Ensemble and Professional Development

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.   

Performing under Covid …

We were fortunate to have our Fringe performance Quanto Dolce just before Covid-19 stopped all of us from being able to perform for the time being.  But as with other performing companies, all our performances for the rest of the year are now postponed, cancelled or in doubt.

The response of many musical performers and groups to this enforced hiatus has been to try and keep performing, by temporarily moving online with digital performances, collaborations, or streaming recordings.  Music is an art form that can work well across a range of media, and these performances have been something to light up the sometimes long and dreary days.  This has also allowed many performers to keep active and performing, even if not in ways they prefer.

But you may have noticed that The Queen’s Closet hasn’t joined in with this digital musicking.  While making recordings and performing across the internet is one way to keep making music, it’s not something that is compatible for the vision we have for The Queen’s Closet.  We make our music meaningful by performing live with an audience who we engage directly with, just as it would have been at the time this music was written.  Live performance with an audience is not possible at present, so as a group we are silent for the time being, which is difficult.  We enjoyed our last performance so much, as we do all our performances, and were humbled and delighted to have wonderful audience feedback and be nominated for two Fringe awards.  Following on from this we were looking forward to musicking with concert-goers throughout 2020 with a range of programmes, from the more conventional programme of Bach and Vivaldi with Nota Bene, to some more experimental and exploratory programmes.  We’re still hopeful that the programme with the Bach Choir of Purcell’s Hail Bright Cecilia and the Biber Requiem in A will go ahead later this year. 

Our enforced hiatus has had the unexpected benefit of giving us all the opportunity to spend some quality time with our charismatic and characterful instruments.  So we have been musicking in different ways, talking, arranging and planning music and performances, and experimenting with mouthpieces, reeds, staples, strings and bows!

But, we need to perform live to exist.  It is the only way for us.  So, as we look forward to a future easing of restrictions on gatherings, we are contemplating and planning ways of performing live as soon as possible.  Big audiences and large venues are unlikely to be possible in the near future.  But here is our opportunity.  Our performances work best in intimate and informal settings, with smaller audiences.  While the internet is not fruitful ground for us, the next stages we anticipate post-lockdown of small venues with small audiences will be perfect for us.  As soon as small groups of people can share a space together we can perform again.  

So how to aim for the same lively and engaging events, within whatever government restrictions we all need to follow in the current climate?  We have some exciting ideas, and we look forward to seeing, and more importantly to musicking with you again soon.

The QC

Questions of Rhetoric – or rhetorical questions?

What is Rhetoric and why is it relevant to music?  Why does it matter?

The relevance of Rhetoric to music of the baroque era is a large field of study and many people more knowledgeable than I have written about this.  I personally always enjoy reading Bruce Haynes’ many thoughts about this and if it’s not an area you already know about, Haynes’ somewhat polemical book The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century is an excellent place to start.  (and a great read – among other things he argues conductors meet the biological definition of a parasite … you don’t have to agree with everything Haynes says, but what he does say he expresses with great panache). 

My view, not always shared by everyone, is that our playing in the Queen’s Closet should be Rhetorical, and that approaching baroque music in this way is an important aspect of understanding and interpreting this music.  

But what does Rhetorical performance of music mean?

Throughout the baroque era the discipline of Rhetoric was widely studied and discussed and as an art form has been discussed by writers from Plato to the modern day.  The discipline of Rhetoric was widely applied to musical performance from Renaissance up to the move to Romanticism in music.  It was an approach widely considered to be integral to musical performance in the baroque era and few writers on musical performance at that time wrote without some reference to Rhetoric.

Quantz is a good example of this, and he gives a particularly useful description of Rhetoric in music.  In his widely read manual of musical performance in the 1720s and 30s On Playing the Flute he says: 

Musical execution may be compared with the delivery of the orator” 

and goes on to explain that orators and musicians 

have, at bottom, the same aim … to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners” and crucially, “to arouse or still their passions, and transport them now to this sentiment, now to that.”

Quantz was a widely travelled and respected musician of his time, and although only one voice from the time is a particularly strong and relevant one.  He talks about musical delivery, 

“ … we demand that an orator have an audible, clear and true voice; that he aim at a pleasing variety in voice and language; that he avoid monotony in the discourse, rather allowing the tone of the syllables and words to be heard now loudly, now softly, now quickly, now slowly; and that he raise his voice in words requiring emphasis, subdue it in others.”  

He then goes on to 

“… show that all of these things are also required in good musical execution … “ 

In a further paragraph, Quantz identifies what he considers to be poor musical execution, which includes: 

“ if everything is sung without warmth or played on the same level with no alternation of Piano and Forte;”

and for me crucially, 

if you … execute everything without feeling, without sentiment, and without being moved yourself … “

For me, many of the important aspects of rhetorical playing are captured here by Quantz, (and by other writers of course) … the speech like execution with diction, variability and an oratorical manner of playing, combined with a central aim of emotional response, and an aim to move your audience, and yourself, in performance.  Rhetorical music succeeds if a performance evokes emotions in the performer and the audience.

Come to think of it, I suspect the parallels Haynes draws of a conductor to a parasite is a particularly bold rhetorical device, rather than necessarily something to take literally.  He seems a bit angry perhaps, and if I were a conductor I may be moved to certain emotions reading his views …

Why is this important?  For me, music of the baroque era seems to be written in the main, with rhetorical execution in mind.  Not intended necessarily to be beautiful, or timeless, as was the case in Art music from the Romantic era and beyond, but to be a vehicle for performers to move audiences.  Approaching the music in this way, I feel, brings our audiences and ourselves closer to the heart of music of the baroque.



What is a period instrument anyway? The why of “period instruments.”

Attempts at authenticity in performance of baroque music go back a long way, but current approaches can arguably be traced back to the pioneers of the 1960s, such as Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Bruggen.

In those heady days, the early music pioneers attempted to use or recreate instruments not played seriously in their baroque form for centuries.  Crucially, they used their experiments to challenge the ways music of the 17th and 18thcentury was being played in their time.  Their work led to the period instrument revolution of the 1970s and 80s.  After this, period performance became a little standardised and even taught in music collages.  The “right way” to play early music was born and things stabilised.

Within that standardisation lay a plethora of modernisms … A at 415 as a standard pitch, “natural” trumpets with the questionable and entirely modern (1950s-1970s) inventions that are nodal vent-holes, played using modern mouthpieces and lead-pipes, modern scrapes of hoboy reed developed in the 19th and 20th centuries and a range of variably authentic strings and bows.  

It’s easy to rail against the faux authentic (did you notice me reference to ventholes), but that misses the point I think.  How authentic is authentic anyway?  My natural trumpet is a copy of an instrument made in 1746, and our hoboy player uses one based on a hoboy of similar vintage.  These are not instruments of the Restoration, but a generation later.  Our hoboy player was asked recently about work to use reeds scraped to baroque patterns rather than modern long scrapes, and the question was “why?”  

To answer this I would point to this performance of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.

On 19 mins 55 seconds the trumpet plays, without ventholes, an almost unplayable part.  Notes have to be bent and cajoled out of the places they naturally sit in the instrument, and the player suffers as he plays his line.  The words … translated as:

Be faithful, all pain will yet be only a little thing

After the rain blessing blossoms, all storms pass away

Be faithful, be faithful

It is possible, and most common, in period performance to play this aria on a baroque trumpet with ventholes.  But to do so sanitises the music.  Bach wrote with the instrument in mind, and understood the stress and tension playing such a line would cause.  And in true rhetorical style, in feeling the pain the musician evokes pain in the audience.  Suddenly the music makes sense, and when the final movement follows in a far easier key you can feel the relief in the words “god will, just like a father, hold me in his arms”

For me it comes down to why we make any attempt at all to use period instruments, and why we attempt to find instruments made to be as authentic copies as possible, as far as possible using techniques of the time.  The music.  Yes our authenticity is relative not absolute, as is the case with all early music groups, and we have to make compromises. But we keep pushing to use instruments and techniques which are increasingly as authentic as we can, in order to be inspired by them, and in turn by the music. When we use unfamiliar and at times very difficult period instruments, they show us some of the ways the music may have been intended to be played.  From the altered tonality forced by real natural brass, to the fickle sounds of short scrape reeds and short fingerings, and markedly different sound and articulation of the more historically made strings, the soundworld changes.  By engaging as much as we can in the struggles of period performers of the 17th century we gain insights into how the music works.  The result we feel, is a fresher and more genuinely authentic performance … music not as a museum piece or played as a learnt “early music formula”, but as a fresh and lively experience. And it remains an exciting and infinite journey of discovery, not merely a destination to reach.



The coming year …

When the Queen’s Closet was founded we had the aim of establishing a Baroque Orchestra in Wellington. Our goal is to provide something new and different for New Zealand audiences, whilst presenting music of the baroque era. Early music made contemporary.

We wanted to establish ourselves as a group with a flexible and versatile makeup consistent with baroque orchestras of the Restoration Era (around 1660-1714) with a complement of string, brass, woodwind, percussion and keyboard instruments. Our formation varies from performance to performance, and we frequently edit our own scores to fit the players available–all of which was common practice in the Restoration era and is entirely consistent with Restoration music-making. At that time copyists were even on hand on the day to transcribe parts for different instruments depending on who was available: an on-the-fly approach we haven’t yet been brave enough to try!

We also wanted to provide a different audience experience from the more usual 19th century concert format common even with other baroque orchestras. Musical audiences in the baroque era would not have recognised the modern concert-hall environment, with players dressed in black and rules of etiquette requiring quiet, and applause only at the correct times. We wanted our audience experience to be more authentic to the spirit of early music, while still making sense to contemporary audiences. To that end we perform in colourful clothing, in venues where food and beverages are consumed, and we encourage interaction between musicians and audience members throughout our performances.

As we continue to develop as a baroque orchestra, we have a firm focus on discovering early music through authenticity – our aim is Bruce Haynes’ notion of Historically Inspired Performance. We play on instruments as close to the early baroque as possible, including a first for a New Zealand ensemble with regular performance on real natural trumpets and horns, and hoboy played on authentically scraped reeds. Faithful replicas of real early instruments, rather than the modified versions more commonly used with other ensembles, are both more difficult and more exciting. For example, tuning is different from not just modern ensembles, but also from baroque groups using modified modern versions of baroque instruments such as trumpets with vent-holes, modern mouthpieces and lead-pipes.

We have been pleased and excited to find audiences engaging with our approach, and to our delight we have been likened to a jazz group. This is particularly pleasing as baroque and jazz share a number of features. As an example, rhythmic flexibility was a feature of the baroque with a practice of “inegale” playing (unequal rhythms) whereby players would effectively swing rhythms in the manner of modern jazz players. Real baroque playing also involved improvising; merely playing the notes on the page is not in keeping with that era or that style. We aim for a degree of spontaneity and flexibility.

And finally, and most importantly, there is the role of the audience. We refer to ourselves as an “Orchestra” which is in some ways misplaced, but intentional. The term “orchestra” did not gain its modern meaning until well after the era of the Restoration, and the word originally referred to a place in Greek theatres. Johann Mattheson’s use of the term “orchestre” has been described as “… the place of the citizens who have been seated in the pit in order to be musically educated,” and “the place for the audience, the citizens forming their critical opinions.” We see our audience as a critical part of our performances. As a historically inspired baroque orchestra, we include you, our audience, as part of what we do.

This year we have a number of exciting projects in preparation. Our next Queen’s Closet performance is on March 8th, a BYO event back at Prefab Hall with our usual complementary nibbles to start you off. We then collaborate with Wellington choral groups to perform Bach, Vivaldi, Purcell and Biber … Details are on our Season 2020 page (see the menu above). We also have a number of other smaller events in preparation so please check our website regularly or sign up to our mailing list (also on our menu above).

We have been thrilled by the way our audience has engaged and participated in our performances, and look forward to welcoming you to our orchestra.

Gordon (gapeseed@thequeenscloset.net)