Archive for December, 2007

basic tuning technique

December 19, 2007

Long ago, at the conservatory of the Hague, I used to have a yoga class directly before my harpsichord lessons. I now believe that this mad schedule was the working of some bad spirit who wanted me to spoil both: yoga, and harpsichord playing (he didn’t succeed). During yoga, I was as tense and rigid as the dried fish they sell here in Sweden at Christmas time. Well arriving at the harpsichord lesson, my body had gotten weak as pudding while my mind was all tense and jumpy in anticipation of the new and wonderful requirements of a Real Musical Education. “Technique, technique, technique!” my teacher chanted, the first time he jogged into the harpsichord studio, eagerly rubbing his hands.

No wonder that on one of those days, when I was touching up a few unisons, I tuned every note jerkily up and down again. My teacher’s eyebrows shot up in intelligent acknowledgement: “Aah, you always tune a little higher first – is that to make the string hold better afterwards? Very interesting method!” 28 years after this event I can disclose that I simply was very nervous. But there are methods that help harpsichords, clavichords or fortepianos keep their tuning and there are some things better to avoid when tuning. (more…)

a professional mistakes-of-a-third fix

December 17, 2007

Early May 1992. I am sitting in a train to Skövde on my way to yet another rehearsal, a pile of photocopies on my lap, writing continuo figures. The scores, one hand-written, the other one in a quite legible computer transcription, represent two opera intermezzi – short comic operas played in the intermissions of opera performances, doubtless to the accompaniment of the crackling of 18th-century sandwich wrappings, various uncorking noises and a roar of private conversation. Unearthed and transcribed by a passionate musicologist who has made the finding of archived opera treasures his specialty, these works are planned for three weeks of staged summer performances in castle Läckö upon Lake Vänern.

It is just before the massive advent of cell phones, and we are in silent and moderate Sweden. Nevertheless the writing of continuo figures during a train journey is, in this particular case, waylaid by problems of various kinds. (more…)

footprints in history: the continuo arrangement

December 13, 2007

I never planned to write about editorial thoroughbass arrangements – I thought this was unnecessary. We all know that they often are overfrought and frequently neglect the accentuation required in the music; that they occasionally contain faulty counterpoint and wrong harmonies; and that the few less overloaded continuo elaborations tend to be self-evident and hence superfluous.

Another reason why I did not want to write about this subject is that I used to find it unfair to complain about the existence of a worked-out continuo part in modern editions of Baroque music. I had a music teacher in high school who proclaimed that in our times, nobody is able to sight-read a figured continuo line. I also remember a participant at a baroque course who got aggressively upset when the teacher of the ensemble class asked him to play lower inversions of some of his chords – he was playing the editorial continuo concerto, and clearly believed that it was part of the original composition. More recently, a colleague with excellent sight-reading skills, who was my co-continuist in a Christmas Oratory performance, admitted, somewhat embarrassed, that he was using the “organ part” instead of a figured bass. Of course, music publishers need people like these to buy their books, so they must supply continuo arrangements, whether I like it or not.

A professional continuo player can always ignore these arrangements. If one likes to play from a full score, one will have to put up with the fact that they take up four or six additional lines per page, thus increasing the number of page turns. If one feels secure with a piece, a better solution is to play from the figured cello part.

Recently, I learned that this can be illegal. (more…)

can’t-hear-thee panic

December 11, 2007

Weilburg, a picturesque little town at the Lahn, has a castle and this castle has a Schlosskirche, and this is where the Baroque orchestra Le Chardon, together with Doris Hagel and Markus Brutscher, played and sung a mixed Christmas programme of arias, suites and concertos this past Sunday afternoon. I administered the continuo, alternating between a 2 manual Ruckers-type Wittmayer harpsichord in good condition and a chest organ that smelled pleasantly like some kinds of Argentinian red wine (fresh oak shavings) and produced only fifths in the lowest octave in anything quicker than whole notes in an adagio (see here the true reason for the invention of the continuo cellist).

The church is beautifully built and decorated, but during the rehearsals, it seemed acoustically far from ideal. From my position behind the group, the difficulty was mostly that I was unable to hear the beginning of tones from the solo instruments and the singers. Even at the front of the stage there were problems of hearing each-other. Such conditions invariably help to raise the tension within a group. (more…)

chest organ tuning sense and nonsense

December 7, 2007

how to avoid a waste of time and energy

Small continuo organs in their boxes that can be driven from concert to concert are very practical. They fit in the Volvo, although I never want to find out whether the heavy-duty straps I use for securing the load really hold. They can, with some center-of-gravity-awareness, almost be handled by one strong person and a dolly. This means that they also will be handled by one person, who comes a little earlier to the pre-concert rehearsal. They come with transposing keyboards. They are, finally, relatively easy to tune.

There are a few things that dampen the full effect of happiness that these characteristics rightfully should trigger. (more…)

hand choreography and fingering IV

December 6, 2007

The opening Allegro vivace of Beethoven’s sonata Op. 2/2 contains right-hand octave triplets (Bars. 84-89 and 304-309) that are difficult to play cleanly when using the fingering indicated in the first edition. The progression of thumb and second finger on the lower notes of these octaves makes nevertheless clear that Beethoven intended these triplets to be played by the right hand alone, although the left hand is resting.

On an early Viennese fortepiano with its light and shallow touch, (more…)

hand choreography and fingering III

December 5, 2007

A typical moment in Bach’s music where the appearance of a sequence obscures the necessity of an asymmetrical technical approach occurs in the second half of the Gigue of the fourth partita in D-major. I am talking about bars 78-83. All the problems of the upward and downward runs of the right hand can be relatively conveniently solved by sliding with the 4th or second fingers. The upward run in bar 78, however, remains insecure. The fifth finger is locked on F#, and the lower fingers (likely 1-1-2-1-2) are forced to tiptoe awkwardly about, risking irregularity, wrong articulations and a crunch into the sharps. Observe the harpsichordist’s or pianist’s left heel during this bar: it wiggles nervously. (more…)


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