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Saturday morning quote #21: Geminiani & performance

October 14, 2011

Today’s quotes are from Francesco Geminiani (1687 – 1762), The Art of Playing on the Violin, London, 1751 (facsimile edition edited by David D. Boyden, Oxford University Press, 1952).  Geminiani’s work preceded that of Leopold Mozart, and is exceptional for its logic and clarity, stopping just short of giving note-by-note instructions for the musical examples.

The book is written in extraordinarily clear English, given that Geminiani was a native Italian, and the introduction provides the essential tongue-in-cheek comic relief:

The Art of Playing the Violin consists in giving that Instrument a Tone that shall in a Manner rival the most perfect human Voice; and in executing every Piece with Exactness, Propriety, and Delicacy of Expression according to the true Intention of Musick. But as the imitation the Cock, Cuckoo, Owl, and other Birds; or the Drum, French Horn, Tromba-Marina, and the like; and also sudden Shifts of the Hand from one Extremity of the the Finger-board to the other, accompanied with Contortions of the Head and Body, and all other such Tricks rather belong to the Professors of Legerdemain and Posture-masters than to the Art of Musick, the Lovers of that Art are not to expect to find any thing of that Sort in this Book.

Geminiani gives several helpful examples that lead to a very good understanding of both left-hand fingering and of bowing.  But it is his description of ornamentation that is highlighted here, for he logically draws the comparison between ornaments played on the violin and the similar effective use of those for the voice.

It is supposed by many that a real good Taste cannot possibly be acquired by any Rules of Art; it being a peculiar Gift of Nature, indulged only to those who have naturally a good Ear: And as most flatter themselves to have this Perfection, hence it happens that he who sings or plays, thinks of nothing so much as to make continually some favourite Passages or Graces, believing that by the Means he shall be thought to be a good Performer,  not perceiving that playing in good Taste doth not consist of frequent Passages, but in expressing with Strength and Delicacy the Intention of the Composer.

While it’s a little tricky to judge the ‘Intention of the Composer’ from this distance of time, we can do our best to become familiar with the context of the music and learn from the surviving clues elements of style and convention.  Geminiani goes on to describe in detail fourteen different ornaments, and to identify their associated emotions, for example:

(Third) Of the Superior Apogiatura.

The Superior Apogiatura is supposed to express Love, Affection, Pleasure, & c.  It should be made pretty long, giving it more than half the Length or Time of the Note it belongs to, observing to swell the Sound by Degrees…

But it is Geminiani’s summary of the ornaments, their uses, and how they contribute to a moving performance that is of primary interest to us:

Men of purblind Understandings, and half Ideas may perhaps ask, is it possible to give Meaning and Expression to Wood and Wire; or to bestow upon them the Power of raising and soothing the Passions of rational Beings?…I shall make no Difficulty to answer in the Affirmative, and without searching over-deeply into the Cause, shall think it sufficient to appeal to the Effect.  Even in common Speech a Difference of Tone gives the same Word a different Meaning.  And with Regard to musical Performances, Experience has shewn that the Imagination of the Hearer is in general so much at the Disposal of the Master, that by the Help of Variations, Movements, Intervals and Modulation he may almost stamp what Impression on the Mind he pleases.

We close with Geminiani’s most eloquent description of how to move an audience, and words that we should live by as performers of music from any era.

These extraordinary Emotions are indeed most easily excited when accompany’d with Words; and I would besides advise, as well the Composer as the Performer, who is ambitious to inspire his Audience, to be first inspired himself; which he cannot fail to be if he chuses a Work of Genius, if he makes himself thoroughly acquainted with all its Beauties; and if while his Imagination is warm and glowing he pours the same exalted Spirit into his own Performance.

We agree wholeheartedly and,  as a bit of follow-up from last Saturday’s rant, we offer impressions from a reviewer in the studio audience here.

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