Published May 18, 2004
One thing I enjoy about Scottish, English and Irish fiddling is the creative contribution expected of the musician. If one played the notes on the page strictly as written, the sound would be choppy and dull, lacking the uplifting dance beat that gives life to the tunes. A fiddler is expected to add the elements of his style to the music, giving the music its accent, its peculiar dialect.
For people who grow up around a certain type of music, that is easy and automatic. But growing up in the 20th century, when traditional fiddling is rare, and in America, across the ocean from the countries that harbor the music, I had to search for the sound of British Isles fiddling and train myself to play it. I’m still learning.
I had to learn the same way about historical Baroque performance. The Baroque era in classical music lasted approximately from 1600 to 1750, when J.S. Bach died. After Bach’s time, his music was considered outdated and stilted, and if someone mentioned Bach, they were referring to C.P.E. Bach, the son of J.S., who wrote in the newer, more fluid style of Mozart and Haydn. So when people performed Baroque music, they infused it with the performance style of their time.
An example of the difference in styles is the trill, that bird-like sound when the fingers rapidly play an alternating note and the note above it. In Baroque music, the trill always started on the note above, because it was used in a descending series of notes, but musicians now are trained to start on the main note and then play the higher trilling note. I grew up trilling the newer way, even when playing Baroque music, because that is what is taught.
Vibrato is another example. It is a warbling sound that can add richness to a tone, achieved by rocking the finger on string instruments and with the breath on wind instruments. It was used very sparingly as an occasional ornament in Baroque times but afterward became a standard part of playing.
Ornaments such as vibrato and the trill were rarely written into the music. The musician was expected to know how to apply them and to understand where they naturally occurred in the music. The musician contributed his part to the music through the addition of ornaments, becoming an arranger in cahoots with the composer.
Baroque music was a lighter music. It was played on quieter instruments in smaller groups and in smaller wooden rooms. As more brass and woodwind instruments joined orchestras, string instruments increased in number and were modified to increase their volume. Composers took more control over the music and wrote in the ornaments, and the musician lost a degree of control over the music. He became less arranger and more of a cog, although a talented and skilled one, in the orchestra.
A microcosm of Baroque music was a style called Scottish drawing room music. Trained composers wrote tunes in the traditional style to fill a need for dance music after the Scottish kirk had squashed dancing and its devil music, and they arranged those tunes in the Baroque style with accompaniment on harpsichord and cello, with Baroque ornamentation applied to Scottish dance music. Author David Johnson, in “Scottish Fiddle Music of the 18th Century,” said Baroque music was lighter, that it bounced off the walls. Traditional fiddling and Baroque violin music were much closer in style then than are today’s classical violin music and fiddling. Listening to Scottish fiddling helps one to understand Baroque performance style, and of course many groups nowadays perform Baroque music in the historical style, thanks to the research of people including Thurston Dart and Robert Donington.
We have a group close by that performs Baroque music in the historical style. Cleveland is home to Apollo’s Fire, one of the premiere Baroque performance groups in the country. A.F. at times includes guest musician David Greenberg, a violinist and Scottish fiddler who plays Scottish drawing room music and fiddle tunes from Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland, and its fiddle music is considered closer to that played in Scotland in the 18th century. It’s an acoustic look at the past, and it has a light, dancing sound that lifts the spirit, bouncing off the walls, grabbing the listener on the way. It is classical music with a Scottish brogue.