Rethinking the Art of Baroque Music Performance

Article excerpt

It's time to expand our interpretation of what constitutes 'early' music

MANY MUSICIANS KNOW THAT 18TH-CENTURY repertoire was composed long before there was the ability to preserve music beyond a performance. But it's easy to forget what that really means. Simply put, in the 18th century, if you wanted to hear a piece of music, someone had to play it for you. They could not have conceived of "disembodied music," hearing music apart from the performer/performance.

As such, musicians were expected to imbue each piece with a highly distinctive personality. This explains why the best composers/performers were employed by the courts: the nobility could buy the best that was out there. As a result, you found amazing musicians ? including Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ? spending their talents trying to entertain their bosses. If, at the moment of hearing a new piece, the employer wasn't delighted and moved, even the best composers risked losing their jobs. The purpose of the music then was to move, delight, enthrall, horrify, sadden, elate ? all at the moment it was being played.

The performance was an "event" that functioned to elicit human passions in its audience.

When cellist Stephanie Vial, co-director of the Vivaldi Project and the Modern Early Music Institute (MEMI), and I dug deeper into our research at Cornell University, we discovered both from studying the treatises of 18th-century performance practices and playing the period instruments that there was an incredible range of expressions that were new to us and that were expected of Baroque performers. It became apparent that this palette of expression, replete with extreme ranges of emotion, had been smoothed out over the last two centuries of performance traditions. This trend especially manifested itself with the advent of recording in which the value is on perfect execution to create a product (an album or CD).

In the process of cutting and editing a recording, the inherent pleasantness of these compositions often overrode the original spirit of the music.

Vial and I also came to the conclusion that these extraordinary, eye-opening, and wonderfully freeing expressive tools need not belong exclusively to the players of period instruments, but to all performers. This is why we began MEMI in 2009: to give professional players the opportunity to study Baroque and classical performance practices using their own modern instruments


One of the first things the participants at the Modern Early Music Institute (MEMI) are told is that one of the problems in interpreting this repertoire isn't that we can't read the notation, it's that we can read it. In other words, the fundamentals on the page (pitches, rhythm, expressive markings, and so on) look very familiar and easy to read. And, since this music is inherently diatonic, if you play the right notes at the right time with a good sound, some dynamics and good phrasing, it can be very successful.

Some music survives this type of reading better than others, including the music of Haydn, Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frederick Handel. Their music translates not just well, but beautifully to many styles of performing traditions. However, the music of Henry Purcell, Heinrich Biber, and Arcangelo Corelli, as well as more obscure composers like Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Antonio Caldara, or even the Bach sons (C. P.E., J. C, and W.F.) makes less sense to the modern ear, and is either ignored or suffers interpretations missing in vitality.


Our goal at the Vivaldi Project and at MEMI is to bring this music out of the background and into the live arena where it belongs. This isn't just an invitation to randomly emote, but to most effectively present the content of the music ? for instance, to speak the language or poetry best suited to the music. …