Some of my jobs involve being part of very large ensembles indeed – such as playing Wagner excerpts with St Giles Orchestra a little over a fortnight ago. Many, of course, are categorised as band, or occasionally chamber group performances (or, very rarely, solo recitals).
On Friday, I travelled down to Chichester to perform with La Folie Baroque Consort. On the all-Bach programme were a trio sonata and a selection of orchestral pieces – an organ fugue transcribed for strings, one of the orchestral suites, and two concerti (one solo, one concerto grosso). The last three are fairly core repertoire, found until relatively recently in symphony orchestra repertoire and still performed by medium-sized chamber orchestras on a regular basis.
All of which I mention because the total number of players involved was seven. And this was not a gimmick, or a product of rearrangements, or a particularly radical decision about number of people per part; simply a consequence of a fairly minimalist approach to music that came into existence before a hard division into chamber and orchestral.
A lot of this is about balance. Big orchestras are partly big because there are lots of wind and percussion parts (almost exclusively played by one player each, though quite possibly orchestrated with lots of doubling); and partly because the string sections have to be that much bigger to provide the sort of balance composers expect (and also because of some peculiarites of psychoacoustics that mean the law of diminishing returns is in evident operation almost from the start of the process of adding extra players to a given part). The Bach pieces we were playing call for various combinations of strings, harpsichord (playing continuo filling in of harmony and texture, or a scored concerto solo part) and in two cases for one flute. So the number of parts never exceeded six, and nothing was loud enough to really require doubling elsewhere to balance – I got it lucky in the sense of being able to double up on two of my parts with another violinist, everyone else being on solo roles throughout. I would not recommend trying to perform with an ensemble of solo strings and tuba, or solo strings and large organ! Even solo strings and grand piano, though quite often written for (in the form of piano trios, quartets, quintets and occasionally larger), is liable to run into problems with today’s concert grand unless the pianist exercises significant restraint.
Descriptions of musical performance in Bach’s time suggest that at least some would have been this small, particularly amateur play-throughs or smaller regional aristocracy establishments, as opposed to the royal or near-royal centres where most composing went on. Of course, orchestra string sections certainly could be larger and there were exceptional instances of huge ensembles being gathered for grand ceremonial occasions; but there is nothing that implausible about Baroque ‘orchestral’ music in soloist performance.
Having established the setup, what was this like to play in? Firstly, of course, it is much quieter than a symphony orchestra (or a rock band) – and that of itself connects with what we know of the aural world of the eighteenth century. Groups were often smaller, instruments quieter, and many of today’s sources of noise absent – no recorded or broadcast music or speech, no amplification (beyond cunningly-designed rooms!), no internal combustion engines or trains or pneumatic drills.
It also ‘concentrates the mind wonderfully’ to be the only one playing your part. All the more so in largely polyphonic music such as this, where being in time with someone else’s entry may mean you are right – or may mean you are wrong because the entries are imitative and should be staggered at half-bar, or one bar, or five-bar, intervals. The solo group, so to speak, in Brandenburg 5 is flute, violin and harpsichord. Not only do they take the entire slow movement to themselves as a trio, but they are also able to dispense with the accompanying three string parts for long sections, either of trio again or in one massive instance a written-out harpsichord cadenza of mind-boggling density. The absence of conductor or section leader adds greatly to the difficulty, and importance, of coming back in again in the right place when the ensemble resumes!
A throwaway description of this music as ‘deceptively complex’ on the day is to the point as well I think – and a small performance, with its vastly greater clarity, sheds light on this. Baroque music is often thought of as ‘easier’ because the instrumental technique required to play the ensemble parts is generally scant (concerti can be an entirely different matter) – violin parts, for instance, can generally be about 85% covered in first position, with no more than third required for the rest. Double stops are almost non-existent. However, the interplay of parts is, as already touched on, complex. And the structure of the music can be very much so; angular melodic leaps are almost elevated to the status of a feature at times, and syncopations which would have sent composers of the following era cross-eyed are commonplace, particularly in slow movements where notes seem to grow tails at will (demisemiquavers? oh yes, lots of those. And semiquavers with ornaments on them, and ties of every length you can name). Almost inevitably, syncopations in one part sit across foursquare rhythms in another to produce rapid suspensions and resolutions, far from the slow and even harmonic progressions of most Classical music.
Given all of that, very small forces make it much easier to hear clearly how this complex music is fitting together, where a large ensemble (or even, in my experience, too many organ stops) can produce a sense of merely overwhelming musical rhetoric, like a page scribbled over with so many lines none is distinct any more. There is a famous comparison of Bach’s last movements to sewing machines, meant to be insulting but perhaps in fact not so, provided one can appreciate the beauty of a very complicated and precise mechanism working correctly. Part of that appreciation is probably to be given a clear sight of the whole thing in distinct, even delicate, lines – is this why many people find small clockwork industrial-revolution-period devices more fascinating than vast temple-sized machinery of the same era?
Of course, whatever is different tends to be refreshing, and it so happens that much of my playing lately has been orchestral, or over a somewhat longer time-period amplified band – so polyphony, low volumes and solo lines are unusual and welcome. If I was a harpsichord specialist, the situation might be entirely different. Nonetheless, for me this made a very welcome change (as well as an unexpected experiment with reproduction Baroque bows, and a chance to try out some reasonably authentic technique), and is something I hope I get the chance to repeat, if not exactly then at least in broad outline. Here’s to a change, since future posts will reveal there isn’t much rest going on at the moment!