Bach, The End, and a Week with Nigel North

Before I begin, as I sit here writing this article from Houston, TX, I would just like to say how bittersweet this is. My time in Spain was phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for the program and my experiences and adventures to have gone any better. It’s still hard to believe it’s over, but I couldn’t be happier. Even though the program has finished, I still plan on continuing this blog and hoping to share knowledge and advice I accumulate well into the future.

The last week of the program was with the incredible lutenist and musician Nigel North. This week was geared towards the music of Bach.

The style of these pieces is what’s really important. The connection between music and speech was a central idea in this period. Playing music was like telling a story, and though this idea still exists today, it was specifically talked about in this manner in treatises. Use the harmonies to build phrases that tell the story properly, as well as emphasizing the important beats. You can do this by leaning in on dissonances and enjoying them, and backing off of their resolutions. Also, using words and phrases to hear where strong and weak accents are can help. And since playing this music is directly linked to speech, this will reinforce that idea.

Other important concepts: guitarists always tend to fall into a trap of thinking we need to add ornaments to Bach’s music because it was typical of the time. But Bach often writes out the ornaments in his pieces, and so adding ornaments can be done, but isn’t really necessary (with the exception of cadences at the end of sections. It is of course standard to trill here. And remember, trills begin with the top note in this period!).

Also, the tempo of these pieces. One does not need to play these pieces at blistering speeds. In fact most of the time, it sounds so much better when it’s not racing. All of the nuances, phrases, and counterpoint come out much clearer when taken at comfortable tempi.

Bach is of course extremely difficult music, but Maestro North had an interesting take on difficulty that I would like to share. He said, “I don’t think there’s anything difficult. Just things that you don’t know well enough yet.” It’s rather profound in it’s simplicity. But essentially if you put the hard work in, (whether it’s Bach, other tough pieces, or things in life), nothing is impossible. So don’t give up.

As an added bonus, if you are interested, here is a list of books suggested by Nigel:

The Performance of 16th-Century Music by Anne Smith

A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music by and A Performer’s Guide to 17th-Century Music by J. Kite-Powell

The Story of A by Bruce Haynes

The Weapons of Rhetoric by Judy Tarling

New Bach Reader edited by David & Mendell

Unaccompanied Bach: Performing the Solo Works by David Ledbetter

On Playing the Flute by J. Quantz

L’Art de Toucher by Francis Couperin

Ornamentation in Baroque and Post Baroque Music: with Emphasis on J.S. Bach by Frederick Neumann