Non-interpretation of baroque music

Something I’ve been thinking about for some time is the aspect of interpretation in baroque music. Todays big stars are conductors, directors, singers and musicians – all interpreters of baroque music. But how different this is to the 18th century! There were singers and musicians who were stars of course, but the famous directors of the 18th century also wrote and performed their own music. They didn’t have to ‘interpret’ it, they just played it!

With today’s famous directors and conductors we hear countless different interpretations (what’s more we have recordings of these interpretations) of the same repertoire. 17th century opera in particular is, in my opinion, a real victim here to the pursuit of interpretation, where it’s almost taken for granted that directors will add extra instrumental ritornelli etc. to the existing music. In my experience Cavalli tends to suffer more than others – people particularly like to add instrumental parts to sections of recitative (one particular Belgian gentleman with a penchant for the recorder comes to mind).

By adding ritornelli and composing extra instrumental parts as well as by devising ever increasingly elaborate continuo scorings there seems to be a desire to create the ultimate ‘interpretation’ of a piece of music. I even played a Händel opera once where the director had even written extra viola parts for some of the arias!

I think this approach is out of place in any genuine pursuit of historical performance.

Let’s imagine a performance of a Cavalli opera in 17th century Venice. A small wooden theatre with several singers and a band composed of 2 violins and a bass violin, 2 theorboes and 2 harpsichords (we know from records that Cavalli used on many occasions a band just like this). The violins played the ritornelli. The theorboes and harpsichords accompanied the singers who just sang the music and doubtlessly added some (bad-ass) ornamentation.

In other words, they just played – and sang – the music.

Surely the ultimate goal of the historical performer is to try to recreate the music as it was heard in its original context?! If that’s the case then why do we so rarely hear Cavalli played with appropriate instrumentation in all it’s glorious unadulterated form?

I guess I’m talking about a kind of interperative-minimalism here. Get the right kit, get the right technique, play the music and see what happens! Take a step back and enjoy the music for what it is. Let Cavalli speak as vividly to us today as he did in the 17th century. Let’s forget big egos and new recordings of Händel’s Messiah. Hey, let’s even forget our preconceived ideas about what the music ‘should’ sound like!

Baroque music just needs good musicians to come alive – interpretation as in the 17th and 18th centuries could be added in the form of ornamentation, let’s not re-write the music to suit our ideals.

WordPress 3.0 custom queries, post types and taxonomies

There’s been a few really great articles recently published about the new custom posts features in the WordPress 3 Beta, most notably Justin Tadlock’s excellent article and an equally enlightening post on I’ve had some fun experimenting a little with the new possibilities opened up to me with this new functionality but I very quickly came up with a problem that took quite a bit of head scratching to solve, namely how to filter my query to a custom post type by taxonomy – akin to displaying all the blog posts within a specific category, I wanted to be able to display all my custom posts in my custom taxonomy (read category).

Using code grabbed from the above articles and the codex I had successfully created a new custom post type. Here’s the code for your functions.php file. As per the codex example, let’s call it ‘books’.

function new_post_type() {
register_post_type( 'books',
'labels' => array(
'name' => __( 'Books' ),
'singular_name' => __( 'Book' )
'public' => true,
add_action( 'init', 'new_post_type' );

All of this functionality is clearly explained in either of the articles I mentioned (as well as a more detailed discussion of the various options – the purpose of this article is just to demonstrate how to perform a custom query on a new custom post type with a custom taxonomy.

Right, now I can retrieve my new post type by passing the following parameter to the query. This code should be placed outside of the loop (it’s a loop itself!) in whichever page you’d like it to appear.

$yell = new WP_Query(array('post_type' => 'books'));
while ($yell->have_posts()) : $yell->the_post();

<h2><?php the_title(); ?></h2>

<?php the_content(); ?>

<?php endwhile; wp_reset_query(); ?>

Now, I want to add a custom taxonomy to my custom post type: I want to do is to be able to categorize books by genre. I can do this by adding the following code to my functions.php file:

function create_book_taxonomies() {
// Add new taxonomy, make it hierarchical (like categories)
$labels = array(
'name' => _x( 'Genres', 'taxonomy general name' ),
'singular_name' => _x( 'Genre', 'taxonomy singular name' ),
'search_items' => __( 'Search Genres' ),
'popular_items' => __( 'Popular Genres' ),
'all_items' => __( 'All Genres' ),
'parent_item' => __( 'Parent Genres' ),
'parent_item_colon' => __( 'Parent Genre' ),
'edit_item' => __( 'Edit Genre' ),
'update_item' => __( 'Update Genre' ),
'add_new_item' => __( 'Add New Genre' ),
'new_item_name' => __( 'New Genre Name' ),
register_taxonomy('Genres',array('books'), array(
'hierarchical' => true,
'labels' => $labels,
'show_ui' => true,
'query_var' => true,
'rewrite' => array( 'slug' => 'genres' )
add_action( 'init', 'create_book_taxonomies', 0 );

Awesome – now I can add a new ‘genre’ to my books – this is akin to adding a new category to your posts. Let’s say that I now add 2 genres: ‘sci fi’ and ‘thriller’. I can now filter my query to query one of my newly created genres.

$yell = new WP_Query(array('post_type' => 'books', 'genres' => 'sci fi'));
while ($yell->have_posts()) : $yell->the_post();

<h2><?php the_title(); ?></h2>

<?php the_content(); ?>

<?php endwhile; wp_reset_query(); ?>

At the moment it seems that you can’t filter the query further (as you can for posts) by adding an equivalent to:

'category__in' => array(2,6)


'genres__in' => array(2,5)

Which seems – to me at least – a real missed opportunity (it never made it into the core, I’m told), but there may yet be some crafty plug-in authors with a work-around. Here’s hoping!

website 3.0

I’m delighted to welcome you to the third version of!

The typography is based on a few 17th century books that are important sources for my work with historical performance and that have kept me good musical company over the years. John Dowland’s ‘varietie of lvte lessons’ (published 1610) was of particular interest to me, the typography is beautiful, not to mention the music!

I had been planning to start writing a blog for a while now and having worked a lot with WordPress of late, it was really a joy to implement. I’m planning to blog about both music and design in equal measure, but I guess we’ll see how that pans out.

One thing I hope to do is to be able to give back a little to the online web design community. It’s amazing how open the community is, how willing to share knowledge people are. I have often wished that it were the same within the world of historical performance, which by comparison seems so closed. Perhaps it’s time for a historical performance Wikipedia? The whole area has, in my opinion, really stagnated of late – where are this generation’s pioneers?!

Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day. Right now, I’m planning to add some beginner tutorials in the aspects of web design I find most interesting and rewarding, namely jQuery and WordPress. I’m not an expert in either subject by any means, but I remember well what it was like to be a complete beginner and I’d love to help provide an easy way in for total noobs!

Watch this space… Remember – you can keep updated by following me on TwitterFacebook or by subscribing to the feed.

Callino Quartet Website redesign

I’ve just launched my redesign of the Callino Quartet’s website!

The original site was not in any way ugly, but it was a pain for the quartet to keep updated and looked a little dated. The code was butt-ugly and needed a complete overhaul. I used WordPress as a CMS (Content Management System) for the site and rewrote the code using standards compliant xHTML & CSS (with the exception of a few CSS3 additions) plus a little PHP and a dash of my absolute favourite javascript library jQuery. I also integrated a handy plugin that grabs a Google Picasa web album and displays it on the site.

callino quartet

It was, as ever, my goal to make the entire site updatable by the client. I’m pretty happy with the results and, more importantly, so is the quartet!

Check it out at

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the theorbo but were afraid to ask

As a theorbo player I get asked lots of questions about my instrument.

Questions like:

  • What is it?
  • Where does it come from?
  • How many strings does it have?
  • Do you play all of them?
  • How is it tuned?
  • Why is it so long?
  • How, exactly, do you play it?
  • Was it a usual member of a baroque orchestra?
  • Do you ever wish you played the flute?

I do try to answer all these questions as I get asked, but for those of you who didn’t get a chance to ask, or for those who would like to know more, I’ll do my best to explain a little bit about the theorbo.


What is it and where does it come from?

The theorbo, one of the largest members of the lute family, was a new kind of instrument conceived in Florence during the late 16th century to accompany a new style of vocal music known as ‘stile recitativo’. Owing to its gentleness and depth of sound it was considered the perfect accompaniment for the human voice.

This theorbo was gradually adopted (and in most cases, nationalised) by every European country over the course of the 17th century. The first theorbo to reach England in the 17th century was destroyed at port as is was assumed to be a weapon!

How many strings does it have and do you play all of them?

I have two theorboes, one is a copy of a German theorbo from the 1730s. It’s got 20 strings arranged in descending order like this:

One single string at the top (ie: the highest pitched string) followed by six pairs of strings (the pairs are always played together, like on a mandolin) and seven long bass strings. I do play all of them.

My other theorbo has sixteen single strings and is a copy of an Italian instrument from 1610. This one has six strings at the top and ten long bass strings.

How is it tuned and why is it so long?

Historically there are several different tunings for the theorbo. The top five strings (ie: the five highest strings in pitch) of my 18th century theorbo are tuned to a chord of d minor and the rest are tuned in a descending scale (like a harp).

The reason why it’s so long is due to the gut strings that musicians used at that time. With any kind of string, in order to get a lower pitch you have to increase the thickness (diameter). For a gut string, the thicker the string the duller the sound. If however you could increase the length of string then you can have a thinner string for a lower note and therefore a much better sound.

Modern concert harps and grand pianos still follow this principle: the lower the note, the longer the string, therefore the quality of sound for the lower strings doesn’t deteriorate.

How, exactly, do you play it?

The long bass strings of a theorbo – also called diapasons – are played with the thumb of the right hand and are never stopped with the left hand. The top strings are played with both hands, where the left hand makes the chord shapes and the right hand plucks the appropriate strings, like a guitar. Historically, the theorbo could be played with or without fingernails.

Was it a usual member of a baroque orchestra?

Yes, we have records of many baroque orchestras that used theorboes. Corelli used as many as five, Vivaldi as many as four. Händel and his theorbo player in London read from the same score and Telemann usually had two in his orchestra.

Do you ever wish you played the flute?

Only when I’m at the airport.