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!

Prattica di Retorica in Musica – Dispositio

This is the second post inspired by an April Fools’ Day joke, for which I faked up the title page of an imaginary Baroque treatise on The Practice of Rhetoric in Music, starting several trains of thought: Why does such a book not exist? What might it have contained? What would we hope to learn from it? What is lacking in modern-day writing on Musical Rhetoric? And why shouldn’t I try writing it for myself?



The first post in this series,  Prattica di Retorica in Musica – Inventio, introduces the project by means of the Five Canons of Rhetoric and imagines the first pages of our Unicorn-Book, which might include an Address to the Reader and a Dedicatory Poem.

The next pages would probably consist of the Table of Contents, i.e. an ordered list of chapter-headings. For a book-printer, this table would only be assembled once the main body-text was complete. But for a rhetorical writer, these chapter-headings are advance planning of the structural organisation of the material: they present that second Canon of Rhetoric, the Dispositio (Arrangement).



Arranging the Dispositio


In an endlessly recursive process, the structuring of any writing on Rhetoric is itself a work of Rhetoric. My material for this project is the Practice of Rhetoric in Music, and the organisation of this material is inspired by the Modes of Rhetoric, in the style of a list of book-chapters, which I have considered – consciously and subconsciously – over the last month. Turning ideas over in your mind is linked to the processes of memory, which (as modern science tells us) is not merely the recall of fixed data, but a creative process of apprehending, reviewing, connecting and reassembling complex understandings. And now I deliver this structure to you…

In this blog-post, the Dispositio is now my material, which I have organised into two sections (this discursive article, and – below – the presentation of the list itself), in two contrasting styles (modern-day semi-formal prose and 17th-century formal list), carefully considered, and delivered in this blog-post.

The style – a list of chapters – has also become material to be discussed here, and functions as an organising device that delivers new thoughts.

The processes of memory and thought likewise are now material to be written about, functioning to organise themselves by thinking about thoughts, to refine style, and (by remembering memories) to deliver results.

Those results are the material that will be organised, stylised, considered and delivered as the output of the entire project.

And – just in case you didn’t notice – that 5-paragraph description of the nested processes of writing rhetorically about Rhetoric was itself rhetorically made: its material was the rhetoric of Rhetoric, its organisation was iteratively rhetorical, the style was as rhetorically clear as I could make it, it seemed to spring from my mind as if I were remembering something I already knew, and I delivered it in a happily spontaneous flow.

So now you have a rhetorical account of a rhetorically made description of the rhetorical process of writing about Rhetoric. And we could continue this all night, unless you counter with a refutatio or I reach a peroratio!


Digressio – an allegorical digression


One of the period delights of Rhetoric was the enjoyment of rhetorical discourse for its own sake, like an athlete enjoying the working of their own muscles during training, or a spectator watching that athlete. If the spectator is also an athlete, there is an opportunity to learn, or to sharpen ones analytical insight. Which muscle moved there, and what effect did it have? We can compare the trained and untrained body, we can notice the physical results and competetive benefits of particular training exercises for specific applications. If we are fans or practitioners of Rhetoric, we can observe its work whenever we encounter words.


Thesis – back to the underlying concepts


I will probably re-organise this Dispositio as I go along. But it is currently linked to these thoughts:

The ‘original book’ does not exist, perhaps because Rhetoric was so deeply internalised for musicians of this period that they applied it, without needing further instruction, to any means of expression. In another sense, every period treatise on music discusses the Practice of Rhetoric because music itself is a rhetorical art: to practise music is to practise rhetoric. My task is then not to invent new principles, but to identify (from amongst well-researched historical practices) instances where rhetoric is at work in music.

As musicians, we hope for clear practical advice, for tools that can be applied in the rehearsal room and in performance. As performers, we hope for ideas that will be effective with our audiences.

This is perhaps what is lacking in the modern literature on musical rhetoric. After reading some scholarly tome, we may think “how interesting, how beautiful!”, but we may not have a clear strategy of how to apply its ideas in our next rehearsal. At best, we might hope that it has given us some inspiration that will emerge in our musicking, by some mysterious process. I do believe in inspiration and mysterious processes, but in the rehearsal room (or as an individual’s pre-performance mantra), we usually need concise, precisely encapsulated suggestions, rather than yards of woffle and dollops of hope.

What period sources there are, and also much modern writing on musical rhetoric, tend to concentrate on Figures and Tropes. And whilst knowing stuff is fun, and knowing what anaphora is helps one notice when anaphora is at work, that doesn’t necessarily let you know what to do with anaphora, no matter how many times you see or hear anaphora in an aphorism, no, no! And even if you know that the use of adnominations and homophones is not strictly anaphora, this doesn’t necessarily help your audience. So although it is not wrong to define Rhetoric in terms of Figures and Tropes (and indeed, this definition becomes increasingly relevant during our period), it is not the most direct path towards practical application in music.

Since Rhetoric is directed outwards – to persuade the listener; to delight, teach and move the passions of the audience – and since we, as performers, want to put it into practice, the book we need must tell us how to apply Rhetoric to good effect. So my dispositio focuses on fundamentals of good Oratory in musicking, ideas that performers can apply in order to produce results that audiences will appreciate.


Hypothesis – focus on particular ideas


Words: Readers would expect the introduction to discuss what Rhetoric is. But we also need to consider what Music is – and what Science, Art and Practice are too – because our modern assumptions differ from period understandings.

Ethos: Rhetoric is delivered by one person to others: we must consider who does what.

Logos: The most important section of the book should link the performance of music to Good Delivery in Oratory. The more our musicking deals with words, the more eloquent its oratory will be.

Pathos: The most profound result we hope for is to move the passions of our listeners. This Part tells you how to do it.

Kairos: How does the moment of opportunity for Rhetoric present itself? Shifting the focus from historical practices to the ephemeral instant of performance, Plato’s eternal now, this Part attempts to reconcile period understandings of Rhetoric and Humours with 21st-century neuro-science. What is the structure of magic in music?




The vital heart of Rhetoric, which sends the life-giving Sanguinity of passion to the singer’s voice and the instrumentalist’s hands, is structure. How dry that might seem, how Melancholy! But this sturdy, earthborne structure supports a mighty tower, rising proudly as if with Choleric ambition to reach the highest heavens of eloquent beauty.

The achievement of our art must be to conceal the scaffolding and reveal the architecture. But the process of building begins with a well-wrought foundation. Dispositio precedes elocutio.






The Introductory Part: on Words


What is Rhetoric?

What is Grammar?
What is Logic?
Eloquentia Perfecta

What is Music?

What is Practice?

What is Art?
What is Science?

What is the Practice of Rhetoric in Music?

What is the Art of Rhetoric in Music?
What is the Science of Rhetoric in Music?


The First Part: on Ethos


The Practice in Music of the Five Canons of Rhetoric

The Practice in Music of the Three Aims of Rhetoric

The Practice in Music of the Topics of Rhetoric

The Practice in Music of the Four Modes of Rhetoric


The Second Part: on Logos


The Practice in Music of the Decorum of Rhetoric

Of Oratory
Of Syllables
Of Consonants
Of Vowels
Of Joining & Separating
Of Meaning
Of Intention
Of Genres
Of Place
Of Time


The Third Part: on Pathos


The Practice in Music of the Four Humours of Rhetoric

The Practice in Music of the Gestures of Rhetoric

The Practice in Music of the Figures of Rhetoric

The Fourth Part: on Kairos

Of the Mind

Of  New Language of Persuasion







Frescobaldi Rules, OK?



Frescobaldi’s Preface to his 1615 collection of Toccate & Partite, transcribed at Early Music Sources here, is often cited in discussions of rhythm and tempo in early 17th-century music, but one less often encounters more profound analysis of what he actually wrote. The flowery script of the original isn’t easy to read and it’s been removed from IMSLP, but there is another transcription here (along with many other interesting historical source materials). Since Frescobaldi compares his style to concerted vocal/instrumental music, his Rules are relevant to ensemble situations well beyond solo keyboard-playing. Nevertheless, we should be cautious: precisely where and when can we apply the Frescobaldi Rules? Just how do they work in practice?

Frescobaldi – NOT!

All too frequently, we are told that “Frescobaldi says you can change the Tactus, so you can do anything that you like”. This is not only an over-simplification, but a gross distortion: Frescobaldi specifies very particular genres, situations and ways in which the Tactus might be changed. More insidiously, it implies that we can ignore the context within which Frescobaldi offered his carefully worded advice. If we replace Frescobaldi’s underlying principles with an unexamined assumption of 20th-century rubato, it is highly likely that we will misconstrue his instructions.

Toccatas and Recitative

Some Historically Informed musicians have compared the Frescobaldian toccata to Recitative. This is a thoughtful contribution, that usefully reminds us of the importance of vocal music, and by implication, Text, to this instrumental genre. But sometimes the argument is presented thus: “Frescobaldi’s toccate are like recitatives. Recitative is the most expressive genre of music. Expression demands rhythmic freedom. Therefore both toccate and Recitatives are rhythmically free”.

Every step of that argument is problematic. Frescobaldi does not mention Recitative. Circa 1600, the word Recitative was rarely used to denote the new style that we know from the first ‘operas’. See F. W. Sternfeld, ‘A Note on Stile Recitativo’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 110 (1983-1984) 41-44. [This article is not openly available online, but please contact me if you can’t find it via your library]. And when the word Recitative is used, it means something different.
Recitare means ‘to act’ whether in a spoken play, a sung opera, or in silent pantomime. See Il Corago, here.  Musica recitativa thus means ‘acted music’, dramatic music: it can include aria, which in this period means any repeated unit in text, rhythm of music. So the line ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’ is, in 17th-century terms, an aria within a recitative. (See Il Corago again.)
What we (mistakenly) call ‘recitative’ today, speech-like melodic patterns over a slow-moving bass (as described by Peri in the Preface to Euridice, see my annotated translation here) was called modulatione by Il Corago. Even the solo-plus-accompaniment texture of monody is rarely seen in the ‘expressive’ sections of toccate, where there is usually melodic interest in two upper parts, if not throughout the entire polyphonic texture.
So much for Frescobaldi and Recitative. Meanwhile, the baroque aim is not to ‘express’ the performer’s emotions, but to move the audience‘s passions. A subtle, but vital distinction! And, contrary to received opinion, there is no assumption circa 1600 that recitative is free. See The truth about Caccini’s ‘sprezzatura’ here.

Toccata & Continuo

Keyboard players sometimes draw parallels between the toccate and continuo realisation. This is another well-intentioned suggestion, that can be of use, if taken with caution. Frescobaldi’s famous injunction “not to leave the instrument empty”, but rather to fill out the sound with a rich arpeggio, certainly encourages continuo players to make their realisations sonorous and supportive. But other aspects of toccata style are not applicable to continuo realisation. Re-striking sustained notes and dissonances “as often as you like” would be intrusive, and is specifically contradicted by Peri – it would “make the course of speech stumble”. Many of the chord positions in the arpeggio sections are too high for use as continuo (many sources specify low register for continuo with added low octaves in the bass, and the ‘tuning A’ A440, A460 – whatever pitch you are using, the A in this octave – is a good rule-of-thumb upper limit for continuo realisation in this period). And as noted above, there is more polyphonic action in the toccate than would be appropriate for continuo, especially on harpsichord. Agazzari specifies that organ and harpsichord should play a simple, fundamental accompaniment, leaving “fun and counterpoints” for other instruments. See What is continuo? here.

Frescobaldi’s terminology


Frescobaldi repeatedly refers to battuta. This does not mean ‘bar’, as it does today, nor ‘beat’ in the sense of ‘the note on the third beat of bar two is F#’. Rather it refers to the renaissance concept of beating time, with a slow, steady down-and-up movement of the hand. I therefore translate battuta as Tactus. See Rhythm, what really counts here. But this battuta = Tactus was a philosophical principle, as much as a practical technique. Indeed, since the harpsichordist would have both hands occupied playing, no-one actually ‘beats time’ in a Frescobaldi toccata. The practice of beating time with the hand becomes a symbol for an abstract concept of a slow, steady measure that defines Time itself.

In this pre-Newtonian age, the definition of Time is Aristotle’s: Time is a number of movement in respect of before and after. Time is not an Absolute, in the way that we today understand so well from Newton; rather it depends upon movement. The steadiness of the Tactus is therefore essential for the reliability of Time itself. The philosophy of musica mondana (the heavenly Music of the Spheres), musica humana (the harmonious nature of the human body) and musica instrumentalis (practical music-making, whether instrumental or vocal) implies that earthly music is a microcosm of the entire universe, moving in perfect steadiness by divine power, and that music-making is linked to human well-being. If the Tactus fails, the heavens may fall. If your pulse stops, the music also dies. The image of the cosmos being turned by the hand of God gave enormous authority to the concept of the Tactus-hand, beating time for music on earth.

See Roger Mathew Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music here, and A Baroque History of Time here.

Dowland Above all things original

Changing the Tactus therefore has huge philosophical, even religious, implications. Frescobaldi therefore approaches the subject with extreme caution. So should we!


Frescobaldi frequently mentions passi, referring to the contrasting sections of his toccate. The word passo means a step, e.g. a dance-step, or a metrical ‘foot’ in poetry, so a diversity of passi suggests contrasting rhythmic structures between one section and the next. This is the opposite of the early 17th-century meaning of aria: not a nice tune, but a regular structure, especially a consistent rhythmic structure. So whilst an aria maintains a particular rhythmic footprint, two different passi have two different musical ‘steps’. Combining the meaning of ‘step’ and ‘section’, I translate passo as ‘movement’.

Affetto means ’emotion’, or to use the 17th-century English term, passion. Characteristically, the passions (plural) are moved: there are changes from one affetto to another. In this period, the word was used almost interchangeably with effetto, literally ‘effect’, as in theatrical or film ‘special effects’. An effetto is an ‘effect’, a device that produces an emotional response, an affetto. See Caccini’s use of these interlinked words, here. I translate Frescobaldi’s affetti as ‘passionate effects’

Cantabile here means ‘vocal’, without any of the connotations of continuous legato, bad rhythm, vibrato, or anything else associated with the modern concept of ‘cantabile’.

passaggio is a run of fast notes – ‘passage-work’ in modern English. A partita is a set of variations – I leave this term, and toccata, itself untranslated.

The Frescobaldi Rules

La maniera di sonare con affetti cantabili e con diversità, di passi


The style of playing with passionate vocal effects and with a diversity of movements.

Si ageuolano per mezzo della battuta

Facilitated by means of the Tactus.
  1. First; that this way of playing should not be subject to the Tactus, as we see applied in modern Madrigals, which (although they are difficult) are facilitated by means of the Tactus, beating it sometimes languidly, sometimes quickly, and even sustaining it in the air, according to their [the Madrigals’] passions, or the sense of the words.

We should read ‘subject to’ in the context of renaissance politics. No democratic citizens here, but rather subjects of an autocratic Prince. Think Machiavelli (read him here). Think of the ‘divine right of Kings’. In 1615, Frescobaldi and his contemporaries consider the Tactus to be the hand of God, that directs human musicians as if they are mere pawns, obedient ‘subjects’.

Even in his toccate and the ‘modern madrigals’ he compares them to, Frescobaldi does not suggest anarchy, a revolution that overthrows the reign of the Tactus. On the contrary, he explains that the difficulties of these compositions are ‘facilitated by means of the Tactus’. This is perhaps the most important point for modern readers to understand: Frescobaldi requires there to be a Tactus at all times, even though he specifies certain ways in which that Tactus might sometimes be changed.

Modern Madrigals refers to the new style of concerted music for voices and instruments, accompanied with a basso continuo, which (like Frescobaldi’s toccate) feature contrasting sections. Like the songs of Caccini’s Nuove Musiche, they include sections for solo voice and continuo, in which a passionate style of singing, full of vocal special effects, is required. Monteverdi’s 5th Book, in 1608, includes both old-fashioned polyphonic partsongs and ‘modern’ concerted settings; his 6th Book in 1619 is entitled Concerto and consists entirely of ‘modern’ compositions. Frescobaldi published in 1615, just as the move to ‘modernism’ was underway.

Notice that Frescobaldi does not use the word Recitative, although one of the features of ‘modern madrigals’ is what we (anachronistically) call ‘recitative’. There is no suggestion from Frescobaldi (or elsewhere) that what we call Recitative should be performed in free rhythm.

Since the Tactus beat is down-up, sustaining it ‘in the air’ implies prolonging an upbeat, or hesitating before a downbeat. This already reduces the opportunities for hesitation by 50%: Frescobaldi does not sanction holding the Tactus-hand down at the bottom of the downbeat!

The affetti in ‘modern madrigals’ can be identified by ‘the sense of the words’. But Frescobaldi’s toccate have no text, of course, so understanding which affetto, which passion, is at play becomes a crucial question. Remember that the idea of ‘moving the Passions’ implies that the affetto changes frequently, often from one extreme to its opposite (as we read in the Preface to Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo, here).

Different Movements

2. In the toccate I took care not only that they should be full of different movements and passionate effects: but also that each of these movements can be separated one from another, so that the player has no obligation to finish them all, but can stop wherever it seems convenient to him.

The sectional construction of the toccate is a significant topic in Frescobaldi’s advice for performers. The corollary is that other genres of music in the piece, which are not constructed in contrasted sections, should not have the Toccata Rules applied to them. These Rules apply only to the specific genre of Toccata, to the related genre of ‘modern Madrigal’, and (as Frescobaldi mentions later) to other genres that fall into well-defined sections. Otherwise, the default assumption, circa 1615, remains the conservative practice of constant Tactus.

Not to leave the instrument empty

3. The opening sections of the toccate should be performed adagio and arpeggiating; and similarly in the ligature (sections with suspensions ‘tied over’) or durezze (dissonances), also in the middle of the piece. [The tied-over suspended] are struck [again] together [with the new, dissonant harmony], so as noto leave the instrument empty. This restriking can be repeated ad lib by the player.

The opening sections are notated in long notes. If you take a slow Tactus, then they end up feeling very slow indeed. Certainly, you’ll need arpeggios ‘so as not to leave the instrument empty’. I recommend following Frescobaldi’s advice, and using the Tactus to ‘faciliate’ changes of tempo, which can be ‘difficult’. Play the transition between two sections first in constant Tactus; then apply Frescobaldi’s Rules to adjust the Tactus, and play the transition with the required adjustment.

It is not clear if the ad lib restriking of dissonances refers to the suspended note only, or to the entire dissonant chord. It is also not clear whether a bene placito (which I translate as ‘ad lib’) means ‘if you want’ or ‘as many times as you want’. I have been told that Piccinini recommends something similar for the lute, but I do not have a precise reference for this. [Lutenist readers, please comment!]

Transitions between movements

 4. On the last note, both of trills and of passage-work that moves by leaps or by step, you have to stop, even if that note is a quaver or semi-quaver, or dissimilar to the following note. This pausing will avoid any confusion between one passage and another.

It’s worth noting again the context, which is the assumption of regular Tactus. Frescobaldi’s readers do NOT expect to stop on a short note, and they recognise the need to maintain the Tactus (under normal circumstances) so that contrasts in notated note-values can be understood. However, in the special case of the transition between contrasting sections of a toccata, those 17th-century assumptions are contradicted.

Adagio (not rallentando)

5. The cadences, although they might be written fast, can appropriately be somewhat sustained; and as you approach the conclusion of passage-work or cadences you go sustaining the tempo more adagio. The separation and conclusion of movements is when you find a consonance in both hands together, written in minims.

A stylistic feature of this repertoire is the use of ever-smaller note values for decorated cadences: Frescobaldi says that you don’t have to take the note-values absolutely literally, but the Tactus can be ‘somewhat sustained’. This suggests the ‘sustaining’ of the Tactus hand ‘in the air’, on the upstroke. Approaching the conclusion of a section, the entire Tactus can be slower than normal. It is not clear whether piu adagio means only ‘slower than normal’ or also ‘getting slower and slower’: we should not assume that Frescobaldi is advocating a modern rallentando. My cautious opinion, based on close reading of other sources in this period, is that rallentando is probably not intended, rather it is a one-time shift in tempo. I advise my students to vary the tempo ‘with the gear-lever, not with the brakes or accelerator’.

The Trill challenge!

6. When you find a trill in the right hand, or the left, and simultaneously the other hand has passage-work, you should not synchronise these note by note, but just try to make the trill fast, and carry the passage-work less fast and passionately: otherwise there will be confusion.

Ideally, the trill should have an elegant, subtle ‘shaping’ from slow to fast (as Caccini recommends and many other sources support), rather than being literal. The moving part in the other hand should then be slower than the fast trill, and should be played ‘passionately’. We should not confuse 17th-century passion with 20th-century rubato: Caccini suggests many ways to vary the rhythm of notated quavers, in order to ‘move the passions’, within a steady minim tactus. The concepts here (steady tactus, shapely and fast trill, passionate presentation of the moving notes, independence of the two hands) are challenging for modern readers: the execution is not easy, either!

Harpists might note that this situation occurs in the final notes of the arpa doppia solo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo (Act III, the Aria Possente Spirto): trill in the right hand (with F#, which is a little inconvenient), passionate moving notes in the left hand (fragments of upward scale, each successive fragment is an octave lower, as we descend into the depths of Hell): it is, of course, the end of a passo. Go ahead and apply Frescobaldi Rule 6 – it’s not easy, but the effetto is certainly worth the effort.

Fun with two hands

7. When you find some movement with quavers and semiquavers together in the two hands, it shouldn’t be taken too fast: and the hand that plays the semiquavers must play them somewhat dotted, that is not the first, but the second [note] should be dotted, and so on all the way through, one no, the next yes.

Good practical advice to take these movements at a steady tempo (some modern performers treat them as a race for an Olympic speed record). So whilst one hand moves in quavers (taken normally, and in steady Tactus), the semiquavers in the other hand are given a gentle ‘reverse swing’ in ‘Lombard’ rhythm (short-long). Fun!

Attack resolutely!

8. Before you play a ‘double movement’ where both hands have semiquavers, you should stop on the previous note, even if it is ‘black’ (i.e. short: crotchet, quaver, semiquaver); then resolutely play the passage-work, so that the agility of the hand will be so much more apparent.

The advice to stop before beginning a new movement fits with what we have already been told in Rule 4, although the situation here might be slightly different. Frescobaldi’s care in spelling out the details of these two, apparently very similar, situations, is a warning to us not to apply his Rules without careful checking that the situation really is appropriate. There is no general licence to ‘change the Tactus whenever you want’!

Some modern players like to start such ‘double movement’ passage-work slowly, and accelerate. Frescobaldi rules this out: he tells you to begin ‘resolutely’. This word occurs also in sword-treatises, where spotting the correct moment (also called tempo in the sense of kairos or opportunity) to attack is a vital skill. But once the opportunity to strike is there, you don’t begin slowly, you attack ‘resolutely’! This is another situation where I advise my students “don’t use the brakes and accelerator, use the gear-shift’.


Driving Time

9. In the Partite (variations), when you find passage-work and passionate effects it will be good to take the tempo largo; you should observe this also in the toccate. The other [variations] without passage-work can be played with a somewhat allegro Tactus, leaving the good taste and fine judgement of the player to ‘drive the tempo; in this [driving the tempo] lies the spirit and perfection of this manner and style of playing.

We are reminded here that the Rules are not ‘how to play toccate‘, but ‘how to play with a diversity of movements and passionate vocal effects’. So variation-sets may well have a diversity of movements, and some variations may include passionate vocal effects.

The references to ‘good taste’ and ‘fine judgement’ suggest that the changes in Tactus between adagio, largo and allegro are subtle adjustments to the normal tempo (something around minim = 60 is the ‘default’ setting for this period). Note that Frescobaldi often qualifies words of tempo change with adverbs like ‘somewhat’, ‘slightly’.

To find the correct ‘spirit’ and ‘perfection’ in these small adjustments, we need to make good use of the Tactus to ‘facilitate’ such ‘difficult’ transitions. Especially when the Tactus is going to change somewhat, or even hesitate in the air, we need to have a good understanding of precisely what the Tactus is doing. Often, players change the Tactus in the opposite way from Frescobaldi’s rules, taking the opening arpeggios at a different tempo from, but faster than the succeeding movement. The remedy is to begin by studying the piece in a consistent Tactus, and to manage transitions by focussing on the Tactus, not on the general level of activity in smaller note-values.

The reference to ‘good taste and fine judgement’ does not imply that the player can do ‘whatever they want’. Rather, they are required to be careful in how much, and in which direction, to ‘drive the tempo‘, so that Time’s winged chariot does not crash and burn.

Phaeton van Eyck

Playing with Time can be dangerous: Phaeton tried to drive Apollo’s Sun-Chariot, but he crashed it.

The Passacaglias can be played separately, whatever best pleases you, with adjustments of the tempo between one variation and another, similarly for Ciacconas.


It is not clear whether ‘separately’ means that you can play an individual set of passacaglia variations as a ‘stand-alone’ piece, or if you can select variations from within a set, in the same way that you can select movements from within a toccata. Probably the latter. But note that the Tactus can be changed between one variation and another, according to the Rules already given.

Other Prefaces

In addition to the famous 9 Rules, Frescobaldi gives other summaries of his approach.


The beginnings of the toccate should be played adagio, and the block chords should be arpeggiated. As [the toccata] continues, pay attention to the distinction between movements, carrying them more or less rapidly according to the difference in their passionate effects, which will appear as you play. In the ‘double movements’ [semiquavers in both hands], similarly you go adagio, so that they are better articulated; and in descending leaps, the last note before the leap should always be resolute and fast. It’s appropriate to stop on the last note of a trill, or other passionate effects, such as a leap, or step, even if it is a semiquaver or demisemiquaver. And usually you somewhat sustain the cadences. In the partite you set tempo giusto and with Proportions, and because in some [variations] there are fast movements, start with a comfortable Tactus; it’s inappropriate to start presto and then continue languidly. But [partite] should be carried through entirely in the same tempo. And have no doubt, that the perfection of playing is in the understanding of tempi.

This summary also reminds us of the default assumptions of the early 17th century. There is the expectation of a standard Tactus – tempo giusto – around minim = 60, and triple-metre is managed by Proportions. The normal expectation is that pieces will be played entirely with a constant Tactus.

Nevertheless, the final sentence refers to tempi, in the plural. There can be changes in the Tactus, but ‘perfection’ is in understanding precisely where, when and how.

1624 Primo libro di capricci

These works … of various tempi and variations…

In these pieces, which might seem irregular in their use of counterpoint, you should first look for the passion of the movement in question and the intention of the Composer concerning the delight of the listener and the way one should try to play. In those pieces entitled Capricci, I have not kept such an easy style as in my Ricercari. But you shouldn’t judge their difficulty before putting them into practice at the instrument, where you will recognise by study the passion they should have…

You can choose whichever you like of these movements, and finish in any of them which end in the right tonality. The beginnings should start adagio to give greater spirit and beauty to the following movement; and in the cadences sustain somewhat before you start the next movement. And in tripla [fast triple] or sesquilatera [slow triple] metres, if they are maggiori you set off adagio, if they are minori somewhat more allegro; if they are three semi-minims, piu allegro; if they are 6/4 you give their tempo by making the battuta go allegro.

It is good in some dissonances to dwell on them and arpeggiate them, so that the following movement comes out with more spirit. All this is said with every modesty, and depending on the good judgement of studious performers.

This summary also gives us additional information. Genre distinctions (Ricercare or Capriccio) are significant. To understand difficult music, search for the passion of each movement, and consider the Composer’s intentions.

In the discussion of Proportions, I have left certain terms untranslated, because there is academic debate on their meaning. But my take on this is very straightforward: triple metres might be notated under 3/1 or 3/2, but either way, long notes (three semibreves) go slowly; short notes (three minims) go medium fast. Semi-minims are black with a stick – to a modern reader they look like crotchets: they go faster. If you have a 6/4 section, this goes very fast.

This user-friendly approach to Proportions can be applied to famously challenging situations, for example the ballo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. See Tactus & Proportions in ‘Lasciate i monti’  here.  The difference between the (consistent) time-duration of particular note-values, and the (diverse) feelings of ‘speed’ in triple metres is explored in Quality Time: how does it feel? here. I set out in detail my take on Tactus and Proportions in Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time here.


I began by urging caution. We need to understand precisely where, when and how Frescobaldi allows departures from the 17th-century default setting of constant Tactus. But close reading reveals that his Rules can appropriately be applied not only to harpsichord solos but to any repertoires in this period that exhibit sectional construction with different rhythmic structures between movements, and/or passionate vocal effects. Certainly that includes the ‘modern’ style of Madrigals around 1615, but it would also seem relevant to vocal monody and – most intriguingly – to ‘opera’.

Whilst the default assumption is that an entire work (e.g. Monteverdi’s Orfeo) has the same, consistent Tactus, Frescobaldi’s Rules suggest particular circumstances where the Tactus might be somewhat faster or slower, or might even hesitate in the air. However, these Tactus changes are between movements (not within a movement), and (I would argue) of the ‘gear-shift’ type, rather than accelerando or rallentando. And the way to study these ‘difficult’ transitions is to identify the passion, apply the appropriate (subtle) adjustment of Tactus, and facilitate the performance by keeping a grip on the Tactus.

All this is very far from ‘rhythmic freedom’ in ‘recitative’, or any general licence to play around with Time. Rather, even when the Tactus is going to change or hesitate, you facilitate the adjustment by means of the Tactus. Don’t crash the Time-Chariot.

Tactus still rules, OK?


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2010 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions.