Notation and Interpretation in the Baroque Era – Part 2

Notation and Interpretation in the Baroque Era – Part 2

Shaping the music

The finer details of interpretations were not generally specified in the Baroque Music but this does not mean that the music should be played without expression. The composer usually left the expression details like loud, soft, strong, weak, short and long to the discretion of the performer.

Quantz wrote:

‘Musical execution may be compared with the delivery of an orator. The orator and the musician have, at the bottom, the same aim in regards to both the preparation and the final execution of their productions, namely to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners, to arouse or instill their passions, and to transport them now to this sentiment, now to that.’

One should aim for the style and convention according to the rules and practice of the classical rhetoric. Dynamics was not an important rhetoric in the Baroque period. Scale of a single phrase requires dynamic application so as rising and falling of passages often requires the increase or decrease of volume.  Repeated passages also require special treatment where usually a pianissimo would follow suit as a sequence to the preceding passage. Other rhetoric that needs to be observed are:

  • Dissonance needs to be strong and resolutions are weaker,
  • Emphasizing the subdominant and dominant chords in a cadence,
  • Resolution passage to a cadence are often approached with a sweeter, softer and easier strength,
  • Use harmony to identify which is a strong or a weak beat. Singers or vocalists will encounter strong beats that fall with the natural stresses of words, especially in 17th Century music.

Length of Note

The decision to play a note long or short is another basic interpretation in the Baroque Era.  In the 18th Century, it become more common to specify the various types of staccato i.e. dots, wedges or strokes. English composers were particularly keen to use wedges as their staccato symbol which is a universal way to express shortening note value. Wedges and strokes were used to achieve much shorter and more noticeable note but not until the 19th Century where it became more prevalent to write the precise duration of a shortening note. Until then, such decisions were still left to the interpretation or discretion of a performer during the Baroque period.


Articulation is useful for the purpose of emphasizing loud and soft notes particularly for the harpsichordist or organist. The most basic type of articulation is to differentiate the melodic direction either by steps or by leaps. This is apparently the most obvious rhetoric methods used in the Baroque period but was rarely discussed at the time. The fast movement requires higher level of articulation than the slower ones.

Passages with leaping notes should also be emphasized with articulation so it can be distinctly heard.  The contrast between sustained and detached notes were also rarely indicated during the Baroque period as it is implied that the adjacent notes were usually slurred while the leap note are detached.


A slur is a long line connecting a group of notes usually indicating a phrasing rather than an instruction for legato playing. The long line connecting notes indicate a single bow stroke on stringed instruments (or in wind instruments where it means to play with tonguing that produces sustaining effect over a group of notes.

Caution should be taken when encountering editions with many slurs that applies over beats or a group of 2 or 3 notes. These may very well be edited by later editions.

There are instances where composers used slurs that are a pair or a pair of notes falling by steps, resulting in resolving dissonance similar to the effect of a downward-resolving appoggiaturas. The first of the two notes should be stressed upon while the second to be weakened or shortened.

National Style

During The Renaissance period, there were very little idiomatic differences used by composers in all European countries nor were there many variations performed by musicians in the different countries. Not until the 17th Century, important differences started to develop between Italian and French music.

The difference was that French music was much more conservative than Italian music; the French retained the Renaissance musical features well into the 18th century. Generally, French music carried the delicacy, decorum, elegant melody and graceful agréments.

Meanwhile, Italian music stood for passion, extravagance, virtuosity, passaggio (the transitions between the registers are known as the passaggio in classical singing) and florid ornamentations.

Rhythm Alterations

The basic difference between French and Italian music was that French musicians altered the rhythms more than the Italian musicians. French music was played different from the way they were written. The French ensued a custom where they played quavers written in steps with dot groups instead of evenly, despite it was written the same. Italian musicians wrote their music in true value the way they intended to perform.

Note Inégales (unequal notes) were not bound to only French style music, it also applied to 17th Century dance music to make the music more elegant. Notations written for amateur musicians tend to be more accurate than that used by the professionals. Professional musicians tend to be more familiar with the elegant playing practice. Note Inégales become a common practice practically in all French Baroque music especially for composers from the 1700s. Some characteristics of the Note Inégales are:

  • They should be played gently rather than aggressively, achieved by playing the pair of notes strong/weak instead of markedly changing from even note to dotted notes;
  • Should be applied to the fastest predominant note values as long as the tempo permits; it is impractical to play the fastest note unequally;
  • It should be played to notes adjacent to each other NOT repeated notes or notes that move in leap;
  • Composers developed ways to indicate if they want equal notes or not by placing a dot over them or simply used the term ‘ détaché, note égalé or marqué’

Music written in French style outside France should also be considered to apply noté inégalé. It is a common practice for other countries to write out music with dotted notes.












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