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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Going Baroque

Music

By Stephen E. Hefling

THE GHOST OF WAGNER has rightfully been forced to abdicate his position as supreme arbiter of musical taste. "Compromise" theories on the performance of early music, thinly disguising a rampant romanticism, are no longer acceptable. Increasingly, aesthetic balance in musical performance--appropriate instruments and style of execution for each period and composer and respect for the intrinsic value of the music, rather than the luscious effects which may be superimposed thereupon--is the rule rather than the exception. For Baroque works in particular, such balanced performance requires the skillful proportionment of elements which, to the twentieth-century musical mind, often seem to conflict; the freedom of style of improvisatory ornamentation, frequent tempo rubato, and variety of tone color so admired in the period; and the restrictions of the relatively limited (to our ears) dynamic range of the instruments, various nationalistic styles in that era, and the degree of severity (or levity) of a particular musical structure.

As recorder virtuoso Frans Brueggen tells his Harvard music seminar, the only workable solution to these difficulties is: go Baroque. Abandon your arid twentieth-century musicology as well as your heroic nineteenth-century slush, and look upon this music with the relative simplicity of a Baroque composer-performer. Obviously easier said than done; but Monday evening both Brueggen and eminent harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt succeeded admirably in this life-giving approach to the music of a lost tradition.

THE GO BAROQUE PHILOSOPHY clearly opens up the possibility of considerable individuality in ensemble playing (Toscanini has, after all, not yet arrived on the scene). And, appropriately, Brueggen and Leonhardt did not submerge, but rather discreetly coordinated their individual views while performing together, in addition to presenting unaccompanied selections.

As the player of a melody instrument, Brueggen's foremost interest is in the declamation of the most immediate musical units. He maintains, justifiably, that the long-line concept (climaxing in Wagnerian "endless melody") simply did not exist for the Baroque performer. Overall, his playing is clearly articulated, with careful attention to dynamic inflection, colorful ornamentation, and intimate shaping of each individual phrase. For some listeners, his approach may seem to personal--too free in rubato, too extreme in the use of swell and vibrato. But, here it is necessary to keep in mind that there is substantial historical evidence in support of all that Brueggen does, and that the degree of freedom in regulated in accordance with the style of composition. 'Thus, while the unaccompanied van Eyck Variations on "Amarilli" were played quite freely, the more strictly constructed Bach sonata received an appropriately less rhapsodic treatment.

I eonhardt's playing is more reserved than that of his colleague, and embodies greater concern for the larger gestures of a composition. I am reminded of the description by J.N. Forkel, Bach's earliest biographer, of the latter's style of performance:

In the execution of his own pieces he generally took the time very brisk, but contrived, besides this briskness, to introduce so much variety in his performance that under his hand every piece was, as it were, like discourse. When he wished to express strong emotions, he did not do it, as many do, by striking the keys with great force, but by melodical and harmonical figures, that is, by the internal resources of the art.

THROUGHOUT THE evening, but most markedly in the Forqueray Pieces de Clavecin, it was Leonhardt's sensitivity to texture, harmonic motion, and characterization that introduced such captivating variety into the most basic internal resource of the art, pulse. Three years ago, Leonhardt, was guest lecturer in the Music Department, and lived in Lowell House. There, for the first time, he heard the music of the Beatles. His comment: "But, they have no sense of rhythm"--their beat was too squarely regular. And while he himself employs considerably more expressive rubato, it is most frequently of the "borrowed" type. In this way, while selected beats or bars are altered, the overall sense of motion is never lost.

Excepting some minor technical lapses (such as the unfortunate fact that a harpsichord tends to go flat under the same conditions which make a transverse flute go sharp), Monday's performances were marvelous, exemplifying all that one could ask for in the playing of Baroque chamber works--stylistic authenticity, expressive variety, superb execution, and above all, the appropriate breathing of life into the music. That Sanders Theater was literally jammed for the occasion is a not inconsiderable tribute both to a salutary change in musical taste and to two of the performers who have brought it about.

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