So yesterday saw me taking the long haul into Shepherd’s Bush by coach followed by most of the length of the Central line over to Loughton, which apparently is in Essex not greater London (just one of the many things the local contingent were a tad crotchetty about). The goal was a choral society concert, in which I was one of solo strings accompanying Dido and Aeneas together with continuo, there were a bunch of operatic choruses with or without solo singers in the second half, and the de facto string quartet (as that’s all it takes to cover Purcell’s parts barring continuo infilling) did a couple of light classical arrangements.
So far, so good, and it was a paid job and all that. And my enjoyment of it (bearing in mind 19th-century grand opera really, really, really isn’t my subgenre of choice) was considerably boosted by a vivacious young soprano giving about as much of the full-on acted treatment to the Carmen Habañera as was possible in a church and without scenery (chiefly by channeling Marilyn Monroe in a ballgown to killer effect).
It gave me one of the classic dilemmas of the freelance musician though. I accepted this job having been turned down for another one on the same night as the slot was already filled. Then got an email saying actually the dep for the first job had pulled out and could I do it? For more than twice the fee.
It’s not just elevated principle that made me stick with the existing commitment. Yes, higher-paid jobs are preferable (and there may come a point when I won’t go to the other side of London for forty quid, though at present I’d rather that than not work at all). But no one thinks much worse of you for being already busy – the fact that you look in demand might just about balance out the fear that you’re never available, and at least there’s not much lost by asking a player and getting a prompt reply saying they can’t do the gig. Whereas accepting something and then pulling out, particularly for a ‘better’ job rather than because of, say, getting flu or your work visa expiring, leaves a sour taste of unreliability in the mouth that tends against being asked again if there’s choice – and regrettably for the musician, there is always choice of players. It’s a hirer’s market from beginning to end.
The other memorable feature of this job was the continuo aspect of Dido. If you don’t know it, all of the recitative (dialogue, if you want to think of it like a musical) is accompanied only by the continuo, and there are substantial chunks of the arias / songs / choruses that are also that way. (Basso) continuo (sorry to those who are being taught to suck eggs) is essentially a kind of Baroque to early Classical rhythm section – there is a written out bass line, usually played by cello(s), sometimes bassoon and potentially doubled an octave below by double basses, depending on the size of your group, and then a set of symbols which work more or less like guitar chords – the way they work is different but the purpose is much the same. These are converted into accompaniment by harpsichord, organ, lute, guitar – whatever is available and suitable essentially.
Now we come to the interesting bit. While learning to read figured bass (the symbols used for continuo) is a common part of university music courses, few students seem to like it. Most piano / organ / things with keys players who stay in the classical sphere seem to prefer not to have to dabble in improvisation (or perhaps to be relegated to a purely accompanying role, when even most duo sonatas allow them approximate equality with the other instrument); and musicians interested in improvisation will generally stick to jazz, blues and rock rather than exploring the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Partly because of this, and partly because for a century or so up until the early music movement of about 1960 on no ‘art’ musician really improvised, most printed editions of music of this period will provide ‘realisations’ – written out keyboard parts to save the bother of working from the figured bass yourself. And most musicians, even at a moderately high level, will use them.
The pianist at last night’s concert happened to also have been playing continuo (harpsichord) for Don Giovanni with me last month (only totally necessary for recitative there, though Mozart probably envisaged the player joining in with other stuff anyway to some extent). From both experiences, I’m aware she’s both an inventive and a keen continuo player in the full sense: in the rehearsal yesterday, discussing one section with a soprano soloist, she mentioned that the realisations in the copy she had first got had annoyed her – so she had got hold of an edition which just gave the figured bass so she could ‘do her own thing’!
So far, so good, and excellent to have (if perhaps disconcerting for the singers at odd moments). Also provides the unexpected feature, in a classical context, that once you’re improvising off (essentially) chords anyway, it’s straightforward (in classical music terms) to bridge a chunk of recit into the following duet (say) where it’s difficult to go on in strict time but a break in the music is undesirable, by putting in an extra bar and if necessary a modulation. Personally I would like to see more improvisation (a common enough art music capacity past Beethoven’s time, albeit often not in the same manner as the melodic variation over fixed harmony that has become normative from jazz) find its way back into classical performance, not least because everyone benefits from greater flexibility in performance, even if only because you have to be that bit more on your toes when something unexpected might legitimately be thrown in!
But yes, I did say pianist – having sensibly decided against using the full church organ (as so often, console positioned so that any kind of ensemble playing with anyone else is virtually precluded), that inevitably meant all accompaniment had to be on the upright piano. Not an instrument that existed in Purcell’s time, and the result was a curious sensation of the wrong tool being used very well – rather as if Julian Bream were to end up having to do a classical guitar recital on a Yamaha electric through a Marshall amp due to some last-minute hardware disaster.
My fellow instrumentalists were a mixed bunch, and the cellist (currently engaged in his second postgraduate performance degree) clearly saw this kind of job as a bill-payer with the sincere hope of eventually escaping into only doing full-blown professional concerts and recitals. For me with no higher ambitions than as a jobbing player, these oddities have to become part of the fun, the interest, the variety of the work – otherwise the nature of the exercise will become part of the problem rather than the solution, and I really can’t afford to have that happen with music as well.