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Conjuring 18th-century affekt with Alberti bass on the modern piano

Affekt (the ability of music to stir emotions) is the foundational pillar for eighteenth-century style. 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. Nearly every notational and performance decision was based on affekt—everything from formal structure to note values, dynamics to articulation, and accompaniment patterns such as Alberti bass.

Expressing affekt begins with clearly understanding and conveying the structural or formal foundation and harmonic function. It is upon this that all other elements are laid. Just like the beauty of the Washington National Cathedral is built on solid footings, pilings, and framework, eighteenth-century music finds itself grounded on thoroughbass. C. P. E. Bach devotes a full twenty-five percent of his Versuch to this fundamental component. But it’s not just the harmony, it’s how the harmonic structure drives expression. And with this knowledge interpretive and expressive answers are laid at our feet. Consequently, how to execute expressive embellishing components such as Alberti bass are then more easily determined to bring richness and clarity to our playing.

The Harvard Dictionary of Music points out that broken-chord patterns date back to the seventeenth century, of which Alberti bass is the most commonly known. It is “an accompaniment figure, found frequently in the left hand of the 18th-century keyboard sic, in which the pitches of three-pitch chords are playing successively in the order lowest, highest, middle, highest, as in … Mozart (Sonata in C major K. 545).” The figure is named after Italian singer, harpsichordist, and composer Domenico Alberti (1710-1740?), who used this figuration extensively. Today, Alberti bass has taken a more generic definition, referring to various configurations of arpeggiated broken harmonies.

Once it appeared on the scene, the Alberti bass took hold. It was very popular around 1800 and went out of fashion quickly as new pianos appeared that contained a more resonant soundboard that resulted in a naturally louder, longer-lasting tone. The perfect genre for Alberti bass configurations was the sonata; the perfect instrument to execute them on was the fortepiano. It is extremely conducive to the mechanics of the fortepiano (with a bright, clear attack), lending energy to the declamatory nature of the instrument and rhetorical style of the time. What is often described as simply an accompaniment pattern today is much more important in creating affekt in eighteenth-century style. The Alberti bass motives create rhyth­mic and harmonic energy, drive, and momentum—pulse and forward propulsion—whether dramatic or lyrical. When it appears momentum intensifies. A clever quip Malcolm Bilson provided says it all: “When it shows, it goes!”

The Alberti bass shapes vary according to need and levels of intensity. As the intensity of the affekt relaxes, so does the activity of the figuration.

  • The most intense figura­tion that provides optimal rhythmic energy, drive, and opportunity for poly­phonic implications outlines a 5-1-3-1-5-1-3-1 pattern, seen in Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 309/I, mm 73-74. (Copyright G. Henle Verlag, Munich, 2005)

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  • In mm. 15–16 of the Presto from London Notebook, Anh. 109b no. 3 (15p), mm. 15-25 (Copyright G. Henle Verlag, 2005), by Mozart, the affekt is less intense than that of K. 309. The texture is thinner and the implied polyphony has been reduced to two voices. Yet the intervals and 1-5-1-5-1-5 figuration keeps things quite “live.”
  • Drive is lessened further at mm. 22–24, when the figure shifts to a rolling and relaxed 1-3-5-3-1-3-5-3 in the right hand. Here, the suspense comes from the melodic motive in the left hand.
  • The affekt is the least dramatic and almost lyrical in mm. 18–21, where the left-hand pattern outlines a simple progression with arpeggiated four-note chords.

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The change in sound aesthetic from one figuration to another is quite dramatic.

 

There are some concepts that apply regardless of the instrument on which Alberti bass is executed: Heed notational clues to understand formal structure from the very beginning rings true for any repertoire at any level from any era; and let the figuration drive expression and momentum.

The trick lies in conjuring up this sound aesthetic on an instrument for which the figuration was not intended, the modern piano. So what does one do “when it shows?” Many modern players attempt to repress, subdue, or minimize Alberti bass. To do so is much like trying to ignore that pesky gnat at a picnic. It is simply annoying. More importantly, it fails to serve the purpose for which it was intended.

It is most effective to highlight the affekt, found in its rhythmic drive, secondary melodies, or dramatic or beautiful quali­ties. This effort will bring energy and focus to the motive, as was historically intended and can be reconciled on the modern piano to an effective end:

 

There are simple technical principles that can be applied to facilitate execution:

  • When constructing Alberti bass figurations, begin by creating a pulse. Practice in pulses of one pulse per measure, two pulses per measure, and eventually, one pulse with each beat. The affekt of the section will determine the appro­priate number of pulses. As intensity increases, tempo stretches. Pulsing the Alberti bass provides many ben­efits. The rhythmic pulse will be defined and enlivened. The intermediary notes will naturally be softer. Rushing, that ever-present nemesis, will be kept at bay!
  • When shaping the Alberti bass, begin with the bass notes (in pulses) alone in conjunction with the melody. This clarifies voice leading. Next, “divide” the hand in half. The bass note is a downward rotation, and the remaining notes are the upward rotation, creating a stroke for each unit.
  • Envision “orchestrating” Alberti bass figurations and harmonic contours to add depth and substance to the voices. This practice also brings the figure into focus and provides clarity.
  • Identify and bring out polyphonic contours to add interest and relevance to the figure.

Formal structure and harmonic function provide the solid groundwork and long-lasting beauty on which eighteenth-century affekt is built. Alberti bass is one of the tools available to enhance and ornament the founda­tion. Taking great care in shaping and highlighting the various figurations provides the necessary means to conjure up eighteenth-century affekt—even on the modern piano!

Image credit: “_MG_8965” by Dmitriy K. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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