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)

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