Baroque Performance Basics

Article excerpt

Performing early music requires changes to your attitude and your ear

IN THE MAY/JUNE ISSUE'S SHOPTALK, I discussed how many musicians are recreating the sounds of earlier eras (read it on-line at To get closer to bygone composers, they play on the instruments of those times, using techniques the composers would have recognized. I described how modem or modernized instruments are reworked to make them appropriate for Baroque performance. In this issue, I will take a closer look at the Baroque approach to music. There are many treatises from the Baroque era that offer a glimpse into the Baroque outlook. Reared on Classical oratory (everyone read Cicero), musicians in the 17th and 18th centuries saw music as an outgrowth of speech. Music was rhetorical and, as such, was intended to elicit a variety of emotions, or affects. Variations in tempos, rhythms, note lengths, intervals, harmonies, and keys were all used for their emotional impact.

When you examine music from the Baroque era, try to discern the desired emotion. In general, slower rhythms and longer notes were meant to be more serious than their quicker counterparts. While the treatise writer Johann Mattheson mentions that small intervals show sadness and large ones joy, other writers went so far as to ascribe specific emotions for each and every interval. Dissonances highlighted tension-- filled emotions, while their consonant resolutions provided relief. We are now accustomed to half steps that are all the same (equal-- temperament tuning), This means that you can move easily from a piece in C major to another in F# major, and both will sound correct. But in the Baroque, a variety of tunings allowed for each key to have its own distinctive personality.

When playing Baroque music now, you should also be striving to achieve emotional variety with a range of bow strokes. The Baroque bow is not known for its sustaining qualities, but it can achieve an astonishing diversity of sounds and articulations. There are certain general rules that can help you gain bow-hand vitality. For example, the smaller an interval is, the more legato the stroke should be. However, you can highlight a leap with a more detached stroke. Look for flexibility in your arm, shoulder, and wrist joints. As violinist Robert Mealy tells his students, "Think of it as driving a small sports car instead of a big, expensive Cadillac. The Baroque bow can articulate much more deftly if you let it." Enjoy the small gestures that the bow can make, and remember that you are trying to emulate speech: don't forget the punctuation! The Baroque bow will naturally decrescendo as you pull a down bow, with a result that the up bow is weaker. Experiment with staying near the frog-the tip is generally not an advantageous place to be.

Not all notes were created equal in the Baroque; each measure had a hierarchy. Much of Baroque music is based on dances, so downbeats would of course be emphasized. In a triple meter, enjoy a weighty first beat in each measure, and lighten up on subsequent beats. In a 4/4 meter, the first beat should have the most emphasis, the third the next most, and the second and fourth beats should be very light indeed. In fact, the "rule of the down bow," in which every first beat was played with a down bow, persisted in France for generations. I like to think of Baroque music as governed by harmony rather than melody (which is not to say there aren't great melodies in the Baroque!). Revel in the dissonances, then lighten up on the consonant resolutions. Just as many sentences end with unaccented syllables, so do many Baroque musical phrases. Appreciate the fact that intervals are not all the same and play pure thirds. As a general rule, keep sharps low and flats high; they will fit the harmonies better.

Many popular works from the Baroque have been printed in modern editions. While these are often easy to read, they may also vary considerably from the original sources, particularly when it comes to matters of articulation. …