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

Sample from the start of chapter 5, part 2: Overtures and Overture-style; Inequality and J. S. Bach

Before considering the opportunities for unequal performance offered by the music of J. S. Bach, one other variety of rhythmic alteration will be considered. So far, we have discovered that repetitive rhythms could be notated by simplistic means. In performance, both equal and dotted pairs of notes could be distorted in a variety of ways — or even a mixture of both of these might be used to imply a quite consistent swung rhythm. Apart from sheer convenience, this flexibility encouraged the subtleties which could result from varying the rhythm and which a more proscriptive notation would hamper. We shall now examine the flexible employment of dotted pairs of notes to indicate rhythms more extreme than a literal interpretation would imply. This phenomenon — “over-dotting” — was common in certain contexts, one being the spiky rhythmic base often used for French-style overtures and music inspired by them, where it sometimes has a close relationship to the types of rhythmic inequality already discussed.

This convention was one for which J. S. Bach’s music offers as clear a series of examples — perhaps alternatives would be a more circumspect term — as that of any of his contemporaries. Other conventions which Bach observed, and which are integral to rhythmic notation, include synchronisation (Chapter 3), and the “square” presentation of triplets (Chapter 4). This chapter will assess the suitability of some of Bach’s music to the application of notes inégales in the French manner, and will also consider whether, as proposed for several of his German contemporaries during the first part of Chapter 5, Bach’s music might benefit from a performance style which uses inequality more than is normal today, and of a kind whose application would transcend purely French criteria.


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