The Baroque Urtext Score – A User’s Guide (1)

Further to last week’s post about taking ownership, I thought I might say a few words about this in relation to Urtext scores – of  Bach in particular (click here to view the previous post).

Personally, I wouldn’t want to play Bach in a romantic way, but I can appreciate, respect and even enjoy performances in this style, where the pianist is totally committed to it. You only have to listen to iconoclastic Bach players such as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck and Andras Schiff to hear that there are very many different approaches, all of them valid. It’s about taking ownership and believing in what you are doing.

But may we take the absence of performance directions in a score of Bach as carte blanche to do what we want, or are there rules? If so, where do we find them? While some of the answers are indeed implied by clues in the score and others by performance tradition, a lot of the choices are indeed at the discretion of the performer. 

The ultimate intention of all notational details is to reduce the performer’s choice 

From the time of Beethoven onwards, the performer’s choices are much more restricted because the composer’s instructions as to speed, character, articulation and dynamics are usually extremely explicit. So how do we decide what to do with an Urtext edition of Bach where all we see are the notes? What sort of articulations and phrasings ought we to use, how do we decide the dynamics, the tempo and general character? How comforting it must have been for our pianistic forebears to open the Czerny, Selva or Busoni editions (amongst many others) and find answers to all these questions, little realising – probably simply trusting – that because Bach’s staff notation exists side by side with dynamic markings, phrasings and articulations, realisations of ornaments, and so on, all was to be treated as gospel. You played it as per instruction, end of story.

I find this blanket acceptance of, say, fingering even in Urtext editions worrying. Players don’t seem to appreciate that there is usually a sub-editor who deals specifically with fingering, and that whatever gets printed is intended entirely as a guide. Herein lieth the problem. Because the information on the score goes in on a subliminal level, how is even the intelligent player supposed to know that the command “F sharp below middle C, dotted crotchet” is the only “gospel” truth (the word of the composer), and that the marking crescendo, the sforzato accent, and the fingering “3” are from the minds of an editor or two?

Here are some screen shots of the start of the E flat minor Prelude from Book 1 of the 48, first in the Kroll edition:

And in the Busoni edition:

…the Urtext edition, of course, having no markings whatever. Now, the crescendo from bar 4, and the direction to play louder from bar 5 are of course implied by the large leap of the tenth in the upper voice, the thicker chords and the arrival of a bass voice. It makes perfect sense to do this on the piano, it would be perverse to do anything much different, actually. But – and this is the point – these are only editorial suggestions.

Can I dispel the myth that the harpsichord is incapable of expression? Simply not true! The skillful harpsichordist uses a variety of touches, and relies on illusion to create expression just as much as we pianists do.


This post is part of a collection on using Baroque urtext scores and interpreting Baroque music at the piano. the following is an index of links to the full collection of posts:

  1. Introduction – A User’s Guide (click here)
  2. Dynamics (click here)
  3. Articulation (click here)
  4. Tempo and Rhythm (click here)

The Baroque Urtext Score – Dynamics (2)

I would like to suggest some guidelines for using dynamics in the music of Bach (and others) at the piano. The only absolute rule, in my book, is to play expressively! When all is said and done, we are making a transcription from 18th century instruments – and 18th century ears – to 21st century ones, and I sincerely doubt that the 18th century musician felt restricted, that the answers were to be found in some dusty book.


The subject of dynamics in Bach playing relates to choices about the louds and softs in a score where the composer has not explicitly instructed these by way of performance directions (such as f and p, crescendo and diminuendo). We have to determine the dynamic level (and the tempo) from the general character of the music, taking into account the texture. Thick textures are strong, thin textures lighter.

The opening of the C minor Partita has an implied dynamic level of forte. We would reach this conclusion even if we did not appreciate it was a French Overture (with all its associated grandeur), because of the big, thick chords and springy dotted rhythms. It would be hard to play it otherwise. Within the overall dynamic of forte, there is an implied crescendo to the second beat in bar 2, because of the structure of the phrase. Harmonically, this is the moment of greatest tension; melodically, it is the highest point (this is reinforced by the tonic pedal C in the bass). Then, allow the tension to release at the cadence on the third beat using a small hairpin diminuendo:

The second section, now in two voices, is obviously intended to be softer and more melodic:

The final fugue (in three voices, the subject robustly rhythmical) is strong again. On a harpsichord, the addition of a voice will automatically make the playing sound louder.

Bach’s Own Use of Forte and Piano

Even though Bach does occasionally use forte and piano, this is in works where a two-manual keyboard is specified. Quite simply, forte means the lower keyboard and piano the upper. While the upper manual is, on most instruments, usually softer than the lower (though not always that noticeably so), it is the change of tone colour that is more important than the drop in decibel levels.

Terraced Dynamics

Terraced dynamics (a term invented by Ferruccio Busoni) means a sudden change from one dynamic level to another without either crescendo or diminuendo. Think in terms of contrasting blocks of sound, with no blending or gradation, the effect you get going from one keyboard of the organ (or harpsichord) to another. In conservative quarters, this is still considered the only correct way of adding dynamics to Bach’s music. Speaking pianistically, within the block of sound, I believe it is absolutely fine to play with inflection – it would be disastrous to think that in a forte passage each note had to be equally forte. This is akin to speech, where even within a phrase spoken loudly, there will be syllables only lightly touched on. The weight given to the important syllables is what determines whether we perceive the whole as loud or soft. A decibel reading of the final “na” in “banana” will be more or less the same no matter how loudly or softly I exclaim the word; it is the middle syllable that decides the loudness or softness of it.

The Use of Crescendo and Diminuendo

What about making crescendos and diminuendos? Are we allowed to do this? Of course, unless you really want to bore your audience!

1. Ask an 18th century musician to sing a Bach fugue subject, for example, and of course they would shape it dynamically. The natural tendency is to get louder as the line ascends, and softer as the line descends (this is not an absolute rule, though). It would be ludicrous to aim to sing it on one level, simply because of some erroneous thought that the harpsichord cannot do what comes naturally. As I mentioned in my introductory remarks last week, the harpsichord is absolutely capable of shaping a line, not by variations in key speed as we pianists do, but by a variety of touches from legatissimo to different lengths of staccato (what I call degrees of separation) and subtle timings. The player can create an accent either agogically (by delaying the note, and/or lingering on it) or by creating a silence before it. The greater the separation, the more accented that note is. Before we judge this as trickery, this illusion is no more devious than what we do. We believe, do we not, that we can make a crescendo in a melodic line at the piano?  The bald truth is that each of the sounds we make begins to decay immediately, so we cannot create an actual crescendo like a wind or string player can, only the illusion of one. It is artful, deceitful and magical!

If you are not sure how a line should be shaped, I suggest singing it. It does not matter about the quality of your voice, singing it will show you the natural breathing places and the high and low points of the phrase.

2. In ascending sequences, it is natural to make a crescendo. Equally, not to respond to the downward gravitational pull of descending sequences by allowing them to diminuendo feels perverse. The crescendo in this sequence from the B flat major Invention seems inevitable to me:

3. In scale passages that move to the extremes of the keyboard, I always feel a crescendo is implied. This has to do with scaling heights and plumbing depths, moving away from middle registers into realms exotic. This passage from the first movement of the Italian Concerto is an example:

Dance Movements

Each of the movements in a typical suite has its own individual characteristics which help us determine the general dynamic level, tempo, character and Affekt. The livelier dances (courantes, gigues) lend themselves to dynamics in the forte direction; likewise the gentler ones (minuets, sarabandes simples) to piano. Some comparative listening on YouTube or Spotify is excellent research. For those who want to explore this further, there are two useful books written by 18th century theorists which discuss this and many other related areas:

  • Johann Mattheson: Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739)
  • Johann Gottfried Walther: Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig, 1732)


There is nothing more boring than hearing a performance with all the repeats, where the repeat is played identically to the first time around. In addition to ornamentation and embellishment, and changes in voicings, dynamic variety is very much a possibility. Personal taste plays a big part in this.

The Una Corda Pedal

I have noticed people have a horror of using the una corda pedal. In baroque music, it is especially effective as the colour change obtainable from its use mimics a registration, and as such it can be kept down for an entire section, or used for an entire repeat. It does not have to be used only for soft playing – put the una corda down and play firmly, and you take the harsh edges off the sound without making it necessarily softer.


This post is part of a collection on using Baroque urtext scores and interpreting Baroque music at the piano. the following is an index of links to the full collection of posts:

  1. Introduction – A User’s Guide (click here)
  2. Dynamics (click here)
  3. Articulation (click here)
  4. Tempo and Rhythm (click here)



The Baroque Urtext Score – Articulation (3)

Articulation in music is understood to mean the way notes are connected or grouped – this involves accentuation and, to some extent, rhythmic inflection.

While François Couperin was an obsessive control freak in this regard, it was only from Beethoven onwards that composers routinely marked articulations into the score. Open a score of Beethoven and you will see at a glance how he wanted the music to be articulated. You will find a few dots and slurs in Bach’s keyboard music, but for the most part we have to make our own decisions.

How? On what basis do we decide? I don’t think this can be done cosmetically, by which I mean I don’t think we can add slurs and staccatos willy-nilly  (“Oh, I haven’t had a staccato for a while, better stick one in on this note”). The articulation should enhance phrasing, help project rhythm and show the design features of the thematic material.

The long legato line is a 19th century concept – 18th century phrasing was based more on the articulation of shorter units, at the discretion of the player. Long legato lines are just as out of place (and boring) as long staccato ones, and the still-prevalent idea that quavers in baroque music should be detached is just not correct.

Now for some examples. The first is the subject from Bach’s B flat major Invention, for which I have given three possible articulations (scribbled, somewhat clumsily, one on top of the other). There will be other possibilities, but these were the first that occurred to me:

I would say it is important to stick with the same articulation in the second half of the bar as you use for the first half, because the second half is an inversion of the first half (it is therefore the same music, to be treated the same). Notice that all three articulations put a staccato dot on the first D of the third beat (and the first note of the second bar, etc.), because it strikes me as a priority to clarify the two phrases – the original and its inversion – by separating them. In the uppermost articulation, I would make the tiniest of breaks at the phrase ends, with the finger and certainly without lifting the arm. This will have the effect of introducing a consonant after the break (such as “ta-la-la-la”) and it shows the main beats. The second articulation, with the slur and two staccatos on the semiquaver groups adds a spring to the step, if you want it somewhat bouncy, whereas the lowest example (note the tenuto marks rather than staccato on the semiquaver groups) would sing more. If you were to choose a more legato approach – perfectly fine – then you would need to do something after this RH D, if you don’t want an audible break then perhaps a dynamic or rhythmic inflection.

In my second example, I include my articulation for the subject from the Gigue from the G major French Suite. The two short slurs are for rhythmic projection, and the longer one at the end is for a melodic moment as the notes now move by step:

My feeling about an articulation, once settled on based on the character and structure of the motive or the subject, is that it should be articulated identically wherever it appears. This is because the various subjects or motives are building blocks, and maintaining integrity in this regard seems more important than the actual articulation itself (given that there is a wide variety of possibilities). The analogy that springs to mind is of an architect who has designed windows in the facade of a building, each with a surround of tiles that are separate from the brickwork. Whether this surround is made of terracotta or slate, square, oblong or isosceles trapezoid is immaterial – the only mandate is that these tiles match each other (the actual choice left to the good taste and judgement of the project manager).


The harpsichordist’s control of touch is second to none. It ranges from subtle use of legatissimo (overholding) to varying degrees of separation (although the very short staccato is avoided as a rule).

In a series of like note values, I might prefer to show that the first of each group is important (somehow stressed), therefore I could either linger longer on it (an agogic stress) or slur it to the next note, or group of notes. Thus, for a smooth, melodic articulation I might simply make the tiniest separation between the last note of one group and the first of the next group. For a more rhythmically sprung articulation, I could slur the first note to the next, then play the remaining notes in the group detached.

Some definitions:

  • Legato: A vanilla legato is where the previous finger releases the key as the next one is being put down.
  • Legatissimo: The previous finger releases the key only after the next one has been put down. Therefore the two tones overlap, and there is a brief moment where they are sounding together. However, the ear will not perceive this as disssonance, because the overlap doesn’t last long enough. We hear it rather as a blending of the two tones as the attack of the second one is masked by the remnants of the first. It is even possible to overlap a series of notes, known as finger pedalling. In a harmonic context this is perhaps more obvious, as we are controlling selected dampers by means of the finger rather than by means of the foot (in conventional use of the sustaining pedal). If done skillfully, this can be done in scale passages, as long as the offending tones are released before the ear has had a chance to perceive the effect as dissonant, which would obviously be offensive.

Degrees of separation (percentages are obviously approximate, to give the general idea):

  • staccato: (bog standard) 50% sound/50% silence
  • staccatissimo: 25/75
  • mezzo staccato: 75/25
  • tenuto/portamento: 90/10

As a general rule, the greater the separation before a note, the greater the sense of accent. Instead of a generic slur, the gap can be almost imperceptible.

General Guidelines

  • Separate before a syncopation
  • Patterns of notes in conjunct motion tend to be more legato, disjunct motion less so.
  • The larger the interval, the greater the separation
  • In dotted rhythms in sharply rhythmical pieces, the dot may become a rest.

This post doesn’t feel quite finished (no surprise – this is a vast subject!). I think I will revisit it as new thoughts come to me. As ever, feel free to add your own comments.

I’ll leave you with the great keyboardist, George Malcolm, recounting an experience in the greenroom after a recital where a student quizzed him on this very question.

For Further Reading

Richard Troeger: Playing Bach On The Keyboard (Pompton Plains, NJ; Cambridge: Amadeus, 2003).


This post is part of a collection on using Baroque urtext scores and interpreting Baroque music at the piano. the following is an index of links to the full collection of posts:

  1. Introduction – A User’s Guide (click here)
  2. Dynamics (click here)
  3. Articulation (click here)
  4. Tempo and Rhythm (click here)

The Baroque Urtext Score – Tempo and Rhythm (4)

I was hoping this would be the last post in this series, but I can’t quite squeeze everything I want to say in this week’s offering, so I crave your indulgence and will wrap it up next week when I bring some loose ends together.

Fortunately, I have already covered ornamentation in my very first two blogposts ever (probably because I wanted to get it out of the way?). If you haven’t read them, please see the bottom of this page for an index of links.


I don’t want to get bogged down in complex baroque theory about time signatures, “good and bad” notes, etc., as outlined in the numerous treatises of the period. The subject is too vast for this. The purpose of this post, along with the others in the series, is simply to highlight the main areas of concern in the form of a potted digest so you can feel empowered, not restricted and even more confused! Thus I will touch on the most important areas and leave you to fill in the gaps – the reading list at the end is a good starting point.


Baroque musicians would have worked on the principle of a hierarchy of beats, the first beat of the bar the strongest, the last beat the weakest. 2/4 time was felt as “strong-weak”, 3/4 as “strong-weak-weaker”, and 4/4 as “strong-weak-less strong-weaker”. I am sure we all remember this from elementary theory lessons. This really doesn’t apply to the same extent in romantic and modern music – a residue of this remains but factors such as the long legato line and other phrasing/accentuation modifiers have diluted it and smoothed things out significantly (except, perhaps, for characteristic forms such as waltzes, marches and so on). But this metric scheme would have been at the fore for the baroque musician as a starting point, a sort of template perhaps, which is why too smooth and even a reading of a baroque score misses the mark somehow.

Time Signature

The time signature in the baroque period carries a lot of information regarding tempo. The general principle is that the larger the lower number, the faster the tempo and the lighter the feel. Thus 3/2 is slower, heavier and grander than 3/4, and 3/8 faster and lighter than 3/4. The gigues with a time signature of 12/16 are therefore faster and lighter than had they been assigned a time signature of 12/8. Tempo Giusto is a theoretical “ideal” tempo for a given movement, taking into account the time signature and the length of the note values.

Tempo Adjectives

Bach uses these rarely – they can either corroborate the implications of the time signature or modify these. Thus an andante marking in a piece in 2/4 will indicate not only a slower tempo than otherwise, but that the music moves in quavers rather than the crotchets implied by the time signature. It is generally thought that the order, from slowest to fastest of the six words most often used by Bach is largo, adagio, andante, allegro, vivace, and presto. Andante tends to smooth out the usual metric hierarchy by eliminating the distinction between strong and weak beats, and adagio can simply mean slow down or relax the tempo, rather than its modern meaning of very slow.

Dance Movements

We will not get very far without knowing the various characteristics of the dance movements that make up the traditional suite. Very briefly, the format is:

  • allemande (slowish) – stately, dignified, unhurried.
  • courante (fastish) – two forms (French – thicker, contrapuntal texture with hemiolas, brisk but not too fast; Italian – semiquaver running passages, thinner texture and faster).
  • sarabande (slow) – two forms (sarabande grave – thick texture, heavily embellished, slow; sarabande simple – thinner texture, slow but let it move).
  • gigue (fast)

There may be an opening prelude (English Suites), or an opening movement by some other name (Partitas), and there will also be additional dance movements that pad out the suite. These are known as gallanteries (bourée, gavotte, minuet, passepied, etc.) and are usually placed between the sarabande and the gigue.

Furthermore, we need to recognise that certain abstract pieces (variations, preludes, fugues, etc.) may also fall into the category of a particular dance even though it has no title per se. For me, the Prelude in F minor from Book I of the 48 has all the hallmarks of an allemande. Because allemandes of this nature move in semiquavers, I can bring to this prelude my knowledge of all of Bach’s allemandes in my choice of tempo (and other matters of style). I would also say that if we aspire to be serious players of Bach, we should acquaint ourselves not only with all of Bach’s allemandes (and that includes those in the cello and lute suites, the violin Partitas, and so on), but also those of his predecessors whose music Bach would have known. This way we get the roundest and fullest picture. I can find many other examples like this (the C sharp minor Fugue from Book II is absolutely a gigue).

Tempo Relationships

Glenn Gould felt that a set of variations, movements of a suite or a prelude and fugue could somehow be linked by a tempo relationship based on a fixed tactus, to which each movement or variation would be related by a certain proportion (say 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 2:3, etc.). Whether Bach would have done this either consciously or not we don’t know, but it is very comforting for the listener and player alike that consecutive movements be connected in this very practical way. I feel strongly that a prelude should not be disconnected from its fugue by removing the hands from the keyboard, and (worse) blowing one’s nose. The prelude leads into the fugue, the release of the last note of the prelude connecting with the first note of the fugue in an organic gesture. So it is with the movements of a suite, for the most part (after a long and expressive sarabande, it might be appropriate to pause, but I don’t think it is a good idea to break the flow of energy completely). In the Goldberg Variations, I have usually divided the work into three lots of ten variations (here I do remove my hands and take a few seconds’ breather), but it can also be thought of as two lots of fifteen variations (the mid-point is where performers of yesteryear would have programmed an interval, not the norm nowadays).

For want of a better place to put these, I round off with two important matters on rhythm.

The Variable Nature of the Dot

In baroque notation, the dot is variable and flexible. It may augment the value of the dotted note by less than half (under-dotting) in expressive music, by half (standard dotting), or by more than half (over-dotting) in fast or energised music, including in some cases by half as much again as standard dotting (double-dotting). The use of the double dot to elongate the note further, where the second dot is worth 1/4 of the note, did not come into general use until the mid-eighteenth century. The notation may, however, be found in Jean-Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, Louis Couperin and Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (amongst others), but Quantz was the first to actually discuss double dotting.

While double-dotting can occasionally be found notated by double dots from about the middle of the baroque period, and by tied notes from earlier, no significant difference seems to have been generally intended. As usual, the basic fact is that baroque notation was habitually casual and inconsistent to the eye, though by no means to be taken casually or inconsistently in performance. The variable dot of baroque notation is simply one more instance of this general attitude.

To this day, considerable leeway is possible with dotted rhythms.

Rhythmic Assimilation

One should synchronise the hands when dotted rhythms occur in one part simultaneously with triplets, or dotted rhythms at twice the speed in another. This is mandatory in some cases, such as when a dotted rhythm is written together with triplets. In other cases, it is up to the performer to decide. This convention lasted well into the romantic period.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Pillars of the Baroque Establishment:

Johann Joachim Quantz, On Playing the Flute, transl. Edward R. Reilly (London: Faber, 1966).

Johann Philipp Kirnberger, The Art of Strict Musical Composition, transl. David Beach and Jurgen Thym (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1982).

Johann Mattheson, Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739).

Johann Gottfried Walther, Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig, 1732).

C.P.E. Bach, Essay on the True Art of playing Keyboard Instruments, transl. William J. Mitchell  (New York, W.W. Norton, 1949).

Newer Kids on the Block:

Richard Troeger, Playing Bach on the Keyboard: A Practical Guide (Cambridge: Amadeus Press, 2003).

Paul Badura-Skoda, Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).


This post is part of a collection on using Baroque urtext scores and interpreting Baroque music at the piano. the following is an index of links to the full collection of posts:

  1. Introduction – A User’s Guide (click here)
  2. Dynamics (click here)
  3. Articulation (click here)
  4. Tempo and Rhythm (click here)