Spreading Chords in the Baroque Period
Introduction (with special reference to the music of JS Bach)
There seems to be some confusion about managing spreads in Baroque music, probably because the way we read a printed score nowadays is rather different from the way a 17th or 18th century musician would have understood things. From Beethoven onwards, many more of the performance choices were removed from the player and indicated precisely in the score by the composer. In the Baroque, there were certain conventions that, unless we have made a special study, might confuse us or pass us by completely. Some of the issues involved relate to way the music was realised on the instruments that were in use (specifically the harpsichord and clavichord), other issues to the way notation was understood by players of the period. However, I am not going to venture too far into the domain of the harpsichordist, as this article is aimed at pianists who might not always be sure how to approach chords in Baroque music and who therefore need a few pointers and a little background information.
Harpsichordists in the Baroque Period inherited the tradition of arpeggiating chords from lute players. It was such common practice for harpsichord players to arpeggiate chords that composers did not always find it necessary to notate this. The variety of different types of arpeggiation would have been impossible to notate precisely anyway. In the preface to his first book of Toccatas (1614-5), Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) instructs the player to arpeggiate chords so as “not to leave the instrument empty”. Frescobaldi’s student, Johann Froberger (1616-1667) inherited his teacher’s style (known as stylus fantasticus) so that a chord written as a solid chord in a toccata or fantasia-style piece would have been played arpeggiated. We can get a fair idea of the style of arpeggiation from the Prélude à L’imitation de Mr. Froberger of Louis Couperin (1626-1661). This is an example of an unmeasured prelude where all notes are written in semibreves (whole notes) throughout, leaving the choice of rhythm to the player.
Here is the first chord from Froberger’s Toccata No. 1 in A Minor:
Here is Louis Couperin’s treatment of it in his Prélude à L’imitation de Mr. Froberger. We notice a more or less immediate ascent through the notes of the chord from bottom to top, followed by a gradual descent featuring upward and downward meanderings. Two neighbouring tones (the B and the G#) are included in the arpeggiation for spice.
On the harpsichord, breaking a chord softens its accent by masking the attack of all the quills plucking the strings at precisely the same moment. Breaking slowly softens the sound; breaking fast (ripping) increases the accent. Playing all the notes of a chord together produces a very strong accent. Harpsichord players tend to do this only when they want a strident, percussive effect. Here is an example, from Domenico Scarlatti’s (1685-1757) Sonata in G, K105, where arpeggiating the chords would weaken their rhythmic drive. I would play the LH chords with all notes sounding together.