How Did They Play? How Did They Teach?

By Owen, Barbara | The American Organist, June 2007 | Go to article overview

How Did They Play? How Did They Teach?


Owen, Barbara, The American Organist


HOW DID THEY PLAY? HOW DID THEY TEACH? Review Feature by Barbara Owen HOW DID THEY PLAY? HOW DID THEY TEACH? A HISTORY OF KEYBOARD TECHNIQUE, Sandra Soderlund. Chapel Hill: Hinshaw Music, 2006. 544 pp. ISBN 0-937276-33-2. $95. The title really says it all; the only possible alternative would have been "Everything you wanted to know about Keyboard Technique but didn't know how or where to look it up." And that's assuming that you'd have the amount of time Soderlund has spent in doing it for you, as well as access to all the bibliographical and musical resources she has consulted. The topic has indeed been a long-standing interest of the author's, as indicated by workshops she has given and her earlier book, Organ Technique, An Historical Approach, as well as articles in TAO and other publications. Here she takes a quantum leap from the subject of her previous book to embrace all keyboard music, for every kind of historic keyboard instrument from the 15th century to the early 20th. Indeed, the emphasis from Chapter 9 through Chapter 19 is primarily on the piano. This by no means diminishes its pertinence for organists. The organ does not exist in a vacuum, and knowing what C.P.E. Bach said about clavichord technique or how Clara Schumann played the piano can amplify what we know about organ playing in their corresponding periods.

After an 18-page introduction that gives some very basic information on the different historical types of keyboard instruments (including some diagrams) and touches briefly on matters of temperament, notation, improvisation, and articulation, the chapters that follow break down chronologically and geographically. Primary source material from treatises, prefaces, and contemporary accounts is cited liberally throughout. Chapters 1 through 4 deal with early keyboard playing in Germany, Netherlands, Spain, England, and Italy from the 15th century through the middle of the 18th. The music dealt with falls roughly half-and-half between that for stringed instruments (virginal, clavichord, harpsichord) and organ. There is strong emphasis in these chapters on earlyfingering systems, with a satisfying number of musical examples. Organ registrations and expression are briefly touched upon, mainly in the Italian chapter, and there is mention of the organist's imitatio violistica effect in the German/Netherlands chapter. If there is any area that one might have wished more extensively explored in these chapters, it is that of ornamentation. Redobles and quiebros do receive some welcome treatment in the Spanish chapter, especially with regard to fingering, but the only reference to the slashed ornaments in pre-Restoration English music is Purcell's rather well-known "Rules for Graces." Those interested in further information on this latter topic will find it in Christopher Kent's recent article in Organists' Review for November 2005.

Chapter 5 deals with the French Classic era from the beginning of the 17th century to the close of the 18th. Here the influence of the lutenistic style brise on harpsichord music is discussed, and some interesting excerpts from Mersenne and Denis reveal the close relationship between harpsichord and organ technique in the early part of the period. It is of interest that the latter disagrees with his Spanish contemporary, Santa Maria, with regard to hand position. He also discourages overdoing ornaments, and ornamentation does get some substantial coverage in this chapter with excerpts and musical examples from Nivers, Raison, Couperin, and others, as does registration and tempo. Couperin and Corrette, along with some of the clavicinistes, also provide some helpful fingering examples, particularly relative to harpsichord playing, but also applicable to organ playing. Rameau is cited quite extensively on all aspects of harpsichord playing-beginning with the player's proper position at the instrument (no elbows below the keyboard level, please).

The following two chapters deal with German music of the 17th and 18th centuries, Chapter 6 addressing keyboard treatises and other sources from the time of Bach (and a little before), and dealing primarily with organ playing. …

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