The “Assumption of First Position” in Baroque Cello playing

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A survey of 91 cellists asked them their fingering for the opening d minor triad of Bach’s 2nd Prelude BWV 1008. I asked them to identify themselves as ‘Baroque cellists’ or ‘regular modern cellists’, about their level of interest in Historically Informed Performance (HIP) and the kind of strings they used. I also asked whether they thought that “this is the most ‘authentic’ fingering” or an “individual expressive choice”. The aim was to test whether ‘Baroque cellists’ would assume First Position, while ‘regular modern cellists’ would use 4th position.

First or Fourth position?
Of all 91 respondents 59 – almost 2/3 – chose 1st position (0 – 2- 0). The remaining 1/3 were divided roughly in half: 13 chose 4th position, and 11 chose 2nd position. 2 played all 3 notes on the D string.

59 chose 1st position:
2 amateurs, 10 college students, 42 professionals
Of those 59 cellists, 20 chose it as “the most ‘authentic’ fingering” and 33 as their “individual expressive” choice (6 – other). This would imply that concern with “authentic” dogma was only a guiding force for 1/3 of those choosing first position. However, of the 59 choosing 1st position, 23 were “committed to HIP”, 32 were “interested in Historically Informed Performance, it informs my fingering choices” and 4 “not especially interested in Historically Informed Performance but awareness of different performance styles informs my playing”. In other words, 55 out of 59 choosing 1st position professed that HIP informed their fingering choices.

13 chose 4th position:
1 amateur, 2 college students, 9 professionals, 1 not specifying.
Of these, none thought that this was the most authentic fingering. For 9 it was their “individual expressive choice”, 3 were teacher recommendations and 2 were “not sure”
However, of the 13 choosing 4th position, 6 were “interested in Historically Informed Performance, it informs my fingering choices” and 6 “not especially interested in Historically Informed Performance but awareness of different performance styles informs my playing”
Of those choosing 4th position only 1 was “committed to HIP”, a professional playing on a combination of strings, different types of cello. It was their individual expressive choice
10 were ‘regular modern cellists’ playing on steel, of whom half were interested in HIP and half not especially.

What is a “Baroque cellist”?

This question was far harder to define than I had anticipated! The three defining categories – interest in HIP, choice of strings, and identifying as a “period instrument cellist” – had much less overlap than I had thought. I looked at three different definitions:

Broadest definition of ‘baroque cellist’
This included 53 cellists: either committed to or interested in HIP, and played ‘period’ or ‘different types’ of cello.
Of this group:
44 use 1st position – of whom 15 think this is the most “authentic” fingering,
24 This is my individual expressive choice
All were either Committed (27) or interested (17) in HIP
1 all on the D string
4 used 2nd pos
2 used 4th pos
1 all on the g string

44/53 = 83%

Loosest possible definition of ‘baroque’ cellist:
This might include those who are “Baroque” cellists rather than “Baroque cellists”
including anyone either Committed to or interested in HIP, the total is 79.
55 use 1st position 19 think this is the most “authentic” fingering, 32 individual expressive choice.
1 all on the D string
12 use 2nd position
1 uses 4th position but starting on open D (0-4-1)
7 use 4th position
1 all on G string
55/79 = 70%

Narrowest definition of ‘Baroque cellist’:
there were 12 who said “I’m a ‘period instrument’ cellist”. However although 10 were committed, 2 of those (both professionals) were only “interested in HIP”. All played on 2 or 3 plain gut and 1 or 2 covered gut strings. There were 1 amateur and 11 professional cellists.
All 12 chose 1st position. Of these, 6 (including the amateur cellist) thought this is the most “authentic” fingering, for the other 6 it was their individual expressive choice
12/12 = 100%

Whichever definition of “Baroque cellist” we prefer, 70%, 83% or 100% of them play these three notes in 1st position. Perhaps most significantly, beyond the “Baroque cellist” question, 93% of cellists of all persuasions (55 out of 59) choosing 1st position said that HIP informs their fingering choices. There is a clear pattern, albeit from a very small sample question about only 3 notes. The data answers to some extent the question of whether cellists of all persuasions, but especially Baroque cellists, think that the ‘assumption of first position’ is a kind of accepted orthodoxy.





RIP Anner Bylsma

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RIP Anner Bylsma.
We all owe him a huge debt. In those early days of ‘Early Music’, which sometimes tended towards a po-faced Calvinism, he had a sense of humour and a sense of discovery. While others were methodical, he rejoiced in what can be learned when mucking about, “like an old man in his potting shed” – what he called ‘bricolage.’
He commanded the respect of cellists of every stripe, because he could REALLY play the cello, but also their envy because he PLAYED WITH the cello. In an age where the tyranny of ‘CD quality’ technical perfectionism was beginning to stifle live music making in classical music, he was a devil-may-care risk taker. That playfulness and risk taking could also be called cavalier -and things sometimes did go wrong.
The stories are legendary. Before a packed Bach recital, he read out to the audience the review of a recent (apparently disasterous) performance of the Kraft Concerto, offering to refund tickets. My favourite (perhaps apocryphal) was when he took part in an all-star line up for a complete Piatti Caprices concert at the Manchester Cello Festival. As he went on stage he asked “Which one am I playing..?” Richard Egarr and I accompanied him in a recital of Vivaldi Sonatas on Marie Leonhardt’s course at Casa Mateus. I learned an enormous amount from him that week – it was life changing – but somehow there was never the right moment to rehearse Vivaldi. An ice cream parlour next to the church put paid to our final chance to rehearse. As we went on stage I asked “What about repeats?” “You’ll know” he said, and we did.
His 1979 Bach SUITES for RCA were not just ‘important’, they were epoch making – vivid, brightly coloured images which made previous interpretations sound black and white.
His first book ‘Bach, the Fencing Master’ proposed the idea that the slurs in Anna Magdalena’s MS could, even should be followed. Even if, like me you disagree with the premise, the book is still full of the ingenious insights of a brilliant, iconoclastic mind. His fingering for the opening of the D minor Allemande is a brilliant example of bricolage – of technique flowing naturally from the music:
to keep the resonance of the opening d minor chord a little longer, he played the B flat with his thumb.
The world is a smaller place with his departure.

The image is from Marco Borggreve’s picture

Handel’s Messiah and The Sublime

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Handel spent most of his life in Hanoverian London. Like Bach he was a German Lutheran, but his early career took him to Rome, where he wrote Italian cantatas and two Oratorios for Corelli’s patron Cardinal Ottobone. He brought with him elements of the French style, but also soaked up the Roman: imagine the impact Bernini’s statue The Ecstasy of St Teresa – theatrical, sensually charged – must have had on the young Sassone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecstasy_of_Saint_Teresa Like Bach, Handel was accused of introducing theatrical elements into scared music. Certainly when he came to write The Messiah his audience would have recognised in O Death Where is thy sting not only a rhetorical question, but an Italian love duet in the tradition of Monteverdi’s Pur ti Miro from Poppea. It had been with Italian opera that Handel caused a sensation when he moved to London in 1710, presenting 35 operas over the next three decades. Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728) satirised the conventions of the Italian opera bandwagon, perhaps even hastening its demise. When opera’s commercial momentum eventually ran out, Handel was already shifting his focus, rediscovering Roman oratorio, but adding elements from English Masque and the Anglican church anthem. He wrote his last opera Deidamia in 1741, and The Messiah (with expensive ticket prices) was the first major work to follow.

The first performance was given in Dublin, the city’s two main (all-male) choral foundations supplying the singers, apart from the female soloists. The orchestra was led by Handel’s friend Dubourg.  In Rome, the Pope ‘issued an admonishment’ because a woman had appeared singing in La Resurrezione; at the Dublin premiere of The Messiah, however, one clergyman was so overcome by Mrs. Susanna Cibber’s rendering of He was despised that he leapt to his feet and cried: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

Charles Jennens’ text was taken from the King James Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer. His plan follows the liturgical year: Part I corresponding with Advent, Christmas, and the life of Jesus; Part II with Lent, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost; and Part III with the end of the church year, and the end of time. Running through the text is the theme of Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled. It falls into “scenes” which Handel uses to build tension across the whole work, but not as drama – there is no dialogue between characters, the story is told but obliquely.  As Jens Peter Larsen puts it: “not scenes from the life of Jesus linked together to form a dramatic whole” but “the mighty drama of human redemption”

Handel’s oratorios are devotional works intended for performance in theatres during Lent. Some have called them sacred dramas. Indeed The Messiah is full of vivid, even dramatic depictions: the violins scourge in He gave his Back to the Smiters, and rage Like a Refiner’s Fire. The voice is left unaccompanied at crucial momentsof He was Despised, suggesting Christ’s abandonment. The People that Walked in Darkness have an extraordinarily jagged, directionless unison line, while in Ev’ry Valley the tenor line reflects the geographic contours of the text.  William Crotch (the first Principal of the Royal Academy of Music) saw All we like Sheep as “the thoughtless dispersion and careless wandering of silly sheep, each seeking pleasure its own way”. But a purely dramatic focus misses the point. For Handel’s rhetorically educated listeners, one word was crucial: Sublime. His aim was to inspire devotion and awe rather than entertain. Schumann’s friend CJ Becker later compared Gothic architecture with the great polyphonic masterpieces of the Baroque. Strasburg Minster he wrote, “like everything sublime and magnificent, excites a turmoil of emotions that threatens to overwhelm clear thought.” As one of Handel’s contemporaries put it: “in his sublime strokes, of which he has many, he acts as powerfully on the most knowing as upon the ignorant.” Painter Joshua Reynolds categorised art into The Sublime and The Ornamental. William Crotch, like Edmund Burke, distinguished further between the sublime and the merely beautiful: “In Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, the notes of the words ‘The Kingdoms of this world’, when performed soft, are beautiful; but when repeated loud, and with the full band, are sublime”.

Jennens’ text had rhetoric – oratory, the art of persuasion, at its core. The Sublime was at the heart of literary appreciation of the Bible, where “Eloquence sits beside the Throne of Truth” as Robert Boyle, librettist of Theodora put it. Music’s power to persuade (going back to Monteverdi’s Orfeo) saw musical equivalents of the devices used by orators. The alternation of high and low groups in Lift up your heads – Who is the King of glory?; the repetition of the rhythmic motive in Hallelujah; the counter-intuitive use of minor keys for ‘happy’ words – How Beautiful are the FeetThou art gone up on high, If God be for us and vice versa in He was Despised. The fugue of He Trusted in God is surely the most effective imitation of mockery in music. Thy Rebuke appears to be a simple accompanied recit, yet it contains the chromatic sophistication that inspired Chaos from Haydn’s Creation. Grand gestures we tend to see as Handelian, such as the interrogatio pause near the end of choruses, the juxtaposition of slow chromatic opening, with jubilant Allegro (Since by man came Death) – all show an ideal stylistic marriage of text and music. Hallelujah is a perfect example of the music fitting the natural prosody of the English text. However, like George I, Handel never really mastered English, perhaps the reason for stressing Incorruptible in The Trumpet Shall Sound.

The sublime power of Handel’s rhetoric was equally felt by the next generation. Mozart was reported saying that “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect; when he chooses he strikes like a thunderbolt”. To Beethoven he was “the master of us all… the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb….. Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.” It had been the Dutch diplomat Gottried van Swieten who single-handedly introduced the out-of-fashion music of Bach and Handel to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The connections are endless: count the times Handel’s And with his Stripes theme appears in Mozart and Beethoven! Handel uses the Lutheran chorale melody Wachet Auf for the words May the King Live Forever – which went on to become Beethoven’s Fidelio motive. Van Swieten commissioned Mozart’s arrangement of The Messiah and it was his idea that the words “Let there be light” appear only once in Haydn’s Creation – a Handelian gesture which became an iconic symbol of the sublime. Beethoven quoted Kant’s definition of The Sublime in one of his Conversation books: “[Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and the more steadily we contemplate them:] the starry heavens above me, and the moral law within me.”

It is impossible to imagine Haydn’s Creation without The Messiah, but equally Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, perhaps even Brahms’ Requiem. Ithas a universal appeal – from Mozart’s arrangement, to funk and disco versions. In Britain, the tradition of enormous choral societies made the piece, in Sir Thomas Beecham’s words, “the national medium of musical utterance”. No doubt approving of this, Crotch quotes Milton:

The multitude of angels, with a shout

Loud as from numbers without number, sweet

As from blest voices, uttering joy, heaven rung

With jubilee, and loud hosannas fill’d

The heavenly regions.

Small wonder then that performances given by “numbers without number” became the norm. In the 1870’s, lamenting the “stale wonderment” of such spectacles, George Bernard Shaw wrote with uncanny foresight: “Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness of a Handel Festival does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah in St James’s Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die.” Nowadays such performances are the norm, but it was the SCO’s Sir Charles Mackerras who answered Shaw’s request with his 1967 recording using small forces, brisk tempi, and vocal ornamentation. It was another 12 years before the late Christopher Hogwood’s groundbreaking recording.

Elitism at the Proms?

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[ from 2019] The Proms season is here, and Director David Pickard was asked onto BBC R4 to answer the accusation that people feel the concert series is “elitist”. “Where else can you get a place right in front of the performers for £6?” he answered. The Proms has always had a highly democratic, even populist mission. Compared to almost any other festival of classical music, the Proms has more cheap tickets, has done more to promote diverse composers and conductors, and has made more cross-cultural and cross-genre forays. Programming sometimes difficult avant garde works alongside classical war horses has given huge audiences the chance to hear music which they might otherwise never have attempted. 

Really the question was the perennial one aimed at classical music in general – the Proms was simply a current, visible manifestation. Ask any sports fan how much they pay for their ticket, and the £6 for a ringside place at a world class concert suddenly pales into insignificance. How, I wonder would that price compare to a ringside seat at a world class boxing event – where you are equally likely be caught in a spray of sweat from the performers? Many UK professional orchestras have schemes offering tickets to young people for half the price of the cheapest mainstream cinema seat. This is not a question about ticket prices excluding people. That accusation would be more easily be levelled at Premiership football, rugby or pop music – you can’t hear Rod Stewart live this year for less than £62 and Boyzone seats are £69. It is something else. It is about the of the crucial difference between two words – “elite” and “elitist”. “I am an elite athlete” is a statement of verifiable fact, not an opinion or a boast. Such a statement from a classical musician, however celebrated, would be unthinkable – the risk of association with elitism would be too great. Yet, as with “sex” and “sexist” there is a huge gulf in meaning between these two words. One celebrates a state we can all aspire to – the universal potential we might all possess, the other excludes all but the few, who are chosen on some criteria other than merit. One is inclusive, the other is exclusive. The elite in the word “elitist” are not those who, like athletes, have succeeded through merit, they are the members of a social elite. Elitism means excluding everyone else, something which Beethoven resented so bitterly: “What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.”

But the mistake is easily made. Classical music is tainted by its elitist history. The trappings of its association with church and aristocracy, the two patrons who were once its lifeline, now represent the biggest threat to its existence. White tie and tails – Edwardian evening dress – hark back to the time when all of the audience attending concerts wore the same dress code. The musicians would have been out of place in anything else. Audience fashions changed – for my generation it is Levi 501s – but orchestras were frozen in time. French philosopher Roland Barthes tells us that cultural artefacts carry meaning: fashion, uniforms, adverts, myths, or bunches of roses. In fact, they never lack meaning. Classical musicians want to shatter the myth of elitism, yet their performances are often presented – almost nostalgically – dripping with the trappings of an elitist society. They seem lazily unaware of the cultural and socio-political connotations of that dress code. There is no Edwardian formal attire equivalent for women in orchestras other than “long black”, because women didn’t play in professional orchestras. Yet, while we celebrate universal suffrage in politics and strive for gender balance and equal pay in the workplace, men in orchestras are forced to parade in the very uniform of those at the upper echelons of society who imprisoned suffragettes.

Despite this history, for hundreds of years musical talent has emerged, to some extent, from a variety of social backgrounds. One way or another – through patronage, the old apprentice system, or through school systems, music itself has been a meritocracy. As JS Bach put it – “What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve.” Training requires dedication, one-to-one teaching, and an early start, but it also has widely recognised educational benefits beyond music. Most private schools consider spending on music a vital priority. For the rest of us, despite a steady growth in GDP over the last few decades, successive cuts in music education spending have made the broad benefits of learning a musical instrument available to ever smaller numbers of people. It’s now less likely than ever before that a talented classical musician can come from a poor socio-economic background. This doesn’t bode well for the future of classical music.

Musicians and promoters can do more to help. In 1936 Walter Benjamin pointed out that the role of art in sacred rituals has left it with an “aura” associated with religion. Think of the string quartet stiffly playing Mendelssohn’s Wedding March in Hollywood films. His point was that religion was used to culturally legitimate the prevailing social order – to uphold the social elite. In popular culture – like it or not – classical music represents rigid social hierarchy, Jack Black’s “The Man” in School of Rock, the Establishment. There is no hidden code here for semiologists and anthropologists to demystify – classical music allows itself to be associated with ideas of social control. Some of the customs on display at classical concerts are, if we really think about it, just as bizarre as the uniform. The only time in western society where bowing is still performed (as in “bowing and scraping”) is in front of royalty, and on classical concert platforms. You may also see stand-up comedians doing it as something to signal the end of their set – in fact, at Royal Command Performances, this direct connection with royal protocol is illustrated as they bow first to the royal box and then to the audience.

Acknowledging applause at Classical concerts has a strange anthropology in general. After the performance, the conductor and soloist leave the stage, as if to go home. Not the whole orchestra, that would be silly. Almost as soon as they get off the stage they turn around and come back on, as if to say – “what, me…?”. This display of mock humility is repeated until the audience stop clapping. Musicians and audiences alike have to be taught this pretence of the “curtain call”, just as Michael Caine’s professor “civilises” the eponymous character in Educating Rita. Its origin is in the show of modesty required in the presence of aristocracy, as if every concert were by Royal Command. When it is misjudged and the performer returns once too often as the clapping subsides, few can help but laugh at the situation as they scuttle away.

Other musical traditions manage the gaps between their music without this stylised pretentiousness. Traditional, Jazz, or Pop musicians will do a range of things while their audience applaud them, from ignoring it while preparing for the next number, to a celebratory fist in the air. Often it will involve talking. Classical musicians presume that all audiences will be able to decode their archaic rituals. Simply saying “thank you” could go a long way to reconnect. 

Also shared between performer and audience, is the ritual of Knowing When to Clap. The first movement of Beethoven’s 5th has such a dramatic ending that you simply have to clap. But the cognoscenti among the audience know that it isn’t the end of the whole piece yet. Clap, and you risk the spectacle of being rounded on by these people hushing and hissing loudly, even smugly. Not a great experience for a first-time concert goer, and surely not what Beethoven had in mind when he later set Aller menschen werden Brűder. The irony is that the hushers have got it wrong – withholding applause to the end was never a nineteenth-century tradition. Sir Roger Norrington and others now encourage audiences to be “authentic” and clap between movements. But the hushers also have to understand the economics at work here – without attracting new audiences, there soon won’t be concerts for them to hush at anymore.    

Edwardian evening dress and the elaborate charades of concert platform “etiquette” are cultural gestures with serious connotations. If Classical musicians genuinely want to connect with new audiences, they have to ditch them.