Did Bach really mean that?
Deceptive notation in baroque keyboard music
by Colin Booth

Sample from the start of chapter 2: The Long and Short of it: Note-lengths and Touch

The difference between the notated length of notes and the performed length will be a central consideration of this book. To begin with, we shall examine note-lengths as it were in isolation. These are lengths which are not connected to the relationship between notes in any group, but those which affect the very sound which the player extracts from the instrument.

The word “touch” is often used to refer to a keyboard-player’s approach to an instrument. A pianist is said to have a “heavy” or “light” touch, or a “hard” or “soft” one — descriptions which depend principally upon the dynamic control offered by the pianoforte. The harpsichordist too has a degree of control over dynamic through touch, albeit a far smaller one, while that of the organist is negligible. However, on an even more basic level, all keyboard disciplines recognise the concept of “good” and “bad” touch. This will often refer to whether the player produces undesirable noise from the instrument’s action. But Johann Joachim Quantz, writing specifically about the harpsichord in 1752, commented:

“Experience shows that if two musicians play the same instrument, one produces a better tone than the other. The reason for this must be the touch peculiar to each person.

Quantz goes on to summarise some of the aspects of technique which are critical to producing the best tone possible, and relates these recommendations to the teaching and practice of J. S. Bach, whose playing it seems pretty certain he experienced at first hand, towards the end of Bach’s life. The passage is reproduced in full in Appendix F.

The word “touch”, however, may focus, in a less pejorative way, on the duration of the notes themselves. We can therefore refer to a legato touch, or one which is more detached. The way keyboard-players approach the duration of the notes they play is a subtle, and indeed a personal matter. But when dealing with music written two centuries ago or more, it is not enough just to say that a musician’s instinct is sufficient. We should be aware of any significant difference between the “touch” known to have been used by players in general of a particular bygone period, and those of our own, or of another period and place. If there really was a difference, was it simply a matter of a different taste? Or were there more universally valid musical reasons which we should not ignore?


See the sample from the next chapter, or buy the book.