Modern Instruments

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

After many years of hearing the notion that modern instruments 'homogenize' (dreadful word) the sound of so-called Baroque music, I believe it is long overdue to point out the weakness of this approach to 'authentic' performance. The notion that the contrapuntal lines, motives, etc. of 17th- and 18th-century music is heard more clearly on antique instruments or their modern representations is nonsense. Clarity of lines, motives, their relationships, etc. Is achieved by the manner of performance devices and techniques employed instrumentally—on any instrument. The practice of employing differing instrumental colors in order to effect contrapuntal articulation is anti-structural. It exemplifies a coloristic approach to music which in itself is totally alien to the 17th and 18th centuries. No sound is more 'homogenized' than that of a clavichord, yet it was one of the chief keyboard instruments for at least upwards of 300 years. Varied as the organ can be, its colors are not employed for maintaining continuous contrapuntal lines. The authentic employment of the harpsichord requires scanty color changes in any type of form. It is in actual fact impossible to vary the entries of fugal motives coloristically because these are so involved with intertwining contrapuntal lines that the hand cannot separate them via registration. Some slight changes are possible within a single registration by a very skilled harpsichordist. But these subtle color effects are not physically attainable in the single toned register when multiple contrapuntal ideas are simultaneously in progress. Nor is it authentic performance practice to attempt such an effect.

Articulation is the key to true clarity whether it be on a single instrument or a group of instruments of any period antique or modern. I love and play the antique instruments as well as those of our day. This is therefore not to deny the beauty of antique instruments and the usefulness of modern attempts on old and reproductions of old instruments. I write to point out that the authentic style demands articulation for the true fulfillment of its contrapuntal lines rather than the coloristic performance concept and style. The performance of Bach, for instance, on the piano can be justified only on the basis of a new piano technique—one which I have employed now for over 40 years but have not yet elucidated verbally in print. However it has been public knowledge aurally for these many years for those who are capable of hearing new concepts whether these be in the composing or the performing art. The same is true in orchestral playing of Bach. The articulation concept is there in the cantata manuscripts easily seen by those who sincerely wish to understand the foundation and art of the performance practice of Bach's time. But the coloristic view is simpler, easier to achieve on antique and modern instruments, and certainly does not require the formulation of a fundamentally unmodern concept. The authentic fulfillment of the Baroque style is based and totally immersed in articulation shapes rather than coloristic devices and therefore the modern emphasis on sonorities is over emphasized today and historically misplaced.