Giorgio Dellarole: early music for a modern instrument – 4

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BrueghelIn my previous articles I spoke about the sources of information on the repertoire of the seventeenth and eighteenth century; in this fourth one I will deal with the fundamental questions concerning the interpretation, starting from some issues related to the articulation.

We can define the articulation as the way in which the sounds of a score are chained together via micro silences intended to give a particular highlight to each individual note. Baroque compositions are characterized by the scarcity of directions, but this does not imply that the execution should be simply and uniformly “legato” or not “legato”; on the contrary, it requires that the modern performer makes some extra efforts in order to have a better understanding of the scores and to search for an interpretation that does not compromise variety, which is essential for the Baroque aesthetics.

The accordion, born a little over a century ago, suffers particularly from this deficiency because it is an instrument that performs pieces written for other instruments; because of this it does not have some technical or mechanical characteristics that can support some specific interpretive choices.[1]

The main reference for our instrument is definitely the organ, which, as the accordion, has the opportunity to sustain notes; thing that is not possible with a harpsichord, a clavichord or a fortepiano. Unlike the organ, the accordion has a dynamic bellows, however, this does not allow to detail little phrases and because of this the management of the articulation is normally based on the same one used by the organists.

Also in this case, it is important that the performer has a thorough knowledge of the theoretical informations[2] and about articulation, it is fundamental to know the typical characteristics of accentuation in the repertoire of the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

I think that the starting point may be the recognition, in the melodic and harmonic structure of the piece that we perform, of the moments of “thesis” and “arsis”, intended not, or not only, as situations of “forte” and “piano”, but as states of greater or minor “weight “, of accented and unaccented, of strong beat and weak beat.

Regarding the horizontal flow (the melodic line), it is possible to start with the analysis of the shorter values of the piece and then to continue with the widest ones and with the musical phrases and periods. Luca Oberti[3] makes an interesting comparison, which I think is illuminating, between the language of electronics, based on sequences of “0” and “1” and Baroque music, which he defines as “multilevel binary music”.

J.J. Quantz - VersuchThe same research should be conducted in respect of the vertical structure (harmonic), perhaps under J.J. Quantz and C.Ph.E. Bach’s[4] guidance. Indeed, they deal extensively with this matter, starting from the coincidence between dissonance and strong beat and between consonance and weak beat. Then, they develop many exceptions to the rule (modulating harmonies, distant tones…). We can observe that Quantz suggests to structure the dynamics of a composition according to the harmonic structure[5].

The immediate consequence of the application of this idea to the phrasing management, even in the absence of a particular interpretative awareness, is the breaking of the monotony that too often afflicts the current executions of the ancient repertoire, due to the modern trend that goes towards linearity and speed.

Realizing that the musical discourse may proceed with a “natural”[6] waving, facilitates the instrumental technique, unlocks the execution itself and makes it human, alive.

The concepts of “thesis” and “arsis” have ancient roots and they are the funtamentals of Greek and Latin poetry. The fact that the Greek theory places the strong beat on the “thesis” and the Latin one considers the “arsis” as the moment of “elevazione” on which to put the accent does not affect the interplay of sound density that represents the heart of the matter.

The musical practice has always been influenced by the poetic metrics. Of course it is influenced in the Greek-Roman culture, in the Middle Ages with the neumic writing which identifies as “ditiones” the sequences of metrical feet based on the alternation of long and short syllables and with Caccini at the dawn of modern “melodramma”.

At the beginning instrumental music, which is our main topic of investigation, is tightly linked to the vocality (if not entirely “at the service” of the vocality or of the dance) and then you rely on the word scansion in order to determine the emphasis and the articulation of the phrasing.

During the Renaissance begins the long process of emancipation of the instruments that gradually acquire the mechanical and sound characteristics that will make them independent. Italian treatise writers translate the binary concept based on the opposition between long and short syllables with the alternation between “good” and “bad” note; this means between notes with a tonic accent and notes unaccented or less accented.

Regarding the keyboard instruments it is possible to theorize the correspondence between major and minor “weight” of consecutive notes and a greater or minor “strength” of the individual fingers. For example: third finger – more weight (“good” finger on “good” note); fourth finger – less weight (“bad” finger on “bad” note).

Treatise writers do not always agree on what are the “good” or “bad” fingers[7], but they agree on the idea of the ​​alternance between moments of “thesis” and moments of “arsis”.

Bartolomeo Bismantova - Compendio MusicaleFor the other instruments we have the directions of the violin bow represented by “her” (down) and “hin” (up) described by Leopold Mozart[8], the “te-re” – “le-re” of the cornett and the “de-re” – “le-re” of the flute proposed by Bismantova[9] or even the” ti-ri ” of the flute by Quantz[10].

I deeply suggest to gather information about historical fingerings[11] and, whenever it is possible, to apply them to the accordion, both to the keyboard instruments and to those with buttons, both to the right-hand manual and also to the left-hand manual. During my teaching experience I observed that what is commonly (and erroneously) called “chromatic accordion”, in some situations, paradoxically, seems predisposed to the use of ancient fingerings.

The extra effort required to the performer, in my opinion, is compensated by the emergence of the peculiarities of the phrasings and ornaments.

If the idea of a musical structure based on moments of “thesis” and “arsis” is accepted and, whenever it is possible, appropriate fingerings are applied, the problem that arises is to clearly identify these moments.

In my next article I will deal with articulation in a specific and practical way: where to articulate, why doing it and how, what the sign of slur means, how to deal with ornaments…

I conclude by pointing out a couple of news concerning my teaching[12]. The first one is the opening of a Biennium during which the objective will be to further investigate the ancient repertoire; this program will be active from next academic year at the “A. Boito” Conservatory of Parma.

Alongside the Biennium that we can define as “traditional”, in which I will leave the students some freedom in choosing the repertoire to be explored, I hope to create a Biennium in which it will be possible to work in detail on the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and during which, we will work with the Department of Early Music of the Conservatory (we still need to define the form and the mode).

The following link to consult the program and its structure:

The second news is a masterclass that will have place between late July and early August in Sale San Giovanni (CN), during which I will deal extensively with the issues that I have proposed in my articles.

Any information is available at the following address:


[1] Authentic instruments often suggest to the performer some articulations, dynamics, expressiveness etc. Let's think about the short bow of the baroque violin or to the unique feel of the clavichord keyboard, which automatically exclude a whole series of possible interpretive choices (but possible on modern instruments). As far as the accordion is concerned, I will give you an example in order to further clarify my statement: on a horizontal keyboard such as the one of the harpsichord or of the organ, an range of multiple octaves implies a distance of some ten of centimeters, which automatically suggests the performer to take a breath; on the accordion left hand it is possible to play an interval of four octaves with a distance of less than a centimetre, and then an extra effort will be necessary in order to understand the expressive value of the writing and to express it properly
[2] This is not the knowledge of the simply theory, but instead, the possession of a sufficient familiarity with the historical and stylistic context

[3] Described as "one of the most interesting musicians of the last generation of Early Music performers", Luca Oberti is harpsichordist, organist and continuo player. I suggest to listen to him on his channel SoundCloud

[4] For any bibliographical references please see the third article

[5] In the VI Section of the Seventeenth Chapter of his treatise, Quantz, talking about the duties of a good keyboard accompanist, analyzes and classifies the dissonances, dividing them into three classes and he structures in detail a small piece according to the harmonic tensions. About this subject, I suggest you to consult also Section 29 - Third Chapter of the C.Ph.E. Bach's treatise (the volume dedicated to musical interpretation)

[6] "Natural" meant both as "part of human nature" and as the concept that includes all natural events: the waves flow (from sea waves to sound waves), the breath, the dynamics of the movements of human living that is based on supports and suspensions, the day-night alternation...

[7] Normally the middle finger is considered as the"strong" finger whereas the second and fourth fingers are considered as weak fingers. Although, Girolamo Diruta (1554-after 1610) in "Il Transilvano" (Venice 1625) defines the index and the ring fingers as “good” fingers and the thumb, middle and little fingers as “bad” fingers

[8] Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (1756) – Fourth chapter

[9] Compendio Musicale (1677) – Page 93

[10] Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversière zu spielen (1752) – Chapter VI/Sections I-II-III

[11] I suggest to consult “Il clavicembalo” – Bellasich/Fadini/Granziera/Leschiutta – EDT (the fourth part is entirely dedicated to the historical fingerings from the Renaissance to the Eighteenth Century). I also suggest to consult the book by Claudia Pilla: Le antiche diteggiature negli strumenti a tasto - Armellin Musica Edition – Padova, which collects and sorts clearly many evidences relating to the XVI and XVII centuries

[12] I would love to thank Emilia Fadini (who I have already mentioned because she is responsible, with Marco Farolfi and Luca Oberti, of my training in early music) who has dedicated one of her last books to the accentuation. I took good part of the information and ideas for my article from: Emilia Fadini-Maria Antonietta Cancellaro: L’accentuazione in musica. Metrica classica e norme sette-ottocentesche – Ed. Rugginenti

Autore: Giorgio Dellarole

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