Edward McCue (EM) You’ve been complimented on your expressive playing on the Baroque violin. Where did this affinity for period instruments originate?
Zachary Carrettin (ZC) When I was a freshman at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, I became a private student of violinist Kenneth Goldsmith. We immediately began working on the Mozart violin concertos, and when I was sixteen, I bought a Baroque bow primarily for work on solo Bach and Corelli trio sonatas. By the time I was seventeen, Mr. Goldsmith had put a Baroque violin with pure gut strings in my hands, and so I began working on the original equipment, as well as original manuscripts, before I entered college. As a Rice University undergraduate, I pursued further studies in Holland and Belgium and began to work professionally on historical instruments, so I would say that period instruments have been integrated into my training as a violinist, not something outside of learning violin technique and violin style.
EM So what do you look for in a historical instrument?
ZC This is a big issue for me as I believe that a historical instrument’s setup should achieve the most honest, pure, beautiful sound that fully expresses the harmonic series. Often times violinists will convert their instruments into what they believe to be an eighteenth century setup, and they lose all of the great qualities of the instrument. Success depends on who is doing the work and what they are using for the model for the work on the instrument.
I do play an instrument with a retrofitted Baroque neck, but it was a careful operation, and the instrument retains an enormous amount of resonance. If the ring had been lost, there would really be nothing authentic about the resulting sound.
EM I often hear musicians discussing specific bowing techniques required to play the Baroque violin in an authentic manner, but isn’t an understanding of style and repertoire at least as important as the equipment and technique?
Francesco Saverio Geminiani (1687-1762)
ZC Certainly, and that repertoire becomes so much more interesting the further that you go into it. Eventually you begin to understand things that are in the music but are not notated on the page. To do this, one needs to look at harpsichord music, and virginal music, and organ music, and lute manuscripts as all of these things inform the practice of playing the violin for seventeenth and eighteenth century repertory.
After working with so many teachers and musicians I now realize that there are many viable technical and stylistic approaches to playing Baroque music. Today’s diversity of approaches really reflects the diversity that existed in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries because, in addition to the national styles of composing and playing in France and Italy, there were regional styles. Even within a given city you might have found a violinist who lived three city blocks away from an equally important violinist, and yet the two of them agreed on nothing.
This kind of diversity of approaches led to a warning from Leopold Mozart that “one should not vibrate on every note” as opposed to Geminiani’s recommendation that “since the shake makes the tone more agreeable, it should be used as often as possible.” Clearly, each heard someone else doing something he didn’t like, so I think that treatises are often reacting against things that a particular musician didn’t favor.
And I have worked with people who favored the lower part of the bow and people who favored the upper part of the bow and some who liked to play open strings as often as possible without using the fingers and others who try to avoid the open strings as often as possible. In fact, there is documentation supporting all of these practices.
This diversity makes it difficult to implement a concept called HIPP: Historically Informed Performance Practice. I think this diversity is reconciled by applying RAP: Real Authentic Practice.
For me there are three concepts to Real Authentic, early eighteenth century, Practice. Those three concepts are: everybody composed, everybody improvised, and everybody played more than one instrument. That pretty much goes without exception. Singers played several instruments. Composers sang and played several instruments, and concertmasters played several instruments, sang, improvised and composed.
My point being is that we should be constantly expanding the tools of expression that we have at our disposal. To this end, the first ten years of playing Baroque string instruments might be devoted to reading documents, playing original instruments and learning a variety of practices, and then the next ten years might be committed to merging all of those ideas by pursuing Real Authentic Practice. My hope for everyone involved in historical performance is that we will eventually embrace all of the equipment and documents as colors on a palette for our expressivity, rather than limiting ourselves to any single approach that we perceive to be “authentic.”
EM How have you integrated singing into your playing?
ZC Your question makes me think back to when I was fifteen or sixteen. My mentor, Ken Goldsmith, gave me a stack of LP records of the great singers of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s and said, “You know, if you want to learn how to play the violin, you must listen to the great singers.” Ferruccio Tagliavini is still my favorite tenor, and I think that what Mr. Goldsmith said is true for all of us instrumentalists.
We learn from what’s natural to the voice, and the color, the sonority that a choir achieves, should be our ideal as instrumentalists. We should always be going for that, yet, strangely, many of us forget that along the way. We get caught up with the equipment, with notions of authentic performance practice, with documents, with the different functions of a violin, and a cello and an organ, and often we stray too far away from the true nature of the sound.
Fortunately, Rick Erickson and I agree on so many things. For example, we agree on the inherent vocal nature of bowed instruments and wind instruments, and we want to find what is most natural. We don’t want to limit ourselves with our concepts of what may have been done in a particular choir or orchestra in a particular city in the year 1715, but rather, the more we read, the more ideas we have, the more we compose, the more we improvise, the more we explore, the more we try things on different instruments, the more we can bring to our audiences.
I think that, here in Boulder in the early twenty-first century, our audiences and we are in a particularly fantastic place. We have an enormous number of manuscripts and documents at our disposal. We have recordings, we have traditions of playing early music. We have teachers and musicians and colleagues with whom we can exchange ideas. So we actually have more possibilities than they may have had, say, in Dresden in 1715 or Venice in 1730.
When we combine our own imaginations and our own experiences with playing and hearing this music, the sky is the limit. That’s not say that we can do everything better than they did in Bach’s time. I don’t believe that’s possible, for a number of reasons, but whatever we do, we can do it beautifully, and we can do it in our own way.