Pauline Nobes, tutor in Baroque and classical violin at the Royal Northern College of Music, offers some advice for new starters in Baroque music


There used to be two distinct schools of playing, Baroque and modern, of which it was thought that ‘ne’er the twain shall meet’. Now, however, there seem to be bandwagons travelling constantly between the two; period-instrument groups frequently import modern players and in their turn modern orchestras invite old-music specialists. To facilitate this cross-fertilisation, what compromises can be made regarding equipment and the various elements of technique?

Using modern instruments for all periods of music is a hefty compromise. However, combining specialisation with earning a living is hard, especially considering the requisite financial outlay for at least two quality instruments and three or four different models of bow. Makers today often offer half-conversions, less expensive than full conversions, to keep costs down for players, as well as producing fine modern copies. But, although the sound of the modern instrument differs considerably from that of period instruments, with a few modifications their use is arguably another of many compromises necessitated by modern-day performance and recording.

If players wish to stick to their one, beloved instrument in modern set-up, to what extent can historical performance practice be pursued? The bow can be a simple place to start – copies are relatively inexpensive and widely available. Most Baroque bows are significantly lighter than modern bows with the balance point generally lower: holding a modern bow slightly away from the frog approaches this lighter balance. When choosing strings, there is a wide selection of high-quality gut strings available now, of the sort that were in common usage.

Playing without a chin rest affects sound and projection as much as many technical aspects such as vibrato and shifting and is enlightening for a historic approach. After all, Baroque repertoire was conceived for violins without chin rests: the one invented by Spohr only started to be introduced around 1820. Leopold Mozart’s comfortable position at the neck varies considerably from a modern-day hold where one freely turns pages with the left hand.

Pitch is a question of choice too. Baroque pitches varied between 392Hz and 41.5Hz, with Classical and early Romantic periods ranging between 430Hz and 438Hz, according to studies of contemporary wind instruments and organ pipes. Baillot’s attempt to find order by standardising 440Hz came in the middle of the 19th century. Slackening down to 475Hz, a semitone lower, may come as an enormous relief to an old instrument, as well as altering articulation possibilities. Also, harmonic rather than melodic intonation was expected, as equal temperament was not yet established as the norm.

Then, as now, what was deemed good taste in performance style, le bon goût, varied enormously – the criticisms of and contradictions between the French and Italian schools at the turn of the 18th century are infamous. The typical elegance and poise characterised by the dances of the French overture suite contrast greatly with the extrovert virtuosity displayed in the Italian concerto, both sometimes far removed from the rules of the Berlin school described by the often conflicting accounts of Quantz and C.P.E. Bach.

Many controversies arise from the fact that details of performance style transcend notation, not only with expression but also when interpreting rhythms and adding embellishments. Inegalité was assumed by many non-French composers such as Bach, Telemann and Purcell. This is a loosening of the rhythm, where equally written separate notes are ‘swung’ in a strong–weak manner. Generally a smooth articulation, it affects notes that are half the value of the main beat, particularly during stepwise motion, unless counter-indicated by slurs, dots, or instructions such as égale.

The limits of notation and traditional shorthand may also necessitate over-dotting in dotted rhythms, as well as aligning semiquavers with pervading triplets and eliminating other rhythmic inconsistencies. This happens especially when intensifying or confirming the musical ‘affect’ , a word used to describe the emotion of the moment. Bear in mind that making the music consistent may sometimes defeat the composer’s wishes, especially when intensification or expression are called for.

Details of phrasing and dynamic shading are expected although not notated. In his Tables, showing ‘the proper execution of each note’, Quantz indicates strong, weak and crescendo moments but says that ‘you must not always take these words in their extreme degree; you must proceed as in painting, where so-called mezze tinte or half-tints... are employed to express light and shadow.’ Notated dynamics, mostly piano and forte (or dolce and forte), sometimes indicate solo and tutti passages rather than extremities of volume. The correctness of instrumental imitation of vocal slurs is also debatable: a certain adding of slurs is recommended, as is being true to the composer’s score, although inconsistencies are common in original sources and markings between parts sometimes even oppose.

Cadential trills and other ornamentation were also assumed. Rules of upper-note trills are well documented and generally fast notes require a quick trill with little emphasis on the upper note whereas slow notes demand more expressive, possibly accelerating trills with appoggiatura and maybe a termination. French-style music requires decoration by way of trills, mordents, battements, port de voix and other ‘twiddles’, whereas Italian style and cadenza points require improvisation with harmonic consequence: there are many written-out examples and explanations of both types to learn from. Bach included embellishments in his scores rather than risking defamation of his art by overzealous performers.

The quintessence of Baroque style is hierarchy, with some notes taking more importance according to certain rules – for example first beat stronger than second, dissonance stronger than resolution, with notes grouped and graded like syllables in a word. Musical language was seen as a rhetorical expression of various Passions, such as Fury, Resolution, Grief, Pleasure, like speech, combining poetic nuance with punctuation between phrases and sub-phrases. Leopold Mozart recommends that good violinists should know their grammar and syntax as well as being ‘great grammarians, or better still rhetoricians or poets’.

Choice of tempo, too, has a huge impact on style, so consultation with first-hand contemporary description is recommended. Detailed descriptions of the character of various dances and their relative tempos are abundant and where no specific markings are given considerations include harmonic pace, the nature and complexity of the counterpoint conventions of time signatures, exact meanings of given tempo and character markings and any affiliation to dance. These may in turn be affected by traditional mood associations coming from key or melodic make-up, compositional intent and even the size and resonance of the performing venue.

Modern-day tolerance of dissonance has been raised by post-Classical tonal developments, over-shadowing many subtleties of Baroque harmonic tension. The strengths of various figured-bass dissonances are carefully listed in Quantz’s 'Art of Playing the Flute', but for the little experienced, he suggests simply playing louder when there are a lot of numbers!

The omnipotent rule of down bow, codified in Muffat’s observations of Lully’s bowings, reflects the importance of hierarchy, organising strong beats to be played with a down bow, assuming that the up bow is the weaker. The coveted equalisation of down- and up-bow strokes which developed later is inappropriate when administering Baroque bowings and articulation, regardless of which bow is being used. With the modern bow this effectively means working against certain inherent design features in order to make sense of the rule.

The ideal sound is pure and sweet. Mozart demands that violinists aspire to the qualities of the voice; he also advises playing with ‘earnestness and manliness’, criticising ‘hare-brained’ violini