Why eating vast quantities of food helps playing Handel!

Back in October our trio had a coaching session with  RNCM staff pianist and historical performance expert. We took our non-Handel trio (see previous post) and got some great tuition on general style and 18th century culture.

One of the main things Harvey mentioned was ‘playing the bass line’ ie. the harmony directs how melody is phrased. You have to think vertically as well as horizontally because harmonic patterns shape the contours of the melody. This meant Caitlin (cello) and Harvey being very aware of each other and listening to how they’re shaping the bass line or how they’re using articulation and bow stroke etc.

On a less serious note, we weren’t fully getting the right style or mood of the piece and so Harvey thought it would be useful to think about how culture worked in Handel’s lifetime (1685-1759). The inside lid of the harpsichord had a beautiful painting of gentlefolk lounging around in powdered wigs and opulent clothes. This was an age of pleasure for the upper classes and emerging middle classes, who wanted musical entertainment in their homes in the form of small chamber groups, like our own. Everything was stately, savoured and washed down with enormous amounts of food and wine. Harvey recommended we read ‘The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802’ by James Woodsforde to see the typical menus laid on every day, understand the comfort they experienced and the quantity they consumed.

With this in mind, our playing really did change – we settled into the piece more, were less frantic and perhaps more joyful in our approach. Just like an actor, if you’re aware of the context surrounding the text, it adds a richness and depth to your interpretation.

Joining Forces

As part of our Baroque learning experience, we thought it would be a great idea to set up a little chamber group to get used to playing with each other, learning more repertoire, and improving our sense of pitch. Therefore we teamed up with a fellow student, Caitlin, who’s learning baroque cello and got going with some Handel trio sonatas. We’re hoping that one of the students learning harpsichord might be able to play some continuo with us in the near future but it’s obviously very challenging to learn the art of figured bass!

Our first rehearsal was great fun and we spent a long time just tuning our instruments. The violin and cello gut strings are prone to much slipping so we needed frequent tuning breaks! It was good to know that all three of us are at the beginning of our period instrument journies, so there was no pressure to be perfect already as we all have our personal problems to improve on first.

I thought that Handel would be a good place to start because his sonatas are not too virtuosic and he’s a composer we have all played a lot on modern instruments, therefore understanding his musical style. However, the first set of trio sonatas I found and we rehearsed turn out not even to be by Handel! My teacher, Tony Robson, says they’re only attributed to him and don’t show enough Handelian style to be true. How annoying! But they were relatively simple so gave us a chance to improve our ensemble skills.

We then moved on to another Handel sonata, op.2 no.8¬†recommended by Tony which is undoubtedly by Handel. It’s much more complex harmonically and has beautifully intricate melodies passing between the two instruments. We’re now looking to explore a new composer….any suggestions?