Now I See!


Geminiani’s Example I is an excellent, clear way to learn all the notes on the Baroque fingerboard. It contains a visual representation followed by the corresponding notes on the staff in seven positions. So easy to see! I gave this picture to some of my young students so they could actually see first position and they understood it right away. Note: the black notes in example “C” denote half steps, the white ones, whole steps.


“The Art of Playing on the Violin”: Example I.

The first example in Geminiani’s treatise is an illustration of the fingerboard with all the natural notes on it and the whole and half steps labeled. It is very clear and useful for teaching a beginner. There are three octaves plus one note and Geminiani says these are what are (…) in the compass of the instrument (…), unlike the four octaves we employ today. He suggests that the beginner have his violin actually marked in this same manner. As a violin instructor myself I find this very amusing because Leopoldo Mozart, in his 1756 early classical violin treatise has the opposite to say. It’s interesting to see how two obviously great instructors can disagree on pedagogical topics. Mozart says, “At this point I cannot but touch on the foolish system of teaching which is pursued by some when instructing their pupils; namely, that of affixing little labels with the letters written thereon, on the fingerboard of the pupil’s violin, and even of marking the place of each note on the side of the fingerboard with a deep incision or, at least, a notch. If the pupil has a good musical ear, one must not avail oneself of such an extravagance. If, however, he lacks this, he is useless for music and it were better he took a wood-axe than a violin in his hand.” (Leopoldo Mozart, “A Treatise on the Fundamental Principals of Violin Playing”, translated by Editha Knocker, Oxford University Press, 1985, 62) There is some truth to this, but I maintain that many people who may not be able to hear much of anything initially can train themselves to have a good musical ear with patience and clear, consistent instruction. For such people I believe some reference points are often very helpful at first. What is your opinion?


Where We’re Going From Here

So we know that Geminiani’s ideal and that of Baroque composers in general is to express in the most vivid ways the myriad of human emotions with the clarity found in the most perfect human voice. I now intend to take up my violin and go through Geminiani’s treatise and see how this can be done and what can be learned through practical experience matched with his explanations. I hope to gain from this knowledge of his manner of playing the instrument and so have a clearer understanding of Italian Baroque performance practice. Examples I – XII are scales and arpeggios etc. presented so the violinist can study the proper way to use both hands. Example XIII is a composition which requires the ornaments found in example XVIII. I invite you to take this journey with me.

Quote for the Day

“These extraordinary emotions are indeed most easily excited when accompanied with words; and I would besides advise, as well the composer as the performer, who is ambitious to inspire his audience, to be first inspired himself; which he cannot fail to be if he chooses a work of genius, if he makes himself thoroughly acquainted with all its beauties; and if while his imagination is warm and glowing he pours the same exalted spirit into his own performance.”

~Geminiani, “The Art of Playing on the Violin”, London 1751, 8.

The Birth of the Baroque Musical Language

Thinking a little deeper about this idea of speech and I realized that this connection was made very early on in the Italian Baroque. One of the earliest operas was “L’Euridice” by Jacopo Peri first performed in Florence in 1600. In the preface of the first edition published that same year, the composer says something so interesting and relevant to our discussion. He says, “(…) I knew likewise that in our speech some words are so intoned that harmony can be based upon them (…). And having in mind those inflections and accents that serve us in our grief, in our joy, and in similar states, I caused the bass to move in time to these, either more or less, following the passions, (…)”(for reference, see note preceding the article). This opera was written right at the birth of the Baroque era during a time when music was flourishing in Florence. Here we see the birth of the Baroque musical language, harmonies and melodies based on text and natural human feelings, even based directly on the inflections which we use to communicate our emotions. It is natural then that Geminiani’s music and the music of many other Italian Baroque composers would lend itself so readily to our imaginations once we make this connection of variations in sound, articulation, and phrasing based on speech and emotions.

Note: Jacopo Peri, “Euridice: An Opera in one Act, five Scenes”, Libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, Recent Researches in Music of the Baroque Era, Vols. XXXVI and XXXVII, edited by Howard Mayer Brown, Madison: A-R Editions, Inc, 1981, translation of Plate II.


Continuing the Conversation

This idea of music and speech is a very fascinating one. It opens the imagination to possibilities that go far beyond notes on a page. Geminiani’s treatise as a whole gives the musician what he or she needs in order to speak a Baroque language with variety in a manner consistent to the style in which his music was originally intended. There are many specific techniques for which one should go directly to the original document, but for our study I would like to continue the pursuit of this idea of a musical conversation.

Under example XVIII, Geminiani lays out, “(…) all the ornaments of expression, necessary to the playing in a good taste.” His explanation of these examples is particularly fascinating and we will no doubt revisit it. For today, here is his explanation of Forte and Piano: “They are both extremely necessary to express the intention of the melody; and as all good music should be composed in imitation of a discourse, these two ornaments are designed to produce the same effects that an orator does by raising and falling his voice.” In my opinion this quote expands the idea of Baroque dynamics from simple terraced volumes into the ever changing levels of sound to be found in good meaningful speech. Yes, in his compositions Geminiani marks forte and piano but infrequently, however to strictly adhere only to these markings would hardly bring about the effect which he so frequently and specifically makes reference to, namely the effect of musical conversation. We must conclude then that we as good human interpreters are encouraged to vary dynamic levels according to the melodic and harmonic construction of the music in order to bring out it’s emotional content. This leaves glorious room for the imagination.