Friday, January 11, 2019

You know, it, and stuff

I played something by George Muffat on the organ last weekend.

If you're curious, the piece was the sixth Toccata in F Major from his Apparatus Musicus, which despite the title, does not require the flexibility of a gymnast, but is a good group of pieces nonetheless. I played it a few years ago also, when I made this recording, and while it may not be the finest piece in the organ literature (despite what the editor of my edition may think) I can think of worse ways to spend nine minutes.


Generally, I do a certain amount of research into a composer and their works, particularly if I am writing program notes to go with the performance, but also because I am a curious person. Not that the research is always that scholarly: sometimes I haunt the library for books and articles, or go to the Grove Dictionary online, or....

I just went to Wikipedia, ok?

It's what I found there that was interesting. As of the 3rd of January, this is how the article opened:

Georg Muffat (1 June 1653 – 23 February 1704) was a Baroque composer and organist. He is most well known for the remarkably articulate and informative performance directions printed along with his collections of string pieces Florilegium Primum and Florilegium Secundum (First and Second Bouquets) in 1695 and 1698.

Did you get that? He is best known, says the author, for his performance instructions! Not his music, or his organ playing, but instructions to performers. I hope he isn't taking it too hard.

While that may seem trivial, I imagine there are a lot of string players in particular who are in his debt. A lot of composers tend to write the notes, and just assume the people around them will know how to play them. This is a relatively safe assumption. But suppose your music survives into another century, or travels to different countries where knowledge about the customary ways to approach music in your culture, or in your particular philosophical approach are not known. In that case, it really isn't a bad idea to have a detailed set of instructions, at least for those who want to play the music the way the composer intended, rather than just assuming they (the players) know that they are doing.

I've written about performance instructions before. Composers like Erik Satie, in the 20th century, often wrote whimsical instructions that often don't seem to make any sense. Before him, composers were sometimes making statements of nationalist pride simply by writing tempo markings and expression markings in their own languages instead of inclining to Italian.

In the baroque era, however, there were not that many detailed instructions to begin with. Bach often didn't leave any. Even his teaching method breaks off after a few pages and he remarks that the rest "can be transmitted orally."

It can't now, can it?

Muffat, on the other hand, may or may not have studied under the famous Jean-Baptist Lully, and must have taken really good notes, so that when it came time for his own compositions, he could give us a rather unique insight into an important corner of the literature that is too far removed from our own practices to safely assume we don't need the help.

So I take my metaphorical hat off to Mr. Muffat, one of a few outliers on whom musicologists can rely for useful information about the past, that foreign country where, we are told, people do things so differently.

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