Dr. Elam Rotem is an expert on Renaissance and Baroque music.
I asked him some questions about what being a musician back then was like and how things have changed in regards to improvisation and performance.
(The interview was translated from Hebrew by me)
Pianoways: Today there is a clear distinction between performing a written piece and improvising. What was this like in and before the baroque period?
Elam: Nowadays sheet music is easily accessible to everyone but this was not the case in earlier periods. On the one hand they had less access to sheet music, but on the other hand music was in demand. Musicians were required to produce music and the employers didn't mind if this was a written composition or an improvisation.
Organ players for instance had to supply music for ceremonies in church. The well known composer and organist Girolamo Frescobaldi for example wrote in his Book of Toccatas that the player may end the piece on any of the cadences, according to the situation.
P: When did music notation get its "sacred" status as we know it today?
E: It is difficult to give a precise date, but it was sometime along the 20th century. There seems to have been some kind of detachment between the traditions of the late romantic period and the modern way of playing as we know it today. The freedom players had in earlier periods regarding the speed of the piece, ornamentation and other aspects of performance practice was lost. Written music became untouchable. The changes and alterations that used to be an inseparable part of music performances became unthinkable. You can learn more about that on this episode on Early Music Sources.
P: How much freedom did the baroque players have in improvising?
E: When we speak we like to think we are free to say what we want, but we are actually bound to laws of language and grammar, so that our listeners will understand what we are saying. In music too, compositions and improvisations are done within a certain musical language that has its own set of rules.
P: Would you say that as the notation became more accurate the performer had less freedom?
E: Definitely. This increased over the years. In the past the composer would leave certain elements to the players with the freedom to perform it their own way. In the baroque period you were considered a good singer if you could add many ornamentations and diminutions (coloratura) to the piece. A good performer was one who added to the given score. Later on the performer became a simple soldier in the army of the composer who had to execute the given orders with the highest accuracy.
P: Who were the musicians in the baroque period? Could anyone learn an instrument or was it a trade you were born into?
E: Good singers were treated like natural resources and were sought after in little, remote villages. When a potentially good singer was discovered he was sent to the noble court or the Vatican. Later on music books were printed for amateur players (usually aristocrats) who could enjoy playing the music but rarely became professionals.
P: The Figured Bass in baroque music has the tune and the bass line written out and filling in the harmony is left to the player. Was there a big difference in how individual players interpreted the figured bass or did it always sound more or less the same?
E: First of all, there were several styles of figured bass, according to their time and place: Today we distinguish between the early Italian figured bass, the late Italian, the German one and the French one.
Each of these styles contained quite a lot of freedom: a beginner would play the basic harmonies in a figured bass, whereas a skilled player would add counterpoint voicing and virtuosic ornaments.
Another advantage of figured bass notation was the ability of the player to adjust to the situation. If you were playing a loud instrument and accompanying a singer with a small voice you could choose to use less notes. If you were playing on a softer instrument and needed to accompany a bigger ensemble you could use all 10 fingers and even your feet, if you were playing the organ.
P: Thank you for sharing this here! Here is a link to your website and YouTube channel with tutorials about aspects of early music.
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