Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Louder isn’t better, it’s just louder: what eighteenth-century performance practice teaches about dynamics.

This Blog was first published by Oxford University Press:

To the modern player, when dynamic indications are found in the score, the typical reaction is to think in terms of changes in volume.  Not entirely true for the eighteenth-century musician – dynamic indications mean much more than loud or soft. Volume shift was only part of the story and was a rather new and novel concept that took hold with the advent of the fortepiano and its ability to quickly alternate from loud to soft. According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, the use of abbreviations to indicate dynamics appeared as late as 1638.[i]  Notated dynamic markings came into their own during the rise of the fortepiano and its expanded capabilities.

From early Haydn to late Beethoven we see the frequency of use increase and more varieties of indications come into play. Crescendo and diminuendo were developed and exploited at the renowned Mannheim School and modern use notation appeared later, in 1739.[ii]

Interestingly, C. P. E. Bach and D. G. Türk speak very little about dynamics in their tutors.  Bach writes about only three terms: p, mf, and f. Türk defines ff, f, mf, p, and pp. What they do speak to at great length is affekt, the foundational pillar for eighteenth-century style. Affekt is the ability of music to stir emotions. It was achieved through attention to detail and proper execution, including execution of dynamics.

The novelty of the fortepiano wasn’t the extreme range of volume as we know today, but its ability to quickly alternate and facilitate finesse. Forte and piano are associated with a deeper meaning behind the marking. Consider forte to possibly portray heavy, wide, broad, angry, anxious, big, or strong; piano to portray light, sweet, pleading, sorrowful, or melancholy. The make-up of the fortepiano allows these characters to be expressed beautifully. When this understanding is applied to the repertoire, the results become quite exciting:

Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 332/I, mm. 55-65 (Henle)

The natural tendencies on the fortepiano bring the energy to the forefront:  Mozart Audio Example 1

It can be achieved effectively on the modern piano when appropriate adjustments are made:  Mozart Audio Example 2

Forte and piano are the backbone, indicating more and less rather than an absolute extreme loud or soft. It provides the means to shading and nuance. And it should be done in good taste, which requires further understanding of proper practices of the time.

Forte followed by piano is not necessarily an absolute direction for the notes specifically under the marking until the next change, but serves as a guide for dynamic direction from one marking to the next based on melodic, harmonic, and contextual clues.  In the example below, direction is from forte to piano rather than an absolute forte on beat 1 that continues until piano on beat 2.  The performer should start forte and arrive at piano by beat 2.

Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 309/II, mm. 17-19 (Henle)

The subtle rise of the line is expressed well on the fortepiano: Mozart Audio Example 3

Forte directly followed by piano is often declarative in nature. The breadth is determined by affekt. We turn again to Mozart for clarification. The marking may be expressive:

Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 280/III, mm. 55-59 (Henle)

These types of subtleties are expressed well on the fortepiano:   Mozart Audio Example 4

Or it may give direction for a terraced crescendo or diminuendo.  Here, the line builds bit by bit, leading up to the forte at the peak of the line.

Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 309/I, mm. 48-51(Henle)

The fortepiano provides excellent opportunity to terrace the crescendo: Mozart Audio Example 5

As understood practices are incorporated it is important to remember that the overriding goal is to express affekt and dynamic markings are one of many notational clues provided by the composer to guide the performer in achieving the desired affekt. Once the clues are uncovered and adjustments are made in translating the affekt from fortepiano to modern piano, the musical message can be carried quite effectively. From the context of the piece, determine how and to what extent the dynamic marking(s) will best describe the affekt the composer is portraying.

Listen carefully to make artistic adjustments.  Guard against playing loudly simply because there is an f in the score. When considering extreme f or p, remember the volume capabilities available on the fortepiano. As Malcolm Bilson suggests, playing “as if” the modern piano is a fortepiano will go a long way in achieving the goal. Making appropriate adjustments on the modern piano will bring authenticity to the performance. The modern piano requires time for the tone to develop. Listen with a discerning ear to avoid cutting the sound off too quickly and creating a choppy, undesirable effect.

Continually consider the intended affekt, how the piece was probably performed on the period instrument, and how that intention can be best realized on this instrument. In doing so, playing will no longer simply be loud or soft, but an organic, living expression of the soul.

[i] Apel, Willi, ed. 1969. Harvard Dictionary of Music. 2nd rev. and enlarged ed. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 303.
[ii] Ibid.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

 Connections Between MTNA 2017 National Conference & Eighteenth-Century Pedagogues

While at the Music Teachers National Association 2017 National Conference in Baltimore, Maryland in March I attended a variety of excellent sessions on everything from musicianship, business trends, and pedagogical strategies to recitals highlighting competition winners. It was impressive to see so many well-prepared and well-thought out presentations. 

Less than four hours into the conference, I started to have Deja-vu moments. Here I sat at a 2017 conference, listening to relevant insights being shared right and left while vividly remembering reading many of these same wise words of advice from great eighteenth-century pedagogues such as C. P. E. Bach, Leopold Mozart, and Daniel G. Türk. The topics broached were based on current scientific data and years of esteemed pedagogical experience, yet I found it ironic how the period musicians knew intuitively that which we continue to study and dissect in our desire to better understand. I’m not trying to disparage the conference presentations, I simply found it intriguing. Let’s turn to salient points from the workshops, followed by advice from the eighteenth century to see the continuity through the years.

***Let the mood and structure drive your learning and playing (Affekt)***

  • During an intermediate level master class led by Diane Hidy and Elissa Milne, students were instructed to learn the mood and structure by first playing the “skeleton” of the piece, playing the rhythmic concept (with less regard to exact notes), and feel the overall direction of the piece before attending to any details.

  • Instruction from Leon Fleisher during the advanced master class included:

  1. The notation tells the story, implying the importance of knowing the story [affekt] behind the composition.
  2. Concentrate on the left hand rhythmic scaffolding.
  3. Find the choices the composer has made to determine your choices regarding what you are going to bring out.  Here, in the Waldstein Sonata, long long short is the unusual structure to highlight.

  • Loise Svard led an insightful session, The Art & Science of Memorizing Music. Her presentation was based on the latest neuroscience as it relates to memorization.  She revealed that neuro paths for memorization begin developing during the initial learning stages. Emphasis was on the need to lay a solid foundation before rehearsing: analysis, structure, affekt, and the correct encoding of score. She emphasized the need to use all learning styles for stronger neuro connections: cells that fire together get wired together which develops reliable outcomes. In her concluding remarks, she summarized that the harder we work (understanding the structure), the more reliable the memory.

Eighteenth-century thoughts on structure and affekt:
  • Haydn speaking to L. Mozart, observing the young Mozart:  Your son has “taste and a profound understanding.”                      ---etching on a wall at Mozarthaus, Vienna, Austria

  • Türk devotes Part Three of Klavierschule and Bach devotes the entire “Performance” section in Versuch to executing the underlying concept.

  • “If everything that has been taught in the last two parts [on execution] is followed in the most meticulous way, it is still not possible to have good execution because the most essential part is missing, namely the expression of the prevailing character without which no listener can be moved to any degree.”[1]

  • “A knowledge of thoroughbass is indispensable to good execution because without this knowledge, the various rules concerning appoggiaturas and ornaments, the required strength or weakness of consonant and dissonant harmonies, and the like cannot be followed.”[2] 

  • “This difference of meters is very well suited to express particular nuances of the passions. Above all, the composer must have a definite impression of the particular passion that he has to portray and then choose a more ponderous or lighter meter depending upon whether the affect in its particular nuance requires one or the other.”[3]

  • To highlight affekt, it is best to go to the unusual or the dissonant, which implies knowing the usual form and expected outcome: “So-called deceptive progressions are also brought out markedly to complement their function.”[4] The typical Classical formula is 2 + 2 + 4, so in looking to the different structure in the Waldstein Sonata, the performer has a clear message from the composer regarding how to proceed.

  • During the Hidy/Milne master class a student was encouraged to follow the slur groupings.
  • Likewise, Fleisher instructed a student to do the same when determining musical direction in a work by Chopin.

Eighteenth-century thoughts on slurs:
  • The slur was the pinnacle of expression in the Classical Style. At one point Beethoven admonished his publisher to copy his markings exactly.  Much direction was provided in notational slurs and their impact on performance. 

  • In L. Mozart’s Violinschule, he provides an example of three measures in triple time with thirty-three different possibilities for accentuation and then proclaims, “Now this changes indisputably the whole style of performance.”[5]

***Rhythmic energy***
  • From Leon Fleisher: 

  1. Rhythmic LH figures in the Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata are covert energy
  2. Follow the LH’s lead
  3. Follow clues the composer gave us to help in determining pulses [referring to beaming in a Chopin sonata]
  4. Make timing choices to highlight color changes

Eighteenth-century thoughts on rhythm:
  • 25% of Bach’s Versuch is devoted to thoroughbass.  For pianists, that means the left hand and the driving rhythmic energy inherent in the style.

  • On page 220 of L. Mozart’s A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, the concept of rhythmic energy and drive is methodically worked out. WA Mozart’s Piano Fantasy K 397 demonstrates this concept well.

  • On page 334 of Türk’s Klavierschule, he points out that beaming oftentimes denotes phrasing gestures. See Bagatelle in G Minor, Op. 119, No. 1, mm 59-65 by Beethoven for a clear example.

  • Rhythm is musical, not metrical. Time was expected to be used to highlight changes in color and affekt. Beethoven endorsed the metronome to set the tempo. He never intended it to be used for metronomic playing.

How fascinating! Many of the very concepts we continue to delve into and push forward with scientific research to better understand were already explained centuries ago through intuitive, musical understanding. To uncover more eighteenth-century gems, refer to Discoveries from the Fortepiano: A Manual for Beginning and Seasoned Performers (OUP, 2015).  

[1] Daniel Gottlob Türk, Klavierschule (1789, Leipzig and Halle), as translated by Raymond H. Haggh (University of                Nebraska Press, 1982), 337. Permission by the author’s daughter, Barbara Haggh-Huglo.
[2] Ibid., 323.
[3] Johan Philipp Kirnberger, 1982. The Art of Strict Musical Composition, (Berlin: 1771.) Translated by David Beach                    and Jurgen Thym. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 400.
[4] C. P. E. Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753.) Translated and edited by William J.                       Mitchell. New York: W. W. Norton, 163.
[5] Leopold Mozart, 1948. A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, (Augsburg, 1756, 1787.)                             Translated by Editha Knocker. London: Oxford University Press, 123-124.