Baroque Tempo

Baroque Tempo

Tempo Judgement in the Baroque period  is one of the most important and difficult elements of expression. Musicianship skill is greatly required.

There is seldom one absolute right tempo; however good tempo is achievable. Given the same piece of music, depending on the desired acoustic resonance, a larger force is required for a slower tempo, compared to dry acoustic or small forces.

Tempo is governed by interpretation, it can only be right or wrong within the individual’s style.

‘Taste is the true metronome’

Anton Bemetzieder


Misleading Time-Words

Time-words often suggest the mood of a piece where tempo follows rather than tempo itself:

  • Allegro (cheerful)
  • Andante (leisurely)
  • Adagio (gently)
  • Largo (broadly)
  • Grave (heavily)

They are so vague even when they directly indicate speed for example Presto (quick) or Lento (slow).

In Henry Purcell’s sonata, he called his middle movement a ‘Largo’, quicker than Adagio and Grave.

Mozart has his Grave slower than Largo and that slower than Andante. Jean-Baptise Cartier also has Largo slower than Adagio but faster than Grave. The inconsistencies run through the rest of the contemporary evidence.

Alexander Malcolm in his Treatise of Musick Edinburg concluded that ‘Time, is a various and undetermined thing, indeed they leave it altogether to practice to determine the precise quantity.’

To help the modern performer, the original time-words often need an editorial suggestion eg ma non troppo (but not too much), Presto (allegro), or Adagio (andante). Metronome markings are too rigid and are best to avoid.

A helpful hint is to reduce the note-value by half. This can be helpful but can be misleading and only in certain extreme cases be executed.


Time-signatures are also just as unreliable as the time-words. The measured notation which lasted through the Baroque period was supposed to show its relative tempos and absolute tempos.

The unit was regulated by hand-beat (tactus) to regulate tempo was never systematic and was greatly critised.

There is a little reliance placed on the distinction between plain C and stroked ₵ which was used by composers indiscriminately. Sometimes was used without discrimination for a naturally rapid piece and sometimes for a slow piece. Most excellent musicians and most theory experts would avoid it at all cost.

Less savvy writers kept the convention that the stroke ₵ is twice as fast as the plain C but without any context of reference.

When the interchange from C to ₵ in the course of a movement, the increase of tempo is almost certainly expected but allowed the music itself to guide how much faster. A good rule of thumb is to go faster. The pulse may be used as a guide to determine the tempo. A 4/4 is indicated with two-half notes (Minim Minim ) instead of four-quarter ( Crotchet Crotchet Crotchet Crotchet ) notes. In 4/2, four-half notes ( Minim Minim Minim Minim ) is used instead of eight- quarter notes ( Crotchet Crotchet Crotchet Crotchet Crotchet Crotchet Crotchet Crotchet ).

Dance Tempo

Dance tempo has very small margins of tempo and variability. In ballroom or concert room, the galliard has a triple time version of same steady pulse. In notation, it may look slower than the pavan, but it is deceitful. If it is played as slow as it looks, the dancer cannot keep their momentum or even their balance.

In the modern term, it is called merry and lively. If played faster than pavan, the dancer cannot fit in many of its intricate steps. In effect, it has the tempo of the pavan despite its notation and description.

A further precaution to remember is that the same dance may have very different characteristic and tempo at different periods and places. For example:

Sarabande are of the shortest Triple time. Under French influence, Sarabande is soft and passionate and is always set in a slow triple time.

Charles Mason wrote ‘Sarabande is taken gravely’. Quantz wrote ‘the Sarabande has a slower tempo as Entrée, Louve and Courante but is played with a rather more flattering expression.

Minuet is normally very quick and rapid and a very lively dance. However, according to Brossard the minuet is grave and of a noble simplicity.

Allemande is very airy and lively, somewhat quicker and more airy and quicker than the pavan.

As with the Italian Coranto and the French Courante, much of the difference are mainly by nationality, character and rhythms. The difference is tempos for the same dances is dependent on the place, time and nationality of the composer.

Tempo and Character of the music

An experienced and good musician can decide their own tempo within a reasonable limit.

‘Whatever speed an Allegro demands, it ought never to depart from a controlled and reasonable movement’.

Joachim Quantz

CPE Bach quoted ‘ The tempo of a piece is derived from its general mood together with the fastest notes and passages which it includes, proper attention to these consideration will prevent an Allegro from being hurried and Adagio being dragged’.

‘Tempo must be inferred from music itself and this is what intelligibly shows the true quality of the musician’

Leopold Mozart

Tempo on the fast side may be carried off by brilliancy, while tempo on the slow music may be carried out by really slow intensity. The best practice is to take the fast movement slower than you would and slow movement faster than you would.

Variation of Tempo

Tempo in Baroque music never remains constant throughout any movement.

Toccatas, Chaconnes, passcailles, variation and occasionally rondos may require different tempos to suit the different characteristic of a successive section.

Adagio sections should be taken massively and expressively, while andate to be taken lightly and. Most slow movements and some fast movements require plenty of stretching whenever the melody line can gain expressiveness or some increased tension of the harmony needs a little additional breadth to make its proper effect. This is called stolen time (tempo rubato).

When stretching comes to end of the phrase or smaller units, it is desirable to add a moment of stolen time before resuming the normal tempo.

Depending on the placing and character of music, the number and extent of such stretching may vary.

The Timing in Recitative

There are casual stylized rhythms of theatrical declamation, like how it should be in spoken plays. Recitative is an art of the theatre when an opera singer will blend it with vocal virtuosity of bel canto.

The timing or delivery of recitative needs to be more or less flexible and yet with its own well-measured symmetry and balance. It would be almost impossible for the accompanists to know what the singer is doing with the rhythm and to keep up with him if the timing of delivery were loosely used.


There are 2 types of Rallentandos:

  • Passing Rallentando – are more or less a slight relaxation of tempo, showing some broadening of harmony or melody. Tempo will usually be reinstated instantly.
  • Cadential Rallentando – are more or less substantial stretching of the tempo in addressing an inclination of a cadence or an actual cadence. Many cadences especially those that appear midways and ending cadences require a very decided These are very distinctively marked into the parts before or during rehearsals.

A long enough pause is placed to sound like a new start instead of following into a new phrase with no punctuality.

It is uncommon for rallentandos to appear in Baroque music, but it is not unusual when harmony begins to feel cadential, one must use judgement to place the amount of baroque rallentandos; Rallentandos use can be slight or substantially gradual or abrupt.

Too little used feels ineffective; too much feels shapeless; too late and too abrupt sounds like a driver who suddenly realizes to put a break in. When rallentandos are placed proportionately right, it will not be noticeable but more like good expression well placed.


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