What is a really historical approach to technique?

As denizens of the Information Age, we live in particularly special times for the revival of early instruments and earlier music in general. Treatises on performance practice of all kinds – Couperin’s L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin’ (1716), Hotteterre’s L’Art de préluder sur la flûte traversière (1719), Adriano Banchieri’s L’organo suonarino (1605), or Zarlino’s Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558) – are available in facsimile form as .PDF files to be downloaded in a matter of minutes or, at worst, can be bought for a few pounds from any respectable music dealer. A generation or two ago, the majority of important treatises were either totally unavailable to the average musician or had to be dealt with in cumbersome microfilm spools and prohibitively expensive editions and, oftentimes, bad translations.

The effect that this new availability of information has had on music is considerable and, ultimately, positive. But as with the hyper-influx of any information in any field, we should be mindful of the difference between possessing a lot of information and having the critical apparatus to know what to use, what to avoid, and how the mindset and cultural/musical context of a writer of any treatise informed their written work. I would add to this the observation that writing about the kinetic experience of performance is still an exceedingly difficult task, and in reading many of these sources even the best-written ones strike the reader with a sense of awkwardness in this vein. Indeed, ”writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

And yet, they did it! One specific area of writings about keyboard technique that I’d like to touch upon focuses on the realm of ‘period fingering’ at the keyboard. For the uninitiated, it is quite certain that in earlier periods and in various countries, people had different ways of applying their fingers to the keyboard, particularly in terms of which fingers they used (the thumb, the index finger, and so on and so forth) and the position of the hands and wrists. This is an area which certainly merits study, and we are fortunate to have examples of fingerings (for relatively simple pieces, one must admit) written by such figures as William Byrd, Alessandro Scarlatti, and J.S. Bach himself. As for the placement of the wrists and arms at the harpsichord or organ, or matters relating to articulation, we can read comments by Couperin Le Grand, Rameau, and Girolamo Diruta in their respective publications. There are those who argue that period fingering imposes upon music a pre-ordained system of articulation and agogics independent of specific musical context for any piece, and those who question this method of thinking.

I have no intention to go into a judgment of the efficacy of the use of period fingerings. That endeavour I will leave for elsewhere. I do ask, however: in light of the fact that the average performing harpsichordist is playing music from a wide range of periods and countries, what is the best way for us to achieve our technical training? How can we stay true to the aural world of a composer and yet communicate the vitality and message of a piece of music in our own time? It may be that the ‘scientific’ approach to instrumental technique as represented by the keyboard methods and treatises of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is not a bad place to look – I’m thinking in particular of works by Johann-Baptist Cramer, Tobias Matthay (in particular, ‘The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique’ 1947), Liszt, Czerny, and others throughout the ‘golden age of the keyboard.’

I remember bringing this up to a colleague over dinner and receiving a very odd look of disbelief and a question: ”but can we look at piano techniques to inform our performance of Bach?” I say there’s no question that we should do this. Firstly, let us not forget that the art of technique was a jealously-guarded secret in the Renaissance and Baroque ages. This art was passed down from father to son, from master to disciple. In many ways the writings of the nineteenth century represent the art of guilds and families now transferred into a commercial, public sphere. There is no doubt that the nineteenth century works are results of approaches and techniques specific to that particular period, but I think that one message in particular screams out from the page of a Czerny or a Cramer or a Liszt: the idea of total universality at the keyboard. These writers are often fixated with the idea that a keyboard technique should be so versatile and facile that it can take immediate ‘dictation,’ as it were, from the musical mind and execute whatever the musician wishes it to do. Wrote Josef Hofmann:

‘Technic represents the material side of art…[t]echnic is a chest of tools from which
the skilled artisan draws what he needs at the right time…there is a technic which
liberates….’ (The Art of Piano-Playing, 1908)

Is this so different from the approach of a Sebastian Bach? After all, in my relatively few years as a keyboardist, I have found that the tantalisingly few examples of ‘period fingering and technique’ we have surrounding Bach just seem to me unable to handle his most complicated works. More often than not they reduce his music to a perpetually limping, over-articulated mess which forgets to communicate much if anything about the greatness and sense of difference that defines this music. I am reminded by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s observations on technique in his tome on Scarlatti:

”In Scarlatti’s time keyboard players were judged less as executants than as composers and improvisers. But few keyboard players possessed a universal technique that permitted them to negotiate immediately any music set before them. Even the greatest players were accustomed to perform only their own music or the music of their own country or school…This meant a complete and flexible domination of the instrument as a medium for expressing their own musical thoughts, however limited the range of their style.
I doubt if Couperin, despite his peculiar command of the harpsichord in his own style, would have been able to negotiate a single sonata of Scarlatti. Although Handel would probably have played the Scarlatti sonatas with great dash, I venture to guess that he would have scarcely avoided a great many wrong notes. J.S. Bach would have been among the very few who could have played all of them perfectly. He was one of the earliest exponents of a keyboard technique universal in physical competence as well as in variety of style and scope of expression. Only when keyboard playing became a profession in itself as apart from improvisation and composition did a genuinely universal technique such as that exemplified in the piano methods of Hummel and Czerny become standard equipment even for players of only average ability”
(Ralph Kirkpatrick: Domenico Scarlatti: 186-187)

The question must be asked, then: if we are to play all sorts of music and styles, then what is wrong with aiming for a universality of technique? Is it not more historical to recognise that the universal technique contains within it kernels of so many different approaches to the keyboard synthesised into a great epitome of harnessing the physical for means of expression? Likewise, what is wrong about eschewing a purely historical approach to communicate the message of a piece of music independent of culturally-specific kinetic and physical considerations (or perhaps limitations)? After reading and digesting and absorbing all that is said by the treatises of the period, may the performer not use his own methods to then effect his and the composer’s aural vision of the music?

The historical approach does not, nor should it ever, entail intellectual laziness. We cannot trade in the dogmas of the nineteenth century for false dogmas of the twentieth or the twenty-first. Like it or not, musicians must forever embrace the critical approach.