Sona Italia

Early Baroque Music for Instruments

We all make mistakes. With luck, our most embarrassing errors will fade with human memory, and will not be canonized in print or other recorded medium for the rest of time.

Unexamined assumptions sometimes lead to errors. A case in point is the sonata which, as heirs to the classical and romantic tradition, some scholars believed was the acme of musical achievement. It was the foundation of the symphony, the string quartet, the violin concerto, the piano sonata, an artistic capstone according to the nineteenth century notion of ‘progress.’ Contemporary works were conveniently ignored, while Baroque and renaissance sonatas were obvious prehistoric Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Stokowski and the
Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra

(Wikimedia Commons)
ancestors. Archaeological digs could commence forthwith.

Of course, by sonata was really meant sonata–allegro form, the classical procedure for treating contrasting themes and the tension between tonal centres dependent on the notion of key signature. Especially in the late renaissance and early Baroque periods, the search for an archetypical sonata is very quickly stymied. We have already seen that terms such as canzona, sinfonia, or sonata were applied inconsistently even by the same composer. All that can be said definitively about the word sonata is that it was a generic term referring to music that was played on instruments, not sung (cantata). Even then, the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria from Monteverdi’s Vespers smiles enigmatically like a musical Mona Lisa.

Similar partiality prompted some famous and gifted musicians to express umbrage with the ‘period instrument’ movement of the last third or so of the twentieth century. Historically informed performance, as it is usually known, Baroque violin
Baroque violin
(Wikimedia Commons)
seeks to understand and enjoy works of the past according to the Zeitgeist in which they were born: an obvious precondition for this is the use of authentic instruments. The original violin first created in Cremona, for example, was rather a different animal than its modern descendent.

Most immediately obvious is the absence of the chin rest, which meant the instrument had partially to be supported with the left thumb. Consequently, higher positions were more difficult to play, and hence the fingerboard of the Baroque violin is shorter. That strings Seventeenth century violin bow
Seventeenth century violin bow
(Wikimedia Commons)
were natural gut rather than synthetic goes without saying. And the bow, too, was of a different shape — it was more ‘bow’ shaped, curving away from the hairs, not towards them. Nor is there such a thing as a static Baroque violin: Monteverdi’s violin is not Handel’s violin.

Instrument makers and musicians, like experimental archaeologists, have explored what works when playing Baroque instruments, and what does not, in conjunction with their understanding of other evidence like historical treatises. While there is certainly nothing wrong with performing Baroque music on modern instruments, at least anachronistic performances with bloated orchestras and choruses and unrestrained vibrato at deafening volume and funereal tempo are mercifully no more. Gone too are the dismissive — not to say asinine — dispensations that, for example, held the music of Rameau and others to be ‘unplayable.’ And that, as they say, is a good thing.

Biagio Marini ⇒

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