in which I go on for a while about Early Music and continuo playing

Somewhere on my profile, or blog description or something, I mention that I play the harpsichord. I think a lot of people don't understand why. There are a few exceptions, like my dad, who isn't a musician but truly loves music written in the 17th and 18th centuries. There is also the early music crowd, which I've had the pleasure of experiencing via the Madison Early Music Festival. MEMF really is a unique event because it features world-class artists as faculty and guest performers, but the enrollment is open to any enthusiastic amateur who wishes to participate. How do I describe these gentle folks? Imagine a Renaissance festival without the sack cloths, more gender ambiguity, and a lot of really bad jokes. Hey, if you play the sackbut you've got to have a sense of humor about it.

But I love playing the harpsichord. For the last four years or so I've had a terrifically inspiring, quirky teacher, for one thing. (I think he may be the only male professor of organ who isn't gay, but he's eccentric enough to make up for it.) I've fallen in love with the repertoire, for another thing. Lately I haven't had the time or patience to dig into the solo pieces as much as I would like. There are some outstanding little gems in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book I've had my eye on for a while, for example. But I like accompanying and continuo playing just as much. I've had the good fortune of playing several involved songs by such composers as Monteverdi, Henry Purcell and Barbara Strozzi for soprano and continuo.

I'll explain a bit about this kind of playing, for those of you who may not be familiar with this type of music and might be a little curious. (Is anyone still reading? Didn't think so. Oh well. My blog, I say what I want. Tune in next time and I'll be more interesting, I promise.) When you look at a song by a pre-Baroque or early Baroque composer, it appears to be deceptively simple, yet at the same time quite daunting. This is because you are given two things: 1) the vocal line, written in quite a lot of detail, and 2) the very sparse bass line for the continue instruments (keyboard or lute and possibly a gamba or cello). There might be some numbers there, too, to indicate what chords go with the bass notes, but composers were fairly inconsistent even with those, so a lot of the time you just have to know which chords to play. So, if you are the harpsichordist, your job is to do everything you can with that bass line to support the vocal line. Sometimes you play just the bass note. Sometimes you play a whole chord, but arpeggiated so it lasts for several beats. Sometimes you play a succession of chords quickly and abruptly with lots of space in between. Sometimes you improvise counterpoint, a melody to go with that bassline. It can be very hard to decide what to do, but once you get in a groove, it can be incredibly freeing. The possibilities to be expressive seem to be without limit.

Unfortunately, this only works as well as the singer you're accompanying. I've worked with singers who are committed and knowledgeable, and it's a real treat to play with repertoire with them. I've also worked with singers who, bless their hearts, don't have a clue how important it is to think about the text and how it's set to music and what the composer meant when he or she used long notes or dotted rhythm or syncopation or what-have-you. Singers like that tend to distort the rhythm to suit their voices, and this makes it very hard for the continuo player(s) to respond properly to the music.

This whole post started because I had one of those continuo performances tonight that was wholly uninspiring. It wasn't with a singer, but was actually with a chamber orchestra performing a Vivaldi violin concerto. I got the music at 4:00 this afternoon, rehearsed at 5:00, performed at 8:30. Granted, playing with a small orchestra lacks the intimacy of performing something with solo voice. But I had no time or opportunity to dig into the music with the other musicians. There was no awareness of the aesthetic of the piece we were playing. In fact, there were over a dozen other players and they were all playing modern instruments, so I'm pretty sure the harpsichord wasn't even heard.

I could never give up the piano and just be a harpsichordist. Hel-LO! Jobs are hard enough to find when you're a diverse pianist, much less exclusively a continuo player. But I confess I'm tired of playing harpsichord with people who don't have a clue. I know I sound terribly snooty, and I don't mean to be. I think it's great when modern musicians (like me) discover the wonder of Early Music and truly dig it and learn about it and how to play it. I don't even mind it on modern instruments, as long as the music is treated right. I just wish that if serious musicians (like grad students who have the opportunity to do so) are going to play Early Music, they would take the time to learn a little bit about the aesthetics and performance practice and do it proper. That's all.

Comments

I'll have you know that I finished reading the whole post; I didn't wimp out in the middle. And though I don't play the harpischord (or much of the piano, or even the flute, anymore) I know where you're coming from. The gist of your post is, if you're going to do something, do it right. Dig deeper than the surface, and don't muck around with it to suit yourself without first thinking about how it might affect others, right?
Suze said…
spot on, jenn! thanks for making it to the end :)
Mrs. Ann said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
Not interested? Are you kidding? You mentioned me! -Dad
Mrs. Ann said…
I was never interested in harpsichord before, but now I am! Who knew you had to improv? I'd like to hear you play it sometime!
Steph said…
i've never been to a renaissance festival, but something tells me they have their fair share of gender ambiguity as well...

a harpsichord with an orchestra full of modern instruments who aren't used to playing with a harpishord seems like a built-in balance disaster. and how frustrating--it's not like you can bang harder on the instrument to make yourself heard!
Animal said…
Not only did I make it all the way to the end, but I left with an overwhelming sense of wonder that you can POSSIBLY improvise a continuo line!! We get into figured bass around week 5 in frosh theory, and the question ALWAYS arises: "Does anybody still know how to do this anymore?" I'm always glib with my reply, but I think you're TERRIBLY impressive for being able to do this!

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