What Are We Expressing?

Last week we played at the Rikhardinkatu Library in Helsinki as a duo of flute and clavichord. The program consisted of an early sonata of C. P. E. Bach (Wq. 128) and a later J. P. Kirnberger piece (Sonata G major, 1769), with a solo C. P. E. keyboard fantasia in between (Wq. 117/13). The event was fruitful and inspiring, but not easy at all. The process of shaping and performing the short lunch concert lead us to many questions on what are we actually playing, and most of all performing, in the music.

It was a new experience for the both of us to make chamber music with the clavichord, and the instrument gave us a lot of clues on where could we find the gist of this repertoire. The keyboard’s subtle dynamics matched well with the flute’s, and I felt like it was easy to communicate with the similar ways of instrumental expression. For the audience the instrument combination was probably a new experience as well, and we were quite surprised how much positive feedback we would get. There was a lot of curiosity in the hearts of our listeners towards these lesser-known instruments and pieces.


In the rehearsals, as well as the concert, I sometimes felt an awkward disconnection from the music. The new combination lead me to think about many technical details, such an intonation or articulation, in the music making. However, I’m not sure at all if this was the best strategy. We would discuss the difficulties with Vale, and came to the conclusion that our “playing well” had much more to do with connecting with the pieces emotionally than the technical solutions we could provide.

This lead me to read a bit about Performance from C. P. E.’s Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments:

What comprises good performance? The ability through singing or playing to make the ear conscious of the true content and affect of a composition. Any passage can be so radically changed by modifying its performance that it will be scarcely recognizable.

Emanuel Bach describes a broad variety of different technical devices, such as fingering, tempo and articulation, in the chapter on performance. Nevertheless, the use of these tools seem to be governed by the “true content and affect” of the piece. Not going too far into concepts and theory, for us this simply meant finding a way to connect with the pieces. We were looking at compositional devices, such as melody, harmony and structure, and trying to decipher what on earth Mr. Bach and Kirnberger were trying to tell us.

Understanding the trail of thought of composers born approximately 300 years ago is not quite that simple. We are seven or eight generations apart, and the view of the world has changed much from the mid-1700s. One revelation for the historically informed performers has been the rhetorical performance, comprehensively described by Judy Tarling in The Weapons of Rhetoric. The tradition of rhetoric starts, quite obviously, from the oratory of the ancient Greece. Classical sources inspired the musical revolution of the Renaissance and had an impact on the periods we now call Baroque and Classical.

In the rhetorical style, devices such as the tonality, tessitura, harmony, rhythm, structure and symmetry, and of course allegory, were composers’ and performers’ ways to convey the message to the listeners. A wide knowledge of mythology and oratory was supposed from the learned among music. These were used to shape the pieces and communicate musical thoughts.

Concerning performance, Tarling introduces a quote of Quintilianus in The Weapons of Rhetoric:

The prime essential for stirring emotions of others is […] first to feel those emotions oneself.

A similar phrase can also be found in C. P. E.’s Essay:

A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience, for the revealing of his own humor will stimulate a like humor in the listener. […] Above all, he must discharge this office in a piece which is highly expressive by nature, whether it be by him or someone else. In the latter  case he must make certain that he assumes the emotion which the composer intended in writing it. It is principally in improvisations or fantasias that the keyboardist can best master the feelings of his audience.

Must I say, I really felt this in the clavichord fantasia. The galant style is so much based on affects, and it would seem actually difficult to neglect the composer’s intentions in an affectuous piece such as the Fantasia. It is not to say we would be all about finding out what did C. P. E. exactly mean. However, if we sense something in the music, it also means something.

All these thoughts and books did not lead me to any certain conclusions. However, I feel I’m onto something. As a performer I want to discover meanings and convey them, otherwise the performance would be, well, meaningless. Preparing for the C. P. E. Bach Double project, we will likely face many similar questions with the orchestra: how to approach the music and say something meaningful?




The sources for this text were:

Bach, C. P. E. Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. Translated and edited by William J. Mitchell. London: Eulenburg Books (1974, orig. 1753).

Tarling, J. The Weapons of Rhetoric. Hertfordshire: Corda Publications (2005).

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