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<<  -- 2 --  John Bell Young    WORLD CLASS


As in every historical period, underlying musical aesthetics, informed by the art of rhetoric, were as much influenced by the nature and limitations of the instrumentarium as the other way round. For example, the considerably shorter bows of the time demanded an approach to string playing that influenced, among other things, rhythm, articulation and affective inflection. Indeed, the doctrine of affect -- which can be loosely defined as expressive articulation governed by stress and accentuation -- was the bread and butter of baroque aesthetics. This is music, after all, that concerns itself with the reproduction of speech rhythms and dialogue in sound. It also gives way to a kind of contest, if you will, among the instruments, or more accurately, among the musical lines carried by those instruments.

From this perspective affective intonation is central to baroque musical grammar. Composers in those days organized rhythm cumulatively into a kind of synthesis of the smallest motivic and metrical units, echoing the elaborate designs in contemporary painting and architecture. Though the evocation of nature was no less essential for conveying a musical mood, it was the attention composers paid to detail and motivic characterization that fueled it. The 'sweeping sostenutos', as Harnoncourt once described it, that gave way to the modern legato (a different animal than its baroque incarnation), were an invention the 19th century, not the 18th; Sostenuto, as it was later understood in the full bloom of romanticism, was largely unknown. For the baroque musician it was only a warning not to play the ensuing note too early. Individual tones emerged quietly and weakly, only to be briefly inflated before gradually dying away. Tones were conceived as syllables in the larger sentence, and governed by these 'articulatory silences' which enveloped them. Even a single tone assumed the characteristic of a spoken syllable, or punctuation; it was something to be pronounced and inflected. Music back then was understood, quite literally, as something three-dimensional, as its transparent juxtaposition of tone and rhythm was the musical equivalent of painting's chiaroscuro.

Thus, when Sarasa so knowingly launches into a new phrase period or idea, it avails itself of these subtle dynamic shifts -- what some scholars have dubbed 'micro-dynamics' -- that draw us into a pitch as if by stealth. But Sarasa is hardly a poster boy for dreary academic theory. On the contrary, it is an ensemble whose extraordinarily vigorous, gutsy and vivacious playing is also informed at every moment by tradition as well as scholarship. Perhaps it is no accident that virtually every one of the group's musicians is a protégé of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt and other great leaders of the early music movement.

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Copyright © 4 December 2002 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA


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