Performance Practice

For a total change from what I normally do, some thoughts on Baroque music.  I actually love Bach; it seems as foreign and removed from the Romantic era as contemporary music sometimes is.  It is refreshingly restrained and yet has all the emotion and drama it could ever need.  It is deceptively simple sounding, while actually being very complex harmonically.

To me, the historical context of a piece and the way it’s played are inseparable, but at a recent rehearsal this idea was questioned.  The specific question was if I was trying to do a historically accurate performance, which I was not, and feel is not possible on modern instruments, but I was trying to imitate the articulations and performance practice of the late Baroque as much as possible within reason.  Not because I’m a stickler for historical accuracy, but because I believe these pieces work the best when the performer takes the performance practice of the time into account.  Bach may have written very different music if the current performance practice was the norm when he was alive.  But he wrote music when long notes always ended before the next note began, and slurring happened only when there were certain patterns or scalar passages, and never over a bar line.  The romanticizing of Bach seems to destroy the beauty of it.  Other people will argue that it enhances it, makes it more accessible, or brings out the harmonic changes that are so central to why Bach is great, but I feel that is simply distracts from it.  Baroque music wasn’t really about beautiful soaring melodies, it was based more quick harmonic shifts within the phrases and the affect of the works.  When was the last time you hummed a baroque sonata?  The opening themes of the pieces don’t have the same melodic integrity of later Romantic era works, and should be played differently.

Now I realize that historically informed performance is a relatively new idea, and several of the older generations of musicians discount it entirely, and pass this casual approach on to the younger generation of current students and recent grads.  I understand the attitude that it seems over the top to try and imitate a baroque style, but isn’t the mark of a good musician one who is continuously trying to improve?  Shouldn’t a good musician always try new ideas?  If you study the baroque performance practice and learn it, really understand it and decide you prefer the more Romantic approach, that’s cool.  Lots of people prefer that version of Bach, though I’m not one of them.  But the total disregard of it as something that is unnecessary or not even worth discussing is narrow-minded, and that is something that I believe is incompatible with being creative.  This all comes down to creativity.  I believe that is why people dislike performing Bach, because it forces them to rely on themselves more than any other style of music (except for new music).  Plenty of people just pick their favorite recordings and mix and match from those, which is a valid way to learn a performance practice and to get to know a style, but they go no further.  But I want to go further.  I get bored with Romantic music because, with few exceptions, it gets played the same way by everyone.  There’s the one definitive performance that everyone studies and copies exactly.  It’s beautiful but not particularly moving.

This has become a rather broad post, but I believe it’s all related.  I was trained in the Suzuki method, which basically had me memorize pieces from listening to the recordings before I ever played a note of the music.  That practice ended my senior year of high school when I was asked to read a piece and my response was that I had never heard a recording and didn’t know the tempo.  Fast forward 10 years and I never listen to a recording before looking at a new piece.  I need to get a sense of the music before I start seeing what other people had done.  And I actually rarely listen to the piece I’m working on; it helps me more to listen to other works by that composer.  For example, go listen to Walter Gieseking play Debussy, there are no words.

Here’s a really fabulous article about creativity in U.S. music schools which goes along with this idea of creativity in performance and expands on it.