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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.

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  • 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
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    I think art is just a bad translation in this case
    – PiedPiper
    Mar 28, 2018 at 10:49
  • Essai sur la véritable manière de jouer les instruments à clavier is the right translation (not the language you want, but shows what you ask for).
    – c.p.
    Dec 28, 2023 at 23:44

5 Answers 5

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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.

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  • 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
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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.

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    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
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    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
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    @ChristianGeiselmann: Kunst hat immer noch viel mehr Bedeutung als nur das, was in der Kunstszene aufgeht, vor allem das Können, die erworbene Fertigkeit, Geschicklichkeit auf einem bestimmten Gebiet. Es ist, glaube ich schon, eher Deine subjektive Einschätzung. Aber vielleicht geht auch diese 2. Bedeutung langsam verloren, das wäre angesichts von Social Media und YouTube auch keine Kunst. ;)
    – Takkat
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:31
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    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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I just went through all the contributions on this little tiffle about the translation of Bach's "Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen" into english. Very interesting, but translation from one language to another is more of a manner of getting into the feeling of what the writer is trying to say. I have been writing in German for over 40 years and translating from English to German and vice versa. "Wahre" kann nicht wahrlich in dem Kontext mit "true" übersetzt werden, but rightly with "right", as proposed in the beginning. If we went back about 250 hundred years then it would be no problem translating "Art" with art. But since then the meaning of "art" in English has changed much. Therefore today in that context "way" would be the best translation. "right way" for "wahre Art" was proposed in the beginning and would be for my sense of it the best translation. Ravi Roy

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    Dec 28, 2023 at 17:27
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Art is used in German both in a taxonomical sense: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_(Biologie) As well as in the sense of "a way of doing things". Though often in combination with "Weise" so "Auf diese Art und Weise..." which apparently is also one of the translations for ars, artis in German (7+8): https://de.pons.com/%C3%BCbersetzung/latein-deutsch/ars

Though the English word "art" is usually translated with "Kunst", so if "Art" is used instead of Kunst then it's likely not about Kunst, but about a certain distinguishable style of doing something (eine Art und Weise wie man etwas macht). Which is as said also related to Art/Kunst but doesn't fully overlap.

Also the title itself is using a kinda old grammar, "Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen". So the Versuch = Attempt, try sounds already weird as a start and "Clavier" apparently also doesn't just mean keyboard instrument but a specific version of that: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Versuch_%C3%BCber_die_wahre_Art_das_Clavier_zu_spielen "während Bach mit „Clavier“ meist das Clavichord meint." https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clavichord

So: "Essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments"

Is already not a faithful translation of the title but more of a description of what you can expect from it. If you want to be more blunt you could probably call it "How to play the piano (1753)". Or "An attempt to write a definitive guide on how to play the piano".

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In the book, Bach uses both words: Art and Kunst. Art is always used in reference to way/kind/type etc. Kunst is always used in reference to art. Bach never said Art when he wanted to say Kunst and never said Kunst when he wanted to say Art. This shows that if Bach wanted to use the word Kunst in the title, he would have, since he used it everywhere else where Kunst was the word he wanted to use. FOR EXAMPLE: Already in the introduction (Vorrede) Bach says, 'Ich bin hier Willens, die wahre Art zu zeigen (to show the true WAY), handsachen mit Beifall vernünftiger Kenner zu spielen'. On the same page, in the next paragraph, he says, 'Bei allem diesem habe ich hauptsächlich meine Absicht zugleich auf diejenigen Lehrer gerichtet, welche ihre Schüler bishero nicht nach den wahren Grundsätzen der Kunst (the true fundamentals of the ART) angeführet haben.' The translation of the title is incorrect. I have a channel on YouTube: Alan Coghlan, where I'm translating the book. How I translated the title, was: Essay on the true way to play the piano.

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