Going for baroque

Artist-in-residence program lets students experience early music and the instruments on which it was meant to be played  

 Luthier Karl Dennis (second from left) shows early and modern string instruments in his collection to Jesse Guterman '16, Kelly D'Ancicco '16 and Professor Daniel Lee. Photo by Laura Cianciolo '16.

Luthier Karl Dennis (second from left) shows early and modern string instruments in his collection to Jesse Guterman '16, Kelly D'Ancicco '16 and Professor Daniel Lee. Photo by Laura Cianciolo '16.

The room was silent as Professor Daniel Lee picked up the fragile-looking baroque violin. He then began to play masterfully, accompanied by the soft, rhythmic plucks of another period instrument, the harpsichord. In the small, packed room, the sounds blended beautifully, allowing students to imagine themselves enjoying a private concert in the early 1700s.

The event was one in a series of lectures, demonstrations and master classes designed to help students understand and appreciate early music. The classes also give them an opportunity to interact with the musicians and experts who play, make and study the instruments and the pieces written for them.

When the violin was invented, “the idea of a large concert hall was centuries away,” explained luthier (someone who makes or repairs lutes and other string instruments) Karl Dennis, a Rhode Island-based maker of both early and modern violins. The original violin was designed to play chamber music in small rooms, Dennis said, and the instrument evolved with the venue.

As Dennis described the difference in design, Professor Lee, a period violinist with degrees in violin performance from Yale and Juilliard, demonstrated the variation in sound between the original violin and its descendant, the louder, modern violin of today.

“The modern violin is meant to imitate singing, whereas the baroque violin is made to imitate speaking,” explained Lee, an adjunct professor of music at Connecticut College and co-leader of the Sebastians, an ensemble that specializes in music of the baroque and classical eras. “It has qualities that give a little more nuance to the sound.”

Since the baroque violin lacks a chin rest and has a shorter, straighter bow, it also requires a different technique to play.

Maggie Cavanaugh ’15, a human development major and music performance minor, said she has been working on three baroque pieces — two in class and one in her individual lessons (Connecticut College offers students free music lessons) — but she could never quite understand the draw.

Lee’s demonstration, she said, “really contextualized what it is to play period music in a modern world, and why making it as authentic as possible is so rewarding.”

The Early Music Series is part of the College’s Dayton Artist-in-Residence program, which enhances the curriculum with a variety of opportunities for students to interact with and learn from professional artists. The residency is hosted by the departments of music, art, theater and dance, with each department planning a full year of events every four years.

In addition to the lecture and demonstration by Lee and Dennis, students have already been treated this year to a harpsichord master class taught by Linda Skernick, an adjunct professor of music at Connecticut College, and a lecture on the meaning and purpose of historical performance by musicologist Eric Rice, a music history professor and director of the Collegium Musicum at the University of Connecticut and the artistic director of the Connecticut Early Music Festival, which takes place each summer on the Connecticut College Campus.