When one thinks of the music of southeast Asia, the baroque style of late 16th-century to early 18th-century Europe isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. Ditto for the harpsichord, the keyboard instrument of choice during the heyday of the baroque period. Until now, that is.
Beth Etter, director of music outreach and artistic director of the Summer Music Festival at Allegheny College, is reaching out this week to young musicians participating in the Association of South East Asian Nations International Concerto Competition in Jakarta, Indonesia. The ASEAN region, which covers an area of more than 1.7 million square miles and has a population of about 500 million, includes the nations of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The competition, which ends Saturday, is divided into two categories: pianists under 13 years of age and those between the ages of 13 and 17. While in Jakarta, Etter is serving as a competition judge and also teaching master classes. Drawing on years of hands-on experience with the harpsichord and pianoforte, the predecessors of the modern piano, she’s helping the young competitors understand the impact of technological change on some of the musical compositions they are performing in the competition.
While participants making it to the semi-final stage in both age categories are required to perform one movement of a piano concerto by an ASEAN composer, commissioned especially for the competition, the rest of the requirements are remarkably European.
All the students, for example, are required to explore the realm of the baroque as they work their way through long lists of required pieces. The younger competitors, for example, must perform one “Three-Part Invention” by J.S. Bach, while members of the older group must perform one prelude and fugue from Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier.”
At the time they were written, both works were considered to be instructional pieces, although they certainly don’t sound that way Etter explained. “They’re beautiful music for music’s sake, but they both have a compositional technique and a certain texture that is great for students to have to sort through.” What sets the baroque period apart, she noted, is that instead of the classical period’s melody combined with an accompaniment, “the parts are individual. They meet at various points, but each one has its own integrity, so to play these things and play them well, you have to keep track of each and every line of music.”
What Etter wants to help these talented young musicians understand, however, is that Bach composed his music for the harpsichord — an instrument they have most likely only read about — not the modern piano. “The tendency is for modern pianists to play baroque music with way too much effort and way too much sound,” Etter said during a pre-departure interview. “If you play the period instruments, what you begin to realize is that the whole evolution of instrument technology affects composition technique not just sort of — but extremely.”
Unlike the piano, nothing strikes the strings on a harpsichord. Instead, each string is plucked, which creates a very different effect.
“If they’re coming to this competition, the students who are going to listen to me talk about this most likely have practiced every exercise in sight,” Etter said, “so they’re likely to play with a lot of energy and a lot of sound.”
Back in Bach’s day, on the other hand, harpsichord tutors were telling their students to keep their hands small and close to the keys — and use almost no energy. “It’s a little like scratching on the keys, unlike the modern piano, where we practice hand exercises to strengthen the fingers so you can produce a big sound,” she explained. “It’s all the opposite.” Bach’s instrument, she is quick to add, had only five octaves; it wasn’t until Beethoven started pushing the keyboard envelope years later that the expansion to the modern piano’s seven-plus octave range began.
Because the harpsichord was plucked, it only had one volume; as a result, Bach’s music as he wrote it had nothing but notes. The possibility of soft and loud — piano and forte — came later. The bottom line for today’s musicians? “All the dynamic marks and phrasings we typically find in modern editions of Bach’s music are add-ons,” Etter said, “and some of them are frankly bad advice.”
Etter’s journey to Jakarta is only the first step in a partnership linking the Allegheny festival with the ASEAN competition. Kuri Pin Yeo, artistic director of the competition, plans to bring at least 10 students to Meadville to participate in the 2006 festival.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com