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

Sample from the start of chapter 7: Inconsistency of Notation: Shorthand, or real variety?

Chapter 6 examined specific areas of notational practice where the underlying problem was ambiguity. The music might convey more than one message. If a convention can be presumed to have been in the composer’s mind, then an ambiguous message from the notation ceases to be misleading. Beyond this, where the notation was in some way inadequate, or notational practice was undergoing a process of change, we may still be faced with the possibility that the composer did not want a literal performance. Another source of ambiguity is inconsistency. This chapter will pursue further the examination of ornamentation, which may be inconsistently applied within a piece, or may be present in one piece and absent from one of a similar character. Both situations require the player to make choices, rather than simply play the notes.

In the area of rhythm, where composers used inconsistent notation (for example, a mixture of equal and dotted pairs of notes within a movement) they also oblige us to choose between a literal performance and a rhythmically unified performance; in some cases it may be appropriate to produce something rather subtle, and neither of these extremes. We have also already observed the practice of initial rhythmic hints at the start of dance movements. This phenomenon, and that of mixed notation, will be given further consideration, with the suggestion that even in the music of generally consistent composers like François Couperin, such conventions were sometimes employed, and beyond the context of dance music.

The chapter will end with examples of the other side of the coin. While notation may contain more than one possible message, its continual development meant that more than one method was sometimes available with which a composer could notate the same thing. Some pieces can mislead the performer by offering notational variety which may be disguising a more consistent message than at first appears.


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