Some pianists complain that Baroque music can sound dry and boring, nowhere near as expressive or rewarding as music from later periods. It is true that the Baroque score presents more problems than a score of Beethoven, or Chopin, say, where dynamics, articulations and phrasing marks abound. Players tend to approach the music of the great Baroque masters with trepidation and doubt, so unsure about the interpretative issues that they end up delivering a safe performance that doesn’t satisfy themselves or their audience.
As a young piano student, I remember being very confused about how to play the ornaments in the Bach French Suite I had been assigned by my teacher. It was clear I needed to do a bit of research before I could feel confident that what I wanted to do was on the right track stylistically. t soon became clear that the performer has much more of a role in the performance of a Baroque piece than a work by Schumann, and is supposed to add embellishments when playing a repeat.
Other questions that arose were whether pedal is permitted, what sort of dynamic range is appropriate and what touches and articulation could be used. I needed to discover whether it was a free-for-all, or whether I could put together some guidelines that would help me as I prepared this suite for performance. I recount my quest in the very first blog post I wrote.
Many of my questions were answered as I embarked on my harpsichord studies with Ruth Dyson, a fount of information on performance practice, and an inspiring player of the French Baroque masters I soon came to adore.
The following are some resources and suggestions to approaching some of the main subjects that need clarification:
A modern urtext score for a Baroque work will usually contain no dynamics therefore what sort of dynamic range is appropriate? Click here to read some guidelines for using dynamics in the music of Bach and others.
Articulation and touch
Modern scores will also contain very few phrasing or articulation markings. How do I decide on legato or staccato? What is non-legato, and how and when do I use it? Click here for some suggestions on how to approach articulation or watch the following excerpt from my Baroque Workshop for Pianists in which I demonstrate how to approach and explore possibilities for articulation in a Gavotte by Handel:
There are Baroque conventions on rhythmic matters that the pianist needs to know about. Dotted rhythms, so-called notes inégales, and rhythmic assimilation being at the top of the list. Click here to find out more about tempo and rhythm in the baroque period.
Why can’t I just use the Czerny edition, and follow his marks of expression? What’s so important about an Urtext edition anyway? This first post from my guide to using a Baroque urtext score explores this topic further.
May I use the pedal? I know that harpsichords have no such sustaining device, but I see plenty of pianists using pedal. What about the una corda pedal? Click here to read a post on using hte pedal when playing music by Bach.
Ornamentation and embellishment
How does one understand the rules about upper auxiliaries, and the difference between trills and mordents? As for adding embellishments on repeats, how do I go about doing this? The following are some resources to assist in navigating this minefield!
- The Trouble With Ornaments – Two-part blog post on demystifying ornaments. Click here to read Part 1 or click here for Part 2.
- Ornamentation: A Question & Answer Manual – Click here for Alfred’s excellent book on ornamentation – scholarly and yet easy to read and understand! (click here)
- Baroque Workshop for Pianists – I also explore the subject of ornaments in detail in an online workshop from 2021. You can purchase access to the resources and recording here.
Learning contrapuntal music
Contrapuntal music presents pianists with some unique challenges. In this blog post I introduce the “Strands Separately” approach to practising contrapuntal works alongside an excellent resource for the fugues in Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier.
If you’d like to find out more about how to play Baroque music stylistically and expressively on the piano then please do join us online or in person for my Bringing Baroque Music to Life on January 15th 2022 which forms part of a special day of piano-themed events. Click here to find out more or to book your place.
Online Academy Birthday Bash
The Practising the Piano Online Academy recently celebrated its fifth birthday, but unfortunately we had to postpone the special day of events that we had planned for October. We are delighted to announce that we have rescheduled for Saturday 15th January at the Fidelio Cafe in central London!
The day kicks-off with a performance workshop in which six pianists will perform a work of their choice for Graham Fitch and an audience of observers. Graham will then provide each performer with individual tuition, including feedback on style, technique, practice methods or help on any specific questions they have.
Following on from the performance workshop are three special lecture-performances by Graham and Penelope Roskell on bringing Baroque music to life, Mozart’s piano sonata K333 and Schubert’s last sonata.
This promises to be a fantastic opportunity to enjoy a variety of inspiring and informative piano-themed events in a charming, easily accessible venue. The event is now full for in-person tickets but you are most welcome to join us online as we will be streaming and recording the sessions!
Click here to find out more about the event and for booking details.