The older the music, the further away it is from our times and therefore the greater the effort required to understand its historical context. This is why it is principally Baroque and Pre-Baroque music that tends to suffer from “uninformed” performance practices (basically, from being played as though it were Romantic music). For a discussion of the History and Repertoire of this period click on the highlighted link.
Usually we think of evolution as leading us on a path to improvement. “Newer” normally means “better”: the most recent model of anything is usually an improvement on the previous version. Who then – apart from eccentrics or very poor people – would drive an old car, use a typewriter, an old camera, bicycle, gut strings, a Baroque bow, a light sound, little vibrato etc when there are such fantastic improved modern versions available? This reasoning was applied not just to performance style but also to whole musical epochs: Early Music (pre-romantic) was for a long time considered “old-fashioned”: simple and inferior to Romantic music. The Romantic Period was a time in which instrument manufacturing, emotivity, symphonic composition and virtuosic playing technique all flowered. This was such an amazing period in musical history that it is very easy for us to get stuck in a time warp, playing everything as though seen through this gorgeous romantic technicolour lens.
Because cellistic technique has improved over time, “Early Music” – being often somewhat less virtuosic than more recent music – can be considered as just “too easy” “not challenging” and therefore “boring” for the virtuoso instrumentalist. For all these reasons, the argument most commonly used to denigrate the “authentic performance, original instrument” revolution in Early Music musical interpretation, was (and is) that it was only for eccentrics and poor (incompetent) instrumentalists. Early music enthusiasts were considered as the musical equivalent of the Amish. Nowadays, fortunately, the tables have turned, and playing “Early Music” in the style of Russian romantic music has become not just “old fashioned” but even an almost embarrassing sign of a lack of awareness, open-mindedness, musical education, brain neurons etc in the performer.
To play Early Music really “well” (to greatest effect) in its “authentic” style, requires much greater use of the intellectual components of interpretation than is required in playing Romantic Music. Choices of tempi, articulations, bowings, phrasings, dynamics, rhetoric, rubato etc are important in all musical styles but they are absolutely primordial in Early Music because the fundamental tools of Romantic Interpretation (instrumental virtuosity, big juicy sound and intense romantic emotional outpouring) are either unnecessary or inappropriate. Because that gorgeous luscious sound that we take as our romantic ideal would have been impossible to achieve with a baroque cello, baroque bow and gut strings, we have to find other ways to make this music powerful, moving, dramatic, beautiful etc.
This is probably why the “authentic”, “original instruments” world of pre-Romantic interpretation has always attracted so many of the most thoughtful, intellectual musicians. In the cello department Christopher Coin, Anner Bylsma, Claudio Ronco, Josetxu Obregon and others are not just fantastic cellists but seem also to be on a different intellectual and interpretative plane than your average “romantic” cellist for whom playing everything “beautifully” is often the ultimate goal.
Let’s look now at some of the defining characteristics of Baroque and Pre-Baroque music and cello playing
Ornamentation is a vital expressive component of most Baroque music (as well as of baroque architecture, decoration, art etc), reaching its absolute peak towards the end of the Baroque period (see Rococo Style). As a general rule, trills should be started on the beat (not with a grace note before the beat), and from the note above. We can usually take our time over this first note of the trill, thus making the most of its highly expressive dissonance.
THE LEFT HAND
In Early Music we generally use less vibrato, stay more in the lower positions, and use fingerings across the strings rather than shifting up and down the same string. Whereas in Romantic music we tend to avoid playing longer notes on the open strings (because we can’t do vibrato on them), the opposite is true in the Baroque (and Classical) style. Open strings with their beautiful natural (unforced, effortless) resonance and overtones are just wonderful in Pre-Romantic music.
SEATING POSTURE AND CELLO ANGLE
The spike (endpin) was only invented in the 1830’s, at the end of the “Classical Period”, just a few years after the deaths of Beethoven (1827) and Schubert (1828). The spike enables the modern cellist to play with the cello much more horizontal than in the “pre-spike” era, in which the cello rested on the calves of the cellists legs. This has considerable consequences not just for our seating posture but also for our bowing and bowhold, due to the changing influence of the effect of gravity (the bow’s weight) according to the verticality of the cello.
THE RIGHT HAND
Apart from the left hand changes mentioned above, the revolution in performance practice is very much a right hand phenomenon. This is largely because of the radical changes that occurred in cello bow design at the end of the 1700’s. These changes reflected perfectly the social, political, economic and philosophical transformations that led to transition from the Classical to the Romantic Period in the first quarter of the 19th century.
The cello bow has mutated into a very different creature since its Renaissance (and earlier) beginnings. Lighter than the modern bow, less “springy” (bouncy), and with its centre of gravity more towards the frog, the early bow has quite different playing characteristics to the modern bow. When we talk about the development of the bow, we can use the word “mutated” rather than “evolved” because these fundamental changes to bow design occurred over the very brief period of time around 1785-1790 during which the French bowmaker François Tourte, in collaboration with the violinist Viotti, basically “invented” a radically new bow design. This new “Tourte” bow design has remained basically unchanged until this day.
Not only did the bow design change radically, but also the bowhold changed at the same time, moving to the frog from its Baroque position further up the stick.
How did these modifications affect the way the cello is played and the way the music sounds ? Basically, they helped cellists to play both louder and more “sostenuto” (sustained, legato). Both of these characteristics were (and still are) necessary for Romantic Music and large concert halls. Unfortunately however they are usually not so appropriate for earlier music.
The early bow had a more pronounced natural tendency to get softer towards both ends, and louder towards the middle than the modern bow. It’s attack (articulation) was much smoother and softer as the hair tension was lower. When we play Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical Period music we need to be aware of these differences. Even if we are using a modern “romantic” bow, we can imitate the early bow by using lighter, faster bow strokes and by playing less legato, less sostenuto in general. Romantic sostenuto legato bowing doesn’t have much place in stylistic (authentic) Baroque playing.
Therefore, to play in a more “authentic”, less romanticised style, it can help to let the longer bow strokes fade out a little towards their ends, as in the following examples taken from the Bach Solo Cello Suites:
Exactly the same principle applies to Classical Period music. While the starting notes of the two Haydn Cello Concertos need to fade out a little if played in “authentic” style, the starting notes of the Dvorak and Schumann Concertos definitely do not want to do this.
In the above examples, each “long” bow is only one note. However we can use exactly the same technique of fade-out also when the bowstroke involves more notes, as in the following examples:
Baroque bowing doesn’t only use a lot of fade out, it also uses a lot of fade in. We can often “develop” the longest bow strokes: starting them gently and growing towards the middle (of the note and of the bow) as in the following examples. We do need to be careful however with this effect as, if overdone, it can make people seasick.
It is curious that we now play all styles of music with this “modern” bow (it is also curious that we use the word “modern” even though it has not really changed at all since 200 years ago!). Nowadays any string player can buy a reasonable imitation Baroque bow for less than 200€. This is a very good investment and this is well worth the cost. Playing with a baroque bow can actually teach us more about Baroque style than many books or lessons.