Understanding the Music Pt. 1

Understanding the Music Pt. 1

Many students and professionals are facing the same dilemma: How to understand the music that they are trying to perform. That is an easy and extremely difficult questions. Since we are not producing any materialistic goods during our performance, how can we find the path to convince the listener that your interpretation is a correct one? How can we interpret the music of a composer who passed away years ago? If you are performing the music written by a contemporary composer, you are facing yet the same issue, how to interpret the idea of a composer, make the image of music similar to what composer had in mind?

I suggest looking at historical and political environment during which the composer had decided to write that particular piece. That notion could be applied to all types of music, baroque to contemporary music, including the popular one.

Let’s go to basics now and agree that there are only 2 types of music: a song or a dance. There are no other styles that one can perform.

I would like to focus on the thought process when a student is trying to start his work on pieces, written by baroque composers. In baroque music, there is a clear definition between movements, where it is always starts with a procedural overture (a song) which follows by a dance like movement, and that pattern continues throughout the piece. It is my recommendation not to play the procedural (a song) movements extremely slow. I think that the speed of your walking should give you an idea of what the speed of your quarters/eights notes should be. It also extremely important to understand and incorporate in your performance the cultural environment and traditions of a country where the composer wrote his or her music.

I would like to focus on Germany as the beginning – and discuss music of Handel and J.S. Bach. Both of these composers wrote extremely different music, and that should be accountant for when you are looking at music of these fantastic composers. Handel’s was mostly secular in nature (operas, oratories, and a lot of instrumental music). Handel never had a family. He was a traveler, spending the biggest part of his life in England. A performer should look and present to listener with a clear understanding of the style, simple modulations, and the impeccable technique with the focus on the soloist with occasional dialog with the orchestra and/or cembalo. Unlike Handel, J.S. Bach had a big family (some of his sons became a well-known composers). He worked mostly for the church and his music was mostly sacred. Unlike Handel, Bach’s music is much more complex and, unlike instrumental music of Handel where the accompaniment was clearly identified, in Bach’s music each voice, each line has a meaning. A performer must clearly understand modulations, style, and, most importantly, the dialog between the soloist and the accompaniment, or the fluidity of his orchestral pieces.

The performer should also pay equal attention to the fact Bach wrote the “Art of Fuge”, and used it in his music. As musicians, we must understand and deliver the beauty of Bach’s harmony to our listeners. Here is what Beethoven said about J.S. Bach: “The immortal god of harmony.”

Leonard Bernstein had said: To Bach, notes were not just sounds but the very stuff of creation.”

The subject of understanding the music is, as I mentioned, a very easy and extremely difficult. I would like to continue that discussion and talk about instrumental music in my next blog. Until then, keep up practicing!


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