Monthly Archives: August 2016

The menaing of continuo on music

At some time during that historically sprawling period we call The Renaissance, something happened to our notions of harmony. As far as we can tell today, harmony during the late medieval period was something that in popular music was added to support or heighten a melody, or in polyphonic church music resulted from the interaction of the intertwining voices. But with the rise of opera and the madrigal, with their emphasis on the ebb and flow of earthly human passion, thinking about harmony became more sophisticated. The role of dissonance –the jab or frisson of pain, without which the pleasure of relaxation or resolution was impossible – began to acquire new terms and conditions. Now any chord should also be understood in terms of where it was headed – context was everything. Most radically of all, instead of the harmony simply following or emerging from the melody line or lines, music began to think from the bass up.

The result was the ‘continuo’, or in its original fullness, ‘basso continuo’. One instrument, or more commonly one group of instruments, now commanded the musical texture. It all centred on the bass line. Above the principal notes of the bass part, numbers and other musical symbols (‘figures’) started to appear like sharps or flats. These were to tell the keyboardist, or any other instrument capable of playing polyphonically like the lute or theorbo, what harmonies to build up from that bass (chord symbols in modern guitar music or in jazz work on much the same principle). As well as filling out the sometimes skeletal textures of Baroque music with warm, supple harmonic flesh, the continuo could also provide the rhythmic glue that kept a large ensemble together – the harpsichord, with its sharp clear attack, was particularly useful in this respect.

In this, the continuo-player was a bit like the modern conductor, except that as a hands-on musician he was presumably less prone to barbed or mutinous comments from his colleagues. 

When did it die out? We don’t tend to use continuo instruments in the symphonies and concertos of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven today, but the composers themselves evidently did, and the practice lasted rather longer in church music. Perhaps the increasing size of orchestras simply made direction from within the ranks impractical – the beat now has to be seen. In which case, vanity and the will to power had only to seize the opportunity. 

What is the meaning of invention on music

Decided you want to learn the classical piano? Seriously? Then sooner or later you’re going to have to get yourself a copy of Bach’s Inventions. If you’ve already heard someone good play them, you may be rubbing your hands in eager anticipation. Stick with them, and they should give you at least as much pleasure to play as to hear. But before that, the hand-rubbing may take on a rather different emotional complexion.

Bach’s two-part keyboard Inventions are probably the most beautiful and effective technical exercises ever compiled. But as with most exercise programmes, the early stages are likely to be gruelling and morale-draining. Take Invention No. 1, in the beginner-friendly key of C major. For quite a lot of the piece the two hands are playing the same thing (more or less), only not at the same time. It’s as if the left hand’s starting pistol went off a bar (about two seconds) behind the right’s. 

The beauty is that the two staggered parts not only fit together beautifully (like ‘Frère Jacques’ sung in imitation), they complement each other. As one descends, the other rises; as one lingers slightly, the other runs forward – a better demonstration of the principles of counterpoint is hard to imagine. The trouble is, when you first try playing both hands together, you begin to feel that what you really need is two brains. It’s a bit like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach with alternate hands in contrary directions – only worse. Persist, though, and the impossible happens: you progress from what psychologists call unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence (so easy to despair at this point) to conscious competence, and finally (hallelujah!) to unconscious competence. 

Brief pause for self-congratulation, then there’s the minor matter of the music, especially how to make this sound less like a machine and more like two voices in dialogue. Of course if you go back further into the past, you can find pieces called ‘Invention’ that have no obvious didactic purpose – for example, Clément Janequin’s first book of madrigals (1555). And in the 20th century, calling a piece ‘Invention’ can be more about demonstrating the composer’s prowess than inviting performers to develop theirs. But say ‘Inventions’ to trained pianists and Bach will spring to mind, perhaps with an accompaniment of knowing smiles. After all, these are the ones who have endured the Dark Night and emerged to see the stars.

Trill on music that you should know about it

Now this one’s simple, isn’t it? A trill is one of those extended wobbles on a long note you tend to hear at the end of a show-off solo in a concerto or coloratura aria. In the Baroque or Classical eras it’s virtually a fixture. Yes, the wobble must be on two notes – neighbouring notes to be precise (either a major or a minor second) – but surely that’s it.

Alas, no. Go back to the very early Baroque period (at this point regular readers of this column may be experiencing a slight anticipatory contraction of the stomach muscles), to the vocal works of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, and there you will find the word ‘trillo’ identified with something significantly different. There it’s not so much a wobble as a shake, and on just one repeated note. The kind of trill described above is usually smooth, legato, but this one is jerkier, more like a vocal spasm.

The gorgeous ‘Duo Seraphim’ from Monteverdi’s Vespers contains plenty of these, as when the word ‘Sanctus’ becomes ‘Sa-ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-han-ctus’. When historically minded performers first revived this kind of trill, critics and listeners found it rather funny; now we’re used to it, it can be strangely touching or, even more strangely, erotic. Nowadays we’d be inclined to call this a ‘tremolo’. Monteverdi would also have used the word ‘tremolo’, but what he meant by it would be what we would call a trill. At some stage during the 17th century, the two terms seem to have swapped over. 

The sign for a trill is an italic tr followed by a wavy horizontal line, which for once looks very like what it represents, and perhaps for that reason it has remained standard since the early-18th century. What it doesn’t tell you, however, is how to begin or end the trill. All sorts of exit strategies are possible. You can anticipate the final note by a fraction of a beat, or just drop onto it. You can preface the fall to the final note with an elegant downward twist or a breath-catching minute pause. As for the beginning, unless indicated otherwise, the modern trill starts on the lower note; the high Baroque trill, however, began on the upper note. The change seems to have happened around 1830. Not for the first time, I wonder if this was just a change in fashion, or whether there’s some deeper sociological significance. A possible subject for a thesis?

Clavichord On Music

‘From his very childhood HANDEL had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father, who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. Perceiving that this inclination still increased, he took every method to oppose it. He strictly forbad him to meddle with any musical instrument; nothing of that kind was suffered to remain in the house, nor was he ever permitted to go to any other, where such kind of furniture was in use. All this caution and art, instead of restraining, did but augment his passion. He had found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. He had made some progress before Music had been prohibited, and by his assiduous practice at hours of rest, had made such farther advances, as, tho’ not attended to at that time, were no slight prognostications of his future greatness.’’

John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, 1760

Anybody whose neighbours complain about their keyboard practice could, like Handel, turn to the clavichord. Its seemingly soft tones have enchanted musicians from about the fifteenth century, and contemporary composers including Herbert Howells, Stephen Dodgson and Peter Maxwell Davies have written pieces specifically for this Cinderella of the keyboard.

The clavichord’s mechanism is disarmingly simple: each key lever has a brass blade (tangent) at its end that pushes up against pairs of strings when the key is pressed down. This direct connection with the strings allows the player not only to make dynamic contrasts but also to sustain and control the sound. Apart from the accordion, the clavichord is unique amongst keyboard instruments in allowing the player some vibrato. Eighteenth-century composers such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, for whom the clavichord was an ideal vehicle for the ‘empfindsamer Stil’ (‘’expressive style’’), even notated vibrato in their keyboard music.

Clavichords may be fretted or unfretted. In fretted instruments, one pair of strings serves more than one note, at least for part of the compass; in unfretted ones each note has its own pair of strings. Until the early eighteenth-century clavichords were usually fretted, while later ones were frequently unfretted. Compasses range from around four octaves in the early fifteenth century to five octaves or more in the eighteenth.

Comparing the rectangular clavichord to the harpsichord is akin to the story of the tortoise and the hare. While the harpsichord has always been the more public, dazzling instrument, it petered out towards the end of the eighteenth century in favour of the fortepiano, while the clavichord, being primarily a quiet personal instrument, continued to be used into the nineteenth century – especially in Scandinavia (Carl Nielsen may even have used one when composing). The clavichord was the first type of keyboard instrument that Arnold Dolmetsch revived in 1894, and its intimate charms have inspired performers ranging from Gustav Leonhardt to Oscar Peterson.

Though do not be fooled. For the clavichord is an unforgiving mistress that requires a firm yet delicate touch. It is these apparently opposing demands that draw me inexorably to this lady. Furthermore, Johann Sebastian Bach himself is reputed to have said that the clavichord was his favourite type of keyboard instrument, and his small-scaled French Suites seem particularly well-suited to it. What better reasons to record these works on the clavichord?