Did Bach Really Mean That?… Deceptive notation in Baroque keyboard music

“I wanted to tell you first of all, that your book changed my life. I thought I knew a lot about Bach’s notation but you opened my eyes. It is surely one of the most illuminating books on performance practice of any composer. Thank you so much for writing it.” J.L.

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In brief - about the book

The aim of the book is to liberate players from a literal dependence upon the score in front of them and reveal hidden possibilities within it, enabling performers to get that bit closer to the mindset of Baroque composers themselves.

The book is a systematic exploration of notational conventions, from the most basic (note-length and touch) through to rhythmic complexities, notational formulae, and certain aspects of ornamentation.

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The book’s dedicated website, Did Bach Really Mean That?, has full information about the book, including a “Look Inside” excerpt from each chapter, unabridged reviews, and a Buy Now button.

How the book came about

Colin Tilney was the teacher who, during the course of more than a decade of master-classes, hammered home to me the message that playing early music successfully is often to learn to ignore the apparent meaning of the notation. Early notation was both a short-hand and a compromise: it looks simple on the page, but underlying subtleties are there under the surface. For a player of the period, performance depended upon conventions which were to be forgotten or discarded by later generations. Later notation was to become ever more complicated on the page, in an attempt to specify detail for the player, rather than to rely on an unstated common knowledge of performance practice.

Some years ago, at Dartington International Summer School, I was invited to give courses of “mini-lectures” which, over several years, became focused on this aspect of performance. Expanding on the knowledge imparted by Colin Tilney, I taught groups of enthusiasts, many of whom were pianists, or even non-keyboard players. The aim was to reveal hidden possibilities inherent in early scores, not to lay down rules.

I soon came to be asked if I had published any of this material. At first I laughed this off; I found the verbal approach a good one: it could be backed up by examples played at the keyboard.

sample page from book

On one occasion I found myself talking over one of Bach’s English suites, seated at the keyboard with a pianist of distinction. He was surprised and delighted when I pointed out the flexibility which Bach had probably wished to be applied to note-values in some contexts. For the first time, he said, it made sense of the score: an apparently arbitrary arrangement of short and even shorter notes was seen to be a shapely flourish, which would have been indicated by a different notational method some 50 years later, and which here depended upon ignoring the literal value of the notes. The justification for this was to be found in a tradition of notation which Bach had inherited from his forebears, which stretched back over a hundred years to Frescobaldi. Bach was able to write in this way because the players of his time understood the conventions which he did himself. Today, musicians are taught rigorously to play literally what they see in front of them, and they may have little inkling of these conventions. The music, however sensitively played, will lack something. The lack is usually in the areas of grace, or of rhythm.

After some consideration, I did decide to take up my pen and write down the content of some of these lectures and discussions. The resulting book is: “Did Bach Really Mean That?… Deceptive Notation in Baroque Keyboard Music”. The process of writing led to a far greater depth of detailed understanding than the lectures had ever revealed. On the other hand, it soon became clear that a complete treatise on performance was out of the question. The book came to be focused on rhythmic elements in the music: even then it would be hard to restrict it to 400 pages. Writing the book has, of course, had an impact on my playing, as the work progressed. (In a parallel way, making certain types of instrument has influenced my choice of repertoire; and responding to the musical qualities of these instruments, their touch, the note-shape, length of sustain etc., has helped to deepen my understanding of composers’ intentions.)

What is the point of all this? The only touchstones which I can provide as to whether these investigations have been worthwhile, are the recordings on Soundboard, and of course live concerts. But it must be true that we are still only scratching the surface of understanding. Every attempt that is made to achieve the mind-set of, for example, a musician of Bach’s time, is useful if we are to probe to the uttermost the meaning of the music. Then we will be more moved by it. Musicians of the 18th century wrote that this was the most important thing for music to do.

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Click here to explore recordings of solo harpsichord music on the Soundboard label.

Click here to go to the book’s dedicated website, www.didbach.co.uk.

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