As I have dipped my toes into the world of ‘Historically Informed Performance’ I find myself wondering about what it really would have been like to be a professional musician of the 17th century. There must have existed many of the same issues as there are in freelance musicians’ lives today such as uncertainty of income, anxiety before important performances and a constant quest for the best possible equipment.
However, there are also many areas where things would have been very different, such as the instruments themselves. As there was much less standardisation of instruments every player, and therefore every ensemble, would have had a unique sound as opposed to the somewhat bland, homogenised sound-world of modern instruments. Early instruments were more volatile and reactive to atmospheric and temperature changes, demanding adaptability from the players in a much more extreme way than today. Also, the instruments, without modern refinements, were far more comfortable to play in some keys than in others. Composers of the day knew that ‘exotic’ keys would create tension for the players and therefore ramp up the drama in the music, bringing in due course great relief to players and audience alike when the safer home key was finally reached. In the QC by playing on copies of baroque instruments we give ourselves some of these extra challenges, but hopefully as a reward bring our listeners something closer to what they might have heard at the time the music was written.
The often hastily hand written sheet music of the Baroque era must have provided a further challenge to players. At times illegible it can only have been a rough guide as to the actual performance of the music. Today’s musicians are trained to scrupulously observe every tiny dot, line or marking as this is what has come to be expected since printed music became commonplace, and even more so since composers have been able to proofread or even publish their own music. In the QC our wonderful manager Sharon transcribes and arranges much of the music to suit our configuration and so we have been spoiled by having beautifully clear and easy to read parts. However, it has been a learning curve for me to feel free to add ornaments, change dynamics, the odd note and even occasionally entire passages in contradiction to my strict classical training in which one would rarely if ever dare to change anything on the page (though this is probably less the case for musicians who have a background in jazz).
And then there were the audiences! By all accounts 17th century audiences were not prone to sitting still and listening quietly. Music could be the backdrop to a chess game, a drinking party, or a fierce debate, not to mention much coming and going, so the musicians had to make every effort to get their message across as well as keep the attention of their public. I guess our lives today are somewhat easier in that regard, in that we don’t usually have to fight to be heard, but we sometimes are left guessing as to the genuine opinions of our audience as they sit politely and automatically applaud at the end of each item.
It is quite liberating that there are no recordings from the period. No-one can say definitively that we are right (or wrong) in our interpretation. There do exist many treatises from the era with quite clear instructions on how things should be done, but advice often varies wildly between authors, and there is the expectation that one should always defer to ‘good taste’ (also subjective!). St Lambert (1702) said that taste provides ‘the freedom that musicians give themselves to transgress their own rules’. By listening to many performances and recordings, and by experimenting with one’s own playing one does start to develop this ‘taste’, but then aligning it with that of one’s colleagues is yet another challenge – one no doubt also faced by early musicians.
Ultimately, I feel very grateful to live at a time in which we have freedom to pursue our voyage of discovery into the world of Baroque music uninhibited, and also very happy that it is considered acceptable in the 21st century for a me, a woman, to play the cello in public! -Jane