Happy New Year 2016

 

 

 

 

2016 Happy New Year

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

How did it feel? A History of Heaven, Hearts & Harps

HISTORY OF EMOTIONS

We can imagine a time-travelling Arts journalist asking: “You just heard the first opera… you played continuo next to Claudio Monteverdi… you fought a duel  with Rudolfo Capo Ferro… you danced with Louis XIV … you acted for William Shakespeare … you went drinking with Henry Purcell … you built a pendulum clock according to Galileo’s theories … you can see with your own eyes that the sun goes around the earth… Domenichino Zampieri made you a harp with three rows of strings… How did it feel?”

 

How did it feel

 

This question – easy to ask, but rich in potential for surprising answers and further, more profound investigations – might well be the unofficial motto of the Australian Research Council’s Centre for the History of Emotions. From nodes at major universities and conservatories across Australia, in research and performance projects around the world, and across a wide range of humanities disciplines, CHE’s investigators not only look at Emotions in History, but also use Emotions studies as a lens by which to view a broad field of historical themes, and to understand how Emotions and History continue to Shape the Modern.

I am a Senior Visiting Research Fellow for the Centre, attached to the University of Western Australia, and this post was first presented at a joint event of the World Harp Congress and the Centre for the History of Emotions in Sydney,  Australia in July 2014.

CHEWHC Sydney 2014 logo

 

At the beginning of the baroque, around the year 1600, the period aim to muovere gli affetti – move the passions – gives us confidence that Emotions studies are historically appropriate, as we try to understand the role of the harp within the music and culture of the time.

So whose passions are we trying to move? Simply to ask the question re-locates the focus onto the audience, a much-needed counter-balance to the academic tradition of studying composers and works, and to the conservatoire habit of concentrating on what performers do.

Audience Studies are a vital new area of musicological investigation – what makes music meaningful for the listener? How can we attract new listeners? Why are we losing touch with some listeners?  I’m privileged to collaborate on such research with Prof John Sloboda at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. And studies of Historical Audiences are an important part of our work at CHE, led by Dr Penelope Woods.

theatre-palais-cardinal Louis XIII

EARLY MUSIC & THE HARP

This harp-flavoured post introduces some general ideas concerning Early Music, and connects these ideas to the aesthetics of two particular cultures: Italy around 1600, the period of Monteverdi’s first opera, Orfeo, in which the harp plays a major solo, as well as within the continuo ensemble; and the late 18th-century, where we have the Mozart Concerto for traverse flute and single-action harp, and CPE Bach’s Sonata (it’s debated whether this is for Italian triple harp or French single-action harp). Orfeo, CPE Bach, Mozart

One of my tasks here is to do some myth-busting, correcting some favourite misunderstandings of what Early Music is about, and pointing out some alarming discrepancies between what we see in historical sources and the standard operating procedures of today’s Early Music. So I have some images to help identify a popular myth, and to show when we’ve bust it. But since I wasn’t quite sure what a myth should look like, and I didn’t want to start exploding sacred cows, I’ve chosen the metaphor of Vampires, both modern and pseudo-old, which (like mistaken ideas) hang around half-dead, until someone arrives to slay them.  And according to the principles of the baroque opera stage, the good guys will be on my right, the bad guys on my left.

myth busting

And I have this genuinely 17th-century image to draw your attention to important historical information that you might want to follow up for yourselves later. You can read more on my website: www.TheHarpConsort.com  as well as elsewhere in this blog.

Attentionem poscit and art

 

 

Right side… Good Doggy.

Not Authentic

Over the last half-century, recording companies helped to create an audience for Early Music by promoting performances that were advertised as “on authentic instruments”, “on period (or original) instruments”. Of course, this was just a shorthand way to label what was meant to be a fundamentally different approach to music-making, but it left a misleading impression that the instruments themselves, whether original or modern reproductions in period style, were the most important ingredient for achieving Authenticity.

HIP not Authentic

Nowadays, we tend not to use the A-word, since we all recognise that complete historical Authenticity is impossible. And taking the other meaning of that word, Authentic in the sense of true to one’s personal beliefs, we also recognise that every musician assembles their musical identity from many influences, that historical information as well as inspiring teaching or convincing performance can shape what each of us feels to be “true” to our personal values. So let’s leave behind us the rather negative concept of Authentic Instruments, and use the modern phrase, Historically Informed Performance, abbreviated as HIP. After all, the only alternative to being Historically Informed is to be Historically Uninformed!

A more recent attempt to describe what we mean by Early Music (that term is still frequently used, informally and amongst performers, but its more hip to say “HIP” in academic circles), was that the musicians would seek to respect ‘the composer’s intentions’. This phrase has also been rejected, because it plays into the old-fashioned, Romantic idea of idolising the Master Composer, and because baroque composers didn’t want you to play what they wrote. Like a modern singer-song-writer, or a jazz-composer, baroque composers expected you to take their idea and make it your own, with improvised variations, your own touches of arrangement, even wholesale re-writing.

Respecting the composer's intentions

LOOKING BACKWARDS THROUGH HISTORY?

Looking backwards through history

Another, more subtle danger is that we find ourselves looking back into the past, from our modern perspective. The recent past (that fun CD released last year) looms large; close behind are ghostly shadows of our early musical education, and of the education that shaped our first teachers. We might be smart enough to avert our gaze from all those Romantic geniuses who clog the middle distance, and there at the far end of a dark tunnel we can just make out Mozart, Handel, Bach and (very far off now) Monteverdi. The problem here is that we are looking the wrong way down a telescope – the object of our study appears very distant and small – and we are looking the wrong way through time.

The way to understand Monteverdi is not via Mozart, Handel and Bach. Even if we know those later guys better, Monteverdi didn’t know them at all. We need to approach Monteverdi from inside the culture of his own time, not looking backwards into the past, but looking around us in his historical present.  We need to look sideways, not only at the harp, but at other kinds of music, at other performing arts, at literature and paintings, at period science, at dancing and swordsmanship. To understand his culture fully, we need to start a bit earlier – perhaps with the generation of his teachers – and move forwards through time with him. Then we might have a better idea of “how does it feel”.

Looking sideways inside history

 

Otherwise, if we view old music only from our modern perspective, we may end up trying to squeeze an ancient culture into an utterly different framework, a round peg into a square hole.

As we begin to read what period writers themselves considered important, we quickly realise that our modern concepts of Technique and Interpretation, and of Conservatoire teaching in general are inappropriate. But much of the discussion amongst today’s Early Musicians is also dominated by topics that are hardly mentioned by 17th-century writers. The pages of Early Music Magazine, and online discussion groups give a lot of space to arguments about pitch, temperament and vibrato.

Today's priorities

 

But there is nothing about any of these subjects in the most important documents describing the performance practices of the early seicento: the preface to the first opera, Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo (1600), the preface to the second opera, Peri’s Euridice (also 1600), Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche (1601), Viadana’s figured-bass motets of 1602, Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Agazzari’s guide to continuo-playing, Dal Sonare Sopra’l Basso (both 1607) and the preface to Gagliano’s Dafne (1608), Monteverdi’s Vesperae (1610), his prefaces to Combattimento and the Lamento della Ninfa (1636), Shakespeare’s advice to the players in Hamlet (1600) and the anonymous circa-1630 guide for a music-theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago.

Sources circa 1600

 

Meanwhile, we know that renaissance courtiers spent several hours every day for most of their lives, practising dancing and training with swords. If we want to know how did that feel, how such training affects posture, musculature, and modes of thought, we can read and try out the recommendations of the Book of the Courtier, Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528 and many reprints across 20 European cities and six languages, it was one of the most widely-read books of the time), Negri’s dance-treatises (1602 & 1604) and Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro of the Art of Swordfighting (1610).

Sources circa 1600 list

FALSE FRIENDS

The past is a foreign country Hartley and Howard

When learning a foreign language, we have to take care with so-called ‘false friends’, words that sound familiar but have quite a different meaning in the other language. For example, if you are new to Australia, it might help you to to know that a hot Barbie is not a blonde doll.Smiley

So it is with the language of the past – familiar-sounding words mean something quite different, and we need to understand a different set of assumptions.

Hexachord

 

There were only six notes in the 17th-century scale, the Hexachord, so that ascending above A-la imposes a choice between B- fa and B-mi. This choice is guided by different rules in different periods, and it’s often left to the performer to make an appropriate decision: the notation may leave the question open. We absolutely cannot assume that What You See Is What  You Get. The meaning of the notation itself has changed, over the centuries.

And when we move out from tiny details to the big picture, we see utterly different use of language, showing that the underlying assumptions are also utterly different. Around the year 1600, what is Music? First, and most importantly, it was the Music of the Spheres, musica mondana, the perfect music made by the movement of the stars and planets as they danced in their circular orbits around the earth, turned by the motion of the highest sphere, the primum mobile. This is the music of the cosmos, turned by the hand of God. Secondly, we have musica humana, the harmonious nature of the human body. Last of all comes musica instrumentalis, actual sounds made down here on earth, with our voices and harps.

Three kinds of Music

Some other 17-century ‘false friends’ to beware of are Harmony (which just means, organised sound; the most significant organisation is usually rhythmic rather than chordal harmony in the modern sense); and  Tempo (which just means time, measured in semibreves, whole notes, which last about two seconds).

False friends

ASSUMPTIONS

So much for language. Let’s explore some basic assumptions.

What is important? In his  Preface to Le Nuove Musiche (the book containing that famous song, Amarilli mia bella), Caccini prioritises Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around! This contrasts strongly with modern conservatoire teaching, which focusses on sound-production, and even with the concentration of today’s Early Music Movement on vibrato, pitch and temperament, certainly with the tendency to focus on ‘original instruments’. All those questions of Sound came “last of all” to the 17th-century mind. Rather, they were thinking about Text and Rhythm.

Text, Rhythm and Sound

Who is important? We should try to clear from our minds the Romantic image of the genius performer, expressing his (and in the 19th-century it was mostly his) sublime emotions in front of the reverent, silent audience of nobodies, sitting in the dark, worshipping at the temple of culture. 17th-century music privileges the Audience. As La Musica says at the very beginning of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, “I’ve come from by beloved Permesso to you, great heroes, noble race of Kings, to narrate whose fame even heavenly praise would not reach the truth, since your reputation is so high”. Only in verse two does she introduce herself, “I am Music”.

Audience, not Performer

What is music for? As a Rhetorical Art, music seeks to persuade the mind, delight the senses, and move the emotions. The period language muovere gli affetti, to move the passions, reminds us that multiple, contrasting emotions are at play – not just the intensification of a single emotion, as in Romantic music. The audience’s feelings are engaged by the movement of the passions. And so we performers might well want to explore a History of Emotions.

Docere Delectare Movere

RHYTHM

So let’s consider those historical priorities of Text and Rhythm. I’ll come to Text in due course, but in order to understand musical Rhythm, we first have to ask What is Time?  Our assumption today is that musical rhythm sits, with various degrees of freedom, within Time itself, which is Absolute. We can measure this Time rather accurately, with our digital watches, and we can impose it on our music with metronomes, although we feel that the higher art is to bend time into something more ‘musical’, with rubato. All of that is an essentially 20th-century view of Time, even though it has now been updated by Einstein’s relativity,. But that 20th-century view is utterly irrelevant to the period before Isaac Newton.

What is Time

17th-century Time is cosmic, measured by the perfect, but very slow-moving, clock of the sun and stars. Time is human, measured by the body-rhythm of our pulse or heartbeat, at about one per second when we are relaxed. In the lowest, practical sense, Time is measured by Music, since around the year 1600 a minim (half-note) is one second, as close as human beings can make it.

The best clocks could just about count the seconds. So when Galileo discovered the pendulum effect, observing a swinging chandelier in Pisa Cathedral, he checked it against his own pulse. When he needed split-second timing, to measure the acceleration due to gravity, he used the highest precision timing system in the known world: music. He got his lute-player to play fast variations (divisions, as they were called back then), which literally divided up the minims/seconds into crotches, quavers and semi-quavers, giving him precision measurement down to 1/8 of a second.

You can try the experiment for yourself in an online simulation, here.

What is Time

Just as the movement of the cosmos is driven by the most divine, outermost, slowest sphere, so musical time is organised by a constant slow beat, and the faster notes fit inside this. So baroque musical rhythm is defined by Tactus, a slow steady beat, like a perfect clock, like the clock of the cosmos, or the steady beat of the human pulse.  If your pulse falters, you are sick: if your heart stops, the music also dies.

Guidar il tempo

But early 17th-century sources describe certain, highly specific ways to Drive the Time in passionate music. This is dangerous stuff – if you lose control of the Time Chariot, the sun will crash into the sea. But just as you can raise your pulse rate by exercise or emotion, or lower it by relaxation (adagio means ‘at ease’, ‘take it easy’), so Frescobaldi (1615) explains how to change the time between sections in different rhythms, or how to suspend the beat in the air, momentarily. And Caccini talks about sprezzatura, nonchalant or ‘cool’ rhythm, in which the singer floats freely above a steady tactus in the continuo bass.

Music of this period was not conducted, although we often see conductors in today’s Early Music. That is a gross anachronism. Agazzari and Il Corago tell us clearly that the entire ensemble is guided by the continuo, Dowland tells us that it is Tactus itself that “directs a song in measure”. Peri expects that singers will “dance to the rhythm of the bass”, so for recitative (where speech-like rhythms are needed on the level of individual syllables) he reduces the continuo activity to semibreves and minims, just enough to maintain the Tactus.

Continuo not conductor

One of the consequences of this historical view of Time, of organising Rhythm by the slow count of Tactus, is that melodies have to fit inside the tactus. And it’s the accompaniment that maintains the Tactus. So accompanists do not follow soloists, rather soloists must fit with the accompaniment. Peri expects that singers will dance to the rhythm of the bass.

This is a big shock to modern classical musicians, and even today’s Early Musicians mostly ignore the clear historical evidence. Playing continuo today can be like a fairground game: you wait there with your triple harp or theorbo, until a little yellow duck (the tenor) waddles into your sights, and then you fire off a chord, and hope to hit him in root position.

Duck shoot

The take-home message is that music pre-1800 has a slow steady pulse (even if the actual notes are going fast), and the melody is guided by the bass. No rubato, no conductors.


 Tactus

TEXT

Agazzari writes that instruments should play with the affetto e somiglianza delle parole, with the emotion and the semblance of words. For singers, the sung text shows the emotional changes from one word to the next. Notice that, in this style, there are many different, changing, contrasted affetti. Frequently there is an abrupt change in text and music to the contrary emotion – an opposto – signalled by the word ma (but), or by images and gestures that point to opposite sides of the stage: here and there, heaven and hell, you and me.

Text and Rhythm

In this period, instrumental pieces are often taken from vocal originals. So we can take the emotional changes from the original words, just as Agazzari instructs. In a piece where there are no words, we can still recognise emotional changes from characteristic melodic figures, so that an early Sonata shows the same strong contrasts and abruptly changing opposti that we’ve learnt to expect in vocal music.

But what about Agazzari’s somiglianza, semblance of, similitude to words? To imitate on the harp the effect of speech, we need to think about the sound of language. In Italian, many common words have two syllables, accented-unaccented, or (in period terminology) Good-Bad: piano, forte, dolce, arpa, pasta, pizza, Roma. Three syllables can be accented Bad-Good-Bad allegro adagio sonata Caccini Firenze, Milano, spaghetti; or Good-Bad-Bad: table is tavola, the last one, ultimate, is ultimo, Claudio Monteverdi worked in Mantua.

Articulation Good & Bad syllables

These common words form the typical patterns of the language, two or three syllables, more or less alternating Good and Bad. Where the syllables are joined together, the join can be smooth with single consonants, as in the word legato, or it can be a bumpy join with a double consonant, as in the word staccato. And of course, the consonant that starts each syllable has its own colour su, giu (up & down), no, si (no & yes) ma (but). All of this joining and separating between syllables is what Early Musicians mean by ‘articulation’. Just we ‘articulate’ our words, in order to speak articulately, on an early instrument we ‘articulate’ the notes, in order to sound as if we are speaking.

So baroque harps, baroque flutes, baroque violins, harpsichords all aim to imitate the sound and emotions of speech. This fundamental consideration is much stronger than the subtle differences between one instrument and another. In this period, musical style and passionate rhetoric are not instrument-specific. That’s good news for us harpists, since much of our best-known early repertoire is shared with, or stolen from other instruments: the Luduvico fantasia was published for vihuela in imitation of the Spanish harp; Handel’s concerto was published for Organ, even if first played on Welsh harp; the CPE Bach sonata might have had a second instrument to play continuo, and we don’t know for sure which kind of harp he meant; the Mozart concerto is shared with the flute.

But in each of these periods, the local aesthetic is derived from text and vocal music, common to all instruments, and unified across all the arts.

Unified aesthetic

In contrast to a modern opera production, in which the text, the music and the staging tell three different stories, in baroque opera everything tells the same story, all directed by the artistic director Il Corago, who has ‘universal command’ over every element of the production, but who is subject to the structures, sounds and emotions of the poetic text.

THE TRUE ART

This unity of aesthetic means that baroque harpists can learn from other instruments, and that we can expect to find a high level of agreement about essential priorities as we compare different sources. In the second half of the 18th century, our guides to the CPE Bach sonata and Mozart concerto are the three great treatises of the 1750s, as well as the harp methods of the 1760s, 70s and 80s; their fundamental agreement far outweighs their subtle differences.

Of course, historical teaching books have plenty of detailed information to offer, but we can also come to understand the underlying assumptions of period aesthetics by studying the big picture of how writers organise their material, from Milán in the 16th century, and Ribayaz in the 17th; to Quantz, CPE Bach and Leopold Mozart in the mid-18th; Meyer, Cousineau and Ragué in the following decades. We can follow a chronological story, as the broad consensus gradually changes.

The True Art

All these writers deal very quickly with sound-production: hold the instrument the right way up, and tune it like this. Of course, there are further subtleties, but we won’t find them in period teaching books. We have to reverse-engineer the technical means from our knowledge of the aesthetic end-goals, from iconography, from information about other instruments etc.

Milan teaches how to compose renaissance polyphony, Ribayaz how to play baroque dances.

All the 18th-century books are structured in the same order, to teach Articulation, Ornamentation and Good Delivery.

18th-century teaching books

Articulation (as we have just seen) is how to make the instrument ‘speak’.

Ornamentation is not only decoration but also a kind of musical grammar, just as those funny marks on French words are not just typographic decoration, but a basic requirement of the language. café, garçon, fête, naïf, près. In language and in music, these small marks are mentally added even if the writer forgets them; they change the sound and the meaning.

Good Delivery is not quite the same as modern ‘interpretation’. A baroque musician is not an ‘interpreter’ who translates the music into a new language, or comes up with his own explanation of it. Rather, the baroque musician is like a fine speaker, who delivers poetic lines well, who communicates to an audience the sound of the words, the meaning of the words and the emotions of the words. The term Expression is another ‘false friend’: the performer’s aim is not to express his own emotions, but to convey the emotions of the music to the audience, just as an actor does not express his own feelings, but conveys to the audience the emotions of his character. Peri and Il Corago emphasise that baroque music is modelled on the speech of a fine actor.

Some baroque books include a section on accompaniment – filling out the left hand with improvised harmonies (Ribayaz) or improvising harmonies to accompany a soloist or orchestra (CPE Bach). In the CPE Bach sonata, the continuo might be realised by the same harpist who plays the right hand, or perhaps by a second instrument. We don’t know the composer’s original intention.

So let’s take the period organisation of Articulation, Ornamentation, Good Delivery and Continuo, and apply some of the detailed historical information to the baroque harp. Articulation is produced in different ways on different instruments – with tonguing syllables tiri liri or diddle diddle on the flute; with bow strokes on the violin; with choice of fingers on harps, lutes and keyboards – but the common aim is to imitate the sound of speech. So we need Good and Bad syllables, and for Monteverdi we need to link them in the patterns of typical Italian words piano, forte, dolce, pizza, pasta, arpa. Good links to Bad.

On the harp, we match Good and Bad syllables, Good and Bad notes, to Good and Bad fingers. For 17th-century Italian harp, 1 is Good, 2 is Bad, 3 is Good. Just as the word-accents mostly alternate Good and Bad, so the scale fingerings alternate. 3-2 ascending, and 1-2 descending. With this fingering, scales are not homogenous – dadadada – but are articulated. Think of Frank Sinatra – dooby-dooby-doo. The technical procedure matches the sound of the language also by joining together Good-Bad. Piano, forte, dolce, pizza, pasta.

The whole shape of the Early Music phrase is not like the long curved lines we see engraved into 19th-century scores. Rather it alternates Good and Bad, and has the principal accent almost at the end of the line.

To be or not to be, that’s the Question.

But the last syllable is unaccented, a Bad. This leads to a general practice in HIP of not arriving triumphantly on the last note, with a massive false accent. Rather, the assumption is that the last note is a Bad syllable, unaccented.

However, today’s Early Music performers mostly ignore clear period advice not to slow down or break before the last note. At cadences, we often hear a rallentando and a hesitation before the final note – whereas Caccini and many other 17th-century sources ask for ornaments to accelerate and run smoothly into the last, unaccented note.

Metre and Accent

Those most famous words of Shakespeare To  be or not to be, that’s the Question have a very similar pattern to the famous first line of Dante’s Inferno: Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita. The subtle difference is that Italian has more two-syllable words joined Good-Bad mezzo, nostra, vita whereas English has many monosyllables grouped into iambics Bad-Good, to be / or not / to be. So we can play the harp in the historical accents of different languages. Monteverdi should sound Italian. Bach should sound German. But what about Mozart in Paris: does his music speak Italian, French or German?

We can play Continuo also with Good and Bad chords; more notes and a quick roll on the Good, fewer notes and plaque on the Bad. With carefully use of resonance and damping, we can join Good and Bad, Italian-style. Piano forte dolce pizza pasta  Or Bad-Good, to be / or not  / to be. This is how continuo-players can imitate the somiglianza, the semblance of words described by Agazzari.

In his theorbo-book, Kapsberger shows how to make the arpeggio commune – ‘default arpeggio’ across two beats. This is how continuo-players can maintain the Tactus, so that they direct the song in measure, as Agazzari and Dowland recommend.

Text and Rhythm work together in music in the same way that word-accent and metre do in poetry. Tactus corresponds to poetic metre, it is like a clock that counts the time steadily. The music itself follows the patterns of word accents, which may, or may not, coincide with the ticking of the tactus clock. Sometimes the Good syllables match the Tactus: “When /I do /count the /clock that /tells the /time“. But sometimes they are subtly syncopated: “If /Music /and sweet /Poe/try a/gree“. Similarly in baroque music: there is a steady count (the Tactus), but the accents don’t always fall on the downbeat.

Early Musicians are often asked to be ‘free from the tyranny of the bar-line’. This phrase is helpful, if we understand it to mean that the word-accent does not have to coincide with the first beat of the bar, i.e. with the Tactus beat. But some modern players think that they should completely ignore the Tactus and play in free rhythm. Period sources make it clear: the Tactus is kept, slow and steady, like an old clock; but you don’t necessarily put the word-accents on the Tactus beats. This concept, of measured rhythm and independent accents (rather than accentual rhythm), is perhaps the most significant difference between modern and pre-1800 approaches. You can read more in George Houle’s excellent survey of Performance, Perception and Notation 1600-1800, Metre in Music, here.

OTHER TECHNICAL QUESTIONS

Other technical questions are not answered in the teaching books, but have to be investigated through historical images, via other instruments, or reconstructed on a pragmatic basis, once we understand the end-goal. So we see that the historical position for the Italian triple harp is with the instrument high, the player seated low; the low-tension strings require less strength, more relaxation in the hand; the hands rest on the soundboard (surviving instruments show wear-marks), the thumb crosses underneath the fingers (as with the lute), the finger-strokes are slow.

ORNAMENTS

This is a huge subject, but the take-home message about 18th-century Ornaments comes from combining the information in Quantz’s CPE Bach’s and Leopold Mozart’s treatises. Play ornaments on the beat, with a long upper auxiliary, and with decrescendo (the so-called Abzug, phrasing off). On the harp, don’t try to make too many iterations, rather concentrate on being on the beat and getting that Abzug. There are fingerings for trills in the 18th-century harp methods.

You need the Abzug also for appoggiaturas; Leopold Mozart says that you should ‘ooze’ into the second note, hineinschleifen in the original German. The 18th-century harp methods also focus on the appoggiatura.

 

Ornaments

 

EMOTIONS

But in a historical style that does not rely on Rubato, constant Vibrato, constant Legato, nor Conductors, where can we find the Emotions?  Singers move the passions with the changing meaning of each word, alternating happy and sad, as Monteverdi’s La Musica explains:

I am Music: with my sweet phrases I can make tranquil any troubled heart;

And now with noble anger, now with Love, I can inflame the most frozen mind.

For sustaining instruments like the flute or violin, long notes are highly sensual, drawn-out with a slow bow or a languid breath, releasing the long suspense with a touch of vibrato at the end of the note. Whitney Houston demonstrates baroque long notes perfectly in And I will always love you, here.

But what about us harpists, with neither text nor sustain to play with? Quantz explains in detail the Good Delivery for dissonance and resolution. The dissonance is played loud, the resolution soft (another Abzug), and the more intense the dissonance, the louder it is played, and the softer the following resolution. On the harp, we can also move down even more près de la table to make a more painful sound on the dissonance, and then up the string for a soothing resolution. Most importantly, we can feel the effect of the dissonance as an increase in tension, with a relaxation at the resolution.

Where is the emotion

DREAM-TIME

Just before I finish, I’d like to let you know about a completely new area of research that is opening up right now, one that may revolutionise our ideas about Emotions in Music and in History, and about musical pedagogy for any repertoire.

Over the last twenty years, clinical and research psychologist Joe Griffin has developed a new theory of Dreams, which offers a convincing biological, evolutionary and psychological model, replacing the outworn ideas of Freud and Jung.

Dream Time

 

Griffin shows that Dreams are the mind’s way of dealing with those powerful emotions of the previous day which were not dealt with at the time. Dreams resolve unfulfilled expectations (whether good or bad). But what we experience in our dreams is not the actual situation that brought on the unresolved emotion; rather the dream is a metaphor, a mix of memories that matches the pattern of the unresolved situation.

Dreams operate in a particular mode of sleep, characterised by rapid eye movement. The dream state is therefore known as the REM-state. There are other altered states of consciousness that allow us to enter REM-state whilst we are awake, such as day-dreaming or hypnosis. Griffin calls the REM-state the Theatre of Dreams. A signal from the lower brain, a so-called PGO-spike, calls attention to the beginning of the dream.

Many musicians, sportsmen and women, creative writers and composers know the special state of consciousness known as Flow, or being ‘in the zone’. It’s that Zen thing. It’s related to Mindfulness. You’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated on the task at hand; you feel quietly confident that you can manage it, you feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge it presents to you; you don’t feel self-conscious, you are just ‘there’, in the moment, in the groove; in a certain way, Time seems to slow down, so that you can calmly take in all the incoming information, and calmly make an elegant decision and execute your reponse perfectly; your artistic intentions and your manual actions unite perfectly; you are working at high efficiency, but you could continue for hours without getting tired; you feel happy, even elated.

It’s a great feeling, and it is being in Flow that makes the difference between an elite performer, musician, martial arts practitioner or sportsman and one who is merely ok. It is being in Flow that can lift any of us beyond the limits of our normal abilities. There is exciting work going on in Hungary and Holland about teaching Flow to musicians. Not just Technique and Interpretation, but how to get into Flow.

My own research project hypothesises that Flow is another REM-state. I’m suggesting that such elements of Historically Informed Performance  as the slow, steady count of Tactus, a kind of meditation on rhythm, and baroque gesture with its frequent calls for attention, might function as gateways into Flow. And not only for the performer, but also for the audience. Specific features of baroque stage-practice – Historical Action – support the hypothesis that Baroque Operas (and Shakespeare’s dramas) are a Theatre of Flow, where performers and audiences share an REM-state, the mind’s Theatre of Dreams, in which emotions can be communicated powerfully through the metaphors of poetry and music.

REM-state allows us to reach something beyond our everyday experience – that spiritual dimension to art that every music-lover believes in, whatever we choose to call it. In 17th-century philosophy, music connects us humans to the cosmos. Many of you will know about so-called Dreamtime, in which indigenous Australians connect to their family’s homeland and traditional beliefs through a spiritual state of music, art and story-telling. The Star Wars idea of a Force that we all share, that we can all learn to use, is perhaps not so far off.

Super-human instruments

And it’s around the year 1600, just as opera is being invented, that we see the invention of larger-than-life, super-human instruments like the theorbo and arpa doppia, with super low-notes and uber-chromaticism. With such an instrument, a super-hero like Orpheus can travel to Hell and back, and use his super-powers to persuade Charon into a magic sleep – another REM-state, of course.

We could almost imagine Monteverdi’s T-shirt: my super-power is Flow, what’s yours?

My super-power is FLOW

CONCLUSION

Leaving aside these dreamy speculations, as we study the emotional language of historical music, we can view that history from the inside if we adopt period priorities and appreciate ‘foreign’ assumptions. We can consider what we would like the audience to receive, rather than what we performers want to send out. We can concentrate on Text and Rhythm, not Sound. We can search for the shared aesthetic that unifies many arts within one culture, one region, one period; as well as for the contrasts between one culture and another.

HIP summary

Our harps will speak eloquently, if we focus on short-term phrasing, two or three notes at a time, articulating them with Good and Bad, giving them the semblance and emotions of words. As harpists speaking the language of historical music, we are like actors playing a role, and like actors we want to present our lines with Good Delivery, which will include all the skills of Rhetoric and Historical Action: what we do with our bodies, hand gestures and facial expressions. One of the hot areas of current Early Music research is baroque gesture, or (as it was called at the time) historical Action.

The 17th-century writer John Bulwer quotes the great orator Quintilian, quoting Cicero, quoting the Greek rhetorician Demosthenes, who was asked: What are the three secrets of Good Delivery?

Demosthenes Cicero Quintilian

 

 What are the three secrets of Good Delivery?

Action! Action! Action!

 

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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.

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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