Elizabeth Field

Everyone should get to study 'early' music with a 'late' violin and don't be fooled by the '5 Myths of Baroque String Playing'!

May 6, 2013 08:07

The repertoire of the 17th and 18th century contains some of the most magnificent, exhilerating and ravishing music ever written, yet, it is roped off to modern players. I LOVE playing on period instruments, but I LOVE the music more, and as in all repertoire, the instrument doesn't play the music, YOU do. An honest look at this music, free of superficial gimmicks, will open you up as a musician and player in ways you can not even imagine. One thing about that time was that it was expected that there be a unique performance every time the music was heard! So no, you couldn't refer to a recording to hear how the "music goes". You make it go!

For more information of the study of early music please on modern instruments please visit my website at: http://modernearlymusic.org/

Meanwhile, let me know if these myths sound familiar.



1. DON'T VIBRATE:  Trying to play beautifully by eliminating your most immediate expressive tool is like eliminating soy sauce from Chinese cooking to make your recipes “French.” French cuisine doesn't use soy-sauce, so shouldn't that work? Not only are your new dishes not “French,” but you have diminished the quality of your old dishes. Trying to play beautifully and expressively simply by modes of subtraction is well, daft.

2. DON'T SUSTAIN OR PLAY LEGATO: Baroque music was born from vocal music. Have you ever heard a song? All songs, especially those from the 17th and 18th-centuries contain lots of legato and long tones. Often the notes the violin plays are exactly the same notes as a singer who is singing vowels! Legato, lyrical, beautiful playing and singing was PRIZED in the 18th-century. So was phrasing, dynamics, articulation, in?ection, stress, rubato, accelerando, good intonation, varied bow strokes, passion, drama, emotion...sounds like they liked expressive music back then! 

3. SWELL ON LONG NOTES: Its called Messa di Voce. Basically, forget about it. The ?rst early music scholars misunderstood 18th century bowing exercises which instructed string players how to develop their sound to make LONG SUSTAINED TONES (see no. 2). We owe a great debt to those scholars who opened up a world of information for us, but they got some things wrong. Messa di Voce is a beautiful, and very organic ornament that can be used if the moment really calls for it (just like a mordent, a tierce de coule, or a shot of vibrato...). But, the ubiquitous use of it is simply the confusion of this ornament with a bowing exercise, it was not something to do on every note. So extreme swelling? Take ibuprofen, it doesn't belong in early music.

4. PLAY OUT OF TUNE: As it turns out, 17th and 18th century string players were expected to achieve extremely detailed pitch accuracy. YES, REALLY! They understood that tuning one key perfectly (with pure intonation) on a keyboard will make other keys unusable. They devised various 'temperaments' making all keys usable, with some sounding better than others. In this way, each key had a unique quality and character. They reveled in those differences and players were expected to be able to display those tonal distinctions. Early violin primers suggested teaching major and minor semi-tones in the second lesson (i.e. d - eb, vs d - d#.) The French theorist, Joseph Sauveur, suggested limiting musicians to a 50-note octave in the “interest of practicality.”; a whole step should be divided into only 5 semi-tones (d,d#,d##,ebb,eb,e.) Equal temperament was the ingenious method of making everything equally out of tune and uniform. People were scandalized by it! So, it can be challenging when at ?rst working with wind and keyboard instruments at different temperaments, but in the end, this trial can hone your intonation to a new level of perfection. Try measuring the breadth of your beautiful vibrato. You might discover it spans several double sharps and ?ats.

5. GET A STUDENT VIOLIN, PUT GUT STRINGS ON IT, REMOVE THE CHINREST, BORROW A BAROQUE BOW AND SURVIVE A BACH FUGUE:  Yes, It is expensive to buy a whole new instrument, but if you simply put weird strings on your ?second' violin and try to play it with a strange bow with no chin or shoulder support, you have only succeeded in playing a handicapped violin. Just because something looks a bit like something else, and feels different, its not the something else. Ever taste those beautiful, realistic fake sushi rolls? And, as towering and magni?cent a composer JS BACH was, he was one of hundreds of composers during that period. Ever wonder why you haven't heard of the others? Were they all bad? 

First, lets start with the understanding that there is no such thing as a single “baroque style.” There was as much, if not more, diversity of performance traditions between 1600 - 1800 as there were in the following two-hundred years. Of course, there was no internet or recordings, which meant there was no such thing as disembodied music. If you lived in Venice, you heard the music being played in Venice ON THAT DAY. Maybe you got to hear a touring soloist from Paris, but the performance was the music and the player was the ONLY vehicle through which the music could be heard. Music was an event, not a product. Furthermore, any composer who heard someone play had to rely on his memory to recapture what ?that other music' sounded like. If he wanted to incorporate this new style of music into his compositions, it was 100% ?ltered through his own point of view and memory. Think of JS BACH writing French overtures. He had heard French music (ie Couperin) performed when he was studying in Luneburg at the age of 15. Where do we look to understand how to play those overtures? Do we just study his scores? French music? Couperin? There are so many layers to this story, and so much to learn and think about and experiment with!

Every composer was unique, a product of their locality (not simply their nationality) time period and cultural environment. Communication among themselves was limited. However, they did write books and, it is mostly through these treatises that we can establish certain commonalities of notational and performance conventions of their time. But, these books are starting points. Every note is its own unique case, the books and scores left to us can't tell us the whole story.It turns out, Historical Performance Practice is a pretty extensive study. It is a wide array ?of varied languages, replete with immeasurable and nuanced expressions. Applying a few simple gimmicks to your current playing only cheapens an exquisite body of work by an important group of composers.?.?If you approach the study of early music with the same seriousness and integrity that you approached learning later music, the study will reward you with a world of personal, musical eloquence you may not have known lived within you. It was all about the expression back then. Is that really any different from now?

For more information on the study of early music on modern instruments,
please visit my website: http://modernearlymusic.org/

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