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Baroque period




About the Author


In my life I may have indeed appeared to follow a somewhat tortuous route, but every change of direction was nevertheless dictated by the desire to sail closest to the wind, in the direction of the goals that I'd fixed for myself from the outset: the Arts and particularly Music.

So, my studies started at Rouen where I was born, continued at Bruxelles in that great Belgian violin school where I wanted to immerse myself, and, as soon as my diplomas were obtained (at that time, I still believed they were important!), the occasion having presented itself, I left for South Africa where I played a few years in an orchestra. There, besides learning some stock repertoire, as well symphonies, ballets, and operas, and since working in an orchestra was rather less demanding than chamber music, I intended to take stock of what I already had really learned and how to apply it.

That's when I realized that I knew nothing!... oh, quite enough to be playing in a group of 15 other first violins, but that was certainly not enough, and far from playing a sonata in concert, which was my goal. I then used the next two years, starting from nothing (I mean forgetting everything I "knew", raising and slowly bringing down a single finger at a time on a string, but doing it the correct way: with the greatest efficiency and precision, but with the least effort and force).

It required two years to reconstruct, not everything surely, but let us say, the basic unavoidables. I still remember the time when, already well advanced in my quest, I was putting some order in the way to move my hand up and down along the violin neck (what one calls shifts), and doing it without stiffness, using the mass of the arm and of the hand, thus following the natural laws of kinetics, which is to say the science of mass in motion.

At that time, every evening (I well remember!), we were playing Carmen... and happily there where 15 other violins playing the same notes as me, because, in that early stage, my attention was more on the shifts and doing them with suppleness exaggerated to the maximum (which certainly didn't contribute much to the music), than on music and expression... poor Bizet. One of the rare times where I didn't invest myself at a concert to the limit of my power... but the ultimate goal was certainly of more value.

I then received a proposal for a post in South West Africa (Namibia today), where, besides 10 hours of teaching per week, the remaining time was ordinarily 15 hours of string trio rehearsal, leading to concerts. Well, I thought this was something like a dream! of course I accepted, and stayed there a few years.

Then, at the moment when I already was considering a return to Europe, I received a new proposal for a post in France, as first soloist in a chamber music ensemble subsidized by the State, and where the music played was ALL the chamber music: from solo sonata to the nonet or even more, and without forgetting trios, quartets, quintets with or without piano, with winds, or harp, etc. and with a rough estimation of 80 to 120 concerts per year. I of course jumped over to the continent!

Well, good things often come to an end, and, a few years later, after a change of ministry (in fact also of government), someone there, realized that we were doing "only" chamber music. That "only" was even written in full in one of the letters sent to us by some inspectors from the “culture” ministry (even adding that we should be careful not to fall into the "trap" of chamber music)... As a first reaction, and as a first step, we only sent back those letters to where they came from, not without first correcting the misspellings with a red pencil, and giving a grade at the bottom of the page...

"We only subsidize symphonic music" claimed the ministry. Most evidently, with 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello and a double-bass, plus 5 winds, piano, harp, guitar and percussion, and even if we had wished to, it would have been rather difficult to play some symphony. It is typical that they only realized that after we had been in existence for more than 10 years, and it is really regrettable that, among those in charge of administrating culture, the arts in general and particularly music, there wouldn't be at least one person who knew some of its basic elements!

In short, after some years of conflict, the ensemble transformed into an orchestra, and I stayed there several years as a soloist until they found someone to replace me...

Since 1968, I had started, in tandem with my other work, to concern myself with a problem which would in the next few decades transform the vision I had of music from the past.

A few years earlier, a friend of mine, (we both were then students of the same teacher at the Bruxelles conservatory, and in fact we both got our final diploma, in 1964), said, one day when he was in my studio, that an old book that he was then reading, gave him new insight on the way the music was played in the Baroque Period and that all or most of it was in contradiction with almost everything we were learning and everything we were hearing at the time. That was a book (better known today) published in 1751, by a musician who also had been the flute teacher of Frederick II from Prussia. His name was Quantz.

He also mentioned an edition of the Bach sonatas for solo violin published in 1952 by Champeil. Champeil was one of the six winners at the Queen Elisabeth competition, (Oïstrakh arrived first), who, basing himself on that book, but on many others too, explained the way one should play those sonatas. All of that certainly fell into a very interested ear, but my preoccupations by then were elsewhere.

When a few years later I decided to play some of those sonatas, very naturally, that conversation came back to me, and I decided to get those two books first. And this was the beginning of a long search. I was unaware of the fact that many musicians in Europe were doing the same and I was surprised, on returning in 1976, to see that not only was I not alone, but that the phenomenon was already well installed, particularly in Austria, in Holland, in England, and also in Belgium, the homeland of my friend (become now one of the heralds of a return to the truth), except in France, which is always very sensitive to cold when it concerns changes operated on centuries old habits.

My research, brought me soon (1978), to ask myself some questions concerning Mozart’s music, and other things confirmed me in that new direction. For instance that family painting where the whole Mozart family is to be seen: Wolferl and his sis at the cembalo, ma-Mozart hooked inside a frame on the wall, and Pa-Leo in the front-center, holding a Baroque violin and a bow from the same metal!... Evidently dad did teach all he knew to his prodigious kids... and that one, then maybe 12 years old, when playing the violin (that he did very well) was most certainly playing also on that type of instrument...

In fact, it is an historical truth : it's only around 1800 that artisans started to do to most violins (Amati, Stradivarius, Guarnerius...) what the French revolution did to the nobles and, kings, I mean they cut their necks, but for violins, they then stuck longer necks, when doing just the opposite for cellos (sticking on a shorter neck)...

Then, it became just as evident to me that Mozart when playing the violin, was doing it the old way in moving the bow and producing sound... Nothing in fact sounds more silly than a Baroque fiddle played in a modern way (oh yeah certainly!)

There is actually about it, that rather disappointed remark from Eugène Ysaÿe (around 1885), who had been authorized to play on Paganini’s violin, and who wrote that it didn't sound anymore... he thought that was due to its age or having been played too much... Most evidently, if he had had time to play longer on it, he would certainly have found the proper way to make it sound, that is: employing more bow speed than pressure. That's one of the biggest differences between baroque and modern instruments... I add that, as I was able later to verify, this violin was (and is) STILL in the original Baroque condition (except for a longer fingerboard) with a shorter neck... Paganini had huge hands, permitting him to do great extensions, but, added to that, his violin, was a half centimeter shorter!... no wonder!... but that also is typical...

Very naturally, when in 1980 I played the 10 Beethoven sonatas in a series of 3 concerts, it was with the idea : « here at least, everything is clear, everyone knows how to play Beethoven! and I wont have to ask myself any questions... » But, as did my grand-ma say: one must be careful of the « everybody-knows »... So, having to play a trill, a question occurred: in this phrase, so close after all to the style of Haydn or Mozart, should we do them in the way of those composers or like today ?... and then, this question brought another, and I found myself having to do as much search for Beethoven as for Bach and Mozart... and, truly, in spite of what I first believed, many things had changed in the course of time... (the trills yes, sure, but also the way to conduct the sound, to shape a phrase, the speeds of playing, particularly for the slow movements, the use of vibrato...), of course, one doesn't play Beethoven like Haydn or Mozart, but in the same way, one doesn't play those like Bach or Rameau, nor even like Vivaldi... I decided then to precede those concerts with a little talk or conference... well, I mean in the way that I could envisage such a thing... rather cool!... I noted anyway all those remarks in two of my theoretical works, one (Le violon à tort et en travers) more concerned about the practical aspects of playing the violin (but, like in the past centuries, I do include in that term all the violins, hurdy-gurdys, rebecs, viols, cellos), and the other book, more concerned with the theoretical aspect of music, but with a back view of history (La théorie musicale démystifiée). Both are at the moment only in French, but I envisage translating them one day.

I didn't mention, talking about this second work (what one calls musicology when wanting to gain altitude, but what should be an integral part of the preliminary work for any true musician preparing a concert), that it was completed by a research on old instrument making and adjusting… Having always been interested in the making of instruments, and having often had the occasion to observe in Rouen, on my way going to school, an old violin maker working in front of his window... and even later, to enter often enough to talk to him and look closer on what he was doing and how... and also since I always liked wood and working with it, when I was in Africa (and particularly in south west Africa, the only violin-maker being about 2000 km away at Johannesburg), it was me that people came to ask for adjusting or repairing their violins or cellos... All the pupils and teachers from the conservatory, but also all the amateur musicians... And, since it was an ancient German colony, music was really flourishing, and musicians were numerous, including a few amateur string quartets. That was Windhoek, the capital, a small town, but very actively musical, and, at few hundred of kilometers from there, the closest town, just across a desert, on the sea, Swakopmund, was even a smaller town, but it was just as musically active.

So, evidently, when starting to ask myself questions about old music styles, I also did some experimenting on old instruments, and even modified some of mine in the different states of evolution since the Renaissance... More recently, in France, I even reconstructed some of them when the originals didn't exist anymore... finding here a detail, there a form, reading a lot, and looking carefully at paintings of past centuries showing musicians and their instruments.

For instance, a rebec after some saints statues in a cathedral, and a big five string bass viol (rather a double-bass viol), after that great painting from Veronese at the Louvre (the wedding at Cana)... and also a big bowed hurdy-gurdy from the 14th century, after some drafts. All things which looked to me necessary to retrieve the sound that one could hear at different periods of music, but without specializing myself on one period in particular, because I do believe that everything has to be considered as an evolution: obtaining a new aptitude or quality, being often made at the detriment of another aptitude or quality, abandoned or lost, being by then judged less important...

All of that was highly and doubly instructive: for the instruments, their form, their apparent adjustments, but also the way to hold them, which means the way to play them, having as principle that one painter could be accused of fantasy or inaccuracy… but when all painters seem to agree, that's another story.

For the pleasure of it, those researches could be said to have brought me, even if slightly, out of the purely musical domain (but I think differently on that matter: everything that touches the sound touches the music)... since I applied my interest to the way one should pronounce the French of the different periods, and of course, according also to the different regions. Evidently, it is not purely music, but it has to do with sounds, with their tone color, and also with their intonation, I mean the pitch of the sounds. If a singer sings a cantata from Clérambault, if he pronounces the words like today, or with the old pronunciation, the difference is at least as big as playing a violin sonata with an oboe, or to sing Carmen in English (that, I've heard) or in Italian.

I myself enjoyed (yes really) in the course of a concert where I played a lot of French music for violin recorder and cembalo, to give some fables from la Fontaine pronounced the old way, and also using the poetic declamatory intonation. And at an other time, a whole program of poems from Ronsard, Marot and others, accompanied or alternating with some music from that period. The poems were read of course, with the accent from the Renaissance... and it gives to them a richer side, more tasteful, close in this but in another order, to the old recipes of the Renaissance gastronomy, rich in perfumes from the Orient: "Gaudebillaux", "Galimafrées", and other "Frigousses" (sort of stews, with mixtures of goose, chicken and pigeon cooked in wine or beer with some vegetables, garlic, onion, cardamom, mustard seeds, chestnuts...)

So, for all that introduction, I am sorry to have talked so much about myself... but after all, I think that to have the desire to read some of my books, especially theoretical ones, or to play some of my compositions, it couldn't be unnecessary to first have an idea of what sort of a route was followed by their author... In addition, since many of the pieces from those pages are pieces that I have recorded in concert, you'll be able to decide if what I have to say is of any interest to you... So, have a good promenade, and I hope to see you back again soon to enjoy it (if such is the case), because that site is all new, and I'm planning to add quite a lot still from time to time, and so, if you appreciated it, you should look in here from time to time for newly arrived material (at the reception page there is a link for “newly added" stuff with the dates of its addition).




Construction of instruments

Jean-Claude Féret


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About the Author