Interpretations of BWV 903a: A Creative Exploration by Rethinking Historical and Stylistic Considerations

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Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia (BWV 903) has, since its traceable origins (from ca. 1720), been considered a unica. It made lasting impression on the composer’s circles and was cited by historians such as Johann Nikolaus Forkel as a key representation of Bach’s “Originalgenie”. BWV 903 has been counted among Bach’s most enigmatic and puzzling works, partly due to lost autographs and partly due to its unique attributes (Behringer, 1999). Stylistically, the two-part structure—a prelude followed by a recitative—has no precedents, and has been considered both as the descendant of the seventeenth-century stylus phantasticus (Stauffer, 1989) and a precursor of the Sturm und Drang of the 1770s (Schleuning, 1992). Nowadays, BWV 903 is an ideal work to explore how the historically-informed performer can maintain the essence of improvisation in a work that was composed, for three main reasons. First, there exists no definite text that can be unarguably ascribed to Bach’s original work, since the most authoritative source of this music derives from Forkel’s version (ca. 1770) of Wilhelm Friedemann’s copy (ca. 1730). Secondly, the notation, especially in the arpeggio passages, is manifestly incomplete. Thirdly, the scope for the performer’s discretion in matters such as flexible timing and melodic embellishments is plentiful, especially in the “Recitativo” section. In all, the toccata-like opening, the virtuosic passages and improvisatory materials challenge every performer to carve out his/her own interpretation based on an understanding of sources, styles and performance practice issues—a genuine collaboration between the composer and performer. In this paper, I would like to substantiate how an awareness of the structure and a study of stylistic issues could illuminate both technical and musical considerations leading to performances that are creative and spontaneous, yet scrupulous to the notational detail. For example, the realization of the arpeggios in the harmonic passages should not just be a matter of linking adjacent chords. It should give shape and flow to the harmonic movement, direct our listening by prompting expectations and surprises, and clarify the contrapuntal texture by bringing out the voice-leading. On a deeper level, understanding the music as language is crucial for making sense of the chromatic, dissonant and sometimes atonal harmonies, for organizing notes into coherent and meaningful groups, and for crafting rhetorical gestures in the recitative section. While Leisinger’s critical edition (1999)–based upon Forkel’s source tradition–provides the principal text for my interpretation, the variant readings in concordant sources offer numerous ideas for refinements of melodic embellishments and rhythmic nuances.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2022
EventPerformance Studies Network Conference 2022 - University of Surrey, Surrey, United Kingdom
Duration: 30 Jun 20223 Jul 2022


ConferencePerformance Studies Network Conference 2022
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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