Artists are often asked why they chose their particular path. I’m always a little let down when someone asks me what type of music I play—“classical,” I tell them—and I’m met with a vague expression of boredom and disappointment. (I’m terribly sorry I don’t play in a rock band or something that might make you more excited.) Occasionally when my answer isn’t met with apathy, I’ll go on further to say that I play “early music,” or “the earliest portion of classical music” as I like to describe to the layman. This intrigues some people, and continues to bore others.
How does one find something as obscure as “early music”? As a young, untrained cellist in grade school, I was exposed to classical music. Watered-down, bastardized, string-orchestra arrangements of classical music, but classical music nonetheless. And I liked it. I liked playing my cello. It was pretty simple.
My romance with the cello only got more serious, and by 16 I was certain it was a path I wanted to pursue. In college as a music major, I played in a huge, loud symphony orchestra and played the greats: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms. In string quartets I played Dvorak and Shostakovich. But I missed the intimacy of my high school string orchestra playing a sad but recognizable rendition of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto.
I decided to join my conservatory’s Collegium Musicum, a baroque ensemble, to see if it would fill the void. Though our harpsichord was barely functional and the group was filled with violinists who were bored to tears from never leaving first position, a fantastic mentor introduced me to what we know as “performance practice.” Playing music as it was intended by the composer, during the time period it was written, taking note of cultural influences and tradition. I was in love.
I found the process fascinating and somewhat alarming, as I had been looking at Bach, Handel, Vivaldi the same way I’d look at Mahler or Ravel. But things were different in the 17th and 18th centuries. The biggest notable difference? Gesture and rhetoric.
Baroque music was heavily informed by dance, or gesture, and rhetoric, the art of speech. Music was meant to emulate these art forms both in meaning and practical execution. By the classical period, this paradigm began to shift, and there became more of an emphasis on cantabile and bel canto approaches, which made for a more sustained, smooth, extroverted aesthetic. Many people love this style, but to me, it seems more like homogenization of musical phrasing.
What I love about the baroque approach is the expressive qualities that come from varying articulation. Rather than smoothing out the edges with a constant stream of vibrato, the baroque approach uses inflection and shapes—emulating speech rhythms or dance steps—to be expressive. Everything is not intended to be beautiful, but rather interesting and engaging.
I think all music can be played with this level of care and detail, though I see it more in musicians who are interested in the legacy and tradition of the music they play. The baroque aesthetic has hooked me, and it’s the language I want to speak in my music.
What do you think? Have you experienced the baroque “performance practice” approach, and how do you feel about it? Those who play early music, what drew you to it? What classical repertoire most speaks to you? I’d love to hear from musicians of all genres as well as non-musicians.
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