A la recherche du TEMPO perdu: principles and practice in Baroque music

This article is the mid-term review from a course about Early Music on Modern Harp that I’m teaching for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London. And as a general introduction, it could be relevant for any student of 18th-century music. Our case-studies are movements by J.S. Bach, Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Pescetti and Mozart.

The previous article in this series looked at online source materials and the significance of tempo as more than just ‘musical speed’. In baroque music, tempo is rather the emotional quality of music, produced by the act of beating Tactus for a particular note-value.





“Versuch über die wahre Art”


Historically Informed Performance is not a matter of personal interpretation. There is a true way, that we attempt to find. That way changes according to period and culture/language.

Before 1800, Art is not the ‘freedom of the artistic genius’, but rather a set of organising principles. Within those principles, there is space for individuals to make personal choices.

We know what is correct, not by imitating CDs or listening to modern-day Early Music gurus, but by finding a broad consensus amongst relevant historical sources.


Historically Informed?

Probably, an original source of the music will be accessible and legible. But compared to a modern edition, some information will be “missing”. We supply that information from historical treatises.

Yes, a 19th, 20th or 21st century edition will give more information, but how reliable is that information? Fortunately, we can check for ourselves: usually easily, free and online.

For example: circa 1750, we need an indication of speed. We reframe the question in terms of historical Tactus: “Which note-value goes with the beat in Allegro, and in Adagio?”. And – approximately – how fast is that beat?” The answers are in Quantz, whose ‘pulse’ is around 80 beats per minute. See Tactus, Tempo & Affekt.

“Time is the Soul of Music.”

We count with a Tactus pulse, around 60 (1630s) to 80 (1750s). But during this same period, the feeling was that music had become slower, with some up-tempo markings like 6/8 being played slower, and with more feeling (Empfindsamkeit), according to Mattheson. Quantz gives new information about which note-value goes with the pulse, according to the tempo-words.

The physical feeliing of beating Tactus is linked to the emotional feeling of the quality of the music: if you haven’t studied your music whilst beating Tactus, you have missed a vital insight into its emotional quality.

Read Time: the Soul of Music

The Practice of Tactus 



Fingering ~ Language

Bowing (for violins, viols etc), tonguing (flutes, oboes etc) and fingering (keyboards, harp, lute etc) mimick Good/Bad syllables, or (later) the joining/separating of syllables into sense groups, say 2-5 notes at a time (perhaps even a few more, if there is continuous fast stepwise movement, i.e. a scale). We could call this the ‘mini-phrase’.



Harmony is the result of weaving together the strands of individual polyphonic ‘voices’. In how many ‘voices’ is your piece written? How strictly is this maintained?




From a post-modern perspective we can see that whereas mainstream performance looks for consistency and evenness, baroque music is all about contrast. That contrast can be on the short-term level, note-by-note. It’s all held together by stable rhythm at the Tactus level. Inside the regular Tactus, there can be (carefully organised) irregularity in shorter note-values.


Good & Bad


Good & Bad syllables in the language are set to Good/Bad notes in music, and played with Good/Bad fingers (bowing or tonguing). See Good, Bad & the Early Music Phrase.

We can use Quantz’s flute-tonguing syllables, e.g. didll-di,  to sing the phrases of the piece we are studying. This helps us use our subconscious awareness of language rules to decide questions of fingering.



We have to integrate each element of contrast with the steady beat of the Tactus.

  1. Find the Tactus/note-value connection for the movement at hand.
  2. Take a few notes and consider Good/Bad (also known as Long/Short)
  3. Play Good/Bad with Tactus


The ‘mini-phrase’

In later music, there is the idea of moto perpetuo – remember The Flight of the Bumble Bee? And frequently, mainstream performance looks for the longest possible phrase without breathing in-between.

For Early Music, it’s better to think the opposite way. What is the shortest possible sense-group? This is the ‘mini-phrase’, or in HIP-speak Figure. Try singing, but NOT with da da da. Use Frank Sinatra dooby-doo, or Quantz diddle-dee, so that you apply Good/Bad syllables: not every note the same!.

You may find that notes written in equal note-values become quite dissimilar, in order to stay with the Tactus. In order to maintain the Tactus, the last note needs to be short and light.

Once a pattern is established in the first mini-phrase, preserve that pattern. If something happens to change the pattern, change and try to preserve the new pattern.


Mini-phrases in JS Bach “Prelude”


Miniphrases in Handel “Concerto”


Miniphrases are notated in CPE Bach “Sonata”, and implied (red slur) by instructions for performing ornaments in his “Versuch”.



Notes that move by step tend to be more legato, perhaps joined within the mini-phrase. Notes that jump tend to be more staccato, perhaps indicating the separation between one mini-phrase and the next.

The break or breath between phrases is often ‘after the 1’.

Late 18th-centuring bowing, tonguing and (harp or keyboard) fingering often joins together the notes of a mini-phrase.

Miniphrases, staccato & legato, repeating pattern A & contrast B, in Pescetti “Sonata VI”


Breaks & Breaths

The mini-phrase might be very short, so that you don’t necessarily breathe at every break. Imagine yourself speaking, powerfully and slowly, to a large audience in a grand hall with a big acoustic:

“You would… break up…. the words… into short…. sense-groups.  [BREATH]  But you might not…. actually breathe…. at every break.”

For the piece of music at hand, test your ideas about where to breathe, by singing with Good/Bad syllables, Tactus, and real breaths (actually taking in oxygen). You will probably find it’s too much to breathe at every mini-phrase. Experiment… Keep the Tactus! Perhaps 2 or 3 mini-phrases go to a breath.

Remember the goal is contrast, not homogeneity. So we can allow a pattern to develop where there is a consistent irregularity of note-lengths within each mini-phrase, repeated from one mini-phrase to the next for as long as the pattern persists, with breaths every 2 or 3 mini-phrases… and all unified by steady Tactus.


Breath /, every 2 miniphrases in JSB


Breath / every 4 miniphrases A, then every 2 A, then change of pattern B; legato & staccato in GFH


Miniphrases, breaths /, and  patterning A, in CPE


Breaths /, in Pescetti



Just as we learned in Harmony 1.01, there are three elements: Preparation, Dissonance, Resolution. We need to perform these three elements: understand them, feel them, communicate them.

Preparation: we bring our attention, and we alert the audience, to a certain note, to one particular polyphonic voice.

Dissonance: ouch! Another voice collides with the prepared note, creating a dissonance.

What is the emotional flavour of this particular clash? How intense is it? Sometimes ‘it hurts so good’…

Resolution: relax…. The pain is eased.

Chained dissonances: Sometimes the resolution produces another dissonance. How are the two emotional flavours different? Which is more intense?


Quantz categorises dissonances


Quantz shows the intensity of dissonances


Read Evan Jones’ article on Quantz’ dissonances.

Read David Ledbetter’s article on Quantz’s Adagio.

  1. Play through Quantz’s example.
  2. Find, and taste the dissonances in your piece.



Here (below) is an unreliable edition of perhaps Mozart’s best-known Piano Sonata. It’s good harp-repertoire too.


  1. What is the date of composition?
  2. And of the first edition?
  3. What is the earliest edition available on IMSLP?
  4. What is the best edition available on IMSP?
  5. Why is the autograph MS not on IMSLP?
  6. What is the exact marking for the tempo of the first movement, in Mozart’s own handwriting?
  7. What is the time signature in the first edition?
  8. What is Quantz’s pulse-tempo recipe for this?

Bonus Question

9. How much mis-information can you find in the bad edition above?

All answers are available free online with just couple of clicks. No advanced research techniques are needed for questions 1-7.

Hint for Q1,2

Hint for Q5, 6, 7

Hint for Q8


“Deep Thought” from Bulwer’s (1644) gesture-book





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