After my morning class the Wednesday before February break, I headed straight for the Barnes Hall auditorium, where one of the Music Department’s weekly Midday Music performances was scheduled. Midday Music, a concert series that takes place around lunchtime (12:30 – 1:15p.m.) on Wednesdays or Thursdays, offers a chance for students to take a break from their hectic schedules to sit down and enjoy some lovely classical music from students and faculty at Cornell. This particular performance was Baroque, with first-year graduate student Morton Wan, currently in the Ph.D. musicology program, performing Bach on harpsichord and Rameau on piano.
Wan started with Bach’s third English Suite (BWV 808), which Bach composed around his Weimar period (1708-17) and is part of his first major series of harpsichord works before the Well-Tempered Clavier. This piece in particular demonstrates Bach’s expert knowledge of dances, such as the Gigue and the Sarabande. The harpsichord helps bring out the highly-decorated ornamentation of these pieces and the rich rhythms and textures that interweave throughout it.
While some may prefer the piano to the rather twangy tones of the harpsichord, Wan manages to bring out many of the hidden depths of this instrument. This comes out especially in the Allemande, the simple meter of which presents a stark contrast to the Prélude’s triple meter. The simplicity and slower tempo of the Allemande was beautiful, with Wan wonderfully capturing the dynamics and more somber emotions present in this movement. I also especially liked the Gigue for its exciting sense of movement and ornate rhythmic patterns.
Wan then moved from the harpsichord to the piano to play Rameau’s Nouvelles Suites de Pieces de Clavecin. Rameau, like Bach, became a major composer for the harpsichord and then for French opera, his most recognizable work probably being Hippolyte et Aricie. Hearing these performed on the piano drew an interesting parallel with Bach’s harpsichord pieces. And while they sounded somewhat more modern, many of the Baroque characteristics were still noticeably present. Like the Bach suite, Rameau’s also includes several of the two-part dance movements typical of the Baroque period.
While Bach’s suite may garner the nickname “English,” Rameau’s use of character or genre pieces are distinctive to French instrumental music of the time and skillfully employ broken chords and highly ornamented melodic lines. On the piano, an instrument that, while perhaps not as characteristic of the era as the harpsichord, allows more control of volume and thus a greater dynamic range, Wan seemed to flourish. Swaying and moving his body to match the cadences of Rameau’s pieces, he appeared completely immersed in the music, a hidden world inhabiting the space of 300 years between performer and composer into which we as the audience were allowed a small peek.
Although there were not many in attendance, more people started to filter in throughout the performance, and the performance had a relaxed, casual atmosphere that suited the idea of “midday music” well. Leaving Barnes, my mood was considerably lighter and, walking to class, the last strains of the piano still echoed in my head, even as I had to transport myself back to the harsh reality of the daily grind.
Ramya Yandava is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.