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tempo in baroque

Meter and Tempo Indications in Music of the Early Baroque
Author(s): Walter P. Winzenburger
Source: Bach, Vol. 3, No. 1 (JANUARY, 1972), pp. 13-21
Published by: Riemenschneider Bach Institute
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41639839
Accessed: 25-01-2020 14:11 UTC
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Meter and Tempo Indications
in Music of the Early Baroque
By Walter P. Winzenburger
Baldwin-Wallace College
TODAY Baroque,
we and
are and
a great
number ofaperformance
great numbereditions,
of performance interest in the editions, music of particularly the early
of sacred vocal music, are being introduced. These are indeed welcome
additions to our performance repertoire, but it is unfortunate that many
give vague, sometimes misleading guidelines for their interpretation. All
too frequently the editor ignores the question of tempo, leaving each performer to find his own solution by trial and error. The problem is often
compounded when the note values of the original score have been changed
in the transcription, thereby distorting proportional relationships which
may have been present in the original.
Much has been written concerning the rules of mensuration in the
music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and its basic principles are
actually well defined. The beginning of the seventeenth century, however,
brought many changes in musical style. New rules of notation were slow
in being formulated, while older rules were still being taught - but not
observed - by composers. It is the intent of this article to give performers
and editors of performance editions the opportunity to draw their own con-
clusions from clues given by composers and writers of that time, and to
compare interpretations of these clues in recent writings.
Time Values of the TACTUS
During the seventeenth century the proportional signature began to
lose meaning as an indicator of tempo. Gradually the practice of indicating
tempo by means of editorial adjectives ( Adagio , Presto , etc.) developed,
and the proportional signature remained merely as an indication of meter.
Because of this transition in musical practice, it is difficult to establish the
time values of the tactus with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
The integer valor of the tactus was fixed most definitely by Franchino
Gafori and Marin Mersenne, when they equated the up-and-down motion
of the hand with the normal pulse of a human being. This definition was
echoed by Johann Joachim Quantz more than two hundred years later.
Michael Praetorius also mentions the quiet up-and-down movement of the
hand. English writers like Christopher Simpson, Thomas Morley, and
Henry Purcell suggest a slow and distinct counting of numbers, e.g., onetwo-three-four would equal one complete tactus.
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When it comes to converting this concept into a modern metronomic
equivalent, musicologists seem to disagree. Arnold Schering and Gotthold
Frotscher hold to Quantz's observation that the pulse of "a quietly breathing man" beats at the rate of approximately 80 to the minute. When they
speak of the tactus as MM. 80, one must assume that they mean one beat,
not two, as the term tactus implies.
Gustave Reese feels that MM. 60-80 would be a more accurate description. Willie Apel sets the speed of the tactus at MM. 50-60. Robert Donington strikes a medium by suggesting that Quantz's statement should be
interpreted as MM. 75 to the motor unit, but he goes on to say that it is
somewhat flexible. Recent writers on this subject feel that, particularly in
the seventeenth century, not one but two or three basic speeds of the tactus
were practiced. Curt Sachs makes the point that in the transition through
the centuries from longer to shorter note values as motor units, the tactus
must have been slowed down as shorter note values were being introduced,
until sub- división was necessary and the next smaller unit became the tactus.
At the beginning of the Baroque, the transition was from "white" to
"black" notation, that is, the semi-minim replaced the minim as the basis
for the motor unit. Irmgard Kerrman-Bengen gives credence to the suggestion of Walter Gersrenberg that in ihe seventeenth century three basic
tempi of the motor unit were in practice, depending on the type of music:
Motet - MM. 72, Madrigal - MM. 60-54, Canzonet - MM. 120.
The concept of a flexible tactus is linked with the interpretation of
in relarion to C. Herrmann-Bengen feels that the clue lies in the preface
to the Puericiniurn ( 1621 ) by Michael Praetorius:
Denn diese Signa bedeuten eben so viel an als wenn ich die
Italienischen Wörter gebraucht hätte:
C Idest, lento, tarde: langsam
(f Idest, presto, velociter: geschwind
In his Syntagma musicum III , Praetorius speaks of a tactus tardior C,
and a tactus celerior <£. According to Livingstone, the context determines
the meaning of <£ . When C and (£ appear in the same composition, <{] is
twice as fast as C. At the outset of a composition, indicates a tactus
celerior. He also points out that (f soon was preferred to C as the basic
indication of the tactus. Curt Sachs notes that at the end of the century
Purcell declared that every tactus consisted of a semi-breve and that the
three most common signatures, which were once proportional, indicate dif-
ferent tempi: C is "a very slow movement," (f "a little faster," and (J) "a
brisk and airy time."
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The issue is further obscured by the inconsistent application of the
terms t actus maior and tactus minor by seventeenth-century writers. Carl
Dahlhaus concludes that in practice three interpretations of (f were in use:
1. C is tactus alia semibrevis.
(J is tactus alia brevis.
2. <t is tactus alia semibrevis, but slightly faster.
3. C implies tactus maior.
(f implies tactus minor , that is, "alia minimal*
Therefore, (J) would be slower than C.
In regard to number 2, Dahlhaus suggests the possibility of (J] and C
standing in the proportion 3:2. Herrmann-Bengen supports this viewpoint
with the observation that hemiola effects were very much in the tradition
of the times and that therefore a 3:2 tempo relationship would be almost
instinctive. By setting the tactus aequalis celerior at MM. 72, Ernest Livingstone does not subscribe to the idea of the sesquiáltera relationship to
the tactus aequalis tardior ( MM. 60 ) . Fritz Rothschild maintains that the
two basic rhythmic movements in music of the "old tradition" are MM. 4060 and MM. 80-120, and that both may be represented by the signature "C.M
The performer then decides from the note picture which is the proper one.
If the intentions of the composer are contrary to the note picture of the
opening bars, he adds editorial indications like Adagio, Presto, etc. Upon
this premise Rothschild has devised a chart for the interpretation of various combinations of proportional signatures and tempo markings. Rhythmic values of (£ and triple-meter signatures he derives proportionately from
one of the two basic "movements."
Tempo Indications
Before proceeding to the tempo indications, a few words must be said
concerning triple meters in the seventeenth century. Sachs points out that
the proportions as practiced in the previous century were no longer observed. The sign (J)3, which was now called tripla, actually represented
sesquiáltera. Sachs might be construed as agreeing with Dahlhaus, that
consequently only one tactus inaequalis was in use, the sesquiáltera. This
resulted from the fact that the proportional signature (that is, the lower
number) indicated the note value of the tactus. Livingstone maintains that
there is a difference between tripla and sesquiáltera in that the latter is
related to the tactus tardior and the former related to the tactus celerior.
He, therefore, suggests MM. 90 for the sesquiltera and MM. 108 for the
tripla .
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The present-day interpreter, then, has a host of suggestions at his
disposal. Seventeenth-century sources seem to point mostly to MM. 60
(the pulse) as the motor unit. Praetorius, however, seems to have a
second suggestion when he calls for 160 tempora to be performed in a
quarter of an hour. Because te7npus here refers to the earlier usage of the
term, the division of the brevis, the motor unit would amount to MM. 85.
Since 60, as a number divisible both by 2 and 3, represents a workable
figure, it is used in the following table, with the understanding that upon
occasion, a slightly faster tempo may be justified. In regard to the tactus
celerior, both Livingstone's indication (MM. 72) and the proportional
suggestion of Herrmann-Bengen (MM. 90) are represented.
Tempo and Note Values in Use in the
First Decade of the
Seventeenth Century
Note Value Metronomic
Signs Name of the Basic Suggestion
C Tempus (tardior) ^ 60
^ Tempus (celerior) ^ 72 (90)
3, $3, C? Tripla ^ 108 (135)
3. *3, *£ Sesquiáltera ^ 90
6 Sextupla (tardor) ^ 60
J ^ Sextupla (celerior) 72 (90)
Tempo Adjectives
The breakdown of the proportional system began early in the century.
Most often quoted in this connection is Girolamo Frescobaldi's preface to
the Toccate e partite d'intavolatura di cembalo in which he calls for almost
rhapsodic execution of his music. Still earlier, Gioseffo Zarlino, in his
Istituzioni armoniche y suggested that the text of the music should determine
the tempo. In the same vein, Praetorius expressed the opinion that the
mingling of tempi within a piece was particularly lovely. Thus, tempo
adjectives came into vogue.
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Composers seemingly had two reasons for resorting to tempo adjectives. One was to clarify the intent of the proportional signature, the other
to indicate changes in tempo which might be awkward in the proportional
system, or might be misinterpreted.
The meaning of editorial tempo markings of early seventeenth-century
music must not be confused with the meanings which they have acquired
in later years. Since the invention of the metronome, tempo adjectives
have been scaled from Lento and Adagio at the slowest extreme to Presto
and Vivace at the fastest extreme. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a great number of editorial phrases were already in use.
Gottfried Walther 's Musikalisches Lexikon (1732) gives detailed defini-
tions of a great number of them. However, during the infancy of their
usage (the early seventeenth century), only a few words were widely used,
and Adagio and Presto , for instance, did not apply the extremes which they
do today.
Michael Praetorius is perhaps the first theorist to mention tempo
indications. He does so in relation to the tactus. He suggests that Adagio
and Presto might be notated in the parts to avoid the confusion that might
result from frequent changes between C and (£. Herrmann-Bengen includes
a page from Sebastien de Brossard s Dictionnaire de musique (1703)
which contains a table of triple-meter signatures, each underscribed by a
tempo adjective. The following samplë from this chart shows that the
tempo indication is merely a verbal affirmation of the note picture:
Tripola Tripola Tripola Tripola
maggiore minore piccola crometta
' w- Ì O- U- il.
Largo, ou Adagio, ou Affettuoso Presto,
Adagio, Ad. Lento, ou ou quelques ou Stretto
Grave fois Allegro
Thus, composers may have used these terms to remind the performer
not to slow down in a "black" passage and not to speed up in a passage
with consecutive long-note values. This viewpoint coincides at least in part
with Rothschild's idea that the editorial adjective assists in choosing the
right tactus i and that quite often it is superfluous. It should be mentioned
that tempo indications which govern an entire section or movement are
infrequent in this period. Sometimes they govern as little as two measures.
Different composers pair different adjectives for indications of this
type. With Frescobaldi it is Adagio - Allegro, with Praetorius Lento 17
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Presto. Both indications are found in the music of Heinrich Schütz, who
also uses Tarde - Presto and Tarde - Celeriter.
If these indications are used in connection with meter changes, they
are proportional. The adjective merely affirms the proportional change.
If there is no proportional signature and the note picture does not confirm
a change in rhythmic activity, the tempo adjectives may be a substitute for
a proportional tempo change. Herrmann-Bengen again points to the
hemiola as the most logical relationship between Allegro and Adagio, or
between any other two words that stand in opposition in this manner. This
explanation is especially plausible where a text and the melodic idea associated with it are transferred from an Adagio to an Allegro, or the revserse.
Here musical "common sense" would exclude a 2 : 1 relationship as being
too extreme. Most typical in this connection is the final Adagio phrase in
C (or <'.) in a section which is primarily in 3/2 or 3/1. A 2:3 relationship
would constitute a logical built-in retard. Particularly in instrumental music
(but in vocal music also), a final Adagio may be construed as an invitation to improvise embellishments. Such practice would result, of course, in
still further retardation.
The tempo adjective, then, may perform one of the following functions:
1. At the outset of a composition, it may distinguish between a tactus
tardior or tactus celerior. With a proportional signature, it may imply a
derivative of one of these two basic templ.
2. It may confirm the visual image of the rhythmic activity and at
times warn against change.
3. It may imply a subdivision of the tactus.
4. It may imply a moderate tempo change with a 3:2 (or 2:3) relationship as the maximum.
Performance Guidelines
The diversity of opinions presented in this article would seem to invite the performer or editor to follow his own intuition. One should be
reminded, however, that church music has in general held to established
styles and academic principles. While in the secular music of the seventeenth century, particularly in opera and continuo song, the concept of inte-
ger valor may possibly be discounted completely, it would not be justifiable
to discount it in the church music, especially vocal music. Even though
alternate interpretations are possible, the field is not "wide open."
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In recent years scholars have sought to make a clearer distinction between the proportional practices of the seventeenth century and the pre-
vious century. For this reason, newer publications will often prove to be
of greater assistance than the older, sometimes better known, reference
From the various points of view studied and the author s own examination of seventeenth-century music, the writer would offer the following
suggestions as guidelines: should more than one interpretation of the proportional signature be possible, the answer may lie in the tempo adjective
if there is one. If none is present, the note picture and the text are the
deciding factors. Today a different vocabulary of Italian expresses some of
the ideas inherent in the seventeenth-century markings, and it would be
wise for modern editors to "translate" these terms. For instance, Adagio -
Presto - Adagio may mean Adagio - più mosso - a tempo. The modern
performer associates words like Allegro, Lento , Vivace , etc., with a double
bar. This is not the case in early Baroque music. Therefore, terms such as
the ones suggested above may result in a better reading.
Franz Tunder's tempo indication in Ach Herr lass deine lieben Engelein 1 might well serve as an example. The Adagio at the beginning of this
work indicates that the basic pulse is the semi-minima, not the minima.
There are no further tempo indications until the entrance of the voice after
the second sinfonia. The note picture of the second sinfonia suggests that
the basic pulse is the minima (half-note = 60). Since this section is preceded by a double bar, the Adagio of the first sinfonia no longer applies.
At the outset of Verse II, the rhythmic activity increases and the seventeenth-century choir master might well have slowed down the tactus at this
point unless he was told otherwise. Tunder wrote Allegro, indicating that
this section should be fast, but not necessarily faster than the preceding one.
In other words, this tempo adjective may be interpreted as verification of
the note picture. The modern editor, therefore, may take the liberty of
placing the Allegro at the outset of the sinfonia, omitting the indication at
the entrance of the soprano voice.
The Allegro at the 3/1 section substantiates the increase in tempo
which the proportional change suggests. If the preceding tempo was half-
note = 60 ( Allegro , quarter-note == 120), the pulse of the semibrevis
would now equal MM. 90. If one subscribes to the theory that 3/1 should
be derived from the tactus celerior, one can deduce from the table on page
five that whole-note = 108. In a modern transcription, this section may
be notated in 3/4 meter, quarter-note = 90-108.
The word "Adagio" appears again above measure 15, page 104 ( Denk 19
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malet deutscher Tonkunst, III). A counteracting Allegro is seen above the
third beat of measure 4, page 105. This indication occurs in the middle of
a cadence progression in the instrumental accompaniment and in the middle of a sentence of the text. One cannot, therefore, look upon these tempo
adjectives as demarcations of contrasting sections. In the transposed repe-
tition of this segment, these indications do not appear. They were either
forgotten or considered unnecessary. At the Adagio one can observe a decrease in rhythmic activity and at the Allegro a return to faster motion.
Thus, the intent of the note picture is again verified. However, from the
standpoint of text setting, a slight change in tempo may be intended:
Adagio - "Lord Jesus Christ, hear me" - Allegro - "I will praise thee
evermore." In that case, the present-day performer may respond more
accurately to meno mosso and a tempo.
Whenever the question of tempo arises, authors of the Baroque period leave the reader with the impression that note values are governed by
basic tempi and then modified by tempo adjectives. The clearest tempo
indications were perhaps the kind that referred to standard dance rhythms
like tempo di borea or tempo di minuetto as mentioned by Mattheson in
Der vollkommene Capellmeister? As late as 1779 Kirnberger in his Kunst
des reinen Satzes admonishes his readers that meter and tempo are not separate abstractions, but that the same music written in different meters will
be interpreted differently.3 The treatment of note values as pure mathematical abstractions is strictly a "modern notion" which had to wait until
1812 - the year of the invention of the metronome.
1 Denkmäler deutscher Tonkunst, Vol. III. New edition by H. J. Moser, Wiesbaden, 1957.
2 See Translations in BACH, Vol. II, No. 3.
3 See Translations in BACH, Vol. II, No. 1.
Apel, Willi. The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600, Cambridge, Mass., 1942
p. 146.
Dahlhaus, Carl. "Zur Entstehung des modernen Taktsystems im 17. Jahrhundert"
Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, XVII 1961, pp. 223-240.
Donington, Robert. The Interpretation of Early Music, London, 1963, pp. 164, 345.
Frotscher, Gotthold. Aufführungspraxis alter Musik, Locarno, 1963, p. 45.
Herrmann-Bengen, I. Tempohezeichnungen, Ursprung und Wandel im 17. und 18.
Jahrhundert, Tutzing, 1959, pp. 27-57.
Livingstone, Ernest: The Theory and Practice of Protestant School Music in Germany as Seen Through the Collection of Abraham Ursinus, c. 1600. Thesis
(Ph.D.), The University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music, Dept. of
Musicology, 1962, pp. 251-254.
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Praetorius, Michael. Syntagma Musicum III. Wolfenbüttel, 1619, facsimile reprint,
ed. W. Gurlitt, Kassel-Basel, 1958, p. 50.
Reese, Gustave. Music in the Renaissance , New York, 1954, pp. 178-183.
Rothschild, Fritz. The Lost Tradition in Music : Rhythm and Tempo, London, 1953,
p. 91.
Sachs, Curt. Rhythm and Tempo, a Study in Music History, New York, 1953, pp.
202, 271.
Schering, Arnold. Aufführungspraxis alter Musik, Leipzig, 1931, p. 27.
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