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Affekt: the foundational pillar in eighteenth-century music

How does one capture the Classical style sound aesthetic when approaching performance of eighteenth-century repertoire on the modern piano? Although it is important to know of the period instruments and their associated physical sound qualities, knowing how period musicians approached their art emotionally and intellectually provides even deeper insight into discovering how to recreate the sound aesthetic. And in doing so, we turn to affekt, probably the single most influencial factor upon which the eighteenth century musical experience is built. Every esteemed treatise from the eighteenth century impresses upon the reader the immense importance of understanding the influence of affekt on playing. Whether it was Leopold Mozart in his Violinschule, Türk in his Klavierschule, Kirnberger in his The Art of Strict Musical Composition, or Quantz in his On Playing the Flute, affekt is at the crux of this music-making matter.

Affekt, the ability of music to stir emotions, was described in a variety of ways, including character, affections, expression, affect, and emotion. It was achieved through attention to detail and proper execution — and done in good taste, which implies a deep understanding of proper practices of the time. All manner of composition and performing, from formal structure down to phrasing and execution of individual notes had the understanding of affekt at its foundation. Nearly every notational and performance decision was based on affekt: note values, dynamics, articulation, etc.

“Whoever performs a composition so that its inherent affect (character) is expressed (made perceptible) to the utmost even in every single passage, and that the tones become, so to speak, a language of feelings, of him one says that he has a good execution. Good execution, therefore, is the most important, yet at the same time the most difficult aspect of music making.”
—Daniel Gottlob Türk, Klavierschule (1789). Translated by Raymond H. Haggh. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press (1982), 321.

Looking to specifics in eighteenth-century practice, meter decisions have a strong influence on affekt. Baroque dances and their varying affekt are expressed through the intentional use of specific meters. The time signature alone also describes the weight of a piece: a two in the denominator indicates a heavier weight or execution, a four in the denominator calls for a lighter weight, and an eight in the denominator indicates an execution that is lighter yet. A textbook example of this concept is found in Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36, no. 1 by Muzio Clementi.

Likewise, specific note values project affekt. A passage primarily containing half notes is associated with a heavier sound and affekt, a quarter note passage is lighter, and a passage full of eighth notes is lighter yet. This is also evidenced in the Clementi Sonatina.

The chosen key center of each composition is particularly married to an associated affekt. Furthermore, the tuning system (mean tone tuning) of the period makes the affekt of a given key even more marked. Three varying examples from eighteenth-century repertoire bear witness to and support this idea.

Understanding the intentionality of eighteenth-century composers’ choices allows the modern pianist the opportunity to develop a new perspective regarding Classical Era repertoire. Look at a new piece of music from the Classical Era (to avoid pre-conceived notions). Using eighteenth century conceptual understanding, experiment with various approaches to incorporate the elements into the fabric of the piece with an end goal of expressing affekt.

  • Analyze the form of the piece. What is the musical concept? Is this a minuet, a waltz, or a march?
  • Examine the meter. Based on the time signature should the piece be heavy and majestic or light and frivolous?
  • Examine the chosen note values to determine the described affekt.
  • Determine the key centers in the piece. What affekt clue is the composer providing from these key centers?
  • Much of eighteenth-century scoring leaves room for individual input that allows for changes or variations in articulation, rhythmic and dynamic grouping, pedaling, textural balance, and use of agogics to create the desired affekt. Use of Urtext editions is crucial to achieve this goal.

Conceptual elements come first. It may seem easier to focus on physical execution details such as note values, articulation, and ornaments but the over-riding point (affekt) may be entirely missed. When time is taken to work through concepts first, it will pay handsomely in terms of overall practice efficiency and historically-informed outcomes. The reward will be understanding and executing the gestalt of eighteenth century performance practice: affekt and good taste.

Image credit: “Beethoven Sympony No.5” by Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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  1. […] is happening? are the most important ideas and moments in the piece perceptible? – second on the character of the piece; and third on the taste of the performer. This is a highly subjective process, involving large […]

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