A slur is a diminuendo. It is always a diminuendo – except sometimes! A slur over two notes naturally heightens the importance of the first note at the expense of the second. We must go with this tendency by making a slight diminuendo in a slur. An appoggiatura (or musical caress) is always slurred and its resolution played softly. (This is not my ‘always’, but CPE Bach’s!)
Vibrato was not a special topic for discussion in the 18th century apart from its occasional use as an ornament. Nowadays, it’s a major source of interest and study amongst young flutists. If the reader were to listen to good period players, they would soon realise that there just isn’t any vibrato, and after a time that it really isn’t necessary. There are more subtle means of being expressive.* Perhaps this is hard to grasp for a young player nurtured on wall-to-wall vibrato, but there are other ways to be expressive, apart from which, the tone of the baroque flute doesn’t lend itself to vibrato, nor does it really enhance it.
A good approach to a better understanding would be to listen to the 18th century’s King of Instruments, the harpsichord for some period of time. It was not only the foundation stone of ensembles and orchestras, but it’s character widely influenced performance on other instruments too, including the flute. Of course, it doesn’t have vibrato, so, how does the harpsichord player make expression? They achieve it by the subtle use of note lengths, time and rhythm. When you listen to it, the harpsichord has no loud/soft options either, so there is not much left to do except use time as a tool! Forget pedals and rapid changing manuals or stops; they are not in good taste.
Having now mentioned Good Taste, I should add that social thinking by the 18th century upper classes – the ones who could afford flutes and afford time to play music!- was dominated by the search for Good Taste in dress, furniture, art, porcelain, silverware - in fact anything decorative, and including music. The acquisition of Good Taste was the main aim of a gentleman’s education. So, why not start off by listening to some of the harpsichord music of Rameau (the 4 Suites, and Pieces de Clavecin en Concerts) Couperin’s ‘Ordres’,and more general short pieces by Duphly, Daquin, composers of the period of the Sun King, Louis 14th of France. This is ‘perfumed’ music and should help acquire a feeling for the period.
Ornamentation and embellishment. Generally, don’t! Unless you are clear about what you are doing, it will sound awful to those who do know. What we are talking about is decoration, the use of which was influenced partly by the construction of the baroque flute itself. To pepper a decent tune with poorly thought out embellishment is to ruin it. Handel is a case in point; the Sonatas have good tunes and are largely best left alone. When in doubt, don’t. Of course, the cadences all require trills which Handel, like most of his contemporaries, left out assuming the player understood the ‘rules’.
Baroque trills usually, but not always, start from the upper note. This depends on whether the music is influenced by the French or Italian style. In the Italian style, start trills on the main note. This applies to music by Vivaldi, and others. Trills are there to decorate the musical line. The French trill decorates notes or harmonies and when starting on the upper note creates an appoggiatura, a dissonance which should be stressed before its release. German composers combined the two trill styles, though even then, the style can change from one movement to another. Performers will need to consider whether it is the main note which is dissonant or its upper neighbour and then choose whether it is the dissonance or the consonance which ought to be stressed. For example, if a trill was played on the resolution from a suspension, it may be better to start on the principal note, because it is the consonant resolution which is of primary importance. ‘Upper, lower, or not at all’? That isn’t so important as the way the trill is played. It is an expressive device, not necessarily to be played quickly. In a slow movement, a slower trill is preferable as it won’t disturb the character of the music. Trills should be rhythmic. If the trill can’t be written down then it is too untidy. Still confused? The trill is the exit to a musical phrase; as a gentleman or woman would bow, curtsey and make a departing comment, so the performer departs elegantly from the phrase using the conventions and customs of the time. ‘See yer, mate!’ just won’t do!
Dynamics are rarely indicated in baroque music, the reason being that the written notes are the basis for an interpretation. The performer creates the performance from the written 'guide', therefore dynamics are part of the performance rather than of the composition. Where dynamics are freely sprinkled throughout the work, it is usually the result of an enthusiastic editor suggesting a suitable way of performing the piece, a written editorial interpretation.
Answer? Buy a good clean, reliable edition and use your own imagination.
An interesting exercise was suggested by eighteenth century teachers: take a simple phrase of 4 bars or so, and take some mood words such as tenderness, gaiety, flattery, pathos, majesty, resignation, jocularity, or boldness, then play your 4 bar phrase to illustrate these words, making each phrase different. Now take another mood word such as melancholy and write down as many related words as you can think of, such as sad; unhappy; gloomy; depressed; dejected; disheartened: crestfallen; dismayed; glum; etc., etc. Now play your phrase trying to make a difference between each of these mood words. Now try the reverse with happy cheerful, delighted, blissful, harmonious etc.. You have to work hard to make the distinction, don’t you?
I could finish with a list of books to read, heavy tomes on style and ornamentation. Instead, I simply urge you to read only one; The Interpretation of Music by Thurston Dart.* It is slim and easily readable even by us brainless flutists!, and very informative. It will start you off on the right road to both Good Taste and a more successful and informed performance.
© Trevor Wye 2006
* A Japanese Bossa Nova flutist, Haruka Okubo – otherwise known as Lulu – plays jazz without vibrato. It is so expressive! It is a good lesson just to listen to her. See her web page for details of CDs : http://www.haruka-okubo.com
* Thurston Dart: ISBN 0-09-154071-2. a Hutchinson Paperback
This was prepared for the Flute Studio, a year long postgraduate course in Kent, England. Details: http://www.trevorwye.com/studio.page4.html