14 January 2012

The Baroque Fade

From Ahmadabad to Zhuhai, from Norway to New Zealand, from London to Limbang, there is a disease sweeping the piano-playing community.  It has infected just about every pianist the world over who plays a piece of Baroque music in an examination, at a diploma recital or in a competition.  I call it the Baroque Fade.

It seems to have started around the turn of the millennium and its presence first hit me between the eyes when I was examining a Fellowship candidate in Kuala Lumpur about 10 years ago.  He gave a splendid account of the Goldberg Variations until, a few bars before the end, the tone began to decline and the volume fade ignominiously away until, with the final cadence, it reached an insipid pianissimo.  Appalled by such a misjudgement I asked him in the viva voce why he had done that.  His response was “Did I?”, which astonished me since everything else about the performance seemed to have been painstakingly thought out.  After he had left I turned to my fellow examiner (in those days Fellowship diplomas were done with two live examiners rather than as it mostly is now, with one live and the other listening to a recording) and expressed my amazement at what had happened.  “Oh they all do that”, my colleague told me, “I think it’s because they are so indoctrinated with the idea that you play the Baroque piece first that they see all Baroque music as being merely an appetizer.  The musical equivalent of a Prawn Cocktail!”

(I don’t know what restaurants he used to frequent but, in a straight choice between a vile diminuendo at the close of a Bach Fugue and strips of chewy lettuce and watery shrimps doused in lurid pink treacle, I’d go for the former every time.)

Of course, there is a real issue with student pianists (and their teachers) who, with consummate laziness, plan programmes according to composer chronology rather musical logic.  At school alongside Michael Overbury, who was then (and still is, I gather) an avid advocate of Bach, I recall a heated argument about where to place Bach in an organ recital programme.  Michael was all for putting it at the end, on the grounds that it was the intellectual and artistic climax of any recital so the whole performance needed to feel that it was working up to that moment.  I never accepted this and when I attended a recital when this did happen (I don’t think it was one of Michael’s) I found that, after Mulet’s Tu es Petra, Franck’s Grande Piece Symphonique and assorted other bon-bons, Bach’s great Prelude & Fugue in A minor came as something of a damp squib. My experience has since shown that a big Bach piece tends to work best towards the middle of a programme, but the important thing is, every programme and every work needs to be planned afresh, and hard and fast rules never work.

But I digress! The fact is just about every pianist I hear in the examination room ends whatever Baroque music they are playing with a diminuendo.  It can be gentle and subtle over a couple of bars or a dramatic and extensive affair infecting almost the entire final page.  But it’s there and, for the life of me, I can see no musical argument to support it. Instinct suggests that most music finishes on a strong note unless the composer specifically demands otherwise; and just because diminuendo markings were alien to most Baroque composers doesn’t mean one is at liberty to throw them around at random.  Baroque composers didn’t use such things possibly because they didn’t see the need for them.

An old organ teacher of mine used to rail against the habit of organists adding stops and opening the swell pedal as they approached the finishing line of a Bach Fugue.  His argument was that it was something Bach could never have done and so to do so went against all the rules of authenticity.  I have to confess, though, that, performing to an audience unencumbered by the niceties of authentic performance and on an organ where playing aids make such things possible, I am as bad as anyone in adding a mighty crescendo to the closing bars of a Bach Fugue.  It may not be authentic and may even be in dubious taste, but it thrills the audience and I can justify it on musical grounds as reflecting the cumulative effect of fugal voices emerging over the course of the piece.  In many ways a Fugue is a textural crescendo, so why not add a dynamic one to underline this aspect of it?

Whatever it is that induces these pianists to spoil the end of their Baroque performances by imposing a gentle fade of dynamics just at the point all musical instincts would drive a normal thinking pianist to get louder, I have no idea.  Perhaps, somewhere in the zillion bytes of dross on YouTube there is some spotty 10th-rate egotist who plays all the 48 and ends them all with a soothing pianissimo or, perhaps, modern-day concentration levels are so short that these pianists’ brains begin to shut down just as the final double bar is in sight.  Or, maybe, my colleague’s Prawn Cocktail thesis is correct.  The fact remains that it is now a global disease. 

At grade 6 in the Trinity syllabus there is a fine work by Telemann, Fantasia in F (TWV33:F5).  There is an unequivocal perfect cadence at the end and a pause marking over the last note.  This would seem to be Telemann’s way of saying “Please make this ending BIG!”  And what do the vast majority of Trinity Grade 6 candidates do?  They rattle through the Vivace with crisp and clean articulation, adding some stylish echo effects for good measure, but then screw it all up with a final fade leaving this piece to wilt on the vine – the last note sometimes so soft that it does not even sound.  I heard this happen countless of times in South Africa during October, and again in Botswana in November, in India in December and, just yesterday, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I have no doubt I will hear it again multitudinous times in the coming months.  I’d love to fail candidates who do this, but that would be quite unethical, so I’ll content myself with metaphorically wringing their necks.

I say, Ban the Baroque Fade; Bring back the Big Baroque Bang.


  1. priya chaturvedi14 January, 2012 21:26

    So true! I am all for bringing back the Baroque Bang. Found your comment on the Telemann Fantasia interesting. As a piano teacher, I had this piece played by some students, and they ended with an emphatic forte. Do you think a mordent would be approprite on the final F? I thought it would add to the triumphant ending.

  2. Yes. Absolutely right! Keep up the good work!