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Oxford University Press

Bach's Notation of Tempo


Author(s): Klaus Miehling and Bernard Sherman
Source: Early Music, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2001), pp. 153-155
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3519107
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Correspondence
Bach'snotation of tempo

body can reflect on the things himself, and observe by


considering the text and the harmony, where a slow or
fast beat should be taken.')'
The next point is the question of triple time tempo
ordinario-'a point of significanceto this article',as Sherman says (p.456). Without quoting contemporaryevidence he suggests for 3/4 the same crotchet speed as for c.
This precondition leads him to criticize HIP tempos of
'Ach, mein Sinn' (St John Passion) and of the 'Cruxifixus'
(in 3/2, B minor Mass) as too fast.
First let us consider that the ear can divide c time
always into units of two crotchets, while 3/4 time has
three crotchets as its smallest perceptible unit. So if we
want to have comparabletempo units, the 3/4 has to be
50 per cent faster, leading to an ordinariorange of MM
97.5 to 142.5(with Sherman'sgenerous margin). Also in
Renaissance and early Baroque music this sesquialtera
proportion seems to be the most used between common
and triple time.
Again, if we look at Heinichen's tempos-the only
ones we know from Germanyin Bach's lifetime-we see
that he tends to have the beat fasterin triplethan in common time. I must admit, however, that there is no pair
that would be perfectly comparableas to tempo indication and note values.
Fuhrmann,eventuallyquoted by Sherman,says of the
Triplaminima = 3/4 measure:'gehet hurtig' ('goes fast')3
and postulates that the 'kleinen Tripel' (including 3/4)
should be used in Pieces 'so eine geschwinde Bewegung
erfordern'('that requirea fast movement').
Finally, look at Quantz: MM 80, which to him is an
Allegrettoin c, becomes Adagio cantabilein 3/4! That is
even twice as fast as his Adagiocantabilein c.4
So there is plenty of evidencethat 3/4 is normallyfaster
than c: by 50 per cent or even loo per cent. Therefore,the
listed HIP tempos for 'Ach, mein Sinn' with MM 96-115
are a ratherslow tempoordinario,while the MM 77 or 90
in traditional recordings, preferred by Sherman, are
about the range of Adagiocantabile!Whetherthis piece is
a sarabande-well, there are elements that would fit, but
others don't: for example the plain whole bar note in all
parts in bar 2; and the continuo playerswould in the first
bars think rather of a passacaille,which has in France
selbstennachdencken/ vnd ex considerationeTextus almost exactly the range of the mentioned HIP tempos
& Harmoniaeobservieren,wo ein langsameroder (being slower than the chaconne-for Mattheson and
geschwinderTactgehaltenwerdenmiisse.'('Butevery- Quantz, as we know, the passacailleis even faster).

BernardD. Sherman'sarticle 'Bach's notation of tempo


and early music performance: some reconsiderations'
(EM, xxvii/3 (Aug 2000), pp.454-66) contains interesting
observationson tempo practicewith traditional and-as
he calls it-historically informed performance (HIP)
players,and gives us a lot to reflect on the difficult question of Bach'stempos.
I can't share his opinion, however, that the mentioned
examples of HIP tempos are 'less historical than slower
pre-HIP tempos' (p.455).
The range of common time tempoordinarioof MM 80
with some margin (MM 65-95, as Sherman suggests)
seems to me all right. But is every piece in e without a
tempo indication such a tempoordinariopiece?In spite of
Sherman's rather generous margin there is at least one
example that proves the opposite: Heinichen's Laetatus
sum a3 should be such a kind of tempo ordinariopiece,
but its duration of '4 min.' leads to MM 106, being more
a slowish Allegrothan a tempoordinario.'And as to Bach:
many of his concerto opening movements have no tempo
indication-I don't think that could mean a tempoordinario,but an Allegro,since it was clear to the performers,
that a concerto with three movements starts with a fast
one. Also to me the movements that are unmarkedin one
version and Allegroin an other don't mean differenttempos. There is such a lot of proof in contemporarywritings
that the 'true movement' of a piece is of the highest
importance for its character-it seems hardly believable
that, for example, the first movement of the violin concerto in E major (Allegro)is fast, but the 'same' in the D
major version for harpsichord would be a remarkably
slower tempoordinario.Since both versions are marked?,
not c, one may argue that a tempo ordinarioin ? would
match with an Allegroin c, so the indication in the violin
version is redundant. But, of course, there are similar
concerto movements having c, and without a tempo indication.
Also Bach'sturbaeare fast in my opinion. Here it is the
affect of the text that makes the tempo clear to the performers.AlreadyPraetorius,in a time when the tactus, or
call it tempoordinarioprinciple,was more topical than in
Bach's days, wrote: 'Es kan aber ein jeder den Sachen

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153

Sherman does not say which tempo he would prefer them using the notion of the 'true', 'appropriate'tempo,
for the 'Cruxificus'. But it is clear that, for example, intended by the composer. So, although performersmay
Harnoncourt's MM 77 ('studio speed record') seems to
disagree about what the true tempo of a certain piece is,
him too fast. Well, as was said before, this is a Quantz thereis one.
KLAUS MIEHLING
Adagio cantabile (he does not discern between 3/4 and
3/2). And as we found that it is natural for 3/4 to be in
Freiburgim Breisgau
sesquialterato c, it seems plausible that 3/2, traditionally Notes
slower, keeps the ordinariobeat at MM 65-95. Harnon- 1 On all the examplesby Heinichenmentioned,see
K. Miehling,'Autographe
in
court's referring to the passacagliais correct as to the
Auffihrungsdauerangaben
der Kirchenmusik
von J.D. Heinichen.Einvorliufiger
composing technique over a bassoostinato,but not as to
the kind of Air du caractare,which would be remarkably
Bericht', Musik und Kirche,v (1993), pp.266-76.
2 MichaelPraetorius,
musicitomustertius
faster.
Syntagmatis
(Wolfenbiittel, 1619;R/Kassel, 1978), p.51.
Now I come to the significanceof Andante.Shermanis
an
(Frankfurt
not quite correct in saying that Quantz like Fuhrmann 3 Heinrich:Fuhrmann,Musicalischer-Trichter
der Spree, 1706), p.48.
'categorizesAndante among the slow tempo markings'
4 JohannJoachimQuantz,VersucheinerAnweisungdieFlite
(p.460). The only Andante Quantz mentions is Poco
traversierezu spielen (Berlin, 1752;R/Kassel, 1983), pp.264f.
Andante, corresponding to Adagio cantabile.So if Poco
5 Quantz, Versuch,p.263.
Andanteis slow, then Andantewould be faster.(Compare 6 In
my above-mentionedarticlethereis a misprint:for
the Andante un poco from Bach's Sonata in A major for
'5 min.' read '3 min.' (p.268).
violin and harpsichord with a 'walking bass' in semi- 7 JohannDavidHeinichen,Der General-Bass
in derComposition (Dresden, 1728;R/Hildesheim, 1969), P-332.
quavers.) I agree with Sherman that for c MM 60 is a
'middle' Andante tempo; however, Quantz fails to mention it.
But is this also an adequatetempo for the Preludein B
minor from Thewell-temperedclavier,book i, as Sherman
implies (p. 460)? (At least he calls the averageMM 70 of
modern pianistshaving 'more historicalsupport'than the
BernardShermanreplies:
fasterinterpretations.)
Quantz makes very clear that the note values indicate Dr Miehling's comments are of great value and reveal
the type of movement. The Allabreveis twice as fast as the
impressive knowledge. But I am not sure that they disordinarycommon time ('gemeinergeraderTact'), and the prove my basic assertions.
note values are consequentlydoubled.5Of course, Quantz
demands that ? should be used with the Allabreve,but 1 Regardingc, my viewpoint is less sweeping than the
obviously most composers do not follow him-look at one Dr Miehling imputes to me. ('is everypiece in ewithHandel. Take also Heinichen's 'Credidi propter quod out a tempo indication such an tempoordinariopiece?'he
locutus sum' with c, without a tempo indication and asks.Clearlynot, and not even I have said it was.) I would
minim (!) MM 142, or better:MM 71 for the semibreve, state my position thus: when we have a carefullynotated
since crotchets are the fastestnotes.6 The use of c in even source (e.g. a complete set of autographparts), we can
this kind of Allabreveis admitted by Heinichen in his usually assume that if Bach wanted a tempo that felt
'General-Bassin der Composition'.7
extremely fast or slow he would not have marked it
So the B minor Prelude is de facto an Allabrevein
merely with the c signature.To him, e-in the absence of
certain modifying factors-indicated a tempo that felt
Quantz'ssense, and the beat should be on the minim.
I
like
to
Sherman's
attitude
more or less ordinary.
should
to
object
Lastly
Dr Miehling's counterexamples do not seem to me
towards the performerswith whom he starts, closes and
wide'
fatal
to that position. As he notes, for example,the use of
his
article.
Are
there
really 'surprisingly
garnishes
limits for one and the same piece, as Donington claims ? in the E major concertowould be enough, by my arguments, to indicate an Allegrotempo. (I have not yet found
(Sherman,p.464)? I count no fewer than 18 statementsof
17th-and 18th-centuryauthorspointing to the importance other Bach concertos that clearly disprove my position.
It might also be worth raising, parenthetically,Robert
of the correcttempo for a certainpiece of music, many of
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Marshall's
argumentthat in Bachthe tempoordinariois
slower'.I
an Allegro,ratherthansomething'remarkably
caseis
am not surewhereI standon this,but Marshall's
not easilydismissed.)
2 As for Dr Miehling'smoregeneralpoint,I am surehe
is rightthatsomepiecesin c wereplayedaboveor below
the metronomerangeI posited.But such examplesdo
not necessarily
disprovemy basicidea.Forone thing,if I
couldwritemy articleagain,I wouldstatemoreclearly
that 'ordinariness'
was definedby feeling ratherthan
numbers.Thusthe Heinichenexampledoes not violate
the gistof my assertion.TheMMthatMiehlinggivesfor
Heinichen'sLaetatussummightstill 'feel'ordinary(this
wouldespeciallybe so if '4 minutes'was an approxima-

gests that Bach himself still considered the distinction


meaningful. (He was, for example, likely to use Cin Alla
brevemovements that Altnickol copied in c.) This is part
of why I disagreewith Miehling's position regardingthe
tempo of Bach's B Minor Preludein the first book.
5 I describedthe sarabandereferencein 'Ach, mein Sinn'
as 'possible', and I still think so; I would apply the same
adjectiveto Miehling's passacaillereference. But neither
possibility, even if proven, would have conclusive implications for tempo. (Thus my brief referenceto the sarabande was of arguablerelevance,though perhapsof interest.) As for the 'Crucifixus',I did present evidence for its
having a slow tempo.

6 Regardingtriple metre, I agreethat many theorists say


that 3/4 is fasterthan c; but I believe they are referringto
3 Further,I mentionedgenre,andagreethatit wasa crit- 3/4 whose fastest prevalent note is no smaller than the
icalindicatorof tempo,andthatit mightat timesimply quaver.I do not think these theorists'statementsapplyto
fasteror slowertemposthantheotherwiseordinaryrange Bach'stypical3/4 movements (nor, I would argueon sevfor the signature.Dr Miehlingmayor maynot be right eral grounds,does the sesquialteraproportion,althoughit
that the turbaegenrewas playedwell abovethe tempo is relevantto much 17th-centurynotation). I hope to disordinario
evenwhenmarkedonlyc; but I broughtup this cuss the crotchet beat in 3/4 and c in the future; in any
genreonlyto suggestthatit is not as conclusivea coun- event, my view on it has been proposed before, e.g. by
terexampleas mayseemapparent.As for the Praetorius Marshall.I remain convinced about the examples I gave
quote,my positionwasthatwhilethe degreeof the 'slow in my article,but I agreethat triple-time tempo is a comor fastbeat'variedwidelyas a resultof suchinfluencesas plicated matter and that furtherdiscussion is needed.
tion of, say, '4:15')

textsandaffects,it normallyhadoutsidelimitsplacedon
it by the timesignature(andotherelementsof notation). 7 Finally,my differencewith Dr Miehling regardingper4 I agreethatAndantewas a complicatedbeast,andthe
termwasusedin morethanone way.WhileI am confident aboutthe moderatespeedof the 'Etin unum'and
Preludein B minor, I agreethat some contemporary
Andante movementsmoved differently.I hope that
futurediscussionwill explorethis questionfurther;Dr
Miehling'sworkwill no doubtbe importantto it.
My referenceto Andantein Quantzwasparenthetical,
not at all centralto my argument.WereI to rewritethe
articleI would not make the reference,partlybecause
Quantzis not immediatelyrelevantevidenceregarding
Bachianpracticeno matterhow one readshim. I still
hold that more relevantsources (e.g. Walther and
Fuhrmann)suggestthat Andanteindicateda slowertempoin Bach.
than-ordinary
Heinichen,too, is not necessarilya guide to Bach's
conventions.It maybe relevantthatHeinichenregarded
So did
the distinctionbetweenc and ? as old-fashioned.
some Bachpupils,e.g. Altnickol;but the evidencesug-

formers is philosophical ratherthan historical.I did not


assertthat Bach or his contemporariestook a wide range
of tempos in a given movement, or that they would have
approvedof such a range;one cannot know. Yet I uphold
the prerogativesof modern performersin these matters
regardless.Even when the composer precisely notates a
tempo using a metronome or stopwatch (or we have specific evidence of the tempo the composer used when performing a piece), I do not object to performerstaking
very differenttempos. A novel or unhistoricaltempo can
sometimes be an element of an inspired performance.
One thinks of the best work of Schnabeland Furtwingler.
I do, however, consider it valuableto learn all one can
about the composer's performance preferences,even if
one chooses to disregard them when performing. Discerning Bach's tempo preferences is indeed difficult. If
my articleencouragesdiscussion of this complex issueand if the currentexchangebrings attention to Miehling's
own fine writings on Baroquetempo-it will have done
some good.
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