modern instruments and conditions of performance than it was in his time: we perform in larger concert-halls and hence require instruments with an even greater volume of sound...”
3.  On 22 February the newspaper published a letter from Walter Emery in response making the points that (1) there was no need to argue between the harpsichord and pianoforte  since the normal continuo instrument would have been the organ; (2) the piano might well be able to play fortissimo but ‘one thing known for certain about 18th-century organ continuo playing is that it was done unobtrusively on one or two quiet stops’; (3) the only 18th-century oboe he had heard ‘did not sound coarse. Its tone was smooth and perfectly acceptable’.

General notes: 

Published in The Daily Telegraph on p.8 of the issue for 20 February 1958 under the heading ‘Harpsichord or piano: a word to purists from Dr. Vaughan Williams’.

Cobbe 735
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