Player's Guide: Baroque with Hanna

Player's Guide: Baroque with Hanna

Hanna Tracz


I've just finished practicing Schumann's 'Rhenish' Symphony, Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony is still ringing from our rehearsals with Cardinal Vaughan School, and I am already thinking of the contemporary concert in late April. But now it's time for a programme we will be playing in our Rush Hour concert and as part of the London Handel Festival. I have music by Purcell, Corelli, Bach, Rameau and obviously Handel on my music stand. Baroque! This is truly a breath of fresh air! What should I start with? Ok, let's take Bach first. 

I see we are going to play from the very first edition of the piece with a mish-mash of bowings added and some crossed out. How should I play then? I searched for a reliable recording and found a video of Concentus Musicus Wien – led from the cello position by Nikolaus Harnoncourt himself! Such a treat! As I trust Mr Harnoncourt a lot, it is almost as if I could see it being performed by Bach's band Collegium Musicum in one of the Coffee Hauses in Leipzig in 1736. To my amusement, the bowing they play doesn’t match entirely with the edition on my music stand. Ok, this will be one to discuss in rehearsal with the whole orchestra. Nevertheless, sono molto allegra when I see 'Allegro' on the top of the first movement of the concerto. This makes me start sight-reading fast and jolly! But I am not used to baroque bow and gut strings so I have to stop as I don't really like my sound. The lightness of the baroque bow is a new thing for my hand which is used to playing with a much heavier contemporary bow. To compare: baroque bows are about 54-56g, with a modern one weighing around 60-64g. One could say it doesn't matter, but for me having spent 18 years trying to articulate all the possible figures, emotions, shapes in all possible speeds with 60g in my hand – one week with 4g less makes a huge difference.

Concentus Musicus Wien performing Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin

The Concerto grosso by Corelli is a form of baroque church sonata that is basically a composition of an Overture (Preludio) followed by a bunch of baroque dances. My concern in this piece is how to approach the dotted rhythms. They occur in the Preludio so I assume Corelli wanted to accentuate the opening and make it sound more majestic. I consult Robert Donington in his book The Interpretation of Early Music which tells me that I should be over-dotting them because they dominate the general rhythm. I should always make them crispier by delaying and shortening the second note. I feel content until I reach the sentence saying that the standard rules may be altered for the sake of liveliness of the piece. Another case for the rehearsal it seems. The very interesting fact is that there are almost no expressions in the score, only the names of different dance movements. No bowing patterns, no articulation nor dynamic markings. The reason is that musicians in the 18th century didn't need any explanation of what certain a dance meant. This music was all around them with almost the same dances present in folk music dance parties and court balls.

Examples of dance markings in Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin

I remember all the specifications of the dances from music school. You have: Allemanda – a serious dance in moderate tempo, Corrente – (usually) steady with sophisticated rhythms, Gavotta – rapid and ligthly danced, and Minuetto – played lively and with vigor. It should be easy to differentiate all of them. The Gavotta seems to have a fugue form and consists of a style of writing known as polyphony. This is where you have independent lines for each instrument which when performed together create a flowing harmonic sequence. With this section we will be aiming to show all the layers in the musical texture as clearly as possible. 

A funny sharp from the 18th century

I assume that in the Purcell, Rameau and Handel I shouldn't have to struggle with pure sounds as these are the examples of program music. With the Concerto grosso I think I have to work a bit more as such absolute music should be received directly by senses, whereas program music always has a story behind the notes. In the King Arthur Suite we tell the legend of the brave Briton King battling with the Saxons. And what about the music itself? Classy, brassy, proud and probably very loud. Already on the first page it's indicated 'trumpet tune'. Perhaps he wants me to create a brassy sound from my soft gut strings. But even if we play together with the smoothly sounding trumpet, how can I sustain my sound? The time has come – I have to practice a scale on the gut strings. The way of producing the sound with a modern or baroque bow is the same: the sound is a meeting point of weight of the bow (pressure), its speed and contact point on the string. But the string is so soft that I have to spend a good half an hour until I am convinced with my G major scale. There is a long way for me to match the strong, beautiful rich sound of the trumpet, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. 

I approach Rameau's Suite with a smile on my face. Opera can be so much fun! Already at the very first sight I see interesting ornamentations. Examples:

The easiest one is appoggiatura, which as Leopold Mozart says is a “simple grace note stealing half of the value of the main note and must be played on one bow”. But still on the main note I have to play a short trill. The plus means that the note will be embellished by a mordent (Leopold is a real poet; according to him a mordent is: “two, three or more little notes which quite quickly and quietly, so to speak, grasp at the principal note and vanish at once, so that the principal note only is heard strongly”). It is not complicated when I play it alone in a tempo around 'largo'. I can't wait to hear it being performed in the section formed of at least six violins! So for today, I make my own decisions, but also I must be ready for a discussion about, for instance, the theory of affects as my violin could be carrying the voice with some certain message in Rameau's opera.

As a cherry on the top we are going to perform a celebratory work by Handel in the London Handel Festival concert. Here we will have to combine all our fresh new skills with choir, soloists and, did I mention that I have to get rid of my shoulder-rest? In Handel's time they just hadn't been invited yet, so instead of binding the violin to my neck (as violinists sometimes did) I have to literally relearn how to hold a violin. Nonetheless, it will be a great fun as this is a masterpiece. 

I am quite ready for a first rehearsal with thousands of questions! By certain lines over the notes, does the composer want me to connect one long phrase or slur the notes? But then how do you make them all sound even when played on this arch-shaped bow? So many times I forgot that it is shorter compared to my modern bow; I even once missed the strings completely. What about the dotted rhythm? What about matching the sound of trumpet and fullness of the sound in general? What about different ornamentations? 

I am really looking forward to our first rehearsals and so I want to invite everybody to come explore with us how to bring to life the music of the past.

Find out more about Hanna here.

You can hear Southbank Sinfonia perform these pieces on both 12 April at St John's Waterloo and 13 April at St George's, Hanover Square.