Friday, September 27, 2013

Ups and Downs - Beats

Today, after hearing a splendid singing of a Dunstable mass, I had a chat with one of the singers who is also a music theorist, on the subject of upbeats and downbeats.

It occurs to me that the problem comes in the training that we receive at an early age to experience these events solely in terms of body movement.  This means that it is wondrous difficult for someone so trained to emphasize an upbeat, especially when short, and de-emphasize the ensuing downbeat, especially if long.

The difficult is not the concept, but rather the physicality of the event.  Twice I have seen violinists incapable of playing an opening downbeat with an upbow, even when it was patently clear that this was the best way to articulate the phrase correctly, affecting also intonation.

One was a rigidly trained 12-year-old Russian student.  He couldn't even bring himself to try it.  He absolutely refused  The piece in question was a  Trio Sonata: by Telemann, who is notoriously inventive when it comes to rhythmic invention (though you might never guess that from the pedestrian performances to which the poor man's music is routinely subjected).

The other was an always-right-about-everything professional in his 40's, also Russian, who would not allow a student to begin a Schubert Sonatina in this way, even though she and I had worked it out,  mutually recognizing that it solved many problems.

So the problem is profound, bringing into question, as it does, solidity at all costs vs. a more interesting if also fragile sensibility.