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Original Fingering

 As far as my experience goes, the use of original fingerings is not common at all among harpsichordists. There are colleagues who hear “strange accents” when hearing someone using original fingerings. I believe these critics come from the lack of familiarity with the subject. There are also established harpsichordists that claim those kinds of philological research be for intellectual nerds and not useful to the music itself. I do not agree at all! I think that the use of original fingering can influence a lot the musical result. Many others claim that original fingerings are ‘too difficult’ in fast scales. But it is just a matter of practice! In recent years, I embarked on an in-depth research on original sources and keyboard pieces with original fingerings. The result was revealing for me. We should remember that all historical sources dealing with articulation, on violin, recorder, flute and so on, from the XVI century and onwards, state that all notes should have different accents and that all notes have different “values,” depending on the location in the structure. We have strong tonguing and weak tonguing, up-bow and down-bow, nota buona and nota cattiva, and so on. Often the notes are coupled and in general there is always a hierarchy of accents down to the smallest subdivision of the beat. Almost all baroque fingerings for keyboard imply the same principle of micro-articulation, with coupled notes. The common ideal is non-equality in fingers and in accents, as opposed to the equalization of all fingers and notes in modern fingering. For instance, almost in all baroque fingered scales, the thumbs and the little fingers are not used because they are considered weak and uncomfortable. In modern fingering, starting for instance in Rameau’s treatises, the crossing of the thumb makes all notes equal. The use of equalized touch and accent was established only in the 1850s. Rameau (1724) is one of the very first to introduce the thumb to create “smoothness” in playing. However, old fingerings differ from country to country, and from century to century, depending on what fingers are considered “strong” or “weak.” The scenario can get very complex, especially for German fingering. In the French fingering of D’Anglebert or F. Couperin, as well as in the Italian fingering of the important theoretician Diruta (1610), fingerings create off-beat accents, by crossing fingers: the ‘weak’ finger crosses over the ‘strong’ finger between the strong and the weak beat, thus creating an accent on the weak beat. For instance, in an ascending scale on the right hand, 2 and 4 are considered strong fingers and the scale goes like 234343434. For the French fingering, this corresponds exactly to what Hotteterre says about flute playing, by placing a strong tonguing on the weak beat and a weak tonguing on the strong beat, thus creating an off-beat accent (inégalites). In the Italian fingering ofDiruta (very probably used by Frescobaldi) ascending scales in the right hand are played off-beat, whereas descending scales in the left hand are played 23-23-23, avoiding the finger 4 in this case, with an accent on the down-beat. In the numerous passages by Frescobaldi where we have this combination of patterns in the two hands, the result is a fantastic polyphonic effect, as I hope I could show in my latest recording (I used the same fingering for Froberger as well). I am in fact very convinced that the reason why in the baroque time we have a hierarchy of fingers – and of accents, more in general, in treatises for all instruments – is because it was supposed to be heard like this. We cannot escape from it.

A.P.L. Copyright Reserved 2012

THE CHOREOGRAPHY OF THE HAND:

MUSICAL RHETORIC THROUGH THE USE OF ORIGINAL KEYBOARD FINGERINGS

– What killed my piano technique

When I was a harpsichord student, I went to one of my private lessons in Vienna. I had prepared Bach’s Italienisches Konzert and I was rather proud of the way I played that piece. Instead, at the lesson, I was told that the way I was playing the fast scales of the III movement displayed a ‘piano technique’ rather than a ‘harpsichord one’. My teacher went on explaining that I should use a system of fingering closer to Bach’s time, which was radically different from the one I had learnt, with so much study and fatigue, in my long years as a piano-student. This was bad news to me! It felt like I had to start learning this new keyboard instrument all from the beginning again! All the hours spent on Schumann’s Carnaval and Chopin’s piano concertos seemed to be almost useless if I wanted to perform Bach on the harpsichord in a ‘baroque’ way! How unexpected. He gave me a series of weird instructions on how to move my hands and how to use my fingers and he left me completely unable to perform the piece for that day. I felt like a beginner, and an ignorant one! However, back home, I soon realized that this new way of moving the hand and the fingers on the keyboard, especially in scales, would create a completely new articulation and would let the instrument sound in a radically different way, a very interesting one! In fact – I was about to discover – the whole esthetic of the baroque time is very different from the romantic one, especially when it comes to ‘equality’, and the use of original fingerings helps expressing that esthetic much more quickly, in the end, and effectively, than the use of modern piano fingering. But of this, more later.

What I didn’t realize at that time was that, actually, the world of original fingering was complex, sometimes problematic, and, above all, varied according to the time and the nation. Years later, when my work as classical philologist had left place to my life as a full-term musician, I started to get more and more curious about this ‘other’ way of playing the harpsichord and I found numerous sources dealing with the subject, original sources on performance practice, mostly, but even fingered pieces in original manuscripts and prints. I also realized that not so many harpsichordists are familiar with all these sources and even less use original fingerings. Mostly, I think, because nobody mentioned these techniques to them and they were never lucky as I was to meet someone who planted this idea in their heads. Which is a real pity! I believe that original fingerings are taught very little in conservatories nowadays, although, in my opinion, once you start to use them, your instrument start to sing in a completely new way. Once you get to know them, you never leave them! Certain pieces and certain passages work as well with modern fingerings, of course, but certain others (all scales, as I said, but even many other passages, especially in XVI – XVII century music) sound drammatically different according to the type of fingerings we use.

– Why reading original sources

The distance between the modern performers and the old Masters of the XV, XVI and XVIII century is enormous. A gap impossible to fill with absolute truths and certain answers, at least in many respects. What we have is our talent, our instinct and our passions as modern human being attempting to interpret an old musical piece on one side. On the other side, there are few original sources on music theory and performance practice of the time in question. The combination of these two factors is essential in the attempt to fill the gap. The confinement of our work as performers to only one of these two elements – our modern perception of the world on one side, or the sole reading of the sources as center of inspiration on the other – makes our quest for an interpretation of baroque music more partial and most probably less close to the original than ever.

Now why should we try to play this music in a way or another, why should we strive for reaching an interpretation and a way of playing that is as close as possible to the way the old Masters conceived it, this is also a question we must ask ourselves. Of course, as artists, we should be free to express ourselves as we please and the way we want. Those on the papers are just dots, signs, symbols, there is no music until the moment we start pressing some keys. There is no art until we performers decide to make music and in so doing expressing feelings, thoughts, theories, mathematic proportions, abstract patterns, and so on. The range of possibilities is immense, we are free to do what we want with a piece of paper with some music on, as far as there is an interpretation, a thought, behind it. (Because I believe that playing without some kind of intention behind it makes little sense.)

This is all true in my eyes. However, if we decide that it is as worth to make an attempt of ‘rediscovering’ what the old Masters themselves wanted to say, to express, the way they wanted to sound, what were their own thoughts about it, in one expression, if we leave aside our own perception for a moment and try to look at those scores with the eyes of a baroque composer, the situation is different. This is an option like another to approach an old piece but it is an option that seems to me extremely exciting. Because I cannot help being curious about what these old composers I admire so much and regard as geniuses thought about their own music. What would they have made out of it themselves as interpreters? Or, even more important, what does the music itself contain and reveal? The gap is immense to fill. Impossible to close. I will never know what Frescobaldi thought or did or how he played or what was that made these women in Cappella Giulia faint when he performed! But the moment I decide to get closer to him on those terms, that is, leaving aside my own way of being and playing and reading and studying … all my years of life in this world today, I feel tremendously confused, alone, isolated, lost. How is it possible to recreate a style that was born hundreds of years ago and on which no recording is left to us? It would probably be easier just to play his toccatas as it comes, without thinking one bit … Then, a light at the end of a little tunnel, shows something: sources! Those few sources about theory and practice handed out to us which are one of the few links between us modern performers and the old composers and musicians. To those, of course, we should add a deep study of the cultural, artistic and social conditions of the time in question. And this is much easier a task, which not every body undertakes in this quest, for reasons that I cannot define if not as ‘intellectual laziness’ on our side. Just have a walk in Rome, look at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane or stare at a Caravaggio painting! That should be already enough to realize that, oh boy, these people lived in an incredible world worth some understanding! But first of all, to read what these people wrote about how to play and why, seems to me the best starting point for an interpretation aiming at searching for the original way of intending and of playing this music. Libraries are not as attractive as a baroque church but a quest of the ancient sources is, in my opinion!

Only then, as a modern performer, I would try to filter these informations with my own way of feeling, playing, performing. Without forgetting that, ultimately, any reading of an original source is and will always be a personal interpretation, an individual view. There is no absolute truth in the original sources or in a scientific research in this field! Though, the absolute truth is that we all need to go back to the study of the original sources, even if it is inevitable to come up sometimes with different views. Ultimately, what counts is how, as interpreters, we will use those conclusions and interpretations we drew from the original sources into our own playing! Hopefully, we will able to listen to each other and to the different musical results, discuss, confront, criticize, review our own conclusions, playing in a new manner, etc. all in the name of the great respect we all should feel towards these ancient and great geniuses. What is most amazing is that often a research into sources casts some new exciting light on a piece, it fuels new ideas, the most crazy ones you would never have thought if you had just rely on your own personal, modern way of playing baroque music … or the one of your teachers!

A striking example of how research on old musical sources can bring to revolutionary results, when undertaken with an open mind, is the pioneering 1915 book of Arnold Dolmetch (The Interpretation of the Music of the XVIIthe and XVIIIth Centuries). One of the very first to read baroque musical sources – with no eminent teachers and established schools, or, in bad cases, with main-streaming movements smoothing the way towards an historically informed performance practice – Dolmetsch’s conclusions and suggestions are sometimes far more interesting, fresh and deep than those of some much more famous musicians of today. For one thing, he is one of the very few scholars I know who immediately saw the importance of the use of original fingerings for rendering baroque articulation. I read his thoughts about this subject after having come myself to this conclusion – having experienced the disbelief and condescendence (even publically) of some colleagues – and, I admit it, I was surprised by the level of understanding of the baroque esthetic in the writings of this old and out-of-fashion Father of the Early Music movement.

– Source reading on fingerings: a path towards musical gestures

I often had to defend myself from some of my friend musicians’ claim that a systematic research on original fingerings is for intellectual nerds and not useful to the music itself. I do not agree. I think that the use of original fingering can indeed influence the musical result and that this is the only reason why such a research makes sense in the end. One might claim that original fingerings are ‘too difficult’ in fast scales. They are indeed but, as everything else, it is only a matter of practice. In recent years, I embarked on an in-depth research on original sources and keyboard pieces with original fingerings. The result was revealing for me. It is interesting to remember that all historical sources dealing with articulation, on violin, recorder, flute and so on, from the XVI century and onwards, state that all notes should have different accents and that all notes have different “values,” depending on the location in the structure. We have strong tonguing and weak tonguing, up-bow and down-bow, nota buona and nota cattiva, and so on. Often the notes are coupled and in general there is always a hierarchy of accents down to the smallest subdivision of the beat. Almost all baroque fingerings for keyboard imply the same principle of micro-articulation, with coupled notes. The common ideal is non-equality in fingers and in accents, as opposed to the equalization of all fingers and notes in modern fingering. For instance, almost in all baroque fingered scales, the thumbs and the little fingers are not used because they are considered weak and uncomfortable. In modern fingering, starting for instance in Rameau’s treatises, the crossing of the thumb makes all notes equal. The use of equalized touch and accent was established only in the 1850s. Rameau (1724) is one of the very first to introduce the thumb to create “smoothness” in playing. However, old fingerings differ from country to country, and from century to century, depending on what fingers are considered “strong” or “weak.” The scenario can get very complex, especially for German fingering. 

– Speech pattern of the hands: fingering and rhetoric

In the French fingering of D’Anglebert or F. Couperin, as well as in the Italian fingering of the important theoretician Diruta (1610), fingerings create off-beat accents, by crossing fingers: the ‘weak’ finger crosses over the ‘strong’ finger between the strong and the weak beat, thus creating an accent on the weak beat. For instance, in an ascending scale on the right hand, 2 and 4 are considered strong fingers and the scale goes like 234343434. For the French fingering, this corresponds exactly to what Hotteterre says about flute playing, by placing a strong tonguing on the weak beat and a weak tonguing on the strong beat, thus creating an off-beat accent (inégalites). In the Italian fingering of Diruta (very probably used by Frescobaldi) ascending scales in the right hand are played off-beat, whereas descending scales in the left hand are played 23-23-23, avoiding the finger 4 in this case, with an accent on the down-beat. In the numerous passages by Frescobaldi where we have this combination of patterns in the two hands, the result is a fantastic polyphonic effect.

During that revealing lesson in Vienna, I was generally told, in order to play with ‘original baroque fingerings’, to couple the notes (especially in long scales, as we have seen) two plus two, to avoid using the thumb, to move continuously the position of the hand alongside the keyboard, with the wrist in the same identical position (no twists), the hand always parallel to the keys, and yet avoiding crossing over the thumb, as we always do in piano playing. Even if my teacher was not so specific about what fingers exactly to use all the time, it was very important for me his insistence on not twisting the hand towards right or left, in unhealthy positions, while moving the hand from one position on the keyboard to the next one forward or backward. In fact, I believe there is a general misunderstanding about how to keep the hand while using this technique. Many think one should bend the hand toward right in up-words scales and left in down-words scales, with the result that the fingers move in a clumsy and unhealthy way. On the contrary, the best way to gain smoothness, speed and agility is, as I said, to keep the hand parallel to the keyboard, economizing the movements of wrist and fingers to the minimum.

I am very convinced that the reason why in the baroque time we have a hierarchy of fingers – and of accents, more in general, in treatises for all instruments – is because it was supposed to be heard like this. And we as performers cannot escape from this fact, I think, if we want to attempt to recreate a more ‘likely’ way this music must have sound, a more articulated, unequal way of shaping a phrase and treating each tone. For me, the use of modern piano fingering by an excellent performer, let’s say, in a Frescobaldi toccata, is like having a beautiful voice and a beautiful tone but lucking of punctuation. It is like a poem full of beautiful words and ideas but recited in an unarticulated flow with no breaks, no drama, in the end, with no rhetorical insight.

(COPYRIGHT 2015)

Retorica e musica barocca (abstract)

followed by an English abstract

(For a complete text, contact the author)

Lo studio della retorica, con particolare attenzione ai trattati sull’argomento di ambito greco e latino, è un mezzo fondamentale per entrare a fondo nelle metodologie compositive ed interpretative della musica barocca.

PROSPETTIVA STORICO-MUSICOLOGICA

La riscoperta della cultura classica, dopo il quasi totale oblio del periodo medioevale, cominciò in Italia nel XIV secolo e culminò nello stesso paese durante i secoli XV e XVI, periodo in cui si diffuse in tutta Europa. 

Nello stesso periodo, la musica cominciò ad essere considerata sempre più un’arte allo stesso livello della poesia e della prosa, essendo essa pure un linguaggio che doveva basarsi sulle stesse regoleenunciate dagli antichi trattati di lingua e di retorica. Il parallelo tra musica e lingua fu poi rafforzato in Italia dalla nascita della cosiddetta “Seconda Pratica”: secondo questo nuovo stile musicale barocco, la musica doveva stupire, commuovere e dilettare il suo pubblico, e doveva suscitare ogni sorta di “affetti” (sentimenti) e passioni. Lo studio delle cosiddette “figure retoriche musicali”, utilizzate nella musica di questo periodo, costituisce un valido aiuto per l’interprete moderno nell’avvicinarsi a questo repertorio. D’altro canto, la discussione sul rapporto tra retorica e musica proseguì e si sviluppo ulteriormente in Germania con teorici quali Johann Mattheson e compositori quali Johan Sebastian Bachi quali – come è dimostrato sia dagli scritti di Mattheson che dalle numerose testimonianze relative alla vita e all’opera di Bach –  applicarono alla composizione musicale le medesime regole enunciate da Aristotele, Cicerone e Quintiliano in riferimento ad un’orazione di ambito legale. Tramite un’analisi in questo senso, è possibile riscontrare che in effetti Bach spesso divide le sue composizioni esattamente nelle cinque sezioni di un’orazione greco-latina.  

OBIETTIVI per un’esecuzione storicamente informata

Sulla base delle mie conoscenze nel campo della letteratura greca e latina da un lato, e della mia esperienza professionale di clavicembalista dall’altro, l’obiettivo è quello di dimostrare, tramite spiegazioni teoriche ed esecuzioni pratiche, come le conoscenze in questo campo della teoria musicale e compositiva possano essere un contributo concreto all’esecuzione storicamente informata del repertorio barocco. Infatti, una discussione che si limitasse ad analisi isolate senza il concreto aggancio alla prassi esecutiva rimarrebbe un percorso sterile per l’esecutore. 

Al contrario delle strutture solidamente razionali del contrappunto rinascimentale, nella “teoria degli affetti” barocca la gestualità retorica, espressiva ed “irrazionale”, diviene la base stessa della composizione, cosicché l’interprete deve essere messo in grado di riconoscere tutti quei codici e quegli stilemi che rivelano particolari messaggi retorici ed “affettuosi” ma che non sempre sono facili da individuare per l’esecutore moderno.

CONCLUSIONE

In un’Europa dove la cultura classica – ancora una volta come in epoca barbarica – minaccia di cadere nell’oblio, è importante mantenere i legami con quel mondo antico senza il quale sarebbe impossibile ricostruire un adeguato approccio al passato barocco, e senza il quale una parte importante dell’essenza più alta della civiltà occidentale andrebbe pericolosamente persa. 

Classical rhetoric in baroque music

The aim of this paper is to show that rhetoric, in the way the ancient Greeks and the Romans had conceived it, was an important tool in composing as well as interpreting baroque music. The rediscovery of classical culture, after the partial but very substantial oblivion during the Medieval time, started in the XIV century in Italy, where it culminated in the VX and the XVI century, and in this later phase it spread in Europe.

In the ancient world, rhetoric was the art of making a speech, usually in public, often in law-courts or assemblies. It was the mark of a civilized society with freedom of expression and democratic laws. It represented the power and the dignity of the word. This is why in the civilized world of the Renaissance it acquires once more great importance. In the same period, around the XVI century, music is considered more and more an art with the same dignity of poetry and prose, and with the same rhetorical devices that are found in the ancient treatises on languages and speeches.

The study of the musical “rhetorical figures” used in this style can be a valid help for the modern performer

The parallel between music and languages is strengthened by the birth in Italy, towards the end of the XVI century, of the new musical style called “Seconda pratica”. According to this style, music must express all sort of feelings and passions in order to move the audience. The study of the musical “rhetorical figures” used in this style can be a valid help for the modern performer to approach this kind of baroque repertoire. The discussion on rhetoric and music continues and develops in Germany with theoreticians like Mattheson and composers like Bach, who apply to musical compositions the same roles of how to articulate a speech as they are found in Cicero and Quintilian.

Thanks to my back-ground in the field of ancient Greek and Latin literature (I own a doctorate in classical philology) and my professional experience as a harpsichord player, I have become interested in this aspect of music-theory and I have given lectures and concerts on this subject – sometimes together with my husband recorder player Dan Laurin – in several conservatories and courses in Europe.

Above all I have tried to analyze and investigate how the knowledge in this field can help to orientate historically informed performance-practice. Because, ultimately, the goal for such a research for musicians like me is not to limit the discussion to some isolated analysis, but to be able to apply practically this knowledge to our way of performing.

A.P.L. Copyright 2012