THE MYSTERY OF PERFORMANCE PRACTICE
IN THE 1800S
by Sue Talley
Some information for this page is taken from Performance Practice: Music After 1600, Howard Mayer Brown and Stanley Sadie, Eds., published by W.W. Norton (1989). It’s a very enjoyable book, if you are looking for ways to play or sing old classical music in the way it was probably enjoyed. Of course, it helps to have the right kind of instrument, in the correct tonal range, but you can’t have everything…so, use your imagination and incorporate into your performance that which you feel is both authentic and valid.
We might as well admit that J.S. Bach’s music, along with much similar music, is transcribed whenever we play it on the piano, because there was no piano until Bach was quite along in years and when it finally arrived, it bore little resemblance to the pianos we use today. But then, many of Bach’s pieces were transcriptions, too. It’s fun to look at the way Bach’s music has been transcribed from time to time. As I recall, Clara Schumann gratefully stated that the virtuoso Romantic pianist and composer, Busoni, had done a great deal for Bach’s music in his editions—but today, other than Busoni’s unique arrangements (such as arranging “In Dir ist Freud” (In You is Joy) for piano and the like, Busoni’s editions are quite out of fashion. Things come and things go. Sometimes editions are so interesting in themselves that they change the whole character of a piece. But what is “out” today may also be “in” tomorrow…
I’m getting ahead of the story.
One of the things J.S. Bach is remembered for is for his fearless use of the thumb. Sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it? But some composers and players hardly used the thumb at all. For one thing, the thumb is sort of an awkward thing—a finger stuck on sideways which can really thump if we don’t watch it like a hawk. It takes skill and practice to have beautiful, un-thumpy scales in which the thumb goes under and touches the key with the lightness of any other finger.
As a friend said, however, pianists tend to play the harpsichord like they were using their two elbows. A harpsichord is a delicate thing and it was, at one time, fingered quite differently than it is today. Here is a short summary concerning keyboard fingering which has been gleaned from old theorists (including CPE Bach):
1. There was a willingness to use fingers pragmatically and to shift hand-position (rather in the manner of violin playing).
2. Chief interest was not in the ‘long line’ or legato touch but in the figuration (ornaments and trills) and what an imaginative composer (or artist) could do with it.
3. Certain customs arose from these general considerations and from the physical nature of the instruments (e.g., strong fingers such as 2 or 3 were used on strong notes; there was little crossing over or under of the thumb, etc.) [Have you ever seen a thumb cross over? What?]
4. When the pedal (tuned keyboard-pedals, that is) has the role of an accompanying bass, the left foot plays mostly in the lower octave, the right in the upper.
5. When the pedal is more difficult (e.g. in the specifically virtuoso solos of big praeludia), the feet are played mostly in alternation by the front of the foot only (i.e. with toes not heels).
It’s well to remember that the organ and harpsichord did (and do) not have 88 key manuals. They had shorter manuals which were played together, one on top of the other. That makes it handy, by the way, if you have a short keyboard and can’t think of anything to play on it. Play early or Baroque music. It seldom is written out of range for a short keyboard and it works on almost anything. The pedals of old barely encompassed two octaves. Apparently the keys were also shorter, which made it more difficult for the thumbs to be involved. Different organs also required different approaches. Even today, various builders are proud of the special characteristics of their organs. You will find some organs which are built to favor the playing of Baroque music (Flentrops, for example), whereas there are others which may favor the darker colors of later French music. Not only that, but Bach wrote for different instruments! Slurs in Baroque music might also be very important, indicating which groupings of fingerings occurred before the order changed. Some intentionally imitated the slurred phrasing of the violins. The slur, such as became popular later in the century, was not used much in the early music of Bach.
Another important thing to remember is that certain selections were not noted as being for harpsichord, clavichord, or organ—and they certainly sound different on different instruments. For one and a half centuries at least, the varied keyboard instruments were not specified by the composer. One might play a Bach prelude and fugue on a church organ, positive, regal, harpsichord, spinte, clavichords, or any combination of the above. Which makes it very exciting, I might add. Organists of today, probably in the same way that the Baroque folks did, get quite excited in their discussions about various brands and installations. Some like the dry sound of the Flentrop; some like the warm sound of the old Aeolian Skinners; some become rapturous over the reedy sounds and some prefer—yikes!—even the sounds of the tremolo (horribly reproduced in the electronic instruments of the ‘50s through ‘70s). To a true organist, a perfect afternoon might consist of a “crawl” through the hundreds of pipes of an historic instrument, or even “holding keys” while someone pounds the pipes back into tune, which easily and expensively go astray, by the way. Personally, the more versatility an organ has, the better I like it. The question is: How did Bach and Handel like it? What were they thinking of when they wrote for the instrument? The answers are far from clear. But the artist should try to investigate, asking himself or herself: Where was the composer when he wrote this piece? What kind of an organ did he probably have in mind?
Which pieces were meant for which instrument? That’s equally hard to say, sometimes. Generally, however, we can say that dance music was (early) intended for the harpsichord/clavichord types and that church music was pretty much confined to the organ. That does not mean, however, that secular music did not sneak into the Church and that church music was confined to the houses of God. But you can imagine that the long tradition of performances of all kinds in European churches stemmed from the fact that an organ is not easily moved to a “secular” venue. For that matter, there are actually debates about which instrument Bach “meant” when he was composing his Preludes and Fugues. I, for one, am glad he did not get too dogmatic about it. In those days, composers unashamedly swiped and rearranged each others’ tunes. Bach loved Vivaldi’s music and rearranged hundreds of his selections, for examples. Rather than being upset, the composers were probably thrilled that they were so popular!
Oh, and there was something else, really quite important. The earlier organs could not be too far removed from their keyboards—the so-called “trakkers” had a heavier touch as well, than you find in the electronic synthesizers popularly called “organs” (meaning no disrespect to the synthesizer). The Spanish seemed to be among the first to put “swells” on organs, so that they could crescendo and diminuendo. But, for quite a while, Baroque dynamics were “terraced,” according to the nature of the instruments: if you wanted to play forte, you played on one keyboard, or manual, and if you wanted to play piano, you switched to the other.
There were not only ornaments in Baroque music, the subjects, again, of endless debate about how they were performed, but there was a sort of literal “styling” about some of the music which was meant to imitate nature. A certain organist at St. Bartholomew’s, her in New York City, for example, who enjoyed playing Handel’s Samson, would frequently offer the selection for organ and choir. He would get a look of fiendish glee on his face when he got to the part where Samson knocks the temple of the Philipines in on himself and them. Like a happy child, he would slap both arms down on the organ, up to the elbows. Likewise, another organist would leap, grinning with genuine joy, onto the bench as he recreated the laughter underlying Bach’s choral prelude, In Dir ist Freud. Fortunately for me, the piece was reorganized for piano by Busoni and I too may now grin and leap as I prepare to recreate the “ho-ho-ho”s in the bass clef. (Or rather, ho HO-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho HO.) Just listen to this stuff. Take in the wonderful chromaticism of Handel’s expressive, “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray,” from Messiah. He makes sin sound quite enticing! Of course, one sobers up when he announces, “and the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.”
Ornaments. Yukk, what a subject. Some composers apparently didn’t go in for too much in the way of improvisation when ornaments came along: “I am always surprised, after the pains I gave myself to mark the ornaments…to hear people who have learnt them without heeding my instructions,” sniffed Le Grande Couperin. According to legend, there were trills, mordents, inverted mordents, grace notes (performed on the beat, if you please, not before it), trills with turns, turns with trills, and so on. But the most general rule for trills is that if it is Baroque, play it on the beat, starting with the upper note. There are books about this subject and I decline to quote them. You can look it up.
If you want to get a feel for early harpsichord playing, have your fingers stand on “tiptoe” (forget long nails) and “walk” up a scale, fingering 2-3-4-2-3-4. Some moderns are actually reverting to this fingering to make old music sound “authentic.” They usually revert to wearing long beards and sandals with socks, too.
So much for the keyboard, for now. Next on the agenda: The fiddles. A great thing happened when they all decided to bow the same direction at the same time; it would appear seem very strange to us if they did not.