Tactus, Tempo & Affekt: Historical Principles & Online Resources

Baroque Tempo is a huge subject, bringing together three of the key concepts of Baroque music: the interplay between the notation and performance of rhythm (Tactus as it relates to note-values, and as it is shown by the hand); the speed of that beat and of the music it regulates; the emotional quality of the beat itself (as a physical movement) and of the music that it produces. Even within a narrowly defined period and culture – German music from the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example – a thorough survey would be way beyond the scope of a doctoral thesis. And as soon as we shift even to the following generation – CPE Bach and Quantz – there are significant changes to practices and aesthetics. So a 1-hour class and this short summary can only hope to scratch the surface.

The challenge is not that we lack sufficient historical information, nor that such questions are unanswerable. Rather, we have so much information that it is daunting to start working through it all. And – even amongst some Early Music performers – there is some reluctance to accept certain hard truths: the period dialectic is of the true way, and not of personal interpretations and free choices. Within a given period and culture, there are some minor differences of opinion between different writers, but the consensus on fundamentals is clear. There is a Wahre Art (true way) and we have to make our best attempt (Versuch) to find it!


In the 18th century, the (physical & emotional) feeling of Tempo is not just a matter of speed (mathematical quantity) but of character (emotional quality). So we need to avoid a simplistic focus on “what is the right speed” and examine original notation, historical practices of beating time, and the subtle relationship between Tempo and Affekt.


Before 1750


Early 18th-century notation is intended to indicate which note-value corresponds to the Tactus beat. That beat varies only a little in absolute speed (around one beat per second), but the emotional quality of the beat (as physical movement of the hand) and of the music that is produced, varies greatly. Notation gives detailed information: JS Bach’s D minor Prelude (from Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier) is notated in C, with triplet semiquavers: had it been notated with the same note-values, but with a time-signature of 24/16, a different beat-tempo would be implied. If he had added a tempo word, such as Allegro, this would modify the beat-tempo-Affekt from the default setting indicated by the notation. This is the concept of Tempo Ordinario (also known as Tempo Giusto): a default beat and beat-speed indicated by the notation, which can be modified by words.

We must therefore be careful to check what the original note-values, time signature and tempo words are, so that we are not misled by well-intentioned editorial interventions.

This practice is explained, with more detail than most of us can manage, in Mattheson’s Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (1719) & Der vollkommene Kapellmeister (1739)  and Walther’s Lexicon (1741). But nobody is expected to memorise the complete writings of these authors: these are reference-books. It doesn’t take long to look up 24/16 and read how it is different from C.




The underlying principle is that Compound time-signatures suggest a slower tempo with a “hop” on the last of three short notes; whereas Duple time-signatures suggest a faster tempo, with less (or no) “hop”.

The most important lesson of all is that we don’t need to invent answers: clear answers are available, if we know where to look for them.


After 1750

In 1752, Quantz gives details of an emerging practice, in which such tempo-words as allegro or adagio indicate which note-value has the “pulse”, adjusting (but not abandoning) the previous system based on time-signatures. The Adagio un poco of CPE Bach’s Sonata for harp might be counted in steady quavers, with a “slightly relaxed” feel to the quaver-beat, rather than in three very drawn-out crotchets.

Quantz defines his pulse as approximately 80 beats per minute (whereas a century previously, Mersenne’s default was 60 beats per minute).



Again, we don’t have to make guesses, or memorise an entire book. We can look up specific instructions for the particular notations at hand.

Online Resources – Scores

A mighty modern resource for answering questions about baroque music lies in the easily-accessible power of free online music-libraries, in particular IMSLP. There is no longer any excuse for using some crappy mid-20th-century edition, when original prints and holographs (manuscript in the composer’s own hand) are available free. Faster, cheaper, better! IMSLP is expanding so fast, that its own index struggles to keep pace: the most effective way to search is using Google. As an example, a Google search on “Bach 48 IMSLP” led me instantly to the Book 1 holograph, with the Prelude in question.

Harpists (and guitarists) are very attached to their old-fashioned editions, but the time has come to realise that most of what many editors have added is unhelpful or misleading, if not simply wrong. Cluttered scores (with zillions of additional pencil-markings prompted by teachers) lead to a micro-controlling mindset, which is very different from the two-point focus of baroque practice: Tactus and Text. [In instrumental music, we play in Tactus and as if we were singing some Text, with syllables, sense-groups, and meaning]


Some years ago, I stopped accepting the Grandjany arrangement as the basis for a lesson on Handel’s Harp Concerto. It’s a wonderful arrangement, and should still be played, with all the accoutrements of 1940s style. But as a lens through which to study Handel, it has so much of its own character that it utterly distorts the long view. The original Walsh print of the Handel Concerto is free online at TheHarpConsort.com:  Study Early Harps, easy to read, clear and uncluttered. Mozart’s (1778) holograph of the Flute & Harp Concerto is free online at IMSLP, easy to read, clear and uncluttered.  The holograph of CPE Bach’s Sonata is also clear to read, and the library holding it has recently made it available online.



For any other piece, you should check IMSLP for the best available free edition, before you turn up for a lesson with some crappy edition.


Crappy, clunky, expensive or free?


How do you know if the edition you are using is crappy? “Arranged for harp” is already a warning sign, and the death-sentence is confirmed by anachronistic  editorial additions [metronome marks; implausible tempo markings; long phrase-lines; such romantic favourites as legato, sostenuto, cantabile etc; other anachronisms e.g. mention of ‘pianoforte’ in a work by JSB] unless acknowleged [by being placed inside brackets].

Good old 19th-century complete editions are often available on IMSLP. These are clunky, but better than crappy mid-20th century arrangements. Recent ­Ur-text editions reflect the latest scholarship, but only if you take the trouble to read the prefaces, and they are so expensive that they mostly languish in institutional libraries. Original prints and manuscripts are not hard to read: in this period the only significant hurdle might be an unfamiliar clef. And on IMSLP, they are free and faster to access than that crappy edition we had to make do with 50 years ago.

Let this be your motto:

I Must Search [the free, online] Library before Playing [from some crappy edition]”

Online Resources – Treatises


Of course, there are many questions to be answered, when one starts from an original source. But those questions are not answered (or worse still, they are answered wrong) if you start from a crappy edition. So…. it’s time to give up that crappy habit! From now on, I’m going to encourage all my students to look up their piece on IMSLP, before they come to a lesson or class.

I recommend EarlyMusicSources.com as a huge resource of free online historical treatises and expert modern commentary (including entertaining videos on hot issues in Historically Informed Perforamnce). The famous mid-18th-century treatises are all freely available online.


Links to Mattheson and Walther (first half of the 18th-century) are above. Click from this article, or just Google.

Yeah, the books are long and in foreign languages. So use the index of chapters and Google Translate.  And maybe there is an English translation online, or a text-only version [i.e. searchable with Ctrl-F] from Project Gutenberg or wherever. Several key sources are translated on this blog, and every article here includes links to free-online original sources.


And of course, ask for help from your teacher, but after you have tried for yourself, and reached some road-block…

“Historically Informed” does not mean imitating CDs or gleaning guesses from geeky gurus. It means using Historical Information, and that information is freely available. Just Google a historical treatise or an original manuscript!


6 thoughts on “Tactus, Tempo & Affekt: Historical Principles & Online Resources

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  4. Pingback: A la recherche du TEMPO perdu: principles and practice in Baroque music | Andrew Lawrence-King

  5. Thank you so much, Andrew, for this very clear article, which, as usually, I forward to my students.

    After almost decades of experimenting and teaching, I’m about to write some thoughts or conclusions about relations tempo / mouvement (that L Mozart separates in his original German version : Tempi / Bewegung). Bewegung, as far as I understand, includes “Les Caractères de la Danse” (I.e. rythmical organisation of the drive inside of units / steps / verses / periods – depends on how people call that in which context). I’m always astonished how little hip performers (including the most well known ones) know about dances and how they are playing Sarabandas (previously supposed to be the most challenging one) like whichever 3/4 mouvement – I won’t mention the French Courantes…)

    I’ll show you some excerpts if you don’t mind.

    Thanks again, Best wishes Mg

    By the way have a look at https://www.youtube.com/user/gesterm

    I made some exemples of sarabandas these lockdown days Still going on to more sophisticated ones (Partitas etc)

    Martin GESTER +33 (0)661 79 47 75 (mob) http://www.martingester.com http://www.leparlementdemusique.com http://www.hear.fr/academie/index.php

    Message parfois dicté / possibly dictated…


    • Dear Martin,

      Thank you very much for this comment. Yes, the relationship between notated rhythms, control of speed/measure during performance, and the Affektive character of music as performed… it’s complex, and it goes right to the heart of what it is to study, perform and experience Early Music. And yes, oh yes! the significance of rhythmical organisation, within the steady count of Time itself. For the early seicento, I would call this organisation ‘aria’ (as Il Corago defines it, not meaning a melody, but precisely this kind of rhythmic – or other – patterning). And I like your linking of it to the character of dance-steps. I have been considering how to write about this patterning for French 17th-century dances, and I’d be absolutely fascinated to see your thoughts about it for the mid-18th.

      As I’m sure you know, there are many German sources that consider the difference and relationship between Time and (musical) Movement. And in another repertoire, Esses’ book on Spanish Dances does a marvellous job of correlating dance-types with literary citations, in order to find the area of Affekt associated with each type. It would be interesting to do something similar for French dances: there are plenty of Lully airs that we can identify confidently with a specific dance-type, and each text would reveal the underlying Affekt. This could then be connected to what is already known from dance, gesture and fine-art sources that address the relationship of physical movements and Affekt. We could then hope to develop a more richly interconnected awareness of Time, musical Movement, physical movement, metrical feet, and Affekt, organised into dance-types. And we could see what changes, as French 17th-century dances become the standardised genres of German 18th-century music [Mattheson has a lot to say about this, of course].

      In the on-going collaboration between the continuo-players of Hesperion XXI and the Mexican traditional musicians of Tembembe, we (the European HIP-players) have come to realise that many ground-bass dance-types in Latin American baroque music are clearly differentiated from one another, perhaps in speed, certainly in ‘rhythmical organisation’ (we could call it Groove) and in Affekt, even though on paper they look identical: 3/4 and I IV V harmonies. Similarly, I’m sure there is much more for us to learn about the groove and feeling of French baroque dance-types too.

      So… looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

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