• Fanny, your piano teacher

C.P.E Bach and his book, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (Part One)

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

Do you know anything about C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788)? He was the second surviving child of J.S. Bach and Maria Barbara Bach. He had graduated with a law degree at the age of 24 before he began working for Fredrick the Great as a harpsichordist. He became one of the prominent clavier players in Europe and he composed pieces for harpsichord and clavichord as well.

One of his well-known pieces is the Solfeggietto, Wq. 117/2:

Inspired and influenced by his father, J.S. Bach, and his godfather, Georg Philip Telemann,

C.P.E. Bach's musical works bridged the Baroque and the Classical eras. Perhaps his greatest achievement, the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen), replaced some old ideas with new thoughts that we are still following today. The treatise remains the most famous treatise of its kind.

“School of all schools"

Some people described the treatise as a bible for pianists. Haydn described it as "school of all schools." I agree with this opinion and actually, knowing more about this book (unfortunately I haven't read all the chapters) has made me interested in finding more about piano pedagogy. The treatise has two parts. Part I focused on fingerings, embellishments and performance and part II focused on counterpoints which could be an instruction book for composition. When Part I appeared in 1753, very soon it became a famous instruction book and many teachers and students studied the book. It has been estimated that around 1800, over 1000 copies were distributed. This number was high during that time when the majority of people just borrowed and copied books without owning them. Many composers, including Beethoven, Mozart, and Clementi, highly recommended the book. Beethoven followed the book carefully when he gave lessons to Czerny.

Application of thumbs

Correct fingering is identified as one of the three factors upon which the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments depends. The others being good embellishment and good performance. He even put fingerings as the beginning chapter of the "bible." While the application of thumbs in Rennaissance and Baroque keyboard playing was rare and unusual, C.P.E. Bach claimed thumbs were essential to keyboard playing and they were the key to all fingerings. C.P.E Bach followed Francois Couperin's idea of legato playing. According to the Essay, thumbs are designed to play on the white keys and because of that, the thumb dictates position and our 3rd finger is a black key “pivot”. So when we play scales, we have more finger options playing C major compared to B major where it has 5 sharps:

C major, ascending

B major, ascending

The fingering on B major is our standard fingering today. While we tend to use standard fingering on playing a c major scale, the other fingering options suggested by C.P.E Bach are useful when we play it in different groupings. That being said, C.P.E Bach also recommended us to use fingerings to create musical groups and phrases.

Sliding finger

In addition to the usage of thumbs, C.P.E Bach also had other creative ideas regarding fingerings. For example, he suggested keyboardists use the same finger when moving from a black key to a white key (Essay, p.73, fig. 61):

Use of non-adjacent fingers

C.P.E. Bach's commented on how to use our fingers differently on slow or fast passages. When playing long and fast repeated notes like trills, C.P.E. Bach said using non-adjacent fingers are more effective.

Other suggestions

  • In the Essay, Bach also suggested alternating fingers when we have to repeat a note quickly.

  • Slight changes of fingers on playing ascending and descending arpeggios are better than keeping the fingers the same in both directions.

  • Using 5-2 &4-1 for double notes of 4th or 6th apart; Alternating 1-4 &1-5 for playing octave passages

And so on............

(to be continued)

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