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27.7.04

Manchester Baroque Conference (Part 5)

This is a continuation of Ionarts coverage of the Eleventh Biennial International Conference on Baroque Music in Manchester, England. Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Other interesting research I heard about in Manchester include a paper (abstract) by Deborah Kauffman on a particular musical arrangement she calls violons en basse. That is the label applied by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in a letter to Grimm, to a technique found in French motets, ballets, and operas, in which the musical texture is reduced to treble instruments and a treble voice, with the violins playing a basse continue line in their own register. (Praetorius uses the humorously diminutive term bassette for the same concept.) This practice is related to the contrasting sound of the petit chœur and is used by composers, Prof. Kauffman believes, to signify youth, innocence, the pastoral, and peace. For this paper, she identified 33 examples of this sort of musical texture, from pieces dated 1701 to 1753, enough to place this technique in the "common musical language of topics that was so central to eighteenth-century rhetoric."

The most convincing pieces she presented as typical of this association included the opening of Couperin's motet Adolescentulus sum ego (1703); "Sur ces bords fortunés, sung by Diane in the prologue of Rameau's opera Hippolyte et Aricie (1733); and "Regnez, aimable paix," sung by L'Amour in the same prologue; "Monarche redouté," Orpheus's plea to Pluto for Eurydice's life (sung by soprano), in Cléreambault's Orphée (1710); and "Tout cède au charme" in the first act of Rameau's Naïs (1749), in which Neptune, in disguise, attempts to woo a young nymph. In the question period following this paper, Jean-Paul Montagnier added that numerous examples can be found in the work of Charles-Hubert Gervais, and Lionel Sawkins said the same is true of the motets of Michel-Richard de Lalande, where there are about 30 or 40 such examples, by his estimation. Catherine Gordon-Seifert suggested that the rhetorical significance of the technique was more general, perhaps presenting a musical sound that was distinctly feminine.

Cellist and musicologist John Lutterman gave a paper on the Bach Suites for Solo Cello as Artifacts of Improvisational Practices (abstract), which dealt more generally with the question of the concept of a finished written work (a modern concept) and notated music as a basis for improvisation and spontaneous recomposition (a much more Baroque concept). In this way of looking at especially Baroque music for solo instruments, the written score may be simply a road map to show a performer how to improvise. The solo cello suites will always be fascinating (see the Ionarts double review of Mischa Maisky's recent performance in Washington), but it was not really clear how Lutterman thinks these ideas should be applied to performances of them, although it is an interesting concept.

The most exciting of the many Bach sessions was a round table led by Christoph Wolff, who teaches at Harvard and is the director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig. The Bach-Archiv (founded and supported by the East Germans before reunification) and the Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Institut in Göttingen (supported by the West Germans), working in tandem, have nearly completed the absolutely indispensable critical edition of the works of J. S. Bach, the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA), and they now plan to extend their editing work to other members of the Bach family. The work on the NBA has thoroughly revolutionized our understanding of the works of J. S. Bach, and I have no doubt that the new editions will do the same. The other major research projects undertaken by the Bach-Archiv include a thorough combing of primary documents housed in small archives around Germany. This type of work—examining one by one every possible financial or personal document for any information about Bach—is something that individual scholars could never undertake, but a research institution like the Bach-Archiv can and is doing. According to Prof. Wolff's report, they have already found a number of significant documents in this way, previously unknown, and more will almost certainly come to light. Yoshitake Kobayashi and Kirsten Beisswenger presented their work on a catalogue of copyists' hands in sources used to compile the NBA, painstaking paleographical work that will also be published by the Bach-Archiv.

Other sessions I found interesting included Élisabeth Gallat-Morin's paper (abstract) on the presence and performance of French Baroque music in New France (Canada); the discussion session on starting an association of scholars interested in examining J. S. Bach's music in its theological and liturgical contexts (abstract); and Peter Holman's paper (abstract) on Italian cellist and composer Lorenzo Bocchi's career in Edinburgh and Dublin. There were many more that I could not attend.

Go to Part 6.

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