This is an age old conundrum among musicians and performers. When playing Bach, should you prefer legato or staccato? For those uninitiated in musical terminology, Legato (Italian for “tied together”) is defined, in Wikipedia, as “legato indicates that musical notes are played together. That is, in transitioning from note to note, there should be no intervening silence.” And staccato (Italian for “detached”) as “staccato indicates that notes are separated in a detached and distinctly seperate manner, with silence making up the latter part of the time allocated to each note.” So basically if you bind some of the (denoted) notes together and play them continuously with no silence between each of them, that is legato. And if you play notes as a feeding pigeon would move his head up and down, with sudden and punctuated strokes (punctuated by silence), that is staccato. And their preferential application to Bach is the focal point of our discussion today. 

bach_mass_1_mIn fact this should’ve been a non-question, as Bach himself had an uncompromising tendency to use legato, as shown in left. You see the curly lines below most of the notes? That’s the official sign of legato, encompassing all legato notes (the sign of staccato is a single dot above the note that’s deemed to be played staccato). I chose this handwritten partition at random, but it’s a fair representative of Bach’s own preference. As you can see it’s rife with legato signs. Indeed you actually have to look hard to find a note that is not denoted explicitly as legato (something that’s by no means compulsory, you don’t have to designate one of the two to each and every note), let alone find one that is staccato. Not only that, even his handwriting is indicative of a bias towards legato, it’s as if his notes are floating in the wind, like a legato floats unbrokenly from one end to another. Obviously this guy wanted to keep his notes tied.

But it’s important to keep in mind that Bach did not compose most of his keyboard pieces for piano. Pianoforte was a brand new novelty in his time (it was invented in 1711 by a guy named Cristofori when Bach was 26. He (Bach) lived another 39 years). He wrote mainly for harpsichord (and for organ of course, he was an organist above all). And intonation is a whole different ball game in piano than in harpsichord. So it’s not entirely clear how Bach would react to our modern musical context and its enhancements. That being said, everthing we know of Bach tells us that he was a man of connectedness. We have no reason to think that he wanted anything less than full-blown legato for his pieces, as shown in the image.

But then along comes a smart ass and ruins the picnic. I said this should’ve been a non-question and so it would’ve been, were it not for one ingenious and, sadly, late Canadian and his insidious and audacious usage of staccato. I hate Glenn Gould. Or rather, I wish I was able to hate him. Or I wish I could just ignore him. But I’m not and I can’t. I love him. Without him Bach, in and of himself, would make absolutely perfect sense and with him and the contrast he provides by his unorthodox style, Bach obtains new and unchartered meanings. His second recording of The Goldberg Variations is yet to be superseded in classical recording. He’s like general relativity to our otherwise perfect Standard Model: You know it’s fundamentally wrong, but it makes perfect explanatory sense if you invoke it.

Here’s a typical example of the usage of legato, which is, as I said, the norm whilst playing Bach. You shouldn’t even dream of playing this piece anything even remotely resembling staccato! The piece is one of my favorite preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, No. 8, BWV 853:

Very good. More relevantly, very Bachian. But then I listen to the staccato version (a blasphemy!) of the same prelude from Gould… :

… And I remain mesmerized. Damn you Gould!