Albert Einstein—by all accounts a very good amateur violinist in addition to the possessor of a superhuman intellect—supposedly once summed up his requirements for life by saying, “A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?” It sounds like the perfect evocation of Shaker-like simplicity, and one that lends itself easily to visual imagery, like a still life from an old Dutch master. Einstein must have been a very practical man. But conjuring up a picture of his words would actually require a few decisions. Perhaps that chair could be a frilly Louis Quinze number, festooned with gilded curlicues. Or maybe the table is from the mid-century modern school of design, a marriage of organic shapes and pared-down practicality. Taken together, these items wouldn’t exactly make for a harmonious composition, but on their own, they would say a lot about the time they came from, the people who used them, and the prevailing tastes of the day. Their very practical purpose would not necessarily change with their design—a table is still a table—but they would offer clues to help us understand the past.
The same is more than true once Einstein’s metaphorical violin gets thrown into the mix. Should it be an early violin, say, from a 17th-century Cremonese master? Or perhaps an English 19th-century model that has been refurbished and fitted with steel strings and a reconfigured neck? And what sort of bow would be most appropriate for this particular instrument?
This sort of investigation will be given full exercise when renowned early-music specialist William Christie and several colleagues from his Paris-based orchestra Les Arts Florissants spend a weeklong residency at Juilliard this month, focusing on the music of Handel and his contemporaries. The residency will culminate in a workshop performance led by Mr. Christie in Paul Hall on March 27 at 8 p.m., an event that also serves as the seventh annual Jerome L. Greene Concert of Baroque Music.
Last fall, 29 students were chosen by audition to participate, and each has been loaned an instrument from Juilliard’s collection of rare strings and period winds. To help them prepare for the residency and acclimate to their new instruments, the students have been working with members of the new Historical Performance faculty who recently had an e-mail exchange about their approach to period-instrument practice.
The differences between a period instrument and its modern counterpart can be vast. For the bassoonists who have taken up the task, Dominic Teresi, Juilliard’s new teacher of Baroque bassoon, wrote, “The principle visible difference between the Baroque and modern bassoon is the number of keys. The first bassoons had three keys and this increased to about five by the mid-18th century. The modern bassoon has over 20.” According to Sandra Miller, who recently joined the Juilliard faculty to teach Baroque flute, “Older flutes (till the 20th century, actually!) were made of wood—and sometimes of ivory, porcelain, and crystal.” Gonzalo Ruiz, who teaches Baroque oboe, wrote that his instrument “has a larger bore, a larger reed, smaller tone holes and only two keys, and was designed more for blending than for standing out in a crowd.” The string players who are participating in the residency will have to get used to the feeling of gut (rather than metal) strings, strung with much less pressure than they would be on a modern instrument—and to very different bows. “I fell in love with the Baroque cello, primarily because of the wonderful sound world created by an instrument that had a lot less pressure,” said Baroque cello teacher Phoebe Carrai. “The Baroque bow, especially in its short, early 18th-century version,” explained violinist Robert Mealy, who joins the Juilliard faculty as a chamber-music coach, “is made for deft, detailed articulations: kind of like driving a small and very responsive sports car, in contrast to the long, lavish, Cadillac-like legato of the modern bow.”
So what is the goal of going through the trouble of learning what amounts to a completely new instrument? For Mr. Mealy, the answer is simple: “All music of the past, whether from 1950 or 1650, is historical performance today: for all of us, we’re trying to understand how to speak these other musical languages as eloquently and as passionately as possible. The basic philosophy of 17th- and 18th-century historical performance is that it’s easier to make this music come alive if we use the tools that were designed for this music.”
It is a sentiment shared by other faculty members of the Historical Performance program, which officially begins in September. “I feel that early instruments can lead us towards modes of expression one wouldn’t normally find working exclusively on modern instruments,” wrote Mr. Teresi. “There is sometimes a mistaken notion that historical performance is about trying to recreate something out of the past according to rules we read about in old books,” he added. “I feel, however, that historical performance is about taking music from the past and making it beautiful, meaningful and relevant to listeners now.” Ms. Miller pointed out that playing a period instrument makes “the affect inherent in the music easier to discern, because the physical aspect of performing is immediate. It’s somewhat like wearing a glove made to fit one’s hand, rather than a mitten, which does the job but isn’t customized.” For Robert Nairn, who teaches Baroque double bass, playing Baroque music on the instrument for which it was intended “gets closer to what the composer heard when he was writing for these instruments. That can be enormously revealing.”
It can also be freeing, according to Mr. Ruiz, especially given the need for period-instrument performers to fill in some of the missing details of a score. “Modern students are usually very good at following detailed instructions on the page, but Baroque notation is usually very sparse and free of detail, so I try to encourage my students to play with all the variety of articulation and dynamics (not to mention ornamentation) that is not on the page but is essential to bringing the piece to life.” Cynthia Roberts, who will teach Baroque violin and viola, has a similar take: “I try to imagine that the piece of music is standing before me entirely new, with wet ink. I use the best original source for the text available in order to avoid the accumulated interference of editors.”
To be sure, historically-informed performance requires a specialized set of skills, tools and, perhaps more than anything, curiosity. But it’s not an academic exercise. “You study the relevant treatises and history to try to put what is on the page in a historical content. But all this is in the service of making the music fresher,” wrote Ms. Roberts. Robert Mealy summed it up this way: “Historical performance is not a research paper, and it’s not some kind of historical re-creation for the sake of quaintness. The point is to take all this information, to understand as intuitively as possible how these instruments want to work most effectively, to understand how this music is constructed and designed and formed—and then to use our own artistic imaginations to bring this music to life, to make it speak eloquently and movingly to us today.” Perhaps even Einstein would concur, for it was he who also said, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”