The Beginnings Of Keyboard Music
( Originally Published 1923 )
PROGRESS in any department of musical art takes place along a path running over a series of alternate hills and valleys. Composers climb a hill until its summit is reached and then descend abruptly to climb another. In pure unaccompanied Choral Music, as we have seen, they had been toilsomely climbing for about a thousand years, and they now planted their flag on the first peak they had yet reached. But in Instrumental Music, until the end of this period, little progress had yet been made of which we can take account to-day. Instruments had been invented and improved, and simple music written for them, but it was all rather chaotic at a period when the Choral side of the art was already being reduced to good order.
Instruments of the Sixteenth Century
Amongst the instruments which had become popular were two played by means of a keyboard—the Organ and the Harpsichord. At first there had been some difficulty in finding suitable music for these, and there was a strong tendency to imitate the music written for voices. Similarly a family of bowed string instruments had grown up, the Viols, precursors of our own Violin family of to-day, and, here again, the music provided was often of a choral character, and so little was the distinction recognized between what can be done effectively by a body of choralists and what can be done effectively by a String Quartet that pieces were published with the easy-going inscription ` Apt for Voyces and Viols '.
First Attempts at a Keyboard Style
Gradually the idea gained ground that Choral style, String style, and Keyboard style were three different things, and it is now universally conceded that the last-named of these styles, the keyboard style, was very much the creation of the English performers who clustered around the courts of Elizabeth and James I—to the everlasting glory of those courts. It is little exaggeration to say that the technique of keyboard composition, as we find it in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin, Debussy and Ravel, has been gradually built up upon an English foundation—and we might even almost say a London foundation.
What the Virginals was like
Leaving the Organ aside, as still very undeveloped and of minor musical importance at this period, we may say that the instrument for which these composers wrote was the Harpsichord, in one of its earlier and simpler forms known as the Virginals. Its peculiarity as compared with the Pianoforte of to-day was that the strings were mechanically plucked instead of being mechanically hammered. This gave it a pleasant, silvery, tinkling quality of tone, but allowed it little range of force, and no power of gradually filling out to loudness, or gradually thinning down to softness. The technical problem before the composer was to discover the kinds of passage that could effectively be performed on such an instrument.
And so it would be easy to go on, compiling examples of passages from the Virginalists of this period which were strongly differentiated from the choral style of the time, and were, indeed, not merely truly instrumental in style but truly ` keyboard '.
Other keyboard pieces were based upon dance rhythms and forms, as, for example, the Pavans and Galliards, popular at the period, and the `Almans' and Jigs.
And Folk-Song Influences
And often the Virginals composer, instead of seeking inspiration in the choral style or the dance rhythm, turned to the popular song of the day and made that his foundation. When he did this he generally evolved an Air with Variations, and so out of a short already existing song tune compiled a long new keyboard piece. Here, as an example, is the opening of a popular tune to Shakespeare's O Mistress Mine', taken by Byrd as the theme for a set of variations, with, beneath it, the openings of several of these variations.
These extracts are all worth the trouble of a little careful study. What, in each case, has the composer done to his original theme ? Look into this carefully and then reflect upon the important influence this sort of writing must have had upon the composer's mind in training him to grasp the con-tent and possibilities of ` development' of a musical theme—whether one taken from some tune of the day or an original one, by himself.
Let us turn now to general considerations, and so review the subject from a slightly different point of view. Here is a group of talented musicians who can all play the Virginals admirably, and who all wish to please a Queen who also plays that instrument admirably, and to provide interesting practice for their many aristocratic pupils. How are they to go about it i' What shape shall their pieces take ?
I. Choral `shape' has already been worked out by them-selves and their predecessors, and so they write a certain number of keyboard pieces in this shape. In effect they are then writing voice-music for fingers, and though a certain amount of it is tolerable and even acceptable, something brighter is needed. But in adopting this style these composers, though they do not know it, are laying the foundations of the Bach keyboard fugue.
II. There are the Dance Tunes of the time. Some of these are slow and solemn, others are quick and lively. They have necessarily become codified, for dancing is bound to be carried on according to convention—a certain number of steps one way, a certain number the other way, so many forward, so many back, so many to the right, so many to the left, join hands here and loose them there. All this means exactly-. cut lengths of tune, of so many bars apiece, coming to a momentary point of repose at the end of each length.
All Galliards must be pretty much alike in rhythm and in phrasing or people will not be able to join in dancing a Galliard when one is struck up. And all Pavans and all Gigues must conform to their respective prescriptions. So these things all become set, and if a fiddler makes a new dance tune he makes it to a model already prepared for him by previous generations of dancers and of dance-tune writers. And the instrumental composer, basing his piece on a dance style, thus finds his `form' pretty well settled for him. Most likely his piece falls into two equal parts, with a repose or half-repose of some sort in the middle and a full repose at the end. Here, for instance, is an old dance and song tune alluded to by Shakespeare.
The influence of dance in leading composers to clearly arranged forms will now be readily seen, and, as a matter of fact, just as Choral Song, through the Fantasia, at this period pointed the way to be followed by Bach in the instrumental Fugue, so Dance, at the same period, pointed the way to be followed by Bach in the various separate pieces (or 'movements') which make up his Suites.
III. And as for the Variations of the period, they pointed the way to be followed by Bach in his great 'Goldberg' Variations, by Handel in his (so-called) ` Harmonious Black-smith', by Haydn in his F minor Piano Variations, by Beethoven in his Diabelli Variations, by Brahms in the finale of his Symphony in E minor, and by Elgar in his ' Enigma' Variations. All this is anticipating, but it is well, sometimes, in studying history to look forward as well as back.
And, still looking forward, we see the principle of the Variation applied in the `episodes' of Bach's fugues, where he has to fill in a few bars to join one section of the fugue
with another, and does so by taking a germ of some kind from a previous passage and developing it by various processes until it grows into a stretch of the required length of interesting material. We see it, too, in the middle portion of a Beethoven sonata-form movement, which is a `development' of the themes given out in the previous portion of the movement. And we see it in the Symphonic Poem, from Liszt to Strauss, and in the ever-changing treatment of the germ-themes, or ' Motives', in the later Wagner Music Dramas.
I reinforce this argument as to the importance of the invention of the Variation form by a quotation from Parry :
`The principle of variation has pervaded all musical art from its earliest days to its latest, and appears to be one of its most characteristic and interesting features. In its early stages it was chiefly a mechanical device, but as the true position of ideas in music has come more and more to be felt and understood, the more obvious has it become that they can be represented in different phases. Thus the interest of the development of instrumental movements in modern symphonies and sonatas is frequently enhanced by the way in which the subjects are varied when they are reintroduced according to the usual principles of structure ; in operas and similar works ever since Mozart's time characteristic features are made all the more appropriate by adapting them to different situations ; and it is even possible that after all its long history the Variation still affords one of the most favourable opportunities for the exercise of their genius by the composers of the future.'
A Final Thought
In thinking over this chapter and the previous one the reader will realize, I hope, that the first slopes of a mountain can be quite as full of interest as the summit. And, of course, the period 1550-1625 (roughly) is, at one and the same time, chorally a summit and instrumentally merely a lower slope.
To use another metaphor, the same set of men were putting the roof on one cathedral and laying the first courses of another. Other men, before their lives opened, had done the greater part of the work of the cathedral they finished, and other men, after their lives closed, were to do the greater part of the work of the cathedral they began. But they finished off the one beautifully, and began the other beautifully, and in looking at their two cathedrals we can feel equally grateful to them for their finishing touches and their foundations.
Do not imagine that because the keyboard music of the sixteenth century is primitive it is therefore uninteresting. Any one with eyes and imagination can get days of pleasure out of Giotto's ` primitive' wall paintings in the Madonna dell' Arena Chapel at Padua, and any one with ears and imagination can get pleasure out of the `primitive' piano music of, say, Giles Farnaby.