Baroque music is formed in large part from contrapuntal textures (having two or more independent but harmonically related melodic parts sounding together). Written for the harpsichord, these textures aren't as well suited to the modern piano's thicker tone and rich, low harmonies. So, special care has to be taken when you interpret Baroque period music on the piano.
|An upright pedal piano by Challen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
In contrapuntal music, the individual parts are of equal importance, even though their inter-relationship is continually shifting. To reproduce this type of texture well, you need to train your mind, ears and fingers to follow the course of individual contrapuntal lines, as well as their combined texture, so the pianist presents a picture of an ever-changing whole.
Pianist H. Ferguson gives this analogy: You can think of the music as a kind of conversation, in which the voice shifts continually from person to person, as each person makes a contribution without unduly raising his tone. The dynamic range shouldn't be too great (a true fortissimo is rare, since several people shouting different things at the same time will never make themselves understood); and touch and tone should be lighter than in homophonic music typical of the later 19th century.
A semi-legato is more usual than a legatissimo, especially if the notes are quick-moving, since it promotes clarity. It also allows freer play for the subtle kaleidoscopic changes of thought and mood particularly characteristic of Bach. The sustaining pedal should be used sparingly; it should never be allowed to obscure the line, or produce the kind of impressionistic haze that is only heard in modern music such as Debussy.
So, when you interpret Baroque music during piano instruction, try to avoid the thickness of sound that is characteristic of the piano, yet was foreign to the harpsichord. This is especially important with close-position chords in the bass. These sound clear and transparent on the early instrument, but on the thicker-toned piano of today they should be played carefully to avoid a muddy sound. One solution is to lighten the middle notes of the chord, so they are less prominent than the octave played by the fifth finger and thumb. Sometimes it helps to break the chord slightly and play it as a quick arpeggio.
Occasionally in Baroque music there are passages that would have been comparatively easy with the light and shallow touch of earlier instruments, but now are extremely difficult, or impossible, with the deeper and heavier key-action of today. For instance, the repeated triplet octaves in the right hand part of Schubert's song 'Der Erlkonig' were originally not terribly hard to play, but for the modern pianist they have become a virtuoso athletic feat.
In playing fugal music, then, you might find the following points helpful:
- Characterize all parts of fugue with carefully defined articulation.
- Make sure that the articulation for the main part is contrasted with that required by the counterpoint, and by parts 2 and 3 if the fugue happens to be double or triple. This ensures that each part remains distinct when several occur together.
- Characterize the episodes of the fugue in the same sort of way.
- Keep the texture as light as possible, particularly the top and bottom lines.
- Don't feel that the part must always stand out as though it were played on a solo blaring horn. The other parts are equally important.
- If you do want to bring out a particular part, stress it only very slightly. Its characterization, coupled with the generally light texture, will do the rest.
- A moving part will always stand out more clearly than a static one; if an even balance is required, the part that moves most needs the least stress.
- Always aim for clarity.
Barbara Ehrlich is a private piano teacher based in Bedminster, NJ with a roster of current young piano students that includes a broad array of student ages, cultures and backgrounds. New Jersey Piano Lessons works closely with parents to oversee and coordinate music activities in a variety of areas, including piano lessons, technique, theory, ear training, and sight-reading.
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