Musical Morality

June 12, 2017 at 2:08 pm

When I was a wee lad, my father gave me a CD of Bach’s harpsichord concertos as a birthday present. Yes, I was a nerd.

Fast-forward 25+ years to my middle-aged self, over-educated, and packed with esoteric tidbits of musical knowledge. I pull out the aforementioned CD for a birthday listen. Only there is something quite wrong about what I hear.

… this harpsichord is playing with sensitive dynamics!

You might have heard that the piano used to be called the pianoforte – literally, “soft-loud.” This is because before the piano’s keyboard predecessors (the organ and harpsichord) didn’t have velocity-sensitive keys (to oversimplify the matter). No matter how hard you hit the key, the resulting note will always be the same volume.

Now, those of us who play the harpsichord are used to creating the illusion of dynamics by altering our articulation and shortening/elongating notes, among other things. But this recording is not an illusion … there is some witchcraft here! If you listen carefully at 6:40-6:55, you can hear the harpsichord get gradually softer – it sounds as if someone is silently closing the lid of the instrument, muffling the sound. Or, perhaps the recording engineer just turned down a volume know to make the upcoming crescendo more effective.


The big question is, is this morally right? Ok, so this is not exactly a life-and-death situation here, but it does make you think. Possible arguments (in no particular order):

  1. Historic Authenticity: Bach certainly didn’t have a volume knob to turn down, and it’s unlikely he had someone standing next to the harpsichord to slowly close the lid in order to create a decrescendo. So this performance is “wrong”?
  2. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity: If Bach could have turned a volume knob, he would have. This performance sounds better with the added dynamics. So this performance is “right”?
  3. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity, part 2: If Bach had access to a 13-foot Steinway, this would be a piano concerto instead. So it is equally “right” and arguably better to play this on the piano?
  4. There are hundreds of factors that go into every performance according to the resources available and needs of the performers/audience, blurring the lines of “right” and “wrong” into a big smeary gray area.
  5. Who gives a care anyway?

As for me, I’m with #4. I’m not sure a pure historically authentic performance (#1) can be achieved because we cannot help but look at the past through our present selves. Assuming a dead composer would agree with our ideals (#2 & #3) is dangerous, pretentious, and stupid. And as for #5 – I do in fact give a care!



A Violinist’s Nightmare

October 25, 2016 at 2:05 pm

Occasionally I will dream about a new piece of music – when I awake, I desperately try to cling to the notes flying in my head and, in my tired, confused state, write them down before they evaporate forever. Musical dreams are fascinating, and I’m certainly not the only person who has them. Take, for example, composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini

Tartini had one of these musical dreams which he describes thus:

In 1713, I dreamed that I sold my soul to the devil. Everything went perfectly – the devil fulfilled any desire I named. I handed him my violin to see if he could play; he began to play a marvelous sonata which had me completely enraptured. Never could I have imagined such beautiful music. I was so moved that I woke up in a cold sweat, and running to my violin, I tried in vain to remember the music I had heard. What I did write down, however, is the best music I have ever written; even so, I would destroy my violin and forsake music forever for a chance to hear the devil’s music once again.

Now, this description was not written by Tartini, but related in a book by his friend, so it is very possible that it is completely made up! Even so, it makes a great story.

Making a deal with the devil is a common theme in literature was well as in music. The sonata Tartini ended up writing down (whether or not he actually composed it) is called the “Devil’s Trill Sonata” – perhaps because the devil was the composer, but more likely because of the devilishly difficult double-stops (playing two violin strings at once) and trills in the work. It’s a classic example of a baroque sonata for solo instrument and basso continuo (fancy word for bass accompaniment, which was provided by cello, bass, harpsichord, organ, theorbo, guitar, or a combination of those instruments.)


Underwear in music

August 31, 2016 at 2:53 pm

François Couperin wrote approximately ten bazillion short pieces for harpsichord. Okay, not really; but he wrote enough that if you were to listen to them all in a row, it would take well over 10 hours.***

Most baroque composers gave their keyboard compositions boring titles that merely told you the tempo or what kind of dance they were: titles like “Suite” or “Minuet” or “Allegro.” Couperin gave many of his works names that evoke a scene, mood, or idea – a full 100+ years before programmatic music became all the rage. And to boot, he actually wrote the book on keyboard playing.

One of his short harpsichord pieces is titled “The Mysterious Barricade.” People have interpreted this title to mean a number of different things: the barricade between life and death; the barricade between past, present, and future; and the barricade that underwear provides.

***If you’re up for that Couperin marathon, start here, with book I, then continue through volume IV. And bring popcorn. A LOT of popcorn.