Divide et impera

Divide et impera

Divide and rule. This motto probably sounds unsympathetic to our ears. However, this strategy is not only used in the harsh political business. We ourselves use it frequently in everyday life too. For example, when we eat and drink, sort our documents into folders, organize the day, etc. This undoubtedly has something to do with the limitations of our human condition.

Also when studying and listening to music we follow this strategy. The composer has already made a division into bars for us. Other common formats are: first and second part of a phrase (phrasing), larger divisions following intermediate cadences. For music of the 19th and early 20th century – Brahms, Chopin, César Franck, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel – this is usually enough. For the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, we have to analyse in smaller units down to the level of motives.

If you fail to do so, it is likely that you are playing beyond the structure of the music. To compensate one often chooses for a faster tempo. It should be interesting, right? Especially on harpsichord, you can develop Olympic speeds with ease. But who is interested in tone clusters in music from before 1800?

As an example a fragment from the works of JS Bach. (I often use examples from the works of Bach as his music is in all likelihood available to the most readers.) This time I will include excerpts from the works of Michelangelo Rossi and Joseph Haydn as well.


Bach WTC I, 6

Rossi Toccata VI

Rossi Toccata XII

Haydn Hoboken XVI-33

The method of annotating used above does not deserve imitating. The divisions should primarily be made mentally and be remembered. The division into motives must be known to the player at the time of the execution. Some of this she or he can also communicate to the listeners through timing. How? That depends. A relatively rapid tempo tolerates more than a slower tempo. And then this. How big is the room and how are it’s acoustics? Am I playing for an audience or am I recording (in a studio)? What it boils down to is that every player should consider how she or he will sell the business.

Actually, it is always true that you only show a fraction of what you can and what you know. It is not always necessary to show explicitly what you are capable. Rather not. You must have it in reserve.

Music from before 1800 and that of classical composers like Haydn and Mozart improves when we play it the way it was designed.
Try things and then forget them. That is the smartest way. The rest is automatic.

See also JS Bach French Suite III, BWV 814: Allemande and Courante.
Orgelbüchlein: Vater unser im Himmelreich BWV 636. In those pieces, the motives are beautifully divided over the various voices.