Masques is a Montreal-based early music ensemble founded in 1998, performing vocal and instrumental music of the 17th and 18th centuries. The name of the ensemble is inspired by the masques of the [...]
They spoke about it
If we see some value now in reviving the music of pre-Romantic Europe, it is only logical that we learn what we can about how musicians thought—about the mental framework in which their pieces were fashioned. That is a world that has to be reconstructed, as it is so thoroughly invisible to our modern eyes.
A fundamental concept of this kind of music is that it evokes mental states, emotions, or feelings, like desire, dread, gladness, sorrow, shame, hatred, love, fear, hope, anger, envy, aversion, joy, and grief. To recognize the affection in a movement by Bach, or any other piece of Baroque music, is to know the basic message, the meaning and purpose of the piece.
Until about 1800, music, like the other arts, was a form of rhetoric, and rhetoric is the art of performing with the purpose of winning over or influencing others. It was Aristotle who said that “Rhetoric is the art of discovering, in a particular case, the available means of persuasion.” The Greek word for this is “pathopoeia” (from ?????, pathos, feeling, and ??????, poiein, to make). Pathopoeia is the emphatic delivery of a passion or feeling, with the purpose of awakening the same passion in the listener.
The word “affections” carries with it an added meaning. It implies that these mental and spiritual states are not merely referred to; the listener is taken over by an outside influence: another person, for instance, or a book of poems, a painting, or a piece of music.* Quantz writes, in comparing the musician to the orator, that their goal is “to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners, to arouse or still their passions, and to transport them now to this sentiment, now to that.” Thus, to surrender to the music’s affections might be called “authentic listening.”
Since we often think of Baroque music as formal and detached, the emotional force of the affections and their power to move audiences surprises us. Bartel (1997) writes
The presented affection enveloped the listener, causing a direct and spontaneous reaction. He was not free to control himself; rather he was controlled by the realized affection, spontaneously breaking into laughter or weeping, sorrow or longing, rage or contentment. Numerous contemporary eyewitness accounts refer to the intensity and grand effect of [musical] compositions.
This may well be the central purpose of the Baroque musical experience. It goes without saying that pathopoeia implies the presence of an audience, as well as an outgoing, dynamic relationship between the audience and the orator/performer. The element of connection between listeners and musicians is too often missing in concerts today, because performers tend unconsciously to use the Romantic model, keeping themselves personally aloof and indifferent to how their music is received. This is an issue of historical authenticity in the most basic sense.
A vestige of the affections remains in the tempo markings at the head of each piece. Baroque composers characterized movements by affection so a musician would immediately know a great deal about how to perform the piece. This convention, usually using Italian words, spread all over Europe during the 17th century. “Allegro” in Italian means “cheerful,” “Adagio” means “gentle,” etc. But from the beginning, these markings may have been meant to indicate tempo as well; at any rate, as the affections lost currency towards the end of the 18th C, markings like Allegro were gradually focused on tempo, and with the advent of metronomes and microphones, tempo eventually took on the technical meaning of “speed.” So to most musicians now, “Allegro” has come to mean “fast” instead of “cheerful.”
Bach frequently recycled his compositions, setting them for different combinations; all the pieces on the present disk are thought to have once existed in other forms. (Even the concerto “nach Italiänischen Gusto,” BWV 971, probably represents an intabulation of a concerto originally for another instrument accompanied by orchestra; it goes well on the hautboy, for instance, without changing a note). And several movements on this recording survive in other forms: the entire d-minor concerto exists as movements in cantatas (146/1, 146/2, 188/1) and the very fine second movement of the f-minor is also 156/1. Most of these movements are instrumental sinfonias, but one, 146/2, is supplied with words. This is interesting because words make us feel more confident in attributing affections to these instrumental pieces.
If we had only the instrumental version, the concerto, what affection would we try to evoke with it? The repeated tremolos (slurred notes on the same tone) suggest a sigh. The tremolo amounted to a breath or bow vibrato, but was unlike modern vibrato in being rhythmic. In texted music, the tremolo had a symbolic association with shivering, and thus with cold, fear, awe, death, and grief. The shape of the phrases in this movement is typical of grief and misery: a minor triad and a fall of a 7th. An unusual trait of this tragic melody is that the first time we hear it, it is the only voice, and is played by everyone (rather atypical for Bach, the master of counterpoint). When the upper voice in the harpsichord enters, this unison melody becomes the bass line, repeating itself five times — an ostinato on which the structure of the movement is built. That number of repeats, with appropriate excursions and modulations, is exactly enough to convey in a dignified and convincing way the affection of profound grief. Bach’s cantata version adds a text that corresponds more or less: “We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God.” Bach didn’t have formal occasion to write operas, but if this movement had been part of an opera, it would have been a masterful aria, and would surely have brought the house down. It would have come at the dramatic moment of ultimate despair: at the news of a King’s loss of the war, or the death of the hero’s loved one. One can imagine a singer, very much the orator, drawing an audience into his deep sorrow, and the last repetition of the ostinato played in gathering darkness.
Bach’s friend, J.A. Birnbaum, a professor of rhetoric, wrote of him,
Because [Bach] is perfectly aware of the qualities and advantages that a piece of music shares with the art of rhetoric, it is not only a great pleasure to hear him when he focuses his informed discussion on the similarity and agreement that exists between music and rhetoric, one also admires his skilful application of this synthesis in his works.
We are only now beginning to appreciate the extent of the identity of music and rhetoric in the music of Bach and his colleagues. The force, purpose, and meaning of pre-Romantic music are enhanced and intensified by approaching it through such methods and principles. In effect, they describe what Baroque musicians did and why they did it. Rhetoric’s treatises are indeed, as Judy Tarling wrote, “the ultimate performance practice manuals.”
*In the history of English usage, there have been other words for this idea, like “affects,” “passions,” and “humours.” But only “affection” automatically carries the sense of an outside stimulus.
© Bruce Haynes