The Doldrums

The great age of fighting sail is an odd interest for someone who grew up thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. But as a teen in South Dakota I chanced upon C. S. Forester’s “Captain Horatio Hornblower” in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume, and the time of “wooden ships and iron men” during the Napoleonic wars has fascinated me ever since. I’ve devoured an entire canon of cannons (and carronades): Forester, Alexander Kent, Dudley Pope, and many others. I have made four–four!–traversals of the twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels by the master of them all, Patrick O’Brian.

Each of these authors at some point in one of the books describes the woeful situation of a ship caught in the doldrums—those areas of low pressure near the equator where the wind and current die away. The sails hang loose and useless from the yards, their purpose reduced to providing some shade from the merciless tropical sun. The rudder won’t steer. The ship lies becalmed, surrounded by flat, oily water littered with the detritus of her crew.

There is only one recourse in this situation. The bosun sounds his call, the crew launches the ship’s boats, cables and hawsers are roused out and passed through the forward ports, and they begin to tow the ship. It’s backbreaking work in the heat, slow and painful, and the rough calloused hands of even the most veteran seamen crack and bleed on the oars. But they row on, until the ship at last finds that first fine hint of a breeze that will carry her onward.

In my journey with the Chaconne I have found the doldrums.

Gone are those heady first days when, with a fresh breeze at my back and a fine feather of a bow wave, I moved quickly through the first stages of learning the piece. Measures flew by, and I could look back in satisfaction at a long wake. It began to seem that my goal was just over the horizon, and a voyage I expected to last a year might be completed in just a few months.

Today that bow wave is a memory, and the long wake has vanished into the surrounding water with nary a ripple. I am becalmed. Playing through the first half of the piece that, just weeks ago, seemed so nearly in my grasp now reveals countless flaws and a lack of direction. The Chaconne, once a continent ripe for exploration, has now become an ungainly ship that has stopped moving toward her destination.

So what do I do? The only thing I can do. I launch my boats and rouse out my cables—a metronome, a pencil, my ears, my effort, my concentration. I apply my calloused fingers to the strings.

And I begin to row.

Interlude 4: First Master Class

On a spring day in 1977 I saw a flyer announcing a master class to be given by classical guitarist Demetrio Ballesteros at Moorhead State University. I didn’t know what a “master class” was, but since it was free and open to the public, I decided to go. I was entirely self-taught at that point and thought I might pick up some technical tips. As it turned out, I was more right than I could have known.

I’d been in Moorhead a couple of years, but this was the first time I went across town to the MSU campus. I arrived at the music building’s recital hall, guitar case in hand, well before the master class was supposed to start to guarantee myself a place in the front row. As the audience gradually filled the seats, it struck me as strange that no one else brought a guitar. Perhaps all of the students would arrive together? Maybe they were back stage? Or would the whole thing be more of a demonstration than a class?

A few minutes after 4 PM a man walked onto the stage and introduced himself as the chairman of the music department. He explained that Ballesteros’s visit to the school had been arranged by a member of the Spanish department and, since MSU had no guitar program, this was an exciting opportunity. Further, given Ballesteros’s limited English, he would speak through an interpreter. With that, he welcomed the guitarist to the stage.

Ballesteros was an imposing figure, with thick dark hair and a regal bearing. He sat with his guitar, adjusted his footstool, and played something that surely impressed me but I have since forgotten. After the applause a student brought out two additional chairs, and the translator joined Ballesteros on stage. He made a few welcoming remarks, duly translated, and then, peering into the audience, asked a question.

The translator said, “Very well. Who would like to play for maestro Ballesteros?”

There I sat in the front row, with a guitar case standing by my seat, my head swiveling back and forth, wondering who would step forward! But Ballesteros had already noticed me and, with a nod in my direction, said something to the translator.

“You, young man,” he said. “Would you come up and play?”

There is a wonderful kind of fearlessness that comes with ignorance. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but this wasn’t my first time with an audience. I’d spoken at debate tournaments, acted in plays, and even played the guitar in front of people before, so I didn’t hesitate. I opened my case, took out my guitar, grabbed my folding footstool, and took my place on stage in the empty chair. Both Ballesteros and the translator smiled, and the translator asked me to introduce myself and tell the audience what I would play. Easy enough, since I knew my name and had a total of one piece in my classical repertoire.

“My name is Chris Freitag, and I will play Romanza.” I took a deep breath and played.

After the applause died down, Ballesteros made a brief remark.

“Very nice,” said the translator.

Then Ballesteros made a much lengthier comment. The translator, who was not a guitarist, looked a little puzzled and asked Ballesteros a question. Ballesteros looked puzzled in turn. The translator turned to me and said, “Maestro Ballesteros wonders why you do not play the melody ah-poi-YAHN-doh?” (Only later did I learn the proper spelling: apuyando.)

Now it was my turn to look puzzled. “What is apuyando?” I asked.

More consultation with the translator, then Ballesteros held up his left hand in my direction, palm downward and fingers splayed out. He placed his right hand above it, and with his ring finger he stroked the middle finger of his left hand, allowing the tip of the ring finger to come to rest on the adjacent left-hand finger. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Understand?”

Ah. So, he wanted me to play the melody notes on the top string with my ring finger (which I was already doing), but to play “through” the string with the fingertip coming to rest on the second string. As I was to learn later, this “rest stroke” is a basic technique in classical guitar. It gives more weight and emphasis to a note than the “free stroke,” where the tip of the fingertip arcs above the adjacent string.

Here is the opening of Romanza played with a free stroke:

And here it is played with a rest stroke:

Rest stroke is not hard to do. Unless you are doing it for the first time, on a stage, in front of an audience.

A few uncomfortable moments followed for all of us. But finally, I found the flow of the thing and he asked me to play the piece again. It didn’t quite have the ease of my first version, but the melody now sang out much more distinctly over the accompaniment.

“Bravo,” said Ballesteros quietly after I finished, and the applause this second time was a little more heartfelt in recognition of my struggle. I nodded to the audience, thanked Ballesteros and the translator, and returned to my seat. Since I was the only player, that was the end of the class.

I played in many other master classes over the years, but never again would I enjoy the happy ignorance that got me through this first one. In future classes I would be an aspiring professional, with much more at stake. And now I fully understood just how exposed I could feel.

Some 40 years later I still play this little piece from time to time. Here is how it sounds today. I wonder what Ballesteros would say?

On the other other hand

In “On the other hand” we looked at some of the general principles of choosing fingerings for the right hand. In this post we’ll consider a specific example: a single measure from the Chaconne that requires thoughtful planning for the right hand.

Let’s begin by looking at the measure in question—60— from the violin score.

m60_urtext
Measure 60 from the violin version of the Chaconne. The slurs are also found in the autograph manuscript.

Here, for the first time in the piece, Bach’s writing for the solo violin implies a four-voice, polyphonic texture. If this were a passage from one of Bach’s chorales for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, it might look like this:

m60_satb
An SATB choral setting of measure 60 from the Chaconne

It’s the independence of the moving parts that makes this measure tricky for the right hand (and the left, for that matter).

Another thing to notice about the violin original is the placement of the slurs—the little curved lines that join pairs of notes. In music for violin, such a notation indicates that the slurred notes are taken in the same upward or downward stroke of the bow. The effect of this is to create a softer articulation of the second note: not dahdah but dahah.

Here is how this particular measure is handled by two of the eminent editions of the Chaconne for guitar: the versions by Andrès Segovia and Abel Carlevaro.

m60_segovia
Segovia’s version of measure 60

One of the first things to notice about Segovia’s version is that he adds an extra note; the low A on the first beat. Next, notice that Segovia also uses slurs in the same places that the violin version does (except for the final pair). And finally, notice how few RH fingerings Segovia provides for this complicated measure! However, what he does provide gives hints to what he likely intended the player to do:

m60_segovia_implied fingering
Segovia’s version with the implied fingerings written in.

This appears to violate one of the principles established in the previous post: note the repetition of fingers, for example. But the intervening slurs give enough time for each finger to get ready for the next pitch.

m60_carlevaro
Abel Carlevaro’s version of measure 60 from “Guitar Master Class – Chaconne by J. S. Bach

Carlevaro’s edition provides a lot more information to the guitarist than Segovia’s; in fact, his edition is called a “master class” and includes extensive commentary on performance and the technical aspects. Carlevaro does not add the extra bass note on the first beat; nor does he carry over the slurs from the violin version.. But the clever p-i-p-i alternation can make the sixteenth-notes sound smooth, and articulating all of the notes can help to bring out the counterpoint.

m60_cfj
My version of measure 60. Note the similarities and differences with the Carlevaro version above.

The version I arrived at owes a lot to Carlevaro, as you can see. The primary difference is how I treat the final 4 notes in the top voice, preferring a-m-a-m to his a-i-m-i. However, as with all of these editorial decisions about finger, this could change as I spend more and more time working on this section of the piece.

This is the last post that I will write about technical matters for some time. I’ve been doing more reading on the Chaconne itself and have found a few really interesting articles that have opened up some new insights into the music itself. I look forward to sharing those with you.