I continue to investigate certain matters arising from the music I love to play, sometimes researching more deeply into areas already featured in my book, Did Bach Really Mean That? (- see Book page). So I’m pleased to make available here a selection of articles further exploring my interest in notation and its underlying conventions. I hope you may find something to stimulate your interest, and make your playing of early keyboard music more enjoyable.
18th century audiences expected to be moved by the harpsichord, just
as modern audiences expect their emotions to be affected by the piano.
Read the Harpsichord article, below
(published in The Consort, Summer 2015)
How should we perform rhythm when playing dance-pieces by German
composers of Bach’s time? Just as it appears on the page?
Several matters discussed in Did Bach really mean That? [see Book] invited investigation in greater depth. One of these was the series of rhythmic “hints” supplied by Handel’s one-time colleague Johann Mattheson, which form the basis of this article.
Read the Mattheson article (this is a pdf document)
(published in Early Music OUP, Spring 2014)
Bach’s Goldberg Variations present an example of a composer
being more prescriptive than was normal in his use - and stipulation -
of this type of ornament.
The single-note ornament itself is open to a variety of interpretation. This article surveys its principal musical uses, with reference to the Goldberg Variations.
Read the Single Note Ornament article (this is a pdf document)
(Published March 2016, by the Historical Keyboard Society of North America (HKSNA))
Handel’s most famous keyboard piece (the set of variations
which forms the climax of his “Great” Suite in E)
seems straightforward and attractive. However,
a long performance tradition has established an anachronistic way
of playing it.
In this case, an understanding of
“beat hierarchy” is crucial.
Read the Odd Note article (this is a pdf document)
Looking forward to my own recording of Bach’s mighty work,
due for release during 2018, this
article explores the various tuning systems available to the composer and
which of them he is likely to
have used, given the advances in tuning which enabled him to conceive
the work in the first place.
Read the article How to tune for J S Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier? (This is a pdf document.)
Performances of Renaissance and Baroque music on original instruments are now mainstream. Thirty years ago, however, the process of re-discovery carried a fresh excitement. The historical kind of harpsichord, in particular - the Baroque instrument par excellence - was then an attractive novelty with its mysterious action and impressively different sound. It did not make you weep, though. Unlike the piano, the harpsichord, it was felt, did not - indeed could not - move ones sensibilities, and that, for many, was its main attraction.
Nowadays we have moved far beyond such a simplistic view, both of the instruments and of the music. Our 18th century predecessors did not just enjoy the sound of music - they expected to be moved by it. We now expect some Baroque music to move us too, and several decades of work by players and scholars have gone into re-discovering the techniques which allow this to happen. Choral, vocal, and orchestral music can all be heard regularly in “period” performances of thrilling vitality and emotional depth.
As for the harpsichord: can it, too, move the listener? Well, yes, I believe it can. We have reached a point where some harpsichordists can thrill an audience through the brilliance which their instrument so readily projects - and occasionally move them too.
Excitement is quite easy for the harpsichordist to generate. Just think of the cadenza from Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto. In other music by Bach, Robert Hill, for example, is able to thrill the listener, even on recordings, by a style which combines virtuosity with an unusual feeling of spontaneity.
When it comes to the other end of the emotional spectrum, in describing my CD of music by Louis Couperin as “poetic, luxuriant and emotionally compelling”, Julie-Anne Sadie suggests that these are qualities in the harpsichord that a modern audience will appreciate and enjoy, given the opportunity.
If this sort of description of harpsichord-playing is rare, one reason is that for the last two decades this instrument has been hard to find. After a spell of initial interest in the harpsichord, the modern piano re-asserted itself as the dominant keyboard instrument - not just for its own repertoire but for all keyboard music. In particular, since pianists had for generations played Bach and Scarlatti, these composers continued to feature in piano recitals, and more recently, over entire CDs. And in today’s world, broadcasters follow audience figures above all else. Performances of all keyboard music by well-known pianists reach the airwaves automatically, while what are considered minority interests are consciously pushed to the sidelines, or ignored altogether.
Ironically, pianists have followed their Early Music colleagues in a desire to explore unfamiliar - early keyboard - repertoire. Handel and Couperin are more easily enjoyed, both by players and listeners, than many present-day composers. So it is more common to hear William Byrd played on what, for so many reasons, is patently the wrong instrument, than on the kind which elucidates his music so much better.
There’s much more to this, though, than just choosing an appropriate instrument. During twenty-five years of participation, as teacher and performer, at the annual Dartington Summer School, I was able to uncover just how important, when playing music written before 1750, is a different approach to the notes on the page. The information once given to the performer was far less than it later became, meaning that a literal performance of the score can reveal only part of what the composer expected it to convey. In other words, it may be dull, rhythmically lifeless, lacking in elegance (or sparkle) - and it won’t move the listener.
© 2013-2017 Colin Booth, harpsichordist and harpsichord maker