If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it.
Classical music has evolved alongside Western architecture, literature and the visual arts, with the music changing to fit the dynamic European (and later, Northern American,) societies. After the Middle Ages, music had distinct eras that mirrored the other arts, like the Renaissance, the Baroque era, the Classical period, and the Romantic era. As a new style was popularized, the former style was shed and left behind.
For example, Johann Sebastian Bach is widely accepted to be one of the best composers of all time, but he was not this popular in his active years during the peak of the Baroque era (1700-1750). Bach’s works were still in the realm of relative obscurity 75 years after his death, though he remained an influential figure among the future great composers, like Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schumann. Beethoven would describe Bach as “Urvater der Harmonie,” the “original father of harmony.” These composers, particularly Mendelssohn, brought the Baroque composer into the mainstream during the Romantic period.
However, the Baroque music played in the 19th century was not the same as what had been played 100 years ago. Between the Baroque and Romantic eras, playing styles had drastically changed. Audio recordings did not exist, so there was no way to tell how a particular piece was played back then. On top of that, many Baroque pieces contained little to no stylistic hints written in the sheet music. Note that the Baroque period lasted around 150 years, so the players of the period were so familiar with the style that everyone knew what ornamentation to use to spice up the notes, or what kind of trills to use. Romantic players were not familiar with these nuances that were so obvious to musicians a century ago, so they used what was known to them to interpret the pieces.
This movement from Bach’s Partita No 2 in D minor (BWV 1004), Chaccone, is played by Russian American violinist Nathan Mironovich Milstein.
He was known for playing Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas in a purely Romantic style. I chose to use this example because within the first ten seconds, Milstein has made it evident that the only Baroque thing about the performance will be the composer. As I had previously stated, no one wrote any rules for playing Baroque music, and there were definitely no recordings of Bach playing his works. So how do I know that Milstein’s Chaconne is anti-Baroque after only hearing the first note?
The violin that was used in the Baroque period is different compared to the modern violin we use today. Playing on a Baroque violin, a modern player would begin to realize that there were limitations to what kind of sound one could expect from the violin. This is a link to a side by side image of a Baroque bow (the top one), a Classical bow, and a modern bow (the bottom one).
Going back to Milstein, the way that he hacked through the first chord and played all of the notes at the same time would have been physically impossible in the 1700s because such bow control was not conceivable with the concave shape of the Baroque bow. Baroque chords had to be played as a quick arpeggio or broken chord, not in unison.
Apart from the chords, Milstein does not follow Bach’s contrapuntal style. Counterpoint in the Baroque era highlighted different musical voices. Bach used this style in his solo compositions, giving the illusion of multiple musicians playing when there would only be one soloist playing the contrapuntal melodies. However, Milstein emphasizes the soprano voice and rips through the other notes because counterpoint in the Romantic era highlighted leitmotifs (musical motifs), which are not present in the exposition of the Chaconne. This means that in the Romantic rendition of Chaconne, the Baroque harmonies that Bach created would be snuffed out in favour of a lead (soprano) voice.
Though I am highlighting how Milstein’s performance was not even slightly Baroque, what is considered to be Baroque playing is still widely disputed. Is it only Baroque when the performer follows as many of Bach’s nuances as possible and plays on a Baroque violin (like in this performance by Greg Ewer - start at 3:55 )?
Can the Chaconne be considered to be Baroque music with how Milstein played it? Despite the rise of historically informed performances in 20th century (playing on period instruments like Ewer), there are limitations to how accurately a baroque piece can be played on a modern violin.
Musicians and listeners will continue to debate how authentically played Baroque music should be. As much as I enjoy a performance like Ewers, with authentic instruments and the correct pitch (the notes were more flat in the Baroque era), I personally believe that if a player respects the general nuances, like Baroque counterpoint and proper phrasing (with chords, bow usage, etc.), then it’s stylistic enough for me. People see and interpret music in different ways, and we tend to get caught up in judging whether a performance was Baroque enough.
Here are two different versions of Bach’s Chaconne, played by two modern violinists: the first one leans more towards Ewer’s rendition and is played by James Ehnes and the second is slightly more Romantic (but not to Milstein’s extreme) and played by the legendary Itzhak Perlman. I thoroughly enjoy both Ehnes and Perlman’s performances of Bach’s Chaconne. They are both different, but both are fusions between the Baroque style and their own interpretation.
Perlman captures the intensity that I imagine the Chaconne/music in general to have had in Bach’s day. The strings on the Baroque violin were made of animal intestine (goat, sheep, cat), and though those strings are no longer used today, they are said to have created the warmest sound. Baroque violinists did not even have to use vibrato; the sound was that rich. Perlman infuses his Chaconne with warmth and emotion. Meanwhile, Ehnes manages to convey the essence of the Baroque period in his playing. The Baroque period once dominated Western music with its simple but unique style, but to be able to effectively convey the simplicity of the era is quite difficult. Ehnes’ Chaconne sounds so effortlessly simple, with nothing out of place stylistically and nothing that was overemphasized. Both violinists accentuate aspects of the Baroque era in their performances, while remaining true to their own individual styles.
I would like to conclude with a quote by Lydia Goehr, music philosophy at Columbia University. When it comes to playing music on a period instrument or playing it with just enough nuances to be Baroque, considering the stylistic/historical aspects of Baroque music gives us a different perspective on music as a whole. “... It helps us overcome that deep‐rooted desire to hold the most dangerous of beliefs, that we have at any time got our practices absolutely right."