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

Reviews of Did Bach really mean that?

Dr Peter Mole, writing for the British Clavichord Society Journal, Spring 2011:

It should come as no surprise that Colin Booth, who will be well-known to many readers as a harpsichordist, recording artist, and harpsichord maker of distinction has waited until now to produce this work on baroque keyboard notation. Such an undertaking would be impossible without a working lifetime’s knowledge of the repertoire. Nevertheless, to produce a closely-argued work of over 300 pages, packed with musical examples, requires considerable industry and persistence. Added to which Booth has himself overseen the process of setting, printing and marketing of the text. One can only stand back and salute his energy.

Those who know Booth’s playing will also know that it is exuberant, and that he is capable of extracting considerable emotion from even the most unpromising material; not for him the academic playing of a Ralph Kirkpatrick. He is not unusual in that now (though he would have been regarded as cavalier forty years ago) but he is unusual in being able to articulate his rationale for it. His approach, as set out in this book, is based on two constructs: First, that in the baroque period, notation of music was still undeveloped and like seventeenth century spelling, inconsistent; secondly that most composers were driven by expediency, and in particular by the need to simplify and shorten the labour of notation and of the subsequent task of the engraver. Developing those contexts, Booth takes us through eight chapters of detail, beginning with the way in which the sound of a single note might be notated, through the problems inherent in notating triplets and ‘swung’ rhythms, and on to the notation and playing of ornaments. As Booth shows us, all is not as it seems. But better than that, all is not as complicated as it seems, with the consequence that much of this music emerges as technically easier than might at first be thought.

It should be said that the clavichord is not the main focus of this book; rather, it deals generically with issues in baroque keyboard music which are applicable to all early keyboard instruments. Nor are the examples drawn exclusively, or even predominantly, from the works of J S Bach, though he features prominently. But the clavichord player will find much that is of direct relevance to him or her, including discussion of approaches to pieces by Frescobaldi, Froberger, Matheson, Handel, Mozart, Haydn and many other composers who feature in most clavichordists’ repertoires.

The primary target of this book is the keen amateur and beginner professional, as befits a work which started life as lectures at Dartington, and Booth recommends that the book be read at the keyboard. That is strong medicine, and if taken, it would necessarily have to be in small doses; your reviewer was reluctant and happily found that physicke unnecessary at a first reading. But there is little in life from which all the goodness can be extracted in a single pressing: as Stephen Kovacevich comments on the dust jacket, the reader will need to ‘roll up his or her sleeves’ if the maximum benefit is to be derived from this volume, and then indeed, it will help to be seated at the keyboard.

The book is attractively produced between hard covers and is physically robust enough to last a lifetime. The text is annotated, but only lightly, making it accessible to the general reader as well as providing a valuable resource for the serious scholar or practitioner. A welcome feature is the almost complete absence of typographical errors. One minor criticism is that though there is a list of suggestions for further reading, there is no formal bibliography. Though not cheap, it represents very good value for anyone who is serious about improving as a player of baroque keyboard music.

Dominy Clements, writing for MusicWeb-International.com, February 2011:

Take a look at almost any handwritten or printed score from the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, or most later editions which haven’t been ‘got at’ by an interventionist editor, and you will be confronted with a built-in contradiction. The lack of detailed instructions in terms of dynamics, phrasing, tempi, even certain aspects of rhythm and ornamentation, can at first seem like a vision of uncluttered and liberating clarity. On the other hand, the level of creativity and inventiveness demanded of a performer in order to make expressive and exciting music out of what is little more than implied by all these rows of notes must require a depth of study which is daunting to say the least. Yes, there are now plenty of recorded examples, but do we really want to imitate other performers parrot-fashion and without questioning their interpretations in turn? Which of these resources approach any degree of accuracy, and how indeed do we know what is accurate or even approximate to what the composer intended in the first place?

As a great fan and avid collector of recordings of Bach’s keyboard music and Das Wohltemperierte Klavier in particular, I think the differences most immediately noticeable between performances is that of ornamentation and to approach when it comes to rhythm. Many readers will already know how widely interpretations can vary, ranging from attempts at absolute authenticity to the highly personal and idiosyncratic approach of someone like Glenn Gould. Until now any observations I may have had on the subject as a reviewer were based more on taste and experience rather than any scholarly knowledge of the subject, but with Colin Booth’s Did Bach really mean that? such a vague basis for criticism can now be explored and analysed in considerable depth.

Colin Booth has come up with a magnificent text, illuminated by a multitude of useful musical examples, which deals comprehensively with these problems as they arise in keyboard music of the Baroque period. Bach’s name is invoked in the title, but the examples involved cover the entire spectrum of European styles. For instance, French solutions to certain notations, such as those of Couperin or Rameau, inevitably differ from those of Germany or England. The basis for many of these notational conventions boils down to “economy of time and effort.” Any composer writing a score by hand will know how time-consuming a process it is, and the same goes for copyists and performers. All music notation is a kind of compromise, an attempt to communicate in writing something which is of its very nature more accurately communicable through “oral transmission”. We need to make considerable efforts today to revive conventions which would have been understood by contemporaries with a few marks of the Baroque composer’s pen. The development of what Booth calls the “technology” of notation has reached a peak of complexity today which is supposed to enable — in theory — any sufficiently trained musician to play accurately any modern score without a need to consult with the composer as to his intentions. Not that this is always the case, but that is the aim. In the Baroque period a menu of conventions existed which are comparable with those of jazz in our era. Putting a Big Band score in front of a classical orchestra unaware of the conventions of jazz can be considered the equivalent of where we are today presented by the notes of a Baroque composer without foreknowledge of the conventions of his day, and attempting to re-create what he would have expected to hear.

Booth’s book is therefore massively useful, and what I like about his writing is his all-embracing and non-dogmatic approach to this subject and its individual aspects. Take any point of contention with the piece you are studying, look up the easily found relevant section in this book, and your mind will be opened to the fluid nature of notation, introduced to references and statements which provide clues towards interpretation, and offered intelligent ways in which such music can be performed in a way defensible against criticisms of lack of authenticity. There is rarely a single answer to any one problem. Issues are put in context with examples, and it is then shown how Baroque composers adapted techniques to their needs. Trills for instance, can be seen notated — written out ‘in full’ by earlier composers such as Gibbons and Byrd, but given the example of Froberger with a probable element of flexibility built into their literal metric content. Symbols take the trill beyond this more restrictive practise and exist simultaneously with notated ornament, and the relationship between symbols and notated turns or appoggiaturas is explored. This is then taken into the realms of decoration in cadences, and where undecorated notation is seen against the contemporaneous instructive additional notation provided by publishers for musicians geographically removed from the music’s origins and its presumed familiarity.

Looking at the extreme précis above, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a dry and unapproachably learned tome. A fairly extensive website has been made for this book which provides a good idea about what to expect, including the first page of each chapter so you can gain an impression of the style and content. This is interesting, but does conceal a vast quality and quantity of depth which you can only obtain from the book itself. Many of the headings which appear in this book are not wholly exclusive to keyboard music, and much can be learned from universally applicable points which are as relevant to wind and string instrumentalists and even singers. As far as I can tell Colin Booth takes nothing for granted, and definitions in language as well as in notation are cleared up before the main subject is dealt with. For instance, you will be in no doubt as to the difference between a ‘grace-note’ and an ‘appoggiatura’ before the 17th century, in which late Baroque, French and English practices are further covered, along with a dose of Scarlatti’s “random approach”, the eclecticism of German composers and usage by Bach in particular. You will hardly be left with questions unanswered, and that’s only the chapter on The Single-Note Ornament.

This is a book mainly but not exclusively for performers, and its essence can be paraphrased in a comment by Steven Kovacevich on the back cover. Provided you are “prepared to roll up your sleeves” and put in the necessary work to get the best out of Colin Booth’s research in a practical way, then the gains from studying his examples and his reasoning behind them is as close to limitless as makes no difference.

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Penelope Cave, writing for BHS Sounding Board 4, May 2011

“Did Bach really mean that?” It is a catchy title. The subtitle is “Deceptive Notation in Baroque Keyboard Music.” What Colin Booth is writing about, is note-lengths. He is exploring the relevance of this subject to the music we play and the area of this study is thus both wider and narrower than its title suggests.

It is an extensive investigation and commentary on the meaning behind the written conventions that a composer employs to convey the lengths of notes; via symbols upon the page, the player alchemically communicates music. A difficult enough task at any time, and one that has promoted some innovative experiments in notation in the twentieth century involving intricate, graphic scores, but Colin Booth has set out to extrapolate the meanings behind notation as it was used nearly three centuries ago. He writes in his introduction, “...just as the meanings of many words and phrases (particularly in the spoken word) change over time, in the same way a different cultural context has altered the meanings, or removed the underlying significance of, some musical notation.”

This book does not aim to discuss what Bach later corrected or might have corrected either melodically or harmonically, what Bach might have meant, had he finished the Art of Fugue, or to convey his pedagogical, numerical or evangelistic zeal and his deepest philosophical or sentimental intentions. The strength of this very practical book lies in its focus. He is looking for elegant solutions to possibly awkward rhythmic notation in the musical works of this period, with an emphasis on Bach, but he also relates it to the intentions of composers of other periods.

Colin Booth’s knowledge of actual keyboard music is considerable and it is evidenced in the wealth of musical examples he supplies; this very breadth would allow the book to be useful for reference when meeting with rhythmic challenges. His appendices cover some relevant passages translated from Couperin, Frescobaldi, Saint Lambert, and Quantz and look in more depth at some of the notational problems within the Goldberg Variations and the Allemandes of the Six Partitas.

I have long been teaching my students to use inégalité but, having taken his ideas on board, I think, without looking for “reds under the bed”, we shall all be a bit braver about reading between the hard edges of the ink on our musical scores. Inevitably there are overlaps between the chapters but the parts build to a convincing whole and, in addition to “swing”, he covers different triplet notations, overture-style, and bravely tackles inconsistency and ornamentation, including the single note ornament.

No less than two hundred and eighty-one musical examples illustrate his desire to encourage the player to become more flexible and, in fact, more musical. Here he has the enormous advantage of being a harpsichordist worth listening to on the concert platform, and therefore one who literally practises what he preaches; for this reason, I would encourage the reader to buy some of his recordings as well as his book.