Introduction to mid-18th-century Ornamentation

This is another post related to a series of classes I am teaching at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama on Early Music for Modern Harpists: see also Principles & Practice and Online Resources.

I hope this article will be useful for any student approaching high Baroque and early Classical music. And before anyone even starts to think of exceptions to the simple guidelines I offer, let me emphasise that this is only an Introduction. Quantz has 12 pages on ornamentation for beginners (starting from p77), Leopold Mozart 59 pages of detail (from p193), CPE Bach 68 pages (p51 onwards), and even Meyer’s harp Method has two pages of text and four pages of music examples (including lots of arpeggios, of course). Links all these primary sources are in my Online Resources post.

So this short summary is necessarily simplified, but it is soundly based on these four mid-18th-century Essays. These mighty historical documents are pretty heavy going, if one tries to read them all the way through. Even a thorough survey of a general topic, such as Ornamentation, is a daunting project. But you can well use them as reference works, looking up the particular Ornament at hand and getting a quick answer to a specific question.

My focus here is on the mid-18th century, and the particular application is to modern harp. Fingerings, and some of my comments, are specific to harp, even to modern harp. But realisations and most of my comments should be useful as a starting-point for any performer.

Irish traditional music preserves a lively practice of ornamentation, which derives in part from local 18th-century styles. During and after the time of Carolan, the native tradition continued to flourish (even as it adapted to adversity), and available sources are fairly close (in time and milieu) to that tradition. [Inevitably, the information becomes more sketchy, as one goes further back in time]. So 18th-century Celtic repertoires (Scots and Welsh too) are ripe for exploration by today’s historical harpers, and I include some remarks on Ornamentation for Irish harp. Don’t apply these to European music!

Nomenclature is a challenge – the same ornament is given different names in different languages, and by different writers. And composers and printers use the same signs sometimes for quite different ornaments. So in this Introduction I use the simplest possible English names: if you have mastered Associated Board Grade V Theory, you will manage just fine.

 

Variations & Graces

 

There are two broad categories of ornamentation. Free variation, in which the player (spontaneously or with preparation in advance) changes the composer’s melody, usually by playing many short notes in the place of one long note. Such variations were called Divisions or Diminutions in the 17th-century, and in her 1802/1811 Method the Comptesse de Genlis calls them broderies (embroidery).

Improvised variations are beyond the scope of this Introduction, but Quantz’s Easy and Fundamental Instructions whereby either vocal or instrumental Performers … may learn how to introduce Extempore Embellishments or Variations as also Ornamental Cadences with Propriety, Taste and regularity were translated from his Versuch into English in 1780 – free download here.

According to Quantz and his translators, those Embellishments are the Productions of a momentary Invention or Fancy of the Performer, and in this Respect are different from those common Graces that are distinguish’d by particular Marks, such as Shakes [trills] and Beats [mordents] etc.

This article is concerned with ‘those common Graces‘ that might be marked in the score with signs, or should be added by the performer where necessary. Quantz and CPE Bach call them Manieren. These are what we normally think of today as Ornaments, applying to a particular note, rather than Variations that change the whole melody into different notes.

 

Ornament signs

German (and Austrian) 18th-century music explored a mixed style, influenced by earlier Italian and/or French aesthetics. Ornaments on a certain note, whether indicated by a sign or supplied by the performer, were regarded as part of the French heritage within the overall style. This fits neatly with the period characterisation of French style as subtle, tender, delicate, elegant, fashionable and balletic; as opposed to the directness, strength, passion, raw energy and drama of the Italian style. Thus there survives JS Bach’s handwritten copy of D’Anglebert’s table of ornaments from 17th-century France.

 

 

If your piece has ornament signs, you should not assume that they have the same meaning as modern signs, not even that they have the same meaning as signs from other historical sources. Many original publications included a specific table of ornaments, and you should look for a list of signs that is as close as possible to the piece you are studying.

Purcell’s 1696 table gives period English names for ‘Graces’: these names differ from modern terminology, and there are subtle differences in vocabulary between different sources even in the same language. Again, you should look for an explanatory source that is as close as possible to the piece you are studying.

 

 

JS Bach left a simplified table of ornaments for his 9-year-old son, Wilhelm Friedemann. This can be a good starting point for modern players.

 

 

For a particular piece or repertoire, it is well worth creating an ornament table of your own, using signs that give a visual representation of the ornament you have decided to apply. Write your signs into your score, and keep the table handy as a reminder, not only of the notes implied by each sign, but how to play them: fast/slow, loud/soft and fingering etc.

Jane Weidensaul’s edition of the CPE Bach Sonata for Harp applies information from his Versuch to suggest realisations of each ornament. This is a fine work of applied research, but it is only a first step. It fails to take into account differences between keyboard (the subject of the Versuch) and harp (the instrument for which the Sonata was written), or between baroque and modern harps.  Many of the suggested realisations are unplayable in an appropriate tempo. And the next step would be to apply CPE Bach’s and Quantz’s recommendations for subtle dynamic and timing contrasts within each ornament (see below).

This 2014 article by Colin Booth discusses ornamentation in JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations and is certainly helpful for the composer’s entire output, and as a discussion of the aesthetics of ornamentation for the whole period.

 

Beyond this Introduction

 

Amongst specialist performers and researchers, there is debate about changes in musical taste from one generation to another, from Johann Sebastian’s ornaments to Carl Philipp Emmanuel’s. That debate is beyond the scope of this introduction, and beyond the needs of most mainstream players. Indeed, one of the problems of today’s Early Music is that experts discuss abstruse corners of the field so passionately, examining exceptional cases and outlier opinions, with the result that historically informed (but non-specialist) musicians and mainstream performers can easily lose sight of standard period practice and the overwhelming historical consensus.

For Ornamentation, students will find a broad consensus between the four Essays discussed here, and need not worry – not yet, at least! – about subtle differences between CPE and JSB, or between Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus, in their approach to Graces.

18-century Ornamentation for Irish harp has many similarities to European practices, and also some notable differences. There is a most interesting ornament table, supposedly based on 18th-century traditions, published in Bunting The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840). The two sections excerpted here resemble European Appoggiaturas and Trills, which Bunting categorises according to the period English names of fall and shake.

 

Ideals and Practicalities

 

There is a modern tendency to regard the harpsichord as the ideal of baroque music, to be emulated by other instruments. This is not unreasonable, for 20th-century harpsichordists and harpsichord-playing directors have been very influential in today’s Early Music, and we have the inspiring historical examples of JS and CPE Bach. But the sound of the harpsichord is certainly not a baroque ideal, for it is very far from the sound of the human voice (the philosophical ideal of all Baroque playing), and its mechanical nature limits the subtlety of its ornamentations. Probably the best modern-day examples of stylish ornamentation come from baroque flautists, applying all the subtleties of Quantz’s Versuch.

Listen here: CDs are not primary sources, but nevertheless I recommend listening to Laurence Dean’s flute-playing in mid-18th century repertoire, for example the Andantino from this trio Sonata by Georg Benda.

It is harder to play ornaments on baroque harp than on harpsichord, and 18th-century sources advise that harpists don’t have to play all the ornaments that a keyboard-player would execute. It’s even harder on modern harp, where thicker strings, higher string-tension and large-lever finger-movements work against speed and lightness in ornamentation. My advice is to reduce the number of ornaments where necessary, and to reduce the number of iterations in trills. In short: not too many twiddles!

But even modern harpists should add ornaments to the score, where they are essentially needed, for example at cadences (see below).

Amongst plucked-string instruments, lute-family and baroque guitar are able to realise the most elegant trills.

Listen here: I recommend Xavier Diaz-Latorre’s playing, for example this Chaconne by De Visée.  Notice that the resolutions of appoggiaturas and the iterations of trills are not  re-struck by the plucking fingers of the right hand, but are made by the left hand only. This is a subtle effect that harpists can only attempt to emulate.

The lower string-tension of baroque harps (French 18th-century ‘single-action’ pedal harps had especially low pitch and low string-tension) facilitates the speed, lightness and subtlety of ornamentation.

Listen here: Here is a Chaconne by Lully, with D’Anglebert’s principles of ornamentation applied, on 17th-century triple harp.

See also Single Action Harp: making Sensibility of the Méthodes.

Where to play What?

 

We might regard all these little twiddles as somewhat inessential. But some of them are part of the ‘grammar’ of Baroque music, and cannot be omitted. And if they are missing, they must be supplied.

We English speakers might regard the acute accent in the word café as a piece of French-style decoration, harmless enough, but not really essential. If we see cafe, we are neither confused nor offended. But for any Francophone, the é is essential: if it is missing, the word is wrong!  And so it is with French-style ornaments in Baroque music. Don’t go around saying “Kayf”!

The best historical Introduction to the French style of ornamentation in Lully’s time is in Muffat’s Florilegium Secundum (1698), as part of a general introduction to French baroque dance music in four languages: German, French, Latin, and Italian. Writing for ‘foreigners’ (i.e. not French), Muffat’s approach is very useful for us today, as ‘foreigners’ to this historical period. He gives detailed rules of which ornament to apply where.

The rules are indeed detailed. “It is uncouth to give a tremblement to an ascending good note… unless it is a mi or a note sharpened with #, which is almost always ornamented with a tremblement“. But in just 10 paragraphs, Muffat summarises “all the secrets of ornaments played a la francoise“. Highly recommended reading.

Some situations, in particular cadences, demand that the player supply an ornament, even if the composer has not notated it. Muffat: “At cadences, there are certain notes that demand a tremblement and others that refuse it”.

At a Perfect Cadence, with V-I harmonies, typical melodies require some kind of trill from the upper auxilary: Soprano Cadence (tonic, leading-note, tonic: trill on the leading-note); or Tenor Cadence (supertonic, tonic: trill on the supertonic). The Alto and Bass Cadences should not be given a trill.

 

 

See here for Cadential Shakes in Irish music.

 

Quantz and CPE Bach show instances where Appoggiaturas should be added, for example to melodies descending in thirds. We see such Appoggiaturas written, for example in the second bar of CPE Bach’s harp Sonata. It has not yet become standard practice amongst today’s Early Musicians to add these, but the historical evidence for them is clear. Read more in the Easy and Fundamental Instructions. 

 

CPE Bach’s melody descends in thirds through the principal notes G E C. Each is given an Appoggiatura, and the (longer) last note has a more complex Appoggiatura with Short Trill.

 

Repeated or varied ornaments?

Although Appoggiaturas are often repeated, as in CPE Bach’s example above, one element of subtlety can be the avoidance of an immediate repeat of precisely the same ornament. Muffat: “One certainly does not approve of two tremblements in a row”.

Instead, you can use a slightly different version of the same basic ornament type, a more elaborate or simpler trill for example. Usually, the basic type is defined by the situation and the degree of elaboration is up to you – see Muffat’s rules for details. Thus CPE Bach elaborates his third Appoggiatura, above.

Reluctance to repeat the same ornament seems not to be a feature of Irish 18th-century harp-playing. This transcription, based on the Forde MS, 154, shows the ornament that Bunting calls Striking Upwards applied three times in succession to the second strain of Ta me mo cholad, seen also in other sources for this tune.

 

 

In this context, the ornament seems to function as an Appoggiatura (perhaps slow) plus a Mordent (fast). Indeed, it looks like the mirror image, ascending, of CPE Bach’s elaborated descending Appoggiatura.

But Bunting’s description of Striking Upwards seems to indicate a brisk execution of the whole ornament. We might conclude that there can be subtleties of timing, even when an ornament is realised with the same pitches.

 

Timing

There are two, inter-related, questions of timing. How should we time the ornament within the note-value it is attached to? And how should we time individual notes within the ornament itself? Period sources gives us detailed answers.

Many sources emphasise that it is important to adapt your ornament to the note-value of the written note, and according to the tempo of the music. In general, ornaments should be longer and slower, if the note-value is longer; shorter and faster if the note-value is short.

For clavichord, with relatively little sustain, CPE Bach likes ornaments to fill up all the available space within the written note. Other sources leave the end of the written note plain: this works well on the harp with its long sustain (even more so for modern harp and historical Irish harp, with even longer sustain). On a dotted note, you can finish the ornament on the dot.

The timing of individual notes within the ornament is beyond the scope of this Introduction. But if the first note is an Appoggiatura, or functions like an Appoggiatura, it can be longer. The detailed information in Quantz and CPE Bach perhaps suggests a tendency to move from slow to fast within ornaments, which we can trace back to Caccini’s trillo in 1601. See this Introduction to ornamentation for Monteverdi’s period.

The most important timing rule is to begin the ornament on the beat, not before. You can practise this by playing a bass note, or tapping your foot, simultaneously with the start of the ornament.

There are some special case exceptions to this rule, and some outlier opinions in period sources and amongst 20th-century commentators. For today’s specialists, this is an area for debate and sophisticated subtlety, applied only in very particular circumstances. Read all 80 pages of Quantz’s and CPE’s remarks on ornaments, before you venture into this fascinating quagmire.

Long Trill

 

Begin on the beat, with the upper auxiliary (not the written note). Add a concluding turn if there is enough time. Add an initial appoggitura if there is enough time- hold the appoggitura as long as you can. A very long trill can start very slowly and gradually speed up.

Harpists – don’t try for too many reiterations!

Harpists, lutenists, keyboard-players – practise your ornaments with a bass accompaniment, to make sure that you start the ornament on the beat (as defined by the bass), not before the beat. Others can tap their foot with the first note of the ornament.

The alternative harp-fingering comes from Cousineau (1784).

 

We see something similar in 18th-century Irish Harp ornamentation, but using fingers 2324, without thumb; and beginning on the main note, rather than the upper auxiliary. See Irish Long Shake.

Lower mordent

Begin on the beat, with the written note. Play a slower ornament and/or add reiterations if there is time, and to have a gentler effect. Play fast and snappy, to make it bite.

Practise with a bass note or a foot-tap to define the beat. It should sound like the word “ORnament”, and not like “This is WRONG“!

The alternative execution from 18th-century Irish harp playing relies on the sustaining power of historical brass strings, or indeed of the thick strings of a modern harp. Two plucking actions and one damping movement create the illusion of three notes being played. Damp actively, a bit of string noise helps the illusion.

 

 

Short Trill

This has to start on the upper  auxiliary, so the shortest acceptable version has four notes.

Begin on the beat, with the upper auxiliary.  If there is more time, play a more gentle trill with more reiterations.

Practise with a bass note or a foot-tap to define the beat. It should sound like “RIGHT on the beat”, and not like “BeFORE the beat” nor “Before the BEAT“.

The harp fingering is from 18th-century French Methods. Slide the thumb from upper auxiliary to main note, moving the thumb itself, not the whole hand (too slow, too heavy).

The alternative execution is based on Irish techniques, but adapted (the Irish style for this ornament starts on the main note). It works surprisingly well, done fast and actively.

 

 

Appoggiatura

Many 18th-century sources define the Appoggiatura as the most important ornament of all. Luckily it is easy to play. As the Italian name suggests, “lean” on the auxiliary note, and ooze gently into the resolution, which is played softer.

Take the Appoggiatura on a long note, typically after shorter notes, and in the same direction (from below or above) as the approach to that long note.

Start on the beat. Sustain the appoggiatura for half the length of the written note (if it’s a dotted note, for two thirds of the length).

 

 

The most important thing about Ornaments

 

Quantz and CPE Bach concur that the most important element is the Abzug (literally, pulling away), diminuendo. An Appoggiatura is played with a little swelling on the auxiliary (louder still, if it makes a strong dissonance), and then gently and softly into the resolution.

In general, the use of loud/soft within an ornament gives lots of character. Often, ornaments go from loud to soft. The details are in CPE Bach and Quantz, and are most easily accessible for English-speakers in the period translation of Quantz, Easy and Fundamental Instructions (see above).

Subtle use of fast/slow within an ornament is also a vital expressive resource. The general rule is to go from slow to fast. The details are in CPE Bach and Quantz, and are most easily accessible for English-speakers in Easy and Fundamental Instructions.

Quantz gives a sample slow movement, Adagio with ornaments applied and links to his rules for realising them. It’s in the Versuch and included in the Easy and Fundamental Instructions too.

Summary

This is a very basic summary of a very short Introduction.  Handel with care! (sic)

  • Adjust to the tempo and note-value.
  • Start with the upper note.
  • On the beat.
  • From Loud to Soft [most important].
  • From Slow to Fast.

 

  • Cadences need trills

 

If you apply this summary you have made a brave start. Hurray! Now go and read Easy and Fundamental, because it is easy.

It is also Fundamental. So read it!

 

 

 

 

 

Tactus, Tempo & Affekt: Historical Principles & Online Resources

Baroque Tempo is a huge subject, bringing together three of the key concepts of Baroque music: the interplay between the notation and performance of rhythm (Tactus as it relates to note-values, and as it is shown by the hand); the speed of that beat and of the music it regulates; the emotional quality of the beat itself (as a physical movement) and of the music that it produces. Even within a narrowly defined period and culture – German music from the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example – a thorough survey would be way beyond the scope of a doctoral thesis. And as soon as we shift even to the following generation – CPE Bach and Quantz – there are significant changes to practices and aesthetics. So a 1-hour class and this short summary can only hope to scratch the surface.

The challenge is not that we lack sufficient historical information, nor that such questions are unanswerable. Rather, we have so much information that it is daunting to start working through it all. And – even amongst some Early Music performers – there is some reluctance to accept certain hard truths: the period dialectic is of the true way, and not of personal interpretations and free choices. Within a given period and culture, there are some minor differences of opinion between different writers, but the consensus on fundamentals is clear. There is a Wahre Art (true way) and we have to make our best attempt (Versuch) to find it!

 

In the 18th century, the (physical & emotional) feeling of Tempo is not just a matter of speed (mathematical quantity) but of character (emotional quality). So we need to avoid a simplistic focus on “what is the right speed” and examine original notation, historical practices of beating time, and the subtle relationship between Tempo and Affekt.

 

Before 1750

 

Early 18th-century notation is intended to indicate which note-value corresponds to the Tactus beat. That beat varies only a little in absolute speed (around one beat per second), but the emotional quality of the beat (as physical movement of the hand) and of the music that is produced, varies greatly. Notation gives detailed information: JS Bach’s D minor Prelude (from Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) is notated in C, with triplet semiquavers: had it been notated with the same note-values, but with a time-signature of 24/16, a different beat-tempo would be implied. If he had added a tempo word, such as Allegro, this would modify the beat-tempo-Affekt from the default setting indicated by the notation. This is the concept of Tempo Ordinario (also known as Tempo Giusto): a default beat and beat-speed indicated by the notation, which can be modified by words.

We must therefore be careful to check what the original note-values, time signature and tempo words are, so that we are not misled by well-intentioned editorial interventions.

This practice is explained, with more detail than most of us can manage, in Mattheson’s Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (1719) & Der vollkommene Kapellmeister (1739)  and Walther’s Lexicon (1741). But nobody is expected to memorise the complete writings of these authors: these are reference-books. It doesn’t take long to look up 24/16 and read how it is different from C.

 

 

 

The underlying principle is that Compound time-signatures suggest a slower tempo with a “hop” on the last of three short notes; whereas Duple time-signatures suggest a faster tempo, with less (or no) “hop”.

The most important lesson of all is that we don’t need to invent answers: clear answers are available, if we know where to look for them.

 

After 1750

In 1752, Quantz gives details of an emerging practice, in which such tempo-words as allegro or adagio indicate which note-value has the “pulse”, adjusting (but not abandoning) the previous system based on time-signatures. The Adagio un poco of CPE Bach’s Sonata for harp might be counted in steady quavers, with a “slightly relaxed” feel to the quaver-beat, rather than in three very drawn-out crotchets.

Quantz defines his pulse as approximately 80 beats per minute (whereas a century previously, Mersenne’s default was 60 beats per minute).

 

 

Again, we don’t have to make guesses, or memorise an entire book. We can look up specific instructions for the particular notations at hand.

Online Resources – Scores

A mighty modern resource for answering questions about baroque music lies in the easily-accessible power of free online music-libraries, in particular IMSLP. There is no longer any excuse for using some crappy mid-20th-century edition, when original prints and holographs (manuscript in the composer’s own hand) are available free. Faster, cheaper, better! IMSLP is expanding so fast, that its own index struggles to keep pace: the most effective way to search is using Google. As an example, a Google search on “Bach 48 IMSLP” led me instantly to the Book 1 holograph, with the Prelude in question.

Harpists (and guitarists) are very attached to their old-fashioned editions, but the time has come to realise that most of what many editors have added is unhelpful or misleading, if not simply wrong. Cluttered scores (with zillions of additional pencil-markings prompted by teachers) lead to a micro-controlling mindset, which is very different from the two-point focus of baroque practice: Tactus and Text. [In instrumental music, we play in Tactus and as if we were singing some Text, with syllables, sense-groups, and meaning]

 

Some years ago, I stopped accepting the Grandjany arrangement as the basis for a lesson on Handel’s Harp Concerto. It’s a wonderful arrangement, and should still be played, with all the accoutrements of 1940s style. But as a lens through which to study Handel, it has so much of its own character that it utterly distorts the long view. The original Walsh print of the Handel Concerto is free online at TheHarpConsort.com:  Study Early Harps, easy to read, clear and uncluttered. Mozart’s (1778) holograph of the Flute & Harp Concerto is free online at IMSLP, easy to read, clear and uncluttered.  The holograph of CPE Bach’s Sonata is also clear to read, and the library holding it has recently made it available online.

 

 

For any other piece, you should check IMSLP for the best available free edition, before you turn up for a lesson with some crappy edition.

 

Crappy, clunky, expensive or free?

 

How do you know if the edition you are using is crappy? “Arranged for harp” is already a warning sign, and the death-sentence is confirmed by anachronistic  editorial additions [metronome marks; implausible tempo markings; long phrase-lines; such romantic favourites as legato, sostenuto, cantabile etc; other anachronisms e.g. mention of ‘pianoforte’ in a work by JSB] unless acknowleged [by being placed inside brackets].

Good old 19th-century complete editions are often available on IMSLP. These are clunky, but better than crappy mid-20th century arrangements. Recent ­Ur-text editions reflect the latest scholarship, but only if you take the trouble to read the prefaces, and they are so expensive that they mostly languish in institutional libraries. Original prints and manuscripts are not hard to read: in this period the only significant hurdle might be an unfamiliar clef. And on IMSLP, they are free and faster to access than that crappy edition we had to make do with 50 years ago.

Let this be your motto:

I Must Search [the free, online] Library before Playing [from some crappy edition]”

Online Resources – Treatises

 

Of course, there are many questions to be answered, when one starts from an original source. But those questions are not answered (or worse still, they are answered wrong) if you start from a crappy edition. So…. it’s time to give up that crappy habit! From now on, I’m going to encourage all my students to look up their piece on IMSLP, before they come to a lesson or class.

I recommend EarlyMusicSources.com as a huge resource of free online historical treatises and expert modern commentary (including entertaining videos on hot issues in Historically Informed Perforamnce). The famous mid-18th-century treatises are all freely available online.

 

Links to Mattheson and Walther (first half of the 18th-century) are above. Click from this article, or just Google.

Yeah, the books are long and in foreign languages. So use the index of chapters and Google Translate.  And maybe there is an English translation online, or a text-only version [i.e. searchable with Ctrl-F] from Project Gutenberg or wherever. Several key sources are translated on this blog, and every article here includes links to free-online original sources.

 

And of course, ask for help from your teacher, but after you have tried for yourself, and reached some road-block…

“Historically Informed” does not mean imitating CDs or gleaning guesses from geeky gurus. It means using Historical Information, and that information is freely available. Just Google a historical treatise or an original manuscript!

Look Bach on 2015

ALK & Peri

 

Bach’s Prelude & Sarabande performed on baroque triple harp, against the background of a year of research, training and performance; publications, research findings; operas and concerts around the world.

Thanks to all co-researchers and musicians, friends, colleagues, participants and audiences!

 

 

Looking forward to seeing you in 2016!

 

Peri Euridice Preface vale

 

Please join me on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

 

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.

 

 

Historical technique for Early Irish Harps

As interest in and knowledge about Historical Irish Harps (aka Early Gaelic Harps) grows, as well-made and fine-sounding instruments become increasingly available, as insights into historical styles and period aesthetics are sharpened and shared, it’s high time to consider how we might recover historical playing techniques. We have a good model of how to do this work of re-discovery in the revival of period techniques for other historical instruments: harpsichord, viola da gamba, recorder, baroque violin and European Early Harps. The modern revival of those early instruments has many decades more experience than we have with Early Irish harps, so we would be wise to take whatever we can from the hard work they already put in. As Isaac Newton wrote in 1676, we can see further “by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Where to look?

So what sources of information are available to us?

  1. Period information specifically related to the Early Irish Harp (music including technical instructions, treatises with technical information, iconography etc)
  2. Other sources of period information (other harps, similar instruments, other instruments and voice, literature etc)
  3. Personal experience of modern experts

We need to synthesise all the available information, examining each source for its merits, and weighing one piece of evidence against another. Apparent contradictions should alert us to the need for further investigation, and/or reconsideration. And – most importantly – our approach should prioritise those various sources of information in the order I’ve given.

For example, whatever opinions you might read in my blog are less significant than hard information you find in historical sources. Doh! Of course! And the same goes for any modern writer’s (or musician’s) opinions. So the challenge goes out to everyone, anyone with any interest in the subject, to find pieces of evidence that might challenge the accepted view. After all, knowledge only advances when someone dares to challenge what the previous authorities declared as indubitable fact!

Galileo and the Philosophers

Galileo and the Philosophers

What can we expect to see?

So as we put this evidence-based approach to work, what can we expect to see? The revival of other early instruments shows us that

4.  Historical techniques are different from 20th-century techniques

5.  Historical techniques vary from one historical period to another

6.  Historical techniques have consistent principles from one instrument/voice to another, within the same period

7.  Historical techniques differ from one place to another, not according to geography, but according to schools of influence

 

That last point is especially important. Within the same period, we do see significant differences in techniques from one place to another. These differences do not respect national boundaries, but are associated with shared aesthetics, cultural communication. So in the late 17th century, the musical aesthetics of the French style influenced many other countries: in Ireland, Carolan wrote Minuets. Technical methods followed the same routes as the aesthetic styles – if you want to play in French style, you’ll need French technique. Thus Muffat’s comments (in Florilegium, 1698, available, but not free, here) on the violin style of Lully made French violin technique available to musicians in the German-speaking countries who wanted to play in the French style.

Meanwhile Italian musicians brought Italian violin technique to Germany, too. By the mid-18th century, violin technique in Germany was a complex mix of French and Italian influences, described in detail in Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule (1787) here.

Similarly, Carolan’s contemporaries noticed how he brought the fashionable early 18th-century Italian style into his music. We can clearly trace in 18th-century Scots and Irish music three schools of influence: an ancient layer of Gaelic tradition (most visible in the gapped scales and characteristic ornaments); a 17th-century layer of French style (especially dance rhythms); a surface layer of Italian fashion (virtuosity and drama).

Available Evidence

So keeping in mind the principles of Where to Look and the guide of What we can Expect to See, what can we observe about period techniques for Early Irish Harps?

1a Music

There is very little (if any) music, let alone music annotated with technical instructions, for historical Irish Harp, that survives as a reliable indication of how the old harpers actually played.. Much of the repertoire remained in the aural tradition for centuries, and most of the publications of harp music were intended (and therefore, we may presume, adapted) for other instruments. Around 1800, Bunting includes some technical instructions in his published arrangements, but the technical information has to be assessed carefully since the music itself is heavily adapted. Luckily, we also have Bunting’s MS notebooks, which record the various stages of his work from field recording (noting down a tune as sung, played on fiddle, or played on the harp) through the process of adaptation and arrangement to the final published version. These notebooks include a few hints on technique, but fall way short of what we might wish for (detailed fingerings for an entire tune, for example). 18th-century prints are also one step removed from the harp itself, and do not include technical information. We find harp music in 17th-century lute tablatures, but these supply very little technical information.

1b Treatises

We don’t have Carolan’s Recipe for the Harp, more’s the pity! In fact, we have almost no period technical information for historical Irish Harp. Bunting’s publications and note-books give us some information on treble-hand ornaments and bass-hand chords.

What we do have is an 18th-century tradition of the first tunes that were taught to students of the Irish harp. Simon Chadwick discusses three such tunes and gives his suggestions for a technical approach in his book Progressive Lessons for Early Gaelic Harp, read more here.

Chadwick Progressive Lessons

You can see Bunting’s manuscript sketch of the Second Tune Burns March here  (The crossing out is Bunting’s mark that he has transferred the material to the next stage of adaptation and arrangement).

Burns March Bunting MS

 

The final arrangement for pianoforte is in his 1809 publication.

 

 

Burns March Bunting 1809

Comparing these two versions, there is plenty of room for speculation and debate as to which elements of detail seen in the final publication are genuine memories of Denis O’Hampsey’s performance on Irish harp, and which are Bunting’s own adaptations for a pianoforte publication. For example, the published version suggests how the notes might be divided between the two hands, and gives a lot of information about sustained and damped notes, all of which is consistent with other information this period. But the pianoforte arrangement also features extreme dynamics and rallentando, which contradict the information Bunting himself provides, that the old harpers played “briskly” and avoided the “sentimentality” of the 19th-century pianoforte style. However, the publication’s over-dotting of the long notes in bars one and two, and the slur indication, both serve to emphasise the difference between long/resonant and short/damped. This  is consistent with the principle of Good and Bad notes that we find throughout European music in the three centuries or more before 1800 (see below).

But we don’t know what kind of fingering system was used. Simon Chadwick’s realisation has something of medieval Ap Huw, something of 20th-century Crossed Hands. It does not look like the Good/Bad fingerings we see for many European instruments in the 16th/17th centuries, nor like the 18th-century approach we see in European treatises (German Essays and French Methods). With Simon’s book, as with Bunting’s output, the reader must decide for themselves how to separate historical information from editorial adaptation. With all due academic propriety, Simon makes your task easier, by giving you access to Bunting’s versions so that you can make your own comparison.

The fact that we know what were the First Tunes to be learnt in the early 18th century is a wonderful piece of information. Unfortunately, any modern interpretation of that information is working at several removes from what the old harpists actually played. We should synthesise the information hinted at in these First Tunes with what we know more surely from other sources.

1c Iconography

There are lots of period images, which give us plenty of suggestions for the basic posture, position of the hands etc. Surviving instruments also preserve signs of wear and tear, indicating how they were used by historical players.

aoneill

 

Carolan with small harp

2a Other Early Harps

We have a lot of period information and modern expertise to draw on. The ‘schools of influence’ concept can help us apply French and Italian techniques to Irish harp.

2b Related Early Instruments

We have a huge amount of period information and modern expertise to draw on. We can learn from historical Irish pipers and fiddlers. And we can learn from all the European instruments and voice treatises. If we look for the common ground, we can see strong consistent messages from all these sources, that we can confidently apply to Irish harp.

2c Other period sources

We have Irish texts to show us the characteristic phrasing of Irish song melodies. We can learn from any musical instrument, and from period literature and philosophy. There is a bottomless well of period information from Ireland and the rest of Europe, all of which we might usefully examine for possible relevance to Irish harp technique.

3 Modern expertise

If there is a current consensus, it is based largely on modern expertise. This is a valuable source of shared knowledge, but we must bear in mind that 20th-century wire-strung techniques were developed to play the repertoire as it was understood in the 20th century, in the way it was played in the 20th century, with the instruments that were available in the 20th century. Modern wire-strung technique therefore focuses on how to play the jigs and reels of modern tradition; how to play fast and loud in the modern manner; how to play evenly and smoothly in the modern style; how to control the excessive treble resonance of 20th-century steel-strung harps.

Coupled hands Heymann

Ann Heymann’s (2001) Coupled Hands technique makes it easier to play wide-ranging fast tunes by using both hands for the melody. It is available here.

 

Intro to wire-strung harp

This modern tutor, edited by Bill Taylor and Barnaby Brown, features contributions from Ann Heymann, Javier Sanz and Bill Taylor, and is available here.

Weighing the evidence

4.  Historical techniques are different from 20th-century techniques

20th-century techniques evolved to deal with particular challenges. Historical techniques evolved to deal with different challenges: how to play the historical repertoire of a particular period; with the slow steady beat of historical Tactus; with the short-term phrasing contrasts of period style; how to create the rich bass resonance that was so admired from the middle ages onwards, on thick brass strings.

Therefore, we can confidently expect that period techniques for historical Irish Harps will be quite different from 20th-century wire-strung methods.

5.  Historical techniques vary from one historical period to another

This makes our task with the Irish Harp even more complex. We have so little information, and the information we do have is from around 1800. When we look at the music itself, we see that music from Carolan’s time changed considerably as it was passed around by aural transmission during the 18th century. During the 1840s, William Forde collected many variants of older tunes, and some of these variants show extreme differences. More about the Forde MS here. During the 18th century, the old nail-technique was almost entirely abandoned.

We must assume that period techniques changed, in line with the music itself. Parallel changes in techniques for other harps, for other instruments, and the changing demands of the music can suggest what changes might have happened when.

Nevertheless, there are certain fundamental principles that are common to a wide range of early techniques (various instruments across a wide chronological period). It is reasonable to apply these fundamental principles of early techniques to Irish harp. And frankly, given the lack of other evidence, we have no alternative!

6.  Historical techniques have consistent principles from one instrument/voice to another, within the same period

This encourages us to seek out those fundamental principles, and apply them.

7.  Historical techniques differ from one place to another, not according to geography, but according to schools of influence

So we can look for help for the Irish harp from 15th/16th-century Welsh traditions (e.g. Ap Huw MS, read more here); from 17th-century French sources; from mid-18th-century German sources that describe the ‘international’ mix of Italian and French styles, from late 18th-century French sources that describe the harp techniques brought to England and Ireland around 1800.

These patterns of influence suggest strong parallels between the chronological development of Irish harp techniques and the big story of technical changes in Europe for all kinds of instruments.

All this encourages us to examine the fundamental principles of historical techniques (for any instrument, anywhere in Europe), and experiment with how to apply them to historical Irish harps, playing historical repertoire in a historical style.

Here are some provisional pointers.

Position

Period images show us that

  • The player sits with one leg more extended than the other
  • The harp is positioned with the top of the box more-or-less under the player’s chin.
  • The hands rest on the soundbox

All this is consistent with period posture when sitting in any situation, and with the wear-marks from the player’s hands resting on the soundbox of the 15th-century Trinity harp.

My personal experience is that it helps to rest the hands on the soundbox firmly: this allows the fingers to be relaxed and move freely. I counterbalance the pressure of a finger on a string with increased pressure of the hand on the soundbox. This passes the physical sensation of playing down through the body in a chain of actions/reactions, finger on string, hand on harp, harp on shoulder, shoulders supported by spine, sitting well-balanced on the chair, sensing the connection to the floor in your feet. This proprioceptive chain creates the sensation that you play a note with your entire body, and that you are simultaneously balanced, centred and connected to the earth.

Hempson

Which hand to use?

  • One hand plays the treble, the other hand plays the bass.
  • The hands are usually widely separated.
  • The left hand plays the treble.

Images and surviving music support the historical division of roles between the hands – one hand plays the treble, the other hand plays the bass. This is consistent from Ap Huw to Bunting. Bunting mentions hand-crossing as a special effect, used very sparingly. This is consistent with techniques for other harps and keyboards in this period.

There is no historical support for, and considerable period evidence to contradict, the 20th-century technique of  Crossed (Linked or Coupled) hands. That is a modern technique, evolved to deal with the modern challenge of playing the modern repertoire in the modern style.

For the Irish harp, period sources show a strong preference for left hand in the treble, right hand in the bass. Modern players may have good reasons for preferring right hand in the treble. This is a matter of personal choice, it makes no difference to the sound (if you set up your instrument in accordance with your choice of treble hand). The days are long past, when we thought it was acceptable to force people to change their natural handedness.

Brutal attempts to suppress left-handedness in the past.

Brutal attempts to suppress left-handedness in the past.

See my video lesson 1: Position here.

Introduction to Early Irish harp 1 Position

How to move your fingers

Accumulated experience and period evidence for other early instruments teaches us

  • The hand is relaxed, with the fingers and thumb gently curved
  • The fingers rest on the strings and ‘slide’ across the strings, rather than ‘pulling’ or ‘plucking’ from behind the strings
  • The finger-stroke is slow
  • There is a wide range of movement for a long note, a small movement for a short note
  • Increased volume comes from pressure on the string, not from speed of movement.
  • The movement is similar to giving a shoulder rub, to massaging the scalp when washing your hair, to kneading dough for bread-making

These fundamentals are common to any instrument with low tension strings. There is no significant difference whether one plays with fingertips or with nails. However, there is a historical change around 1800, as string tension increases greatly and the period aesthetic moves away from Rhetoric to 19th-century Romanticism.

These fundamentals are very different from the technique of modern classical (or modern ‘Celtic’) harp. 20th-century instruments are different, 20th-century aesthetics are different: it is to be expected that 20th-century techniques will also be different.

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 2 Finger-movement

Which finger to use

This is the element of technique that changed the most, as we see from parallel developments in European harps and related instruments.

Across a wide period, and across many different instruments, teaching books have a consistent structure. More about period teaching books, here. There is a short introduction, which could be summarised as “hold the instrument this way up, this is where the notes are, play in tune, play in time”. Then the book considers three main topics:

  1. Short-term phrasing (what early musicians call Articulation). This is created by  tonguing patterns for flutes, bowing rules for violins, and fingerings for harps, keyboards etc. More about phrasing here.
  2.  Ornamentation (more about Irish harp ornaments here)
  3. Good Delivery (period style, what modern musicians would call Interpretation)

Some books have a fourth section, about Accompaniment. (Continuo, in the baroque period).

The short-term phrasing patterns of Articulation change, and the fingering/tonguing/bowing techniques change accordingly, during the period of the Early Irish harp.

Medieval

If medieval Irish harp-playing was similar to the Welsh styles we see in the Ap Huw MS (more about Ap Huw here), then the music was ornamental, rather than melodic/syllabic. Finger patterns were evolved to produce crisp ornaments, that could be played fast and with certain notes damped for the sake of clarity. The hand is fairly static. We see the remnants of this technical approach in the ornament fingerings given by Bunting.

Just as “classical” early Irish poetry is not constructed according to the accentual metres of European poetry (and Carolan’s easy-listening song lyrics), so the medieval technique of the Ap Huw style does not correspond to the Good/Bad notes principle of later music.

Renaissance & Early Baroque

16th and 17th music has melodies that relate closely to song-melodies. The tunes are therefore syllabic (you can set a text to the tune, with one, two or more notes to each syllable). Just as period poetry has accented and unaccented syllables, so early music has Good and Bad notes, which are played with Good and Bad fingers.  The rule is simple, a Good finger for a Good note, a Bad finger for a Bad note.

The question, which finger is which? Different techniques (various instruments, various periods, various places) make different choices: we may conclude that it doesn’t so much matter which choice you make, but it does matter to make some choice). I speculate that earlier Irish harp techniques might have concentrated on three fingers (index Good, middle Bad, ring Good) with the thumb kept for ornaments. Later Irish harp techniques were probably similar to European harps (thumb Good, index Bad, middle Good).

European historical techniques for harps with the hands close to the soundboard cross the thumb under the fingers. Irish harps were played with the hands close to the soundboard.

Melodies in this period tend to move step-wise, with little fragments of scales upwards and downwards. European historical techniques for harps with the hands close to the soundboard go upwards 32 32 32 and downwards 12 12 12. This works well on Irish harps, remembering that many intervals of a third are not true “jumps” but rather Gaelic gapped scales.

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 3 Good & Bad

Late Baroque and Classical

There is a significant change in aesthetic and techniques during the 18th century, which is clearly established by the time of the three great mid-century treatises: Quantz for flute (1752) here, CPE Bach for keyboard (1753 & 1762) here, , Leopold Mozart for violin (1787) here. The same approach is seen in late 18th-century French harp treatises, read more here.

European 18th-century harp technique works very well for 18th-century Irish music on historical Irish harp.

This was the period during which Irish harpists abandoned use of fingernails. Playing with nails in the older tradition, I find it easier to play thumb-under. If you play with the finger pads as was the incoming fashion, you might well use the thumb-over position described in the late-century French sources.

My advice to students about thumb-under/thumb-over is that it doesn’t really matter much which you use. But you really need to choose: if your thumb can’t decide whether to go over or under, and ends up striking against the index finger, the result is disastrous! Just choose.

Late 18th-century fingerings stretch out the hand to help cover wide-ranging tunes and bigger leaps. The fourth, even fifth, finger comes into use. These fingerings respond to the challenges of the 18th-century repertoire, and I find that they work even for the jigs and reels of the later tradition.

These fingering are convenient to use, they make difficult melodies possible. But they do not create the Good/Bad phrasing, that is still part of the style even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you use this kind of technique, you have to create the Good and Bad notes for yourself. The three great treatises make it clear that the concept of Good & Bad notes still applies, even during the later 18th century when the technical methods have moved on.

Meyer title page001

 

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 4 18th-century fingerings

 

Which technique shall I learn?

My advice would be:

  • If you have the time and patience, learn the appropriate technique for the period of the music you are playing.
  • The best way to sensitise your ears to the sound of Good/Bad phrasing is to experiment with the 16th/17th century Good/Bad fingerings.
  • If you are going to learn just one technique for Historical Irish Harps, learn the late-18th century French technique, here.

 

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 5 Comparing fingerings circa 1700

 

Helpful Hints

Don’t worry about left-hand treble or right-hand treble. Just choose.

Don’t worry about thumb-under or thumb-over. Just choose.

Don’t worry too much about damping. Play Good and Bad notes, and listen. Damp anything that continues to annoy you!

20th-century wire-strung methods have instilled a terror of resonance, and an instinct to damp everything. This results in a negative mind-set, where the rich resonance of the historical Irish harp is choked, and players are inhibited from creating any sound at all. Learn to love that wonderful deep bass, thick brass, resonance. Make your melodies as clear as they need to be with selective damping, but let your harp’s voice be heard.

Thinking too much about damping is like driving with one foot on the accelerator, the other foot on the brake. You won’t get anywhere. The resultant sound is rather like John Major’s infamous locked throat voice-production (have a good laugh, here)

More about selective damping, in a later post.

Meanwhile, if you have some historical evidence to add to this, or contradict my suggestions, I would love to hear your comments!

fingernails

 

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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Single-Action Harp – making Sensibility of the Méthodes

diderot 1769

The late 18th century tends to be where modern harpists and Early Music first connect. But how did the original players of the single-action harp think and feel about this new instrument and the fashionable music they played on it? Of course, the instrument itself is different from its modern descendant – smaller, more lightly strung, and with different chromatic possibilities – so we can expect differences in technique and interpretation too.

But how appropriate is that modern dialectic of ‘technique’ and ‘interpretation’ anyway? Rather than looking backwards into the past, can we find a way to view the instrument in the context of its own time? Can we share the original players’ contemporary perspective, the musical heritage of the 17th century, and the new developments of the mid-18th?

Mike Parker’s Child of Pure Harmony (2006) is a concise, but very useful introduction, looking back over the development of the instrument. His survey of technique covers the playing position, left-hand ‘bracing’ (where non-playing fingers rest on the strings to support the hand),  and certain harp-specific special effects: harmonics, sons étouffés and the use of the swell pedal. Mary Oleskiewicz’s Preface to her (2008) edition of the CPE Bach Sonata sets the scene in Berlin in 1762, where the new French pedal harp co-existed alongside the older Italian triple-harp. The present brief essay explores modes of thought during the first golden age of the pedal harp, from the 1760s to the French Revolution, focussing on France itself.

Les goûts réunis

To ensure that our gaze follows the arrow of time in the right direction, let’s approach the 18th century from the late 17th, via the music of Corelli, Lully, Purcell and the young Johann Sebastian Bach. The aesthetics of the 17th century were discussed in terms of differing, even opposing, national styles: Italian and French. Italian violin-playing was dramatic, virtuosic, characterised by slow, sonorous bow-strokes in long notes and rapid passage-work in allegros. French violin-music danced lightly and elegantly, with a lot of ornamentation, but in strict rhythm, vrai mouvement. In this airy style, the very short French bow skips like a dancer’s feet, often lifting of the string, but always landing gently.

The poet John Dryden described Henry Purcell’s music as structured on the Italian model counterpoint, ‘which is its best Master’, but played in the French style, ‘to give it somewhat more of gaiety and fashion’. Bach wrote an Italian Concerto and French Suites, but was most at home in the highly conservative, intensely polyphonic German style. In Hamburg, Georg Philipp Telemann (who described himself as le grand partisan de la musique Française) was at the cutting edge of musical fashion with his music ‘for a mixed taste’, combining elements of French and Italian styles within the same work.

The concept of ‘re-uniting the tastes’ became the cornerstone of the three great mid-18th-century Essays, each dedicated to the ‘true art of playing’ a particular instrument: Quantz (1752) for the flute, C.P.E Bach (1753) for keyboards and Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule (1756). Violinists are asked to combine the slow, sustained bow-stroke of Italian cantabile with the airy flight of French dances, the virtuosity of Italian sonatas with the graceful ornamentation of French airs. Keyboard-players and flautists receive similar instructions in the idiom of their instruments. All three Essays are remarkably consistent in their characterisation of the German fashion for ‘mixed taste’, and are a vital source for 18th-century performance practice.

CPE Bach Adolph_Menzel_-_Flötenkonzert_Friedrichs_des_Großen_in_Sanssouci

C.P.E Bach at the harpischord accompanies Frederick the Great in a flute concerto at Sanssouci Palace, whilst Quantz (far right) listens.

Empfindsamkeit

The Essays breathe the spirit of Empfindsamkeit – sensitivity, sensibility – a recently-invented term (taken from contemporary literature) that perfectly describes the aesthetic of the period. Quantz shows how sensitively musicians responded to the particular degree of tension and release in each dissonance and resolution. And, as C.P.E. Bach explains, it is the musician’s sensibility that invites in turn the audience’s sensitive response.

Certainly I recommend the three Essays to any harpist interested in the C.P.E.Bach Sonata, the Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp, or any repertoire of this period. But the very pre-eminence of these three German-language treatises tends to distract attention from the continuing importance of each national style, Italian or French, un-mixed, especially in its own country.  

French violins were smaller than Italian instruments, and had lighter strings. But those shorter, more delicate strings were tuned even lower than in Italy, so the string tension was much, much less. Comparing Italian and French orchestras, one writer thought that the French violins were broken, they seemed so quiet; whereas Italian players seemed about to break their instruments with the thunder of their fortissimo! French makers reformed the wind instruments too, making them quieter and more delicate, to suit the French taste for subtlety and elegance.

It is this world of delicacy, elegant subtlety and quiet nobility that the French harp inhabits. Its rich sonority is coaxed from low-tension strings at a very low, French pitch, and these light strings also respond with sparkling brilliance to the many ornaments typical of this style. And within the international aesthetic of Empfindsamkeit, the French style tended particularly towards subtlety, grace and charm, rather than to the drama of Sturm und Drang. Cousineau’s ideal harp-sound is moelleux et franc, ‘gentle and clear’.

Low French Pitch

Harp-maker Beat Wolf’s excellent website here includes – amongst a treasure-trove of fascinating information – a time-line giving various sample pitches in late-18th century France. There is of course considerable variation amongst them, but they are all low: A379 (1766), A409 (1783), A396 (1789). This contrasts to typical London and Vienna pitch around A420. See Bruce Haynes History of Performing Pitch: The story of “ A” (2002) for lots more pitch information.

For modern use, convenient equivalents would be A415 (London, Vienna etc) for most 18th-century music, but A392 (a tone below A440) for music from France, including the Mozart Concerto. In private correspondence, Beat Wolf tells me that the string-lengths on most 18th-century harps are simply too long for today’s so-called “classical pitch” of A430 (derived from early 19th-century information) , let alone modern A440.

Cousineau warns against the ugliness of wide thirds (i.e. against Equal Temperament), which he considers ‘too strong and harsh on the ear’. The remedy is to narrow the fifths, as in one or other variety of Meantone. Although the exquisite clarity of quarter-comma Meantone is ideal for 17th-century music and Italian or German repertoires, sixth-comma gives a rounder, smoother sound that is in keeping with the 18th-century French aesthetic. Measurements of original instruments are consistent with the period use of sixth-comma Meantone, although one should perhaps be cautious about the margin of error for such fine measurements on 200-year-old mechanisms.

All the temperaments discussed here (and many more too) are built into the excellent ClearTune app for smart-phones. I recommend A392 and sixth-comma Meantone for French 18th-century harp. 

Meyer title page001

Méthodes de harpe

We are fortunate in having a large selection of late 18th-century French harp Methods to study, many of them published in facsimile by Fuzeau Productions, here.

Most of these French Methods are directed at beginners, but even so they are remarkably parallel to the sophisticated German-language Essays of the 1750s. Even the title of the earliest example, Meyer (1763), follows C.P.E. Bach’s lead: Essay on the True Manner of Playing the Harp.  Whereas today’s musicians often make a distinction between Technique and Interpretation, the Essays and Methods teach a technique that builds-in many elements of ‘good delivery’: period technique goes a long way towards creating a historical ‘interpretation’.

It is taken for granted in this period that music is played in time, with the rhythm organised by a long slow pulse. (See Andrew Lawrence-King Rhythm – what really counts here) Leopold Mozart’s instructs violinists to ‘play the whole piece in one suitable and unchanging tempo’ – Das ganze Stück in einem rechten und gleichen Tempo hinauszubringen. If there is any artistic variation in tempo, it is not the general rubato that we know from the 19th and 20th centuries. Rather, the soloist may take some liberties whilst the accompaniment continues in measured rhythm. And even this should not be overdone, as Leopold Mozart and the Contesse de Genlis agree. ‘Why play out of time’, asks Genlis – ‘one might as well play out of tune!’

Since the time is counted steadily, with the slow Tactus beat, we must look elsewhere for the subtle variations and changes of Empfindsamkeit. In place of modern rubato, we must awaken our Sensibility to other performance variables. Here again, the Essays and Methods are in agreement, with a high priority given to the subtle patternings produced by particular fingering-systems.

Fingering for harps and keyboard instruments corresponds to bowing patterns for violin, or tonguing patterns for flute: all these are techniques for creating variations in the attack-characteristics of an individual note, or in the joins and separations between one note and the next. This is what Early Musicians mean by ‘articulation’: the way that notes start and stop, join and separate, just as articulate speech is started and stopped by vowels and consonants, joined and separated into words.

17th-century fingering, bowing and tonguing systems are characterised by Good and Bad notes, corresponding to the Good and Bad (accented and un-accented) syllables of poetry. For the harp, Good and Bad notes are played respectively by Good and Bad fingers – scale patterns typically alternate Good and Bad. This survives in some 18th-century Methods, which recommend 123232 etc for descending scales.

The Essays also assume that the principle of Good and Bad notes will still be observed – Leopold Mozart asks for alternating degrees of bow pressure, when several notes are played in one bow stroke. Quantz gives alternating tonguing patterns, creating the sound of ‘diddle diddle dee’. But one of the characteristics of Empfindsamkeit subtlety is a growing interest in more complex, elegantly varied bowing and slurring patterns. A variety of bow-strokes, writes Leopold, ‘brings the notes to life’. This is reflected in the Methods with a new approach to fingering for the 18th-century harp.

Just as with Leopold Mozart’s instructions for bowing, harpists must still maintain the correct hierarchy of Good and Bad notes, but now by sensitive control of finger-pressure, instead of by alternating fingerings. Meanwhile, Leopold’s varied bowings are paralleled by varied fingerings, linking notes into ‘groups’ not only of two or three notes (as was typical for the alternating fingerings of the 17th-century) but also of four, five or up to eight notes. The varying note-count in each group corresponds to the varying number of notes within each bow-stroke of Leopold’s violin-style.

The clearest explanation of this concept is in the Method by Cousineau (1784). A pair of notes will be played with 2 fingers: 2 1 ascending, 1 2 descending. Three notes will require three fingers, 3 2 1 or 1 2 3. Four notes require four fingers 4 3 2 1 or 1 2 3 4. So far, so obvious- though these simple groupings should be practised carefully to maintain sensitivity to, and control of the hierarchy of Good and Bad notes within each group of notes.

A group of five notes will be fingered 4 3 2 1 1 ascending, and 1 1 2 3 4 descending. The ‘rule of thumb’ (no pun intended!) for groups of more than four notes is to have the full sequence of four fingers at the bottom end of the group, whether ascending or descending.

For a group of six notes, there are two possibilities, depending on whether the notes go two by two, or three by three. Two by two (for example, quavers in 3/4  time) 4 3 2 1 2 1 ascending and 1 2 1 2 3 4 descending. Three by three (for example, quavers in 6/8 time) 3 2 1 3 2 1 ascending, and 1 2 3 1 2 3 descending. Applying the appropriate fingering produces the required phrasing: in this historical style, ‘technique’ and ‘interpretation’ are completely interdependent.

For a group of seven notes: 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 ascending, and 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 descending. And eight notes (no surprises here): 4 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 ascending and 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 descending. But don’t forget the (more old-fashioned) option of descending with 1 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 alternating.

Introduction to Single Action Harp

The Method by that great writer, pedagogue and independent spirit, Stéphanie, Comtesse de Genlis (1811) is worth special attention, for it is aimed not at amateur beginners but at the serious student intent on an international-level career. She advocates systematic and persistent practice of fingering patterns (what we would now understand as the ‘ten-thousand hour rule’ for mastery of elite skills), use of all five fingers, and a virtuosic level of finger-control for both passage-work and trills (indeed, for both at once, in the same hand).

Some modern players dismiss her Method as ‘eccentric’, because of her advocacy of 5-finger technique. But her contemporary reputation as an expert in child pedagogy and her remarkable survival as a highly independent woman throughout all the upheavals of the French Revolution show she was a force to be reckoned with. And the charge of ‘eccentricity’ depends on a spurious and circular argument: don’t trust Genlis’ 5-finger technique because she was mad! How do we know she was mad? Well, she used 5-finger technique!

Taking Genlis therefore not as ‘eccentric’ but rather as an idiosyncratic source of information for elite-level performers, it’s worth considering her advice on how to manage the position change, say within a group of eight notes ascending:  4 3 2 1  – position change – 4 3 2 1. Methods for elementary students advise changing position by crossing the fingers underneath the thumb, placing finger 4 for the fifth note before playing the fourth note with the thumb 1.  Genlis recognises this elementary technique, but recommends advanced students rather to jump the hand – the interruption in the flow will disappear with assiduous practice.

Le Grand Principe

Cousineau and other Method-writers emphasise placing in advance all the fingers needed for a group of notes. This corresponds to Leopold Mozart’s emphasis on smooth bowing and Francois Couperin’s subtly delicate French harpsichord fingerings. Cousineau puts this simply and memorably as his Great Principle, La main ne soit jamais obligée de faire de grands mouvements et se trouve toujours placée commodement.

Cousineau also recommends small movements of the fingers, keeping them close to the strings as the finger-stroke ends, as the technical preparation for high-velocity passage-work. This contrasts to the modern tendency to snap the fingers all the way, whenever possible.

My personal experience with low-tension strings is that a full finger-stroke is helpful for slow, sustained notes, but with a very slow finger-movement, keeping the hand still. 18th-century Methods tell the player not to rest the right hand on the instrument, but wear-marks on surviving instruments show that this particular piece of advice was often ignored: the baroque position with the hands resting on the instrument was common also amongst 18th-century pedal harpists. And note that before you play your long note, Cousineau would have you prepare the next finger on the next string – this also requires the hand to be kept still. All that contrasts with the modern tendency to play long notes by floating the whole hand outwards and upwards like angel wings.

To summarise Cousineau’s Great Principle and other advice:

Keep your hand still until you have to move it, then move it only as much as necessary.

So here is the starting-point for any harpist wishing to acquire late-18th-century Empfindsamkeit:

  • Play in time
  • Develop your Sensitivity to, and control of the hierarchy of Good and Bad notes
  • Create the sound of Sensibility with the melodic finger-patterns from the Methods.

Subsequent chapters in the Essays and the Methods alike concern Ornamentation, Good Delivery, Preluding and Accompaniment – but all that must wait for further chapters of this essay too.

giroust

The young daughter of the Duc of Orleans studies harp with Madame Genlis, whose adopted daughter, la belle Pamela, turns the pages. Read more here

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website http://www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

http://www.historyofemotions.org.au

You can study Early Harps with Andrew Lawrence-King at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London;  and at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen.

A free History of the Harp poster can be downloaded here.

On the recording Amor ist mein Lied (with Laurence Dean, 18th-century flute), Andrew plays one of Beat Wolf’s modern copies of a Louis XVI harp. Preview here.

Amor ist mein Lied CD