Baroque music can sometimes be challenging for a music student to interpret. For unlike pieces from the Romantic, 20th Century, or even Classical period, music scores from the Baroque period often did not contain many markings or performance indications. A great factor in this is that the instruments of this era were the predecessors to the instruments of our current age. Therefore composers did not need to write down the dynamic markings or pedal markings due to the fact that there was no great dynamic range of the harpsichord, for example, nor was there a pedal to write markings for.
The many elements of Baroque music were what Mr Loo Bang Hean tackled in his seminar on Baroque Techniques that was a part of the UCSI International Piano Competition and Festival on the 10th of June in UCSI University’s Institute of Music.
After outlining the various issues to consider about Baroque music, Mr Loo demonstrated just how bare a score from the Baroque period is by playing it like how a computer would – without any sensitivity to the harmony or articulation. He then showed us the various ways that we can articulate the notes, with each variation adding a different colour to the overall sound. He noted that there was no right or wrong, but that it would be more convincing if students made decisions about details like the articulation themselves instead of asking their teacher to decide for them.
The next component that Mr Loo covered was the tempo, or speed of the piece. Baroque manuscripts lack metronome markings due to the fact that the metronome was invented after the Baroque period. As such, he explained that with regards to tempo “There is no magic number.” This means that there is no optimal tempo, for 10 different recordings of a piece could have 10 different speeds.
But sometimes a score may not even contain a tempo marking such as ‘Allegro’, but merely the word ‘Louvre’ for example. In that case, a way to find the appropriate tempo is by researching what a ‘Louvre’ was. Seeing as it is a dance, the next step is to find out what sort of dance the Louvre was – for example, whether it was a slow or fast dance. From there we can gauge the mood of the piece and the approximate speed. Mr Loo then mentioned that another aspect that influences the tempo is the rate of harmony changes, as whether the chord needs to be changed slower or faster would also affect the tempo.
After tempo, Mr Loo talked about the rhythm in Baroque pieces. In those times, composers did not always agree about how to play and notate certain things, therefore their choice of notation differed from composer to composer. Mr Loo said that certain rhythmic aspects that the composer wrote, such as dotted notes, may not have been what he meant to be played. For example, a written dotted note could have been intended to be played as a double dotted note, or an ‘over-dotted’ note. With so much room for the different playing styles, Mr Loo stressed that the important thing for students to remember is that once again there is no right or wrong and to decide on how they want to play something and stay consistent throughout the piece.
Next, Mr Loo talked about rubato in the Baroque period. Techniques that we can apply are agogic accents which is ritardando, or slowing down, at cadential or structural points, using an improvisatory style for recitatives, toccatas or fantasias and using leaps to stretch the time. Instead of writing tempo changes, Mr Loo pointed out that composers would indicate a speed increase by writing more lines, such as quavers or eighth notes, to semiquavers and demisemiquavers, or 16th and 32nd notes.
Other tools at our disposal are Appoggiaturas, that are expressive dissonances that are usually played on the beat, articulation, how we spread arpeggiated chords, either from the top or the bottom, and ornamentation, where the answer to the famous question of whether we should begin the trill from the upper note or bottom note is that as long as it does not disturb the flow of the music it doesn’t actually matter.
To conclude the seminar, Mr Loo stressed that the most important thing about playing Baroque pieces is that we have an opinion and we stick to it – as long as we’re convincing the music will speak for itself.
This article was written by Andrea Sim; 1st year IMus Scholar reading Bachelor of Classical Music (Hons.)