Are composers who use early music techniques writing new music? Roy Whelden



Roy Whelden

Some of the appeal of early instruments for me as a composer (and, I assume, the composers who have written for my ensemble, American Baroque) is due to the newness of the sounds. Despite the similarity in appearance between many twentieth-century instruments and their Baroque counterparts, there can be a world of difference in their timbres, a difference which can evoke entirely different emotions in performances of the same piece. Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion, for example, when played on modern instruments tends to be welcoming and friendly; using eighteenth-century instruments, the piece becomes unworldly and awe inspiring.

I have noticed a peculiar and unexpected phenomenon: audience perception of style is often more influenced by instrumental timbres than harmony or rhythm. A review of one of my recordings (“Like a Passing River,” released on New Albion Records) said simply that I wrote pseudo-Baroque music. All the pieces on the recording were indeed performed with Baroque instruments (flute, violin, gamba, cello, triple harp, voice) and some were pseudo-Baroque (in the same way Stravinsky‘s Pulcinella might be called pseudo-Baroque)–on the other hand, some of pieces were, in fact, twelve-tone.

With the fresh timbres of seventeenth and eighteenth-century instruments comes a new set of resources for the composer to explore. Composers for early instruments cannot assume that writing for Baroque oboe, to take a random example, bears a great similarity to writing for twentieth-century oboe. The bottom fifth of the Baroque oboe’s range is much more forceful (some would say strident) than the modern oboe’s lowest notes. This is certainly a factor in the awe-inspiring affect of an authentic instrument performance of the St. Matthew Passion.

I would like to quote at this point an interesting remark made by Stravinsky:

I myself prefer Bach’s string orchestra with its gambas, its violino and ‘cello piccolo, to our standard quartet in which the ‘cello is not of the same family as the viola and bass. And, if oboes d’amore and da caccia were common I would compose for them… I am always interested and attracted by new instruments (new to me) … (from Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, 1959)

Modern composers are indeed writing for early instruments. American Baroque, based in San Francisco, has performed dozens of new works in the past decade, most of them written especially for us. We have found it absolutely necessary to confer intimately and extensively with the composers to acquaint them with the nature of Baroque instruments, which, in our ensemble, includes flute, violin, oboe, gamba, and harpsichord, with the occasional addition of cello, percussion, triple harp, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, or voice.