Over the next few months we are undertaking a range of activities with the aim of developing our practice in one or two key areas of how we perform. I’ll come to what shortly, but first is the why?
Over the year and a half we’ve been together The Queen’s Closet has established ourselves as innovators in New Zealand performance of 17th century English and continental European music. Our aim is always to take music of 300-350 years ago and make it fresh and modern for contemporary audiences, by making our starting point to be as faithful as possible to performance practice the composers would have known.
The period music revolution has been around for over 50 years now, and began as a reaction against what was then poorly researched and understood performance of baroque music. It was unpopular with many in the musical world, at least initially, and it took time and determination to build audiences and persuade listeners that this was a better way of approaching the music of Handel, Bach and all the other baroque composers. Since those early beginnings an enormous amount has been discovered and many attempts made to recreate the playing styles and instruments lost for many generations. Even over the last 10-15 our understanding of instruments and playing style has changed markedly. Ideas from the beginnings of the early music revolution have been built upon and developed by subsequent generations of performers and academics, with new or altered understandings of how to play the music. We believe that continuing to research and keep up to date with new ideas – working to realise those ideas in performance – is one way we will help keep the music of the baroque continuing to sound fresh and modern. Our players work with specialists across the world, learning and discovering the ways performers around the world are finding to perform early music. We never want to reach the point where we think we’ve learnt all we need to know and can always do things the same way from there on – that, we think, would be the road to the sterile and the mediocre.
So first … What is A? Pitch in baroque music.
Our first focus is the pitch we play at … a pitch of 415 for A, which is a semitone lower than modern standard pitch in western music, has been adopted as a kind of one size fits all for much baroque performance on period instruments. The narrative goes something like this: pitch was low in baroque and gradually went up in the classical era until by Beethoven we reached A at 440. Some period instrument baroque ensembles even incorporate 415 into their name to illustrate the point. Of course, it won’t surprise anyone that the story is not quite that simple!
Music between 1600 and 1750 was played at pitches ranging from something like 392 (a tone below modern A) and 466 or higher (a semitone above modern pitch). Much of Vivaldi’s music for example was written to be played close to 440. Biber would most likely have been close to 466 for much of his music, while some Purcell would have been played at around 400 and other Purcell was written to be played at around 473 (so-called Quire pitch).
Why does this matter? The issue is that raising or lowering instruments by as much as 3 semitones dramatically changes the way instruments sound and respond. Performing at pitches away from the original intention leads to very different music and for voice in particular can even make a piece impossible to perform. Strings, brass and woodwind all sound very different at 392 than they do at 466. So far so good … but playing music composed for different pitch standards, and for instruments with different “home” pitches, at around its original pitch is not always practical today. By exploring issues around performance pitch we aim to better understand how this impacts on the music … and we hope this will lead to new insights into the music we play.