The Building Blocks of Music

Victoria Jicha | December 2013

    The beauty of being my age, (my father said I was “no spring chicken”), is that I can look back on developments in the music world over the past 50 years and draw some interesting lessons from the experience. Baroque performance practice, or early music as it is sometimes called, is a good case in point. I was fortunate to attend some of Oberlin College’s first summer Baroque Performance Institutes in the 1970s – a time when the concept of playing Baroque music as it might have been heard in the 1770s was just being born in the United States. It was a revelation to shed the Romantic scales from our eyes and begin to understand that the music of Bach, Telemann, and Handel had first been performed by musicians who lived 150 to 200 years before Mahler, Tchai-kovsky, or Rachmaninoff. Their ears were trained on Renaissance music, not even that of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven.
    Previously as a college student in the 1960s, I had religiously copied articulations for the Bach sonatas from my teacher’s copies of the music. He had studied those works with William Kincaid, so the articulations were golden – straight from the horse’s mouth. Right? Well, not exactly. You see, later I learned that there were Baroque treatises we could consult about performance style, phrasing, dynamics, articulations, and tempos. Books by J. J. Quantz and C.P.E Bach were available in English translations. Now that was really the horse’s mouth.
    In the beginning of the Early Music movement I, and many of my colleagues, would have been labeled purists. We held to the view that if you were going to play Baroque music you should do it on a traverso or Baroque flute. Anything else was not appropriate. We played on original instruments or copies of them, and we played at Baroque pitch, which was approximately A= 415 (roughly ½ step lower than written). Baroque ensembles struggled to gain audiences, and those who went to hear them came away commenting about the funky intonation or anemic sounds. The playing was very stylized, and sometimes, a bit antiseptic, but those leading the charge laid down the Baroque performance foundation for the musicians who would follow. Baroque ensembles on early instruments thrive today and have grown into mature, well-respected groups.
    I am no longer a purist. Somewhere along the way I gained a more practical approach, but the lessons I learned from my sojourn into the genre gave me the tools to show students the stylistic nuances that can translate to a modern instrument. Those might include tonal concepts, vibrato usage, phrase lengths, and tempo choices.
    Wooden flutes just cannot project the way metal ones can. They have a lighter, less aggressive tone quality. Modern flutists can experiment with tone color to approximate what a wooden flute would sound like. Vibrato was largely achieved with the finger in the Baroque, by sliding back and forth on an open hole on the flute’s body, and it was used as an ornament, not as wall-to-wall carpeting the way we sometimes do today. Where vibrato is concerned, less is better when playing Baroque music.
    A large tome could be written about Baroque phrase lengths, so let me just say that phrase lengths were influenced by the structure of Baroque violins, gambas, and bows, the fast sound decay rate of harpsichords, and the absence of pianos. Even the early pianoforte of Cristafori, invented in the 1700s, sounded more like a harpsichord than does our modern Steinway. It was not until the mid-1800s that it approached the sound we expect from a piano today. The bottom line is that phrase lengths were shorter then than they are now. Everything was more spaced in the Baroque. Tempos were influenced by dance steps associated with various dance forms, and tempos often fell into the gap between two large beats per measure and four smaller ones.
    Each style period was influenced by the style period that preceded it. Baroque music grew upon a Renaissance foundation, and Classical composers were influenced by Baroque music, and so on. This is also true of the teaching tradition. Each generation of teachers is influenced by the generation that came before, but each new generation takes the best that was offered and creates new concepts through growth and adaptation. Life evolves. Music evolves. Concepts and styles of performing change over the decades, and teachers and performers both need the tools to grow and adapt as well.
    The challenge for Baroque music today is in the studio, where teachers have not universally embraced the concept that it is their responsibility to educate themselves in historic performance practices (Baroque and Classical) so they can relay that information to their students. There are far too many well-respected teachers still teaching very Romantic approaches to the music of Bach, Telemann, and even Mozart. It does these hard working students a huge disservice. It is just no longer acceptable for students to perform a Bach sonata as if it were a Chopin etude or the last movement of a Mahler symphony. Unfortunately, this happens every day. When you realize that 175 years separate the birth dates of Bach and Mahler – almost two centuries – you must see that Bach cannot and should not be played the same way as music that would not be written or heard for over 200 years.