I'm currently reading C. P. E. Bach's "Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen". This title has been translated into english as "Essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments". For the most part this translation seems correct. However, Art (DE) does not mean art (EN) in modern usage.

Obviously I know what the word means now, but since this is such an important work (in its field) I don't expect a blatant mistake in the translation of the title. Rather, I expect the meaning of the word to have changed since the 18th century.

What did the word Art (DE) mean to C. P. E. Bach (1714-1788), exactly?

Feel free to answer in german.

  • My instinct translates that to mean 'form', which I think is not inaccurate considering the context.
    – ouflak
    Mar 27, 2018 at 10:06
  • @ouflak Could you expand on that? What meaning of "form" would you use?
    – 11684
    Mar 27, 2018 at 16:53
  • 'Form' as in 'technique'. So for this title - Attempt on the true form of Clavier playing - or something along those lines.
    – ouflak
    Mar 28, 2018 at 10:47
  • I think art is just a bad translation in this case
    – PiedPiper
    Mar 28, 2018 at 10:49

2 Answers 2


Prima vista one could indeed be inclined to think that the German word Art is derived from Latin ars, artis, which would justify the translation you quote.

However, a quick look-up in Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch 1 for Art seems to dismiss that idea: there Art is reported to be of somewhat unclear origin; not to be met in Althochdeutsch, more frequently in Mittelhochdeusch, and possibly related to Slavonic rod (kind). 2

Anyway it is predominantly used in the sense of "kind, manner", not "arts".

If this is correct, the translation you quote is misleading, and a better one would be:

Essay on the right way of playing [keyboard instruments?]

Most crucial for knowing what C. P. E. Bach actually meant would be to have a look on the use of the word in Bach's time. Perhaps somebody else can contribute this? (Google Ngram is no help here - if considered reliable at all - because the corpus used for this database starts with books from 1800.)

Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch lists in total 6 meanings of Art, most refering to something like "kind", "manner". Number 6 however goes more into a direction of "artfulness, dexterity" (Manier, Geschick, Tüchtigkeit) which then would be something like a mix of "Art und Weise" and "Kunst". This then could be used as an argument to support the translation you quote:

Essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments

However, I personally feel uneasy with that. For me - as a German - the English "art" is too much into the direction of "Kunst", whereas in "die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen" at least both ideas seem to be included: "Kunst" and "Art und Weise".

But perhaps we are making things more complicated than they actually are. Perhaps Carl Philipp E. Bach had nothing other in mind than Art in the usual modern meaning of "manner" or "way" and would laugh about our attempts to assign a Kunst-meaning into his book title just because of an obscure English translation.

(Another thing to consider is how the English art was used in the English speaking world at the time of C. P. E. Bach, i.e. mid 18th century. If art was used in the mixed sense of "manner plus dexterity", the use of art in the book title would be justified, at least as long you are seeking for a contemporary translation. For a modern translation I find it still misleading.)

1) Source for "Art": http://woerterbuchnetz.de/cgi-bin/WBNetz/wbgui_py?sigle=DWB&mode=Vernetzung&lemid=GA05720#XGA05720

2) I would suppose (but I haven't looked it up) that there will be a common Protoindoeuropean root like * rd that sits behind all those words - German "Art", English "art", Latin "ars, artis", Slavonic "rod" because the meanings always intersect. From "what kind of" to "how to" to "the good way" or "the high quality way" it is only a tiny shift of meaning.

  • Absolutely agree. A colloquial, modern translation would be "How to play the piano" ;) On the other hand, one could argue that the true art of playing piano is playing it in the right way, but that would be a bit over the top here.
    – RoyPJ
    Mar 27, 2018 at 9:43
  • Hast Du bei Grimm auch (6) betrachtet? Ist das hier von Bedeutung?
    – Carsten S
    Mar 27, 2018 at 11:45
  • @CarstenS Ja, habe ich. Siehe der Absatz in der Mitte, der mit "Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch lists 6 meanings..." anfängt. Mar 27, 2018 at 12:36
  • English art comes directly from Latin ars. Wiktionary tells me that the latter in turn comes from PIE *h₂r̥tís (“fitting”). On the other hand, Slavic rod comes from PIE root u̯erdh/u̯redh. So, they do not seem to be related. Mar 27, 2018 at 14:32
  • @EmilJeřábek And can you tell something about German Art (which Grimm associated with Slavonic rod, although of course one does not need to take this at face value...) Mar 27, 2018 at 18:17

If we look at the etymology, both the English art and the German Art share a common Indo-European root:

Art f. ‘Eigentümlichkeit, Wesen, Gewohnheit, Verhalten, Weise, Abstammung’, mhd. art m. f., mnd. ārt f. (und m.), mnl. aert m. f. ‘Veranlangung, Abstammung’, nl. aard m. ‘Wesen, Beschaffenheit, Eigenschaft’, aengl. eard m. ‘Fügung, Lage, Schicksal’, anord. -arðr in einarðr ‘einfach, aufrichtig’ sowie aind. ṛtá- ‘wahrhaft’, eigentlich ‘gefügt’, awest. arəta- ‘Gesetz, Recht’, griech. árti (ἄρτι) ‘gerade, eben’, lat. artus ‘eng, straff’, artus m. ‘Gelenk, Glied’, ars (Genitiv artis) f. ‘Kunst, Geschicklichkeit’ führen auf ie. *art- ‘Fügung, Ordnung’, Dentalableitung der Wurzel ie. *ar(ə)- ‘fügen, passen. DWDS

art: early 13c., "skill as a result of learning or practice," from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) "work of art; practical skill; a business, craft," from PIE *ar(ə)-ti- (source also of Sanskrit rtih "manner, mode;" Greek artizein "to prepare"), suffixed form of root *ar- "to fit together." Etymologically akin to Latin arma "weapons."etymonline

So it is of little surprise that they shared and still share a common meaning (art, skill = Kunst, Art, Geschicklichkeit). So the Bach quote could be put into the following modern German words with an identical meaning to the original:

Abhandlung über die (wahre) Kunst, das Klavier zu spielen.

This also shows that the English translation art (the art of doing something) is correct.

  • 1
    Sprachhistorisch völlig plausibel (und präziser hergeleitet als in meiner Antwort). Trotzdem würde ich gerade für den modernen Sprachgebrauch das Wort Kunst hier eher meiden. Mir persönlich trägt es heutzutage vor allem den Kontext der modernen Kunstszene mit sich (also z.B. Fragen einer abstrakten Ästhetik sowie milieutypischer Sozialformen), jedenfalls deutlich mehr als Herr Bach, der das Wort Art wählte, wohl im Sinn haben konnte. Das ist natürlich eine subjektive Einschätzung. Mar 27, 2018 at 11:06
  • 1
    I am afraid this answer is a bit misleading - For this specific book title, I am with you that translating Art to art is perfectly acceptable, but: Die Erde bringe hervor lebendige Tiere, ein jegliches nach seiner Art [1. Mose 1:24] has definitly nothing to do with the English art. Roman branches of the language development from common indo-german roots seem to have concentrated on the skill aspect, while more northern branches use the word in the sense of "way to do/be something" - And the overlap is really thin.
    – tofro
    Mar 27, 2018 at 11:07
  • @tofro: from what I understand we were asked whether the translation of this very specific book title was accurate with respect to etymology. But I am with you, the answer does not hold true for all contexts where the German word Art may be used. Art in the meaning of species was definitely not meant when Bach wrote his book.
    – Takkat
    Mar 27, 2018 at 15:06
  • Did you consider the comment by Emil Jeřábek on Christian Geiselmann's answer?
    – 11684
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:05
  • 1
    Mir ist schon verschiedentlich aufgefallen, dass die Begriffe Art und Kunst im Deutschen wohl früher stärker synonym waren, als sie es heute sind. Kunst war aber früher weniger individueller Ausdruck als heute sondern v.a. wie in Kunstfertigkeit und kunstvoll verwendet benutzt. In Begriffen wie Bauart, Bauweise und Baukunst wird das m.E. sichtbar oder in Heilkunst - ein Begriff, der heute wohl nicht erfunden würde, sich aber hält. Mar 29, 2018 at 3:25

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