L’Esprit Baroque: Origins


Playing in an early music ensemble has been for me the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that grew and took shape over a period of many years. Looking back, I can identify many influences that served to shape me into the person that I have become, not the least of these being my supportive and generous parents, Art and Bettie Von Fange: my mom for her wealth of ideas and encouragement, and my dad for open-handedly funding my adventures into the world of music. I owe everything to them.

Growing up in the German Lutheran Church in the Midwest, I had an early exposure to the pipe organ, which is integral to the Lutheran style of worship. Sitting in the pew near the organist each week, I would watch his every move while my parents sang in the choir. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be an organist. I began playing the piano at age 6 with a teacher who encouraged me to play everything. My mother made sure that there was lots of music around, so I grew up sight-reading music in much the same way that one learns to read words in books. One day my teacher invited an oboe player to come to her home when I was having a lesson, and I was thrilled to be able to accompany her. This is my earliest memory of playing with another instrumentalist, and I was hooked! At 13 I started studying the organ, and it wasn’t long before I had my first church organ playing job. Accompanying became an important part of my experience, whether it was accompanying congregational singing in church, church choirs, or high school choral groups.

My first real encounter with “early music” happened in the mid-1970’s when I was an organ major at Valparaiso University in Northern Indiana. I had the good fortune to take a music history course taught by Dr. Newman Powell, a brilliant musicologist who trained at Stanford University, and who had a gift for breathing life into music that might otherwise have languished in the library stacks. The class was comprised entirely of music majors, so he was happy to hand out parts to singers and instrumentalists alike, organizing the students into small vocal and instrumental ensembles, teaching us how to conduct with a “tactus” and how to read early notation. Piano majors got to play recorders of all sizes, and we learned how to tune a harpsichord by listening for and counting “beats” (the fluctuation that sounds when two strings are not vibrating at the same frequency.) That was a revelation to me when I finally got the hang of it! Obviously, this was a very hands-on type of class. It also was my first exposure to Gregorian Chant, which I found endlessly fascinating and mysterious. Dr. Powell organized a “field trip” for the class to a large church in downtown Chicago, where we attended a concert by the New York Pro Musica. I remember sitting in the front row from which I heard for the very first time a countertenor; I didn’t know that men could even sing that high! That evening, I also heard the exotic sounds of crumhorns, recorders, sackbuts, a large range of viols, and drums. It was fabulous, and again, I was “hooked”! From that time, I started collecting recordings by early music ensembles.
After graduating with a performance degree in organ, I studied my instrument in France for two years (a long story for another time perhaps). During that period my understanding of performance practice underwent fundamental changes. The tracker (mechanical action) organs in Europe require a different approach in terms of technique, so I changed. I studied ornamentation as used in French classical music, and the correlation between voice and instruments in both treatise and practice. Our organ class at the Conservatoire de Toulouse collaborated in presenting concerts on organs in the region. There was also a memorable weekend workshop in which a farmhouse was converted into a conference center housing several harpsichords in different rooms for us to play, and a demonstration by a baroque flute player; I will never forget his warm and wonderful interpretation of “Le Rossignol en Amour” (The Nightingale in Love) by Couperin, which he played a cappella. I found the baroque flute to be completely enchanting, and ever after was on the lookout for a baroque flute player with whom to collaborate. My experience abroad included a steady diet of concerts of all kinds. This was the mid-1970’s when early music performance was on the rise in Europe with such well-known names as harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, and the Kuijken brothers.

On my return from France, I earned the master’s degree in organ performance at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and acquired a harpsichord along the way. My journey took me next to Norman, Oklahoma, where I played the organ and accompanied multiple choirs at a large neo-gothic United Methodist church. Shortly after my arrival, I met my husband-to-be, a life-changing event. That fall, he invited me to attend a Madrigal Dinner presented by the music department of the University of Oklahoma, where he was a professor of mathematics. We were delighted with the Renaissance program sung by an early music vocal ensemble with support from a band of early instruments. During my time in Norman, I also found kindred musical spirits and played a few small ensemble concerts with a flutist and a soprano, a couple of which took place in my home. In addition, I had the opportunity to play continuo for a performance of the Vivaldi “Gloria” at a nearby Episcopal church.

Fast forward thirty years. My husband’s career had landed us in Los Angeles not long after our marriage. We had five children, home schooled them all, saw them all through college, one through medical school, one through a 5-year PhD program (in mathematics, of course), and the youngest is currently halfway through his PhD program (also mathematics – it’s in their genes, I guess). Three of them are singers (2 sopranos, 1 bass), and I now have the joy of collaborating with my own young adult children making music! My beautiful and supportive mom passed away in June 2011, leaving me a go-buy-yourself-an-organ fund, which I did, another dream fulfilled. It is a lovely small tracker organ by Gene Bedient Co. (Nebraska). After its installation in 2012, the family determined that we wanted to organize our “first ever” home Christmas concert featuring the organ, singers, and instruments. I had acquired several musical friends during my tenure at a couple of area churches over the years, who are very proficient players, so our little band consisted of violin, recorders, cornetto, viola da gamba, and the organ, of course. As it has turned out, that “historic” concert was the first of many home concerts that have drawn a variety of people from our community into the world of early music in an intimate setting. Most have never experienced anything like it before, and all come away energized, with a new appreciation of live music and a realization that they have discovered a new tribe of friends.

In 2013, a friend recommended that we go hear a solo recital given by John Ott, a local viola da gamba player, so we went. It turned out to be a fortuitous evening. After the concert I asked if anyone, including the small audience of his friends, students, and fellow string players, would be interested in playing music with me. John was the only person who said, “I would!” That is how John Ott and I started playing together. Randomly along the way I learned that I shared a birthday with C.P.E. Bach, and that March 8, 2014 marked the 300th anniversary of his birth. It seemed eminently appropriate to take some of his music on an outing on that day, so we put together a program and played it in a home concert; I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday! It wasn’t long before John introduced me to his friend and colleague Sarah Vay Kerns, who had recently been given a copy of a renaissance flute made in Germany in the 1960’s. We started playing together with her as well. After a time, she took her flute in for repairs and was given a baroque flute (1795 Potter flute) as a “loaner”. It’s a remarkable story how that flute eventually became hers. When it did, one of my first requests was, “Le Rossignol en Amour” by Couperin. At last.

In the recent past, John took time out to earn a master’s degree in historical performance on the viola da gamba at the Longy School in Boston, Mass. After two years, he returned to Southern California with his degree, and a girlfriend in tow, the lovely and brilliant violinist Sylvia Schwartz, whom he met at Longy. It has been such a joy to collaborate with these wonderful young musicians. Our daughter Elysha has been with me on this from the start, ready to sing anything, anywhere, any time. It is amazing to see our ensemble work together both as friends and colleagues, and most of all, to be a part of it. We have put together and presented many exciting concerts to date, encompassing a wide range of vocal and instrumental music, and organized around a variety of themes. Many of our concerts have showcased the talents of family members and friends as well.

We are focused on getting the music out there, out into Orange County and beyond. Last summer we performed for the first time as a fringe concert to the Berkeley Early Music Festival. Next summer we look to play a fringe concert as part of the Boston Early Music Festival.

Recognition is due to Paul, my husband (and also an avid violinist and violist), for coming up with our name, L’Esprit Baroque (Spirit of the Baroque), which captures perfectly what we are all about.

At this point and with a grateful heart, all I can add is, “Vive la musique!”

—Janice Massatt

Cello or Gamba?

John cello gamba Eli's

Hello and welcome to our blog! My name is John Ott, and I am the cellist and viola da gambist in L’Esprit Baroque. I love this music and all the history behind it. Researching all the composers and performers and publishers of this era, and the nobility they served, is fascinating to me. I write a lot of the program notes, and lately have been introducing the pieces we play in our live concerts.

One subject that is interesting and relevant to me is how to select which instrument I should use (if any) to play bowed bass continuo for my group. Since the Baroque style features a prominent basso continuo line, Janice and I are almost always playing every piece in the concert. For each piece I have to ask, do I use cello or gamba? Is it even appropriate for me to be playing on a piece? Many people have different opinions on this, but I will tell you what I do.

For Italian Baroque music, particularly after 1680, I pretty much always use the cello. The viola da gamba had gone out of fashion as a continuo instrument, and was only used in consort to create a particular sound. For earlier Italian music, I sometimes choose the instrument which most closely approximates the range of the piece (viola da gamba can play higher, but sounds less clear down low). Often the music is written in such a way that no bowed bass is necessary, especially if the keyboard part is played on an organ. In that case the instrument I should really be playing would be a theorbo (a large, bass lute), but I neither own one nor know how to play it well.

For French Baroque music, I almost always will be playing the viola da gamba. The French were in love with the viol both as a continuo instrument and as a solo instrument. (Frequently there are a few bars of solo written here and there in the continuo part, to keep the viol player entertained.) The cello didn’t really get a foothold in France until the 1730’s or so. However, there are a few cases where I would select a cello over a viol for late French music, notably that of Boismortier or Corrette, or of course playing a continuo line to a cello sonata. Even then, most of the parts are written for “viol or violoncello,” meaning that one can play them with either.

For English Baroque music, it completely depends on the time. The English were fickle, and gravitated toward whoever happened to be in London at the time. Before the Interregnum, the viol was the most prized instrument in the nation. However, since Oliver Cromwell all but banished music (and most of the composers were Royalists anyway), the English composers fled to continental Europe, where they became exposed to French and Italian Baroque music. When they returned after the monarchy was restored, they brought with them more modern styles of music and instruments, in particular the violin family. So viols played with viols in older styles, and cellos played with violins in the more modern music. Soon after, a large number of Italian musicians, including cellists, emigrated to London and made careers there. So by the time Handel arrived, the cello was the bass instrument of choice. However, a generation later, the great viol player Karl Friedrich Abel arrived with his friend Johann Christian Bach, and created another wave of fascination with the viol. Frequently, with English music, I have to look at when and where the music was performed, and often who it was performed by. (Most of that information is available, as every concert had reviewers writing about it.)

For German/Austrian music (and really for the rest of continental Europe), the cello and viol existed as roughly equal contemporaries, though cellists gradually became more common than viol players toward the middle of the 18th century. So I have to look for some clues.

When the instrument plays high, does it read alto or tenor clef? Though a lot of music used moveable C clefs, by the turn of the 18th century it became standard for cellists to read tenor and violists da gamba to read alto, and not vice versa. (It is amazing, I can read both fluently, but alto is difficult on cello and tenor is almost impossible on gamba. I don’t know why. They’re just one line apart.)

Does the instrument have prominent low C’s? Though a 7-string viol can play C’s, B’s and even A’s, the 7-string model was less common outside of France. Most music intended for viol only went down to D, the lowest string on the more common 6-string model. Low C on cello, however, is the bottom string, and is easy to play.

Who was playing it? Much of this music was composed for the courts of the various nobility, and therefore performed by the musicians of the court. Frederick II (the Great), for example, employed the great viol virtuoso Ludwig Christian Hesse. His successor Frederick William II himself played cello, and had the famous cellist Jean-Louis Duport at court. Knowing that information gives me a big clue.

What other instruments are playing? Viol pairs well with flute, cello pairs well with violin. I didn’t make this up, it’s in all the treatises.

Does the music sound more Italianate? Italian bass lines frequently feature quick octave jumps and other large leaps from the top to the bottom of the instrument, in a way that one of my Longy professors described as “boppy.” That style is certainly possible on gamba, though it sometimes takes careful aim between strings, but it is as easy as falling off a log on cello. I suspect that this style of writing is really what caused the cello to replace the viol as the primary bass string instrument by the end of the Baroque.

Those are among the criteria I use to select which instrument I play. My aim is to create an authentic interpretation of this piece so you can experience this music the way it was intended by the composer.

—John Ott

More about John, including information about online lessons, at johnottcello.com