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How to re-create the sound of Baroque music

Why performing Baroque opera is as much about chisels as cellos.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

14 March 2014 at 4.52pm | 1 Comment

The 17th century was a time of intense operatic development. Opera – sung drama – became more and more popular, and composers suddenly found themselves writing for public paying audiences, rather than the private courts that had previously been opera’s home. Composers were experimenting with new styles of music and new ways of telling stories.

It was not only the musical forms that were changing but also the instruments and the way they were played. Even small changes in instruments have huge effects on how they’re played and the way they sound, both individually and in ensembles. This in turn influences the music written for them. The flurry of experimentation in Italy at this time meant these changes happened rapidly and divergently between city states – even the pitches used in the leading centres, Rome and Venice, were significantly different.

An awareness of these differences and the effect they have on how audiences hear the music has been one of the major motivations behind ‘historically informed’ performance practice. The movement is driven by a desire to explore the astonishingly different sound worlds that existed before instruments reached their relatively stable modern forms.

An enormous amount of detective work goes into period performance. Researchers draw on a variety of material to try to understand how instruments were made, how they looked and how they were played. The music itself plays a big part, suggesting range and relative volume and also providing helpful insights into phrase length, ornamentation and so on. There are also clues to be gleaned from contemporary artwork, written accounts and treatises – and even the places where works were performed.

The Early Opera Company is one of several groups who place this research at the heart of its playing. The company gathers instrumentalists who are leading specialists not only in how their instrument should be played, but what sort of instrument it should be. They in turn work with modern luthiers  (instrument makers) who create new instruments modelled on centuries-old practices, incorporating into their research the firsthand experience of the players themselves.

Most of the operas written by prolific Baroque opera composer Francesco Cavalli during his period in Venice used a small orchestra of strings with continuo (a small ensemble that improvised around a bass line), and his opera L’Ormindofirst performed 1644 in Venice, is no exception. In their performance of L’Ormindo with The Royal Opera in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Early Opera Company used two violins, two violas, and a continuo of a bass violin, theorbo/guitar and baroque harp.

The harp used in this production was an arpa tripla (‘triple harp’), a relatively recent invention in Cavalli’s time that used three rows of strings or ‘ranks’. Two parallel ranks sit either side of one with chromatic notes, which gives the harpist access to all the notes (imagine both black and white notes on a keyboard) while allowing her to play equally with both hands. The harp played in L’Ormindo was built by Enzo Laurenti in 2011.

The theorbo was another recent invention in Cavalli’s time. It was developed towards the end of the 15th century by Renaissance Humanists inspired by the Ancient Greek instrument the kithara, which was used to accompany poetry recitations. A large member of the lute family, the theorbo has two necks – one long and one shorter – that sit side by side. The relatively weak gut strings of the time resulted in the theorbo’s unusual tuning pattern; the top two strings, thinner than the others, couldn’t be stretched for the long neck of the theorbo and so are tuned down an octave, making the third string the highest – a curiosity often exploited by composers. The instrument, though very soft, became popular in opera for continuo and for accompanying arias; contemporary visitors to Venice wrote of seeing the long necks projecting above the ensemble swaying in time to the music. For L’Ormindo, a copy of a Venetian guitar made by Martin Haycock and a theorbo made by Klaus Jacobsen was played.

The violin family instruments look superficially similar to their modern counterparts but sound very different. One of the most significant changes since Cavalli’s time was the development of wire-wound strings (where a metal wire is wound round a gut string core). Wound strings are not only much stronger than plain gut but also much thinner. Thick strings vibrate in quite a complicated way, marring the upper harmonics of the sound and making it sound weak and out of tune. To combat this, low gut strings had to be very long – but this introduced fingering difficulties for the player. Wound strings meant a shorter string could be used.

This development had a tremendous and immediate effect on the bass violin, which was rapidly replaced by (or in some cases brutally trimmed down into) the instrument’s smaller cousin, the violoncello. The stronger strings weren’t introduced to the violin and viola until a little later, but they led to many changes: the neck was elongated and bent, putting more pressure on the bridge and so making the instrument louder; a longer bow was used with hair in higher tension; a chin rest was introduced and the instrument held more securely under the neck as opposed to lightly against the chest. Cavalli’s violins would have sounded very different from their descendants, and would also have blended with the singers and the other instruments in the orchestra in an entirely different way.

In Cavalli’s time, instruments and playing practices varied from year to year, from place to place, from player to player and from composer to composer. Add in the tremendous impact ensemble, acoustic, temperature and all the rest have, and the world of period performance quickly becomes enormous. It’s a world fuelled by sterling research and brilliant practitioners ever eager to discover new ways to make the music sound its best.

Discover more about the history of Baroque opera in the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, at the V&A Museum 30 September 2017–25 February 2018.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Valter Alnis Bezerra responded on 24 March 2014 at 9:59pm Reply

    Really nice piece! Informative, objective and enlightening. Congrats, Rachel Beaumont. The video is also great. One just has to love hearing the heavenly sound of the theorbo / chitarrone. Pity that I won't be able to be there in order to savour the result! What I mostly disagree is with the 'purist' thesis -- fortunately absent from the ROH article -- that 'period' performances are in some sense "correct" ones -- either evidence-based or theory-based. In my opinion, both 'period' and 'contemporary' approaches are complementary and both can bring forth new angles and insights into so-called early music. Such will be the case tomorrow, certainly. Break a leg, folks! Best from São Paulo, Brazil

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