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When playing in an ensemble, don’t…! Four tips from an early music master

A doctor friend was telling me of his experiences playing in Walter Bergmann’s recorder group in the early 1970s.

Bergmann (1902-1988) was a German lawyer who came to England as a refugee in 1938. Unable to practice law, he practised music instead, and with infectious wit and enthusiasm. He taught and played the recorder and directed choirs all over London, especially at Morley College where his ideas had a lasting influence on Michael Tippett and on the nascent early music movement. Working at Schott, Bergmann produced valuable editions of baroque and classical masterworks.

He had four pieces of advice for members of his ensemble, my friend recalls:

Rule No.1–First, make sure you are all playing the same piece!

Rule No.2–If you right and all the others are wrong, play with the wrong ones!
Rule No.3–If you come to the end of a piece and you have some notes left over, don’t play them!
Rule No.4– When you are playing with others which part is the most important? The other part!
With a little more research, we find that Walter had, in fact, no fewer than 26 rules of ensemble playing. Read them here.


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  1. Are these rules of the road for chamber musicians or chamber politicians? By the way, there is a nice article on the history of the recorder by Nicholas Lander at: for those who would rather not use whiskey to put themselves to sleep. (Don’t be frightened by the web address.)

  2. One might add Rule No. 0 – Make sure that the others agree that you are a member of the ensemble.

  3. This reminds me of a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio” (itself an oxymoron–Bach never intended them to be one unit) some years back. Meastro (Nikolas) Harononcourt certain assumed he was conudcting Bach. The Cp0ncentus Musica apparently thought they were performing Wagner, the Choir of Kings College beluieved themselves to be playing Handel & the soloists Mendelssohn. I also remember a local orchestra many years ago who forgot to tune evertyone to the A of the oboe–the 2nd Symphony of Brahms sounded more like the 2nd Symphony of Cage!!! The then Director was, it was later revealed, in the early stages of Alzheimers

    • More than once I’ve found that to be the case with his performances of Bach. For one thing, Harnoncourt likes soloists who seem to think they’re singing Mendelssohn. And I’m afraid that the King’s Choir sings most 18th- and 19th-century music (except for the Anglican church repertoire) like Handel.

  4. Nick Kenyon says:

    Walter Bergmann was a delight. (Lovely biography by Anne Martin, Musician for a While). I remember John Amis reading out a postcard from him at the Dartington Summer School with a perfect rendition of the accent Bergman never quite lost: “The title of my lecture is ‘Purcell as seen by a foreigner’ (ze foreigner ist me)”.

    These rules also reminded me of a story told by Frans Bruggen about the huge great bass recorder, then something of a rarity ‘How many people does it take to play that thing?’ ‘Three, the first blows and the second does the fingering’. What about the third? ‘Ah, he reads the music…’

  5. Nikolas Harnoncourt was a conductor who directed the seminal performances on Telefunken Das Alte Werk LP in the 70s of the entire canon of Bach–and I mean ENTIRE. If Bach wrote it–if today it would not be directly attributable to Johann Sebastian–they recorded it–original instruments, diapason semitone lower, as close to the intent of the Master as one could get. The Concentus Musicus was Harnoncourt’s own orchestra, he conducted as would Bach, from the Harpsichord. Some of the recordings also featured the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the direction of (now Sir) Neville Marriner. Cantatas, Passions etc., featured the Wiener Saengerknaben, Vienna Boys Choir, the adolescent version of same whose name escapes me, occasionally the Choir of Kings College Cambridge. Whatever one thinks of the original instruments paradigm–I despise it–the musicianship and performances were phenomenal. The liner notes in 4 languages were exhaustive. Some have been re-released on Telarc CD but the sound has been compressed and the performances suffer as a result.

    Glorious things of thee are spoken, Telefunken Das Alte Werk… alas no more. If anyone can get their hands on any in this set via Amazon, etc., DO SO!

    • Stephen H. Owades says:

      Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields were never a part of the Telefunken/Teldec Bach recording project. You may be thinking of the Leonhardt Consort under Gustav Leonhardt, who shared the recording of Bach’s complete cantatas with Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna. Neville Marriner, in fact, had undisguised contempt for the concept—and practitioners—of “period instrument” performance; he called them “the brown bread and sandals brigade.”

      The “grown-up” affiliate of the Vienna Choir Boys was/is called the Chorus Viennensis. Another fine boychoir, the Tölzer Knabenchor, was also featured on some of the Teldec Bach recordings.

      Of course, the CD issues of these recordings are on the Teldec label, not “Telarc” (a completely different firm). And there’s no “compression” in the sound of the CDs. They don’t come with miniature scores in the box, the way the original LP boxes did, but the sound is fine.

      • Thank you so much for clarifying this. It was, indeed, LEONHARDT not Marriner et al and yes, the Concentus Musicus was from VIENNA. My entire LP collection was inadvertently donated to the area AIDS Council–an affiliate that does book music sales to support the AIDS Council of Northeastern NY–long story short, we were selling our house, disposing of a ton of books, LPs etc., and did not make a distinction of which LPs were NOT to go! Oops. Thanks, too for clarifying the label–I was confused on that too if my Partner says I’ve spent my life confused. The CDs, for me, do not have the quality of the original LPs but that’s a personal taste. (The Opening Nights at the Met CD has NOTHING on the original LP. Sometimes they clean things up, restore pitch, etc., but there is something to be said for all that. My Partner is an audio engineer as well as musician/teacher. I’d ask for his “discourse” but he’s grading midterms, doesn’t acknowledge the world exists, and barely acknowledges I exist!

        BTW, I apologize to those reading my posts both for the turgid prose–C’est moi, C’est moi, tis I–thank you Lancelot!–and the myriad typos. I type very fast w/3-4 finger. It’s difficult for my aging, diabetic eyes to proofread so I will do what I do w/lengthy Facebook postings, copy to word & use spell check!

  6. “Whereas soloists in Bach should imagine they are singing… what?”

    Bach, of course. Johann Sebastian, to be specific.

    You should direct your question to Harnoncourt and his soloists. They’re the ones who – to my ears, of course, and evidently PK Miller’s as well – seem to think they’re singing Mendelssohn.

    (Were you or I actually to ask them that question, they’d quite rightly consider us rude and respond accordingly.)

    “I hate to disappoint you, but Bach did most of his composing in the… C18th.”

    No kidding. What on earth did you see in my comment that made you think I was suggesting otherwise?

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