A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.




 

The Ornamental Twiddles Of A Baroque Orchestra
Sunday, December 14, 2014



John Eliot Gardiner - CBC Studio 1 - 1981

Below you might find relevant information on what a baroque orchestra is. It might help you enjoy more this Sunday's Early Music Vancouver production at the Chan of  Bach's Christmas Oratorio.


I distinctly remember May 13, 1980. I was at the Orpheum at noon with my two young daughters. We had brought brown bags with lunches. We were there for a program presented by the CBC Vancouver Orchestra called A Little Lunch Music. Admission was very cheap. Our host, the Musical Director of the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, was a wiry bespectacled English man called John Eliot Gardiner. He proceeded to explain to us what the baroque sound was all about. Most of it went over my head. He told us that the pitch of the orchestra had been brought down from the modern A440 Hz to A415Hz. Gardiner then demonstrated on two different violins, a modern one and a baroque one. He told us the string instruments used gut strings.

Programme designed by Ray Mah
I believe that the average person on the street here in Vancouver might not know of the difference. That day at the Orpheum, the difference in sound was clearly evident.

Wikipedia has a clear explanation of this. But let me lightly attempt to enlighten.

The violin bows and the violins of the 18th and 17th century were different from the ones that were adopted by the end of the 18th. The change came about in that music was increasingly being played for larger audiences in concert halls and not so much in the chambers of kings. The French Revolution may have been a reason. These instruments, in fact all string instruments, had to be louder. So the wonderful Stradivarius, Amati and Guarneri had to be beefed up, their necks modified to take the increased pressures applied by musicians to get that louder sound. Bows were modified for the same reason. Few original baroque instruments have remained so the paradox is that the best modern string instruments (the really valuable ones) are 17 or 18th century instruments that have been modified. A few of the, very few, were “un-beefed” to original standards. This means that in many baroque orchestras the instruments are modern reproductions.



On that day back in 1980 the sound of that baroque violin seemed to be sweeter and more subtle.

When in doubt I go to experts. Violinist Marc Destrubé (leader of the Smithsonian-based Axelrod Quartet who play with exquisite Stradivarius instruments (beefed-up) donated by the tropical fish expert Herbert R. Axelrod and for the local Microcosmos String Quartet) is an expert in all the details of his craft. He was a member and concertmaster of the now defunct (alas) CBC Vancouver Orchestra. This is further explanation on that day at the Orpheum.

He told me that besides changing the pitch he had the world-renowned violin bow maker, Ken Millard (now lives on Mayne Island) make baroque bows for the whole orchestra. The baroque violin in which Gardener demonstrated would have been his wife’s. She is Elizabeth Wilcock Gardiner. According to Destrubé she would have been invited to play that afternoon. 


The Ken Millard bows were then donated to the UBC School of Music and with joint sponsorship with Early Music Vancouver a Baroque Mentorship Orchestra is currently using those bows. While making a bow for Destrubé, Millard became allergic to the woods used and had to stop making them.

In this Sunday’s Early Music Vancouver presentation at the Chan of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio a few concertgoers might be slightly confused at what they are seeing. To begin with Musical Director Stephen Stubbs will not be playing his very large Theorbo (a baroque lute sometimes called an archlute which is a lovely sounding predecessor to the guitar). He will be standing up or perhaps sometimes sitting at a harpsichord which he is also playing. The piano, we know is a percussive instrument in which tiny hammers hit strings. In the harpsichord the strings are plucked.

The violins and violas will all be (probably) modern reproductions of baroque violins with gut strings and no chin rests. Chin rests, invented by Beethoven contemporary Louis Spohr gave the violinist more leverage and a firmer grasp. You might note that tuning seems to take longer and it happens with more frequency. Gut strings are affected by room temperature and humidity more so than the modern violin's metal strings.


The two cellos will have no spike. This means that they are indeed baroque ones. There will be another strange instrument, not quite a cello, called a violone. If you count the strings you might end up with six. The double bass and or the violone may or may not have frets.
The transverse flute (played with the instrument on the side like the modern ones) is made of wood like the oboe and a variant called oboe d’amore.

You will also note a small squarish organ, made in Quebec in the 90s. This is called a baroque-style chamber&continuo organ. That complex sounding word continue just means that in a baroque orchestra some instruments, the organ, the harpsichord, the cellos, the double bass, a bassoon (yes!) and the violone play a bass line.

Of special note will be the presence of the timpani (lots of noise in the beginning of the first Cantata and the last cantata) and three trumpets. They do not have valves but do have a few finger holes. These instruments are glorified bugles and are extremely hard to play.

While Bach's Christmas Oratorio will feature most of the musicians sitting (with the exception of the singers and in some instances Musical Director Stephen Stubbs who will play the harpsichord sitting down, I hope!) generally baroque orchestras play standing up (not the cellos, the viola da gambas, the basses,  bassoonists, etc). The only explanation for this was given to me by Marc Destrubé who told me just like in rock bands the guitarists and bassists play standing up, the string players of a baroque orchestra can interact more with an audience in this way. Judging by the way Destrubé moves when he plays his violin I would add that sitting down perhaps constricts his style. 

Some may wonder why there is this obsession for playing with period instruments. And yet we understand why vintage electric guitars and basses of the 60s and 70s are so much in demand. John Eliot Gardiner beautifully explains this in his beautiful book ( lent to me by EMV Musical Director Matthew White) Music in the Castle of Heaven – A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. This happened when the young Gardiner around the late 60s was the Musical Director with the London-based Monteverdi Choir and he was experimenting with the baroque sound.

Over the next ten years (1968-1978) I was fortunate in being able to recruit a top-notch modern chamber band to work alongside the choir – the Monteverdi Orchestra – comprising some of the very best freelance chamber musicians of the London scene. The players showed me extraordinary trust through their willingness to experiment, undertaking not just travels to the wilder shores of the Baroque by means of oratorios and operas which were then virtually unknown, but also stylistic explorations involving  the use of outward-curved Baroque bows, notes inégales, mordents, inverted modents, coulés and ornamental twiddles of all sorts. Then suddenly we hit a brick wall. The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using – the same as everyone else had been using for the past hundred and fifty years. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-nineteenth – and early-twentieth century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful – and yet to scale things down and hold back was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range calls for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the wellspring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments. It was like learning a totally new language, or taking up a new instrument but with practically no one to teach you how to play it. It is hard to convey what ructions, disappointments and excitements this entailed. Some felt it to be a terrible betrayal; to others, including most of the singers in the Monteverdi Choir, it was an inexplicably backward step. But a few brave souls took the plunge with me: they bought, begged or borrowed Baroque instruments, and we became the English Baroque Soloists.


My friend Marc Destrubé can indeed add to that. I once asked him what he would do if he unknowingly showed up at one of his Microcosmos String Quartet concerts featuring the music of Béla Bartók with his Baroque violin. He answered, “I would have to go home to retrieve the modern violin. I simply could not play the Bartók with the other.” And in a passing note of useless but important information Destrubé informed me that known to him (he cannot prove this) violin bows are made from the tail of male horses. It seems that the urine of female horses affects the strength of the individual hairs. As for that Baroque pitch set at A415Hz Destrubé says that this is sort of a modern standard as there would not have been one during Bach's time.

There are interesting details about Bach's Christmas Oratorio written by JoAnn Taricani a scholar from the University of Washington. Taricani mentions that Bach re-worked royal cantatas composed a year before in 1733 for the royal family at Dresden. Not mentioned is the fact that Bach wrote a secular drammi per musica called Hercules at the Crossroads (BWV 213) for the son of Friedrich the Elector of Dresden. No fewer than six movements from Hercules turned up at the end of 1734 in Bach's Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)! 

CBC Studio 1

Why Bach?  

The Spirituality of Bach - A Sermon in Music



     

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6/15/14 - 6/22/14

6/22/14 - 6/29/14

6/29/14 - 7/6/14

7/6/14 - 7/13/14

7/13/14 - 7/20/14

7/20/14 - 7/27/14

7/27/14 - 8/3/14

8/3/14 - 8/10/14

8/10/14 - 8/17/14

8/17/14 - 8/24/14

8/24/14 - 8/31/14

8/31/14 - 9/7/14

9/7/14 - 9/14/14

9/14/14 - 9/21/14

9/21/14 - 9/28/14

9/28/14 - 10/5/14

10/5/14 - 10/12/14

10/12/14 - 10/19/14

10/19/14 - 10/26/14

10/26/14 - 11/2/14

11/2/14 - 11/9/14

11/9/14 - 11/16/14

11/16/14 - 11/23/14

11/23/14 - 11/30/14

11/30/14 - 12/7/14

12/7/14 - 12/14/14

12/14/14 - 12/21/14

12/21/14 - 12/28/14

12/28/14 - 1/4/15

1/4/15 - 1/11/15

1/11/15 - 1/18/15

1/18/15 - 1/25/15

1/25/15 - 2/1/15

2/1/15 - 2/8/15

2/8/15 - 2/15/15

2/15/15 - 2/22/15

2/22/15 - 3/1/15

3/1/15 - 3/8/15

3/8/15 - 3/15/15

3/15/15 - 3/22/15

3/22/15 - 3/29/15

3/29/15 - 4/5/15

4/5/15 - 4/12/15

4/12/15 - 4/19/15

4/19/15 - 4/26/15

4/26/15 - 5/3/15

5/3/15 - 5/10/15

5/10/15 - 5/17/15

5/17/15 - 5/24/15

5/24/15 - 5/31/15

5/31/15 - 6/7/15

6/7/15 - 6/14/15

6/14/15 - 6/21/15

6/21/15 - 6/28/15

6/28/15 - 7/5/15

7/5/15 - 7/12/15

7/12/15 - 7/19/15

7/19/15 - 7/26/15

7/26/15 - 8/2/15

8/2/15 - 8/9/15

8/9/15 - 8/16/15

8/16/15 - 8/23/15

8/23/15 - 8/30/15

8/30/15 - 9/6/15

9/6/15 - 9/13/15

9/13/15 - 9/20/15

9/20/15 - 9/27/15

9/27/15 - 10/4/15

10/4/15 - 10/11/15

10/18/15 - 10/25/15

10/25/15 - 11/1/15

11/1/15 - 11/8/15

11/8/15 - 11/15/15

11/15/15 - 11/22/15

11/22/15 - 11/29/15

11/29/15 - 12/6/15

12/6/15 - 12/13/15

12/13/15 - 12/20/15

12/20/15 - 12/27/15

12/27/15 - 1/3/16

1/3/16 - 1/10/16

1/10/16 - 1/17/16

1/31/16 - 2/7/16

2/7/16 - 2/14/16

2/14/16 - 2/21/16

2/21/16 - 2/28/16

2/28/16 - 3/6/16

3/6/16 - 3/13/16

3/13/16 - 3/20/16

3/20/16 - 3/27/16

3/27/16 - 4/3/16

4/3/16 - 4/10/16

4/10/16 - 4/17/16

4/17/16 - 4/24/16

4/24/16 - 5/1/16

5/1/16 - 5/8/16

5/8/16 - 5/15/16

5/15/16 - 5/22/16

5/22/16 - 5/29/16

5/29/16 - 6/5/16

6/5/16 - 6/12/16

6/12/16 - 6/19/16

6/19/16 - 6/26/16

6/26/16 - 7/3/16

7/3/16 - 7/10/16

7/10/16 - 7/17/16

7/17/16 - 7/24/16

7/24/16 - 7/31/16

7/31/16 - 8/7/16

8/7/16 - 8/14/16

8/14/16 - 8/21/16

8/21/16 - 8/28/16

8/28/16 - 9/4/16

9/4/16 - 9/11/16

9/11/16 - 9/18/16

9/18/16 - 9/25/16

9/25/16 - 10/2/16

10/2/16 - 10/9/16

10/9/16 - 10/16/16

10/16/16 - 10/23/16

10/23/16 - 10/30/16

10/30/16 - 11/6/16

11/6/16 - 11/13/16

11/13/16 - 11/20/16

11/20/16 - 11/27/16

11/27/16 - 12/4/16

12/4/16 - 12/11/16

12/11/16 - 12/18/16

12/18/16 - 12/25/16

12/25/16 - 1/1/17

1/1/17 - 1/8/17

1/8/17 - 1/15/17

1/15/17 - 1/22/17

1/22/17 - 1/29/17

1/29/17 - 2/5/17

2/5/17 - 2/12/17

2/12/17 - 2/19/17

2/19/17 - 2/26/17

2/26/17 - 3/5/17

3/5/17 - 3/12/17