On “What Makes a Baroque Cellist:” Foreign Languages, continued

Baroque Cello

In the previous segment of this blog post I began providing an attempt at an answer to “What Makes a Baroque Cellist.”  I ended with the assertion that what unites many of my favorite early-music practitioners – who in fact often enjoy active careers playing music from all eras, including our own – is a love for language.  I promised that this love is what helps define a “baroque” player, at least of the sort that I admire.  I’d like to illustrate how this is in the following.

There are volumes upon volumes written by brilliant women and men on the causes for the dawn of late-nineteenth century isms: Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, then Neoclassicism, Minimalism, etc.  When tonality had outlived its usefulness to some composers, they created new languages.  Their favorite performers had the benefit and privilege of having the composer teach them his or her new language.  Theorists (oftentimes the composers themselves) could write extensively on the new language in order to try to attune the public’s ear to it.  The creation of a new language was occurring quickly and before everyone’s eyes and ears, and by midcentury many spoke the new tongues and few were exempt from having to gain fluency in them.

I recently had the pleasure of coaching several terrific college students on some baroque music.  Armed with an already sure technique, they glided through even the most demanding passages.  But it wasn’t always right; they found that they were speaking a language with a heavy accent, perhaps with but a remedial understanding of its grammatical structure, and an unfamiliarity with its idioms and nuances.  After all, early music, too, is a language, and to these excellent players it was, nonetheless, a foreign language.  Of course they had played Bach and Vivaldi before, and their playing was certainly legible, much in the same way that I can read a language written in an alphabet I know.  By understanding a few basic rules of pronunciation, I may cause a native speaker to recognize that I am, indeed, reading this language.  He or she may even comprehend what I am reading.  But I won’t.  I will adjust my vocal mechanism to produce a sound as near as possible to what I know the language is supposed to sound like, and my understanding of grammar may even help me inflect my sentences this way or that. But the intentionality made apparent by speaking a language fluently, born of a native knowledge or one learned later on, can only be achieved by immersing oneself in the sounds, sensations – both aural and physical – inflections, idioms, dual-meanings, and if possible, the context, the environment, and the circumstance in which the language is commonly spoken.  This not only allows one to express one’s self in a foreign tongue, but also to live the spirit of the language, and therefore the spirit of the people who speak it natively.  As Bylsma told me, “I am one Anner when I speak English to you, another Anner when I speak French, and yet another when I speak German.” (Bylsma speaks and writes in four, possibly five, languages fluently.)

Speaking the language of early music transcends the instruments we use to play it. I absolutely encourage everyone to at least sample a baroque bow and gut strings, but the instrument as identifier of a “baroque” or “modern” player is becoming a relic of an earlier time.  The instrument is sort of like your accent; you can speak a foreign language with a hint of your native self, just as you can play in an informed manner on an instrument fitted with steel and plastic.  But you must know the language.  You have to know about rhythmic hierarchy, poetic scansion, rhetoric, dance structures, ornamental and embellishment possibilities, harmonic rhythm, affect, and many more things that were thought of, discussed, and performed by the best musicians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and let’s face it, the nineteenth as well.  The severing of the linguistic lineage of these musicians occurred much later than most of us realize, likely around the turn of the twentieth century, just when so many of those new languages were first being heard.  Forays into understanding the early music language anew were made en masse about fifty or sixty years later, and today it is spoken by musicians wielding instruments with all sorts of setups.  They do so not just because they want to, but also because the expectation that they should be able to is more fervent today than ever.  Audiences have caught on, and to many, hearing 18th century music played with heavy early-20th century mannerisms will not do.

J.S. Bach composed and compiled a lovely collection of pieces for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, starting around 1720.  He prefaced the work with a table explaining the correct performance of several ornaments.  In fact, this was a slightly abridged version of a table published by Jean-Henri d’Anglebert, that Bach had copied ten years earlier.  Even a great baroque composer like Bach understood the elements in his art which would be perceived as a foreign language, and sought to teach his son how to speak them.  I try to follow Bach’s example, and in so doing I find my best attempt at an answer to “What makes a baroque cellist?”  A baroque cellist – not a cellist with a baroque cello – speaks foreign languages, and strives to sense the spirit of those who spoke them natively.

That, dear reader, is the best I can do.  I think I will let the seminal question here rest a while.  But I think I should address some practical matters that I regularly encounter when playing period cello.  Next week, why don’t we reconvene and instead of thinking of “What Makes a Baroque Cellist,” let’s talk about “How to Play a Baroque Cello.”

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New England Conservatory Cellist Taeguk Mun Wins Pablo Casals International Cello Competition

Reprinted from Xinhuanet.com

Taeguk Mun

Taeguk Mun

BUDAPEST, Sept. 13 (Xinhua) — Twenty years old cellist Taeguk Mun of South Korea, winner of the Pablo Casals International Cello Competition was presented with his award in Budapest on Saturday as part of the 48th Budapest International Music Competition at the Hungarian Academy of Music.

The presentation was combined with a concert which included performances by Mun as well as second-place finishers Ildiko Szabo of Hungary and Tomasz Daroch of Poland, and third placed Santiago Canon-Valencia of Columbia.

Mun performed Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, op. 129. He was accompanied by the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Janos Kovacs.

Daroch played Chopin’s G-Minor Cello Sonata op. 65, with Maria Kovalszki on the piano, Szabo played Continue reading

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On “What Makes a Baroque Cellist:” Foreign Languages


Johann Zoffany (1733-1810).  The Gore Family (1775).  

I began answering “What makes a baroque cellist?” in a blog posted last year. Since that time, some memories of my not-so-distant youth have been prominent among the many thoughts that are conjured by the question. I first encountered what we now call historically-informed performance practice when I was about 14. I had only been playing the cello for a couple of years, but my first teacher gave me tapes (yes, tapes) of cello concerti by Vivaldi and Boccherini, performed on standard instruments, very early during my Continue reading

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Rambling About Tanglewood: Tales of a BSO survivor

Originally posted on 8/22/14 by Andrew L. Pincus for The Berkshire Eagle.


Courtesy Stu Rosner / BSO BSO cellist Jules Eskin

Courtesy Stu Rosner / BSO (RAMBLING22 / D1c)

LENOX — It’s been two times 50 for Jules Eskin this summer: the conclusion of 50 years as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist, coinciding with the conclusion of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ 50th anniversary season. That automatically identifies him as a founding member of the chamber ensemble.

He’s the only founding member still in it, in fact.

Eskin, 82, is a survivor. After five months out for cancer treatments, he came back to active duty at Tanglewood on July 6 to play one of his trademark solos, the big, lyrical one in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. He’s also back to doing his pull-ups and sit-ups and hikes up Lenox Mountain to the fire tower, he says.

He’s tough even when it comes to producing a beautiful Continue reading

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Going Up


Drawing by David Yu


The world is a ladder, which some go up and some go down.


–Gypsy Proverb


‘Think up along the spine’: five of the most important words in the Alexander Technique. It takes as much hard work, patience and humility to understand and live these words as it does to interpret great works of music, perhaps more, because thinking up along the spine means that every waking moment we can be conscious of ourselves, not only when we are making music.

For cellists, thinking up along the spine is going for the gold. So given its importance to us as players, what does this phrase tell us? Working backwards from the last word to the first, let’s see where it takes us. Continue reading

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A String Player’s Guide to the Ivory Ban

If you plan to travel abroad this summer, you may need a passport…
for your bow.


Horror stories have been circulating about the confiscation of string players’ bows at international borders due to the recent “ivory ban.” On Saturday, May 31st, seven bows belonging to members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra were seized at JFK Airport (these did not have proper documentation, and have since been released). More alarming – a bow owned by a double-bassist in the Bavarian Radio Orchestra has been held at JFK since the orchestra passed through in mid-May, as it was found to contain a piece of bone from Continue reading

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Reprint: Two Articles from The Violin Channel – Ivory Bows and US Customs

Below are two recent from The Violin Channel regarding traveling players’ issues with US Customs over bows containing ivory.


Trio Violinists Denied Access to Carry Violins On US Airways Flight [VIDEO]

Posted May 27, 2014 in NEWS

Violinists Zach de Pue and Nick Kendall, from the string trio Time for Three have today released a fly-on-the-wall YouTube video – after being stopped on the tarmac of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, by ill-informed US Airways crew members – claiming their violins were impermissible within the cabin.

En route to the Artosphere Arts and Nature Festival in Arkansas, the Captain asked both men to exit the plane and wait on the tarmac, so the frustrated musicians took to twitter and their phones:  Continue reading

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Power Is Energy, Unblocked and Properly Directed

The words of truth are always paradoxical.  –Lao Tzu

Paul Katz was here recently in London giving a workshop on the bow to the members of the London Cello Society and raised an interesting point about strength.  His Tai Ch’i teacher once said to him, “Hardness is Weakness, Softness is Strength: Hardness is Death, Softness is Life”  This remarkable saying inspires this article. Continue reading

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Hit or Miss

“Under the ordinary teaching methods, the pupil gets nineteen wrong to one right experience. It ought to be the other way round.”

–F.M. Alexander

A young instrumentalist aiming for a professional life onstage puts in a staggering number of practice hours during their formative years.I heard the director of our Conservatoire recently state the figure of 8 to 10 hours a day for the 18-24 year olds at undergraduate and graduate levels. Does he think that’s what’s happening in the practice room or wish that it were so? Continue reading

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Last summer I was once again a participant in the Marlboro Music Festival.  As always, the school generously provided my wife, Dorothea, and me with a house off campus.    This time we were given the former home of David Soyer, the cellist of our Guarneri String Quartet for thirty-seven of its forty-five-year existence.   Dave passed away in 2010, his wife, Janet, in 2011.

I knew Dave and Janet’s house rather well, a charming, rustic old place set in the woods, and I looked forward to staying in it.  When people asked me whether I wouldn’t feel funny living in their house now that they were gone, I laughed and said no at first without really thinking much about it.  But then I began to wonder whether Dave and Janet would in fact have liked us to be sleeping in their bed, breakfasting on their porch, or inviting friends over for coffee Continue reading

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