5. HISTORICAL PERFORMANCE PRACTICE
“There are a number of sources to consult for this purpose, but the best
method to fully grasp the nature of each is to dance it!”.
Historically the music and the dance were two arts directly related, and this particular relationship is even more important during the Baroque period. A lot of music from this period was composed with the intention to serve as dance music, both in a social context and in a theatrical setting. But in the other hand, from the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared around Europe new stylized dance music containing more and more elaborated melodic and rhythmic elements, basically intended for being played in concerts without dance performances. It spread from the opera and from the ballet to the plucked and keyboard instruments, but the influence of dance music is still very prominent during seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in other genres: instrumental music often takes dance movements as a model but also this influence is important in vocal genres. One of the questions here is whether the original dance practice is still traceable in the performance of these works. Despite the absence of choreographies for this music, the two worlds were not entirely disconnected. Both musicians and composers had practical knowledge of dance, which inevitably influenced their compositions and performances.
The direct link between music and movement and its mutual influence in the baroque period illustrates the importance of a different approach in music performances, and dance movement gives concrete information for a historically informed performance.
The interpretation of dance music has some issues for all musicians. The first and most important challenge is the tempo. It is essential for the performers to find the real tempo for each dance and keeping it during the performance in a natural way. But not only the tempo is important in the performances of dance music, but there are also other considerations as accents, character, ornamentation, among others, that we have to consider. The knowledge of these characteristics will be very helpful for the musicians, even if the music is not intended to be danced.
In baroque dance, particular dance steps and the character of different dance types demand a specific tempo. “Not only is dance almost always accompanied by music, but also do the movements associated with certain musical genres influence the way we perform and perceive the music”.
The contemporary writing about tempo most closely to the second half of the seventeenth century is the work written by Michel d’Affilard (1656 - 1708) in 1705. He suggests, following a primitive metronomic system, a tempo for the Courante in which the half note is around 80. Although variations exist even in the speed of the dances, this approach can provide a solid frame of reference for the performer. Tempo indications in Baroque music are mostly expressed verbally (referring to the character, movement or the expression in which the music should be played or performed) and by consequence open to interpretation. As music and dance were totally related in this period, the tempo of the music should be appropriate for the execution of dance steps and also the character of the dance is important for the tempo.
As Pierre Dupont says in “Principes de la Musique”, “the time signatures are very necessary, because we need it is for teaching the different movements, and that's what gives the taste to each air”. The 3 / 2 as a normal time signature for the Courantes has some implications of tempo, being the 3 / 2 the bar with three slow beats. Georg Muffat (1653 - 1704) wrote in “Florilegium Primum” (1695) that the time signature 3 / 2 indicates a slow movement, with a character “largo” and “maestoso”, rather than “adagio”. The Courante, as many dances, is represented a variety of affections and should be performed in the appropriate spirit.
Music theorists of the seventeenth century encouraged musicians to refine themselves in the art of dancing in order to feel the natural rhythmical flow and pulse of the music. But of course, the conclusions obtained after the analysis of the music and dance theories from the seventeenth century must be checked by the practical application, and if a theoretical conclusion doesn’t make useful sense for a performance, it has to be reexamined.
For a historically informed performance, we can count with the help of the treatise found on the preface of the “Florilegium Secundum” written in 1698 by Georg Muffat, in which the author makes a basic compilation of the Lully’s style (or seventeenth century French style in general). He tries with this preface to introduce the French style to the Germans. Muffat describes rules, but for a complete understanding of the French style, we will need more information about the aesthetic concepts of that time, which Muffat finally cannot offers us in his writings. Muffat is focused on the string instruments playing, but we can apply some of these concepts for the harpsichord music:
“In order to discover its principal secrets in a few words, you should know, dear music-lover,
that it has at once two aims, linked admirably together: to appeal to the ear;
and to mark the movements of the dance so well that one may recognize immediately
to which type each piece belongs, and may feel inspired, in spite of oneself, with
a desire to dance. To succeed in these it seems to me that five considerations are necessary.
First, to play in tune. Second, for all the players in the band to observe the same manner
of drawing the bow. Third, to keep constant the true tempo of each piece. Fourth,
to heed certain practices concerned with repetitions, interpretation of certain notes,
stylistic propriety and dance-character. Finally, to know how to use with judgment
beautiful decorations and appropriate ornaments, which light up the piece,
as it were, like precious stones”.
The first and the second considerations are basically for string players, but we can obtain some information about the hierarchy of the beats in the bars, trying to apply the rules for bowing that Muffat marks. In this French method for bowing, the downbeat is played always with a down-bow, highlighting the importance of the first beat of each bar.
The third consideration is about the tempo, and he marks about this topic that the “knowledge of the art of dance is a great help and that the majority of the finest string players in France understand this full well”. He divides the considerations about the tempo in three parts: to understand the true tempo of each piece, to keep the tempo in the same piece and to use Inegal notes. The fourth consideration refers to other customs, as the tuning, the instrumentation, the pitch… Finally, the fifth and last consideration is about the ornaments in French music, with a brief explanation of the principal ones and how to use it depending on the different phrases.
Finally, on the other hand, some questions are still open, how strictly the character of the dance it has to be maintained when there was no active dance practice involved? The composers were aware of the aspects of dance performance, also when they composed music not intended to be danced, but an evolution to more complex forms inevitable lead the music to a new compositional and interpretational freedom.
From the eighteenth century onwards, composers generally preferred printed music to manuscript copies, for several reasons. First, printed keyboard music gave the illusion of fixity, and second, it was regarded as a means to fight the spread of corrupt copy. More significantly, the shift to the printed tradition was accompanied by a fundamental change in attitudes towards the performances. Until the end of the seventeenth century, when music circulated primarily in manuscript sources, many composers and performers appear to have taken a very flexible approach to realize notated music. For example, Le Gallois’s description of Chambonnieres’s playing is telling: “And each time he played a piece he added new delights with ports de voix, passages, and different ornaments, with doubles cadences. In sum, he varied them so much with all these different wonderful things that he was always able to draw from them some new beauty”. During the beginning of the eighteenth century, keyboard players continued to engage in the art of spontaneous embellishment, and the standardization of ornamentation was probably more successful on paper than in reality.
Not only is important the dance in this concrete case and for early musicians, in other fields of work the dance and the movement have been used as a tool for the performers. The movement is a good way to feel and understand the music.
I would like to highlight the method created by Émile Jacques Dalcroze (1865 - 1950), one of the most important active methodologies developed during the twentieth century, in which rhythm, movement and dance are the principal elements. It consists of preparation for the music through the movement and the corporal expression, always in an active way. This education rhythmical coordinate the movement and the rhythm combining both elements simultaneously. Through the musical movement, the students can develop the attention, the intelligence and the sensibility.
After this research, I can firmly say that the study and practice of historical dance, gives us as performers, a stronger understanding of the dance music: the different dances, tempi, character and phrasing.
5.1. Guidelines for playing Courantes in Harpsichord:
After all the information written in this research and following my personal experience, I can suggest some basic points for the performance of Courante Françoise in Harpsichord, trying to show, through the musical instruments, the expression of this dance.
- The tempo in French Courantes is marked by the two principal step patterns for this dance. The tems de Courante as a beginning for the dance and then the step sequence pas coupé and demi-coupé gives us the real tempo for these pieces.
- The combination of pas coupé and a demi-coupé (three steps), gives us a clear hierarchy on the rhythm based on the metrical foot Iamb (short - long).
- The tempo/character in the French Courantes for harpsichord written during the second half of the seventeenth century is Grave, but it is true that could be slightly faster than in other examples (specially lute) of Courantes. Grave is related not only with the character heavy of this dance but is also connected with the very elaborated melody lines (recharged of notes).
- The tempo in the French Courantes is very connected with the “proportio sesquialtera”, and with the superposition of binary and ternary meters at the same time.
- The Courantes, like all the dances, must have a constant tempo but inside this stability, can be played with great freedom.
Phrasing and Articulation:
- Melody lines must be continuous and with a clear articulation between the phrases (mostly long articulation, imitating vocal style). For example, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers in his book “Livre d'orgue: Contenant cent pieces de toss les tons de l’eglise” (1665) taught that singing brought to light the art of keyboard articulation, as the organ must imitate the voice; in 1680 Jean Le Gallois acclaimed Chambonnieres’s pieces and his performance for their singing quality; and Gaspard Le Roux suggested in the preface of his “Pieces de clavessin” (1705) that his harpsichord pieces could be learnt by first singing them.
- There is clear importance, as in all the French genres of that period, of the soprano part. The other voices are accompanying the melodic line. The melody can be played with great freedom highlighting the important notes, while the accompaniment keeps the tempo (for the dancers). It is always useful to see how the melody reacts to the typical step sequences of this dance.
- A broken texture in lower voices (style brisé) without a short articulation.
- As in all baroque music, the importance of the cadences, marking the beginnings and the finals for the phrases. The cadences are the moments of calm in these dances.
- The long notes, usually found on these dances, provides a theatrical character for these pieces.
- As there are not so many long passages of scales, “Inegal notes” are quite unsuitable on these dances. In the Courantes by d’Anglebert, especially in the doubles, there are more possibilities to use inegal. The only typical passage where is possible to add inegal is when we find three notes by conjunct motion working as an upbeat.
- Always follow bass lines for the phrasing, it should provide the harmonic foundation of the movement.
- Usually an irregular number of bars in each section and in each phrase.
- “Proportio Sesquialtera” can offer to the performer multiples possibilities in the field of the phrasing and accentuation.
- Ornamentation, full and varied. The most common ornaments found in Courantes are: Tremblement, Pincés, Ports de voix, Coulés sur une tierce and Arpeggios.
- It could be possible to add more ornaments (especially in the repeats) but always keeping the character of the piece and not disturbing the development of the dance.
- It is possible to improvise little connections between the sections (in the cadential bars).
- The best examples that we can use for the ornamentation are in the tables published by J. C. de Chambonnières and by J. H. d’Anglebert.
Musical and rhythmical conventions:
- Is important to respect the continuity of the voices, even if it is not evident because of the style brisé.
- Two ornaments at the same time, shouldn’t be played totally together.
- Dotted rhythms can be interpreted according to the character of the piece.
- Importance of the upbeats.
- Two repeated notes must be played the first short and the second one long, for instance when in the upbeat we find the same note as in the downbeat the upbeat has to be played lightly.
- A group of notes by conjunct motion could be played with freedom as a gesture or written ornament.
To conclude, is important to mark after all these patterns for the performance of Courantes, that at the end of this process, as there are so many exceptions, we always must follow the “bon goût”. The aesthetic concept of the “bon goût” is what finally decides, because, as we can see in all the historical treatises, it is behind all the artistic creations in France during the seventeenth century.
As Michel de Saint Lambert said:
“le bon gout est la seule loy qu'on y doit suivre”.
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