A basic fingering issue

During the harpsichord era, other than the occasional passage of the thumb (mostly when ascending with the left hand), scales and other passages were played by either finger crossing and hand shifting. Let us clarify what the sources tell us.

PLAYING A SCALE WITH FINGER CROSSING

Let us say we wish to play with the r.h. C-D-E-F with fingers 3-4-3-4, with the usual non-legato articulation.
The movement with finger crossing is as follows:
a) We lower 3 on C.
b) We raise 3 from C, while we lower 4 on D.
c) We move 3 laterally over 4, while we slip 4 on the key D towards the palm of the hand.
d) 4 leaves D at the same time as we lover 3 on E.
e) 4 raises up diagonally and is ready to play F.
f) We raise 3 from E, while we lower 4 on F.
g) We raise 4 from F.
By suitably changing the timings above, we can also play this scale legato.
The above is described both in texts and in paintings.

Note: movements c,d,e above produced upon Quantz (who saw J.S. Bach playing in his last years), writing at the time where most players were using the modern universal passage of the thumb, the erroneous impression that J.S. Bach was mostly moving fingers towards the palm of the hand instead of raising them: actually he did this only when a finger was being crossed by another one.

PLAYING A PASSAGE WITH HAND SHIFTING

Let us say we have a long passage for the r.h. moving up the range, for example two groups
C-D-E-C D-E-F-D E-F-G-E F-G-A-F
This is the movement:
a) We play C-D-E-C D-E-F-D with 2-3-4-2 3-4-5-3.
b) At this point 2 is hanging over C. As soon as we have lifted the last 3 above, we quickly shift the hand laterally so that 2 is now over E.
c) We play E-F-G-E F-G-A-F with 2-3-4-2 3-4-5-3.
Within each group we can play either non-legato or legato, but the transition between groups can only be non-legato.

PLAYING A SCALE WITH HAND SHIFTING

As above, let us say we wish to play with the r.h. C-D-E-F with fingers 3-4-3-4, the usual non-legato articulation.
The movement with hand shifting is as follows:
a) We lower 3 on C.
b) We raise 3 from C, while we lower 4 on D.
c) We raise 4 from D.
d) We quickly shift the hand so that 3 is now above E.
e) We lower 3 on E.
f) We raise 3 from E, while we lower 4 on F.
g) We raise 4 from F.
The notes D-E are inevitably non-legato.

There is a serious problem here:

  1. Most of the present-day videos online showing both Renaissance and Baroque music being played with early fingerings, play the scales with hand shifting.
  2. All the harpsichord era sources about playing scales refer to finger crossing, some with succinct, a few with detailed movements. This is also what modern pioneers Boxall and Lindley advocated. No source known to me describes playing scales with hand shifting.

QUESTIONS:

  1. Why do many (if not most) early-fingering players nowadays play scales with hand shifting?
  2. Are there any historical sources supporting this?

I will be very grateful for answers to these questions, that have kept me perplexed for a very long time.

Clarification: I have published the above, more succinctly, in my published books and articles, and so far I have got no explanation whatsoever.

I am not able to give any response to this most interesting problem. However I’d point out that it is very simple to raise the keys moving the fingers toward the palm of the hand, if the normal finger position of the player is to have the fingers curved when playing. In fact, it’s rimpler, faster and less tiring to release the key moving the finger toward the palm than to raise it.
Of course there are players who have their normal finger position more stretched, nearly straight; or straight-fingers position may be required in certain passages. Those players - and those passages - will benefit of the raising-instead-of-curling technique.

I disagree, Domenico, but this of course is a matter or personal preference.
One way or the other, there are dozens of harpsichord-era sources describing the movement of successive fingers playing a scale except when finger crossing, and all of them describe fingers moving up and down over the keys. The idea that one can move all fingers towards the palm of the hand instead of raising them is first found in Quantz and C. Ph. E. Bach. They do not advocate this as a desirable common practice and they all write a few years after J.S. Bach’s death, at a time when everybody in their milieu was using thumb-based fingering. Then of course we have the fantasies of Forkel half a century later …

Rameau provides a very detailed account in his “De la Mechanique des Doigts sur le Clavecin” in his 1724 edition of Pieces de Clavessin.

But Rameau doesn’t say anything about the precise mechanics of the finger quitting the key, if I am not wrong (if I am, please forgive and point me where he does). And the other sources I know usually write about articulation, not finger mechanics, so they write “lift the finger just in the same moment the other finger foes down” (or "lift the finger before the other goes down), but they mean “quit the key”, with no details about “how” a finger is to be lifted or a key quitted. However I don’t know all of the sources, in fact I only know a handful of them, so I can certainly be wrong. I have checked on your “Playing the baroque harpsichord book” and there are a lot of quotations, but still it seems to me they all are talking about articulation (and indeed you use those quotations to discuss articulation).

However, you are right for the most part. I have just watched a couple of videos of myself and in fact I don’t curl the fingers as much as I thought. But still I do sometimes, and have observed others doing the same, sometimes, not every time. For example, here (look at min. 0:33, maybe ad a reduced speed): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2DOWxhyIlc (Claudio Ribero), or here at min. 4:38 (Alice Chuaqui Baldwin, I’m sorry I don’t know her). Or Pieter-Jan Belder: The Well-Tempered Clavier I No. 7 in E-flat major – Bach, min. 0:45.
I stress the word “sometimes”.
On the other part, Jean Rondeau does not, as he usually plays with his fingers stretched.
So, you are mostly right: nobody plays “everytime” and neither “most of the time” by curling the fingers towards the hand’s palm, but just “sometimes”. I am now curious to learn under which conditions the fingers istinctively curl, I’ll have to watch more slow-motion videos.

I can assure you Domenico, that when Rameau and others write “Le mouvement des dogits se prend à leur racine, & jamais ailleurs”, he means just that: when you move the finger you do it up-down around the finger root, and never otherwise (which would be curving).

Regardless, we are straying away from the matter of this topic, which is the two Questions about playing pairwise-fingered scales by hand shifting.

Not having, I confess, time this morning to read through the nuances of this carefully I wish, first, to clarify that I STRONGLY agree with Claudio about the surprisingly long survival of vestiges of old-style paired fingerings clear into the high baroque era on the harpsichord.
However, that said, I disagree with the notion that one physically crosses OVER the previous finger to move forward. Let us consider an upward scale, like the one introduced by Claudio:
He would put, say, 3 on c, lift (or not, depending I would stipulate) off 3 before placing 4 on d, THEN cross 3 over 4 to play e. I disagree with the crossing over, instead simply doing a very smooth shift upward of the hand to place 3 on e. At first this might seem overly detached and choppy, but in fact it can be every bit as smooth as shifting on the fingerboard of a stringed instrument.
Shifting on the viol, then, is in my opinion a better analogy to the best practices. It is with practice even smoother than crossing over - or less smooth if one chooses that - and can happen with as much speed as one wishes. I attended a rigorous class in shifting on the treble viol once and suddenly found it feasible once my otherwise slow brain recognized, ‘oh, this is just like moving up when I play paired-fingered scales on the harpsichord.’
Your mileage may vary, but it has worked with great success, I flatter myself, in my own case.

Owen- I like this very much. I have similar training in classical guitar, which can require many such shifts up and down the fingerboard. It is a neurological marvel: The shift can be from any “last” finger to any “new” finger. Just imagine the “new” finger going to the next fret and the forearm knows what to do. EdS

Owen wrote:
“However, that said, I disagree with the notion that one physically crosses OVER the previous finger to move forward. Let us consider an upward scale, like the one introduced by Claudio:
He would put, say, 3 on c, lift (or not, depending I would stipulate) off 3 before placing 4 on d, THEN cross 3 over 4 to play e. I disagree with the crossing over, instead simply doing a very smooth shift upward of the hand to place 3 on e. At first this might seem overly detached and choppy, but in fact it can be every bit as smooth as shifting on the fingerboard of a stringed instrument.
Shifting on the viol, then, is in my opinion a better analogy to the best practices. It is with practice even smoother than crossing over - or less smooth if one chooses that - and can happen with as much speed as one wishes. I attended a rigorous class in shifting on the treble viol once and suddenly found it feasible once my otherwise slow brain recognized, ‘oh, this is just like moving up when I play paired-fingered scales on the harpsichord.’”

Owen, I understand your reasoning. Problem is, it goes counter to what some sources describe at length, precisely in the same terms of mine. When describing the differences in how and when to use cross-fingering against hand-shifting in my Baroque Fingering-A Method, in the section CROSSING THE FINGERS I have quoted the most detailed ancient source for this movement: Fray Tomás de Sancta María. Arte de Tañer Fantasía. Valladolid 1565, Part I, pp.38ff. His fingering directions are quoted in the English translation in the Introduction of Harpsichord Studies, selected by Maria Boxall. Schott, London 1980.

Not to mention paintings: although arguably they cannot possibly show hand-shifting, the fact that they show finger-crossing,and with movements even more extremes than the one I describe, in at least one occasion depicted by the player herself, proves that finger-crossing was a common movement for playing scales, not an exception.

Another evidence of the prevalence of cross-fingering. Although very few French sources describe the movement, many more sources call it “croiser les doigts”, which in French (as in many other languages), even outside the harpsichord world, means the classical overlapping of a finger over its neighbour as a superstition against odds or bad luck.

Regardless, my 2nd Question (and for me the most important one) remains unanswered: I would like to know just a single harpsichord-era source describing hand-shifting as the way to play scales using pairwise fingering.

Well, one COULD call my shifting finger-crossing, I would submit, since when I shift to the next iteration of the pair, as in this example, certainly my third finger crosses over the spot where my fourth finger just left, doesn’t it. But if I am actually to cross so that at some point my third finger is directly ABOVE my fourth finger, which is what, in these discussions I’ve always thought you meant by ‘crossing,’ then I would submit that this cannot even HAPPEN without the hand (I’m talking right hand here) rolling to the left so very far that the entire upper surface of the hand is fully vertical/perpendicular to the horizon and the surface of the keyboard. I cannot see how this could possibly be a practical way to play, so I can only conclude that I have misread from the start what you meant by ‘crossing.’ Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve misread anything!
As for ‘shifting,’ of course, even with your description the hand moves upwards by the width of a natural each time, crossing or no crossing, so this still entails what I compare to shifting on a stringed instrument’s fingerboard.

Dear Owen. I believe I already said that we should agree to disagree. But since you insist (and one day we will meet personally and clarify this matter), let me insist. It is your opinion against mine, that of most harpsichordists I know, and also the historical evidence.

I cannot recall having ever found somebody with the difficulties you find in finger crossing. Cannot tell without meeting personally. Indeed the third is directly above the fourth without any particular hand twisting!

My own fingers are very short, so I am certainly by nature very poorly endowed to “cross-fingering”, yet this is exactly what I do, and follow ancient texts literally, and find it not just feasible but also comfortable and practical. My own videos on YouTube are taken too much afar (and not from the proper angle) to show this, but as soon as I have some time, one of these days will set up my camera over a tripod and take a movie to show you. I have NOT done this so far for my books and students because, with my very short fingers, the type of movement I have to perform is not typical and therefore not too helpful for the general student. If anything, however, my fingers need to overlap MORE than for normal hands, not less. There are interesting pictures in one of the Mark Lindley articles in Early Music, then there are the historical texts and paintings.

And indeed when cross fingering, e.g. with the r.h., playing upward scales with 3-4-3-4, the r.h. turns slightly towards the treble, and also twists around the wrist clockwise. These details were also observed in Mark Lindley’s writings decades ago.

Early Music, X, 333. (1982).

Maria Boxall, Harpsichord Method, 1977. Cover, painting by Caterina de Hemessen 1548, where she depicts herself playing a virginal. In the l.h. 3 crosses over 4, in the r.h. 4 crosses over 3 (this movement is not part of the baroque fingering palette). My own hands largely look like this while playing.

Playing a baroque organ in the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali, Roma 2003.

While playing with one hand, I have now manage to take pictures with a compact camera held on my other hand. First the right hand playing a scale from a piece by F. Couperin.




Now my left hand, also playing with 3-4-3-4, only now downwards.



I think a video can be much more clear than static photos, so if you are willing to set up the video, I’ll eager to see.
However, when I try - admittedly, very seldom - to play with strict baroque fingering, I see I can use Claudio’s finger crossing with no problem. There is some hand shift as well, of course, if it’s a long scale. Me too, I have not-that-long and not-that-thin fingers.

Btw on another topic, the fingers’ movement.
This morning on Ketil Haugsand’s facebook group a post has been published, a response by the same Ketil to a question about technique. (The poster was asking something about baroque fingering but Ketil didn’understand and replied a general technique topic. However)
He writes:

=========

The movement starts at your fingertips, through ALL the three joints of your fingers - literally pulling the key lever - not pushing it or ‘pressing’ it.

This movement demands no ‘movement’ in your wrist - no ‘arm’ - no lateral ‘jumps’, ‘jolts’, jerks’ - just the minute & ‘towards you’, necessary ‘finger activity’ -

If you want to ‘snap’ a short note (aka ‘staccato’), just pull the finger further, eventually past the front edge of the key lever (should need arise…)… the gravitation & balance does the rest for you…

=========

(Italics are mine)
So there is, at least, a variability in how this basic technique bit is interpreted by various top harpsichordists.

I think that possibly Claudio and I are talking past each other. His item c) (quoted below) upon reflection is pretty much exactly what I do. What I was picturing was finger 4 remaining in place while three passes directly over it, and this contorts the hand into an impractical, uncomfortable and untenable position. But Claudio’s item C here indicates that I have misread what he means by crossing over. And what I have been calling shifting, has been the movement of the hand to the right while 4 is going towards the palm moving 3 upwards. But three cannot, I would maintain, easily pass completely OVER 4, but, rather, over where 4 just seconds ago before curling under, WAS.

c) We move 3 laterally over 4, while we slip 4 on the key D towards the palm of the hand.
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