Can’t Finger This Out

I know, I am supposed to use an unfingered edition of piano music I am studying, and should work out the fingering for myself. That is the moral high ground concerning fingering. However, as a composer, I need to cultivate breadth as well as depth with regard to repertoire, and fingerings help facilitate my sight-reading. But not when the fingerings are insufficient, or even inexplicable. For Bach, I prefer the Bischoff edition as reprinted by Kalmus, even though it has anachronistic slurs, etc. added – the fingerings make sense and there are enough suggestions that there are no mysteries as to what is intended. Not so my Henle edition of the WTC. In an effort to make the page have as little as possible that is not Bachian in origin, the fingerings in this edition can be cryptic. The insufficient evidence makes me have to stop and wonder what the editor meant. In extreme cases, the fingering can seem crazy. What do you make of this:


Is the “handing” bracket in the wrong place, and actually you are supposed to play the C with the right hand thumb, rather than beginning with the d-flat? Is the fingering just wrong – the 2 should be a 3? Probably not. The e-natural in the previous bar that resolves to the f on the downbeat shown here is fingered with 3-4, suggesting that they are thinking of 3 for the lower voice’s f, and therefore two notes in a row with the thumb. But what about passing 5 under 4? Such crossings are suggested elsewhere in this edition. This would let you play 3 2 1 for the sixteenths. I’d prefer to play 5 on the f and then again on the b-flat quarter on beat two rather than use the thumb twice in a row on the sixteenths. And if they really do want you to use the thumb twice in a row, they should have marked the b-flat sixteenth with a 1 rather than leaving you guessing about an exceptional procedure. I can understand that 3 is desirable for the f so as to keep a connection with the next bass note, but if I was going to use 3 on the f I would play 1 2 1 for the sixteenths, no? Maybe there is something here I am missing. It wouldn’t be the first time in using this edition that something baffled me, yet eventually made sense after sufficient reflection. But I don’t think this is one of those cases.

The Schnabel edition of the Beethoven sonatas has some unexpected fingerings, but they  often spring from Schnabel’s ideas about phrasing; I don’t think that is the case with Henle’s Bach, which mostly assumes a generalized legato rather than making suggestions about phrasing. In other words, I don’t think the fingering mystery above is telling you to play 2 1 1 so as to force a detaching of the last sixteenth. Of course, that brings up the problem of phrasing and articulation in Bach in general, for me a source of no small anxiety and uncertainty, especially when I hear the myriad subtle nuances across a wide spectrum of articulations in the playing of masters of Bach such as Schiff, Hewitt, Perahia, etc. How does one decide these things?

Go here for a previous post about Henle.

2 thoughts on “Can’t Finger This Out

  1. I bet that fingering you circled is just a mistake – poor editing!
    Despite the cost and pretty covers, those Henle editions can sometimes be surprisingly sloppy! I was recently playing one of the Beethoven cello sonatas and was informed that several of the articulations in the Henle ed. are incorrect. One of these days I’ll have to invest in the Bärenreiter edition of those.
    Anyway, I often find that provided fingerings aren’t all that helpful. Pianists’ hands come in all sizes and what works for some doesn’t always work for everyone. Also, if you’re using period instruments (e.g. playing Bach on harpsichord), the fingering can be completely different than on piano. I end up scribbling a lot of stuff out!

  2. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for reading the blog! I’m relieved to hear I am not nuts regarding that crazy Bach fingering.

    I can appreciate that you don’t find provided fingerings helpful, and you have a very valid point about hand sizes being quite variable. I have written chords that seem OK stretches for me, but turn out to be impractical for other pianists.

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