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Did Bach Really Mean That?

Deceptive notation in Baroque keyboard music by Colin Booth

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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.

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.

front cover of "did bach really mean that?"
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.


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.

Inside page of "did bach really mean that?"



Full details of the book can be found on the Did Bach Really Mean That? website.

‘It should come as no surprise that Colin Booth, who will be well-known to many readers as a harpsichordist, recording artist, and harpsichord maker of distinction has waited until now to produce this work on baroque keyboard notation. Such an undertaking would be impossible without a working lifetime’s knowledge of the repertoire.’

Dr Peter Mole, writing for the British Clavichord Society Journal, Spring 2011

‘Take a look at almost any handwritten or printed score from the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, or most later editions which haven’t been ‘got at’ by an interventionist editor, and you will be confronted with a built-in contradiction. The lack of detailed instructions in terms of dynamics, phrasing, tempi, even certain aspects of rhythm and ornamentation, can at first seem like a vision of uncluttered and liberating clarity. On the other hand, the level of creativity and inventiveness demanded of a performer in order to make expressive and exciting music out of what is little more than implied by all these rows of notes must require a depth of study which is daunting to say the least […]
‘Colin Booth has come up with a magnificent text, illuminated by a multitude of useful musical examples […] Bach’s name is invoked in the title, but the examples involved cover the entire spectrum of European styles […]


‘Booth’s book is therefore massively useful, and what I like about his writing is his all-embracing and non-dogmatic approach to this subject and its individual aspects. Take any point of contention with the piece you are studying, look up the easily found relevant section in this book, and your mind will be opened to the fluid nature of notation, introduced to references and statements which provide clues towards interpretation, and offered intelligent ways in which such music can be performed in a way defensible against criticisms of lack of authenticity.’

Dominy Clements, musician, writer and composer,
writing for, February 2011

Colin Booth’s knowledge of actual keyboard music is considerable and it is evidenced in the wealth of musical examples he supplies; this very breadth would allow the book to be useful for reference when meeting with rhythmic challenges. His appendices cover some relevant passages translated from Couperin, Frescobaldi, Saint Lambert, and Quantz and look in more depth at some of the notational problems within the Goldberg Variations and the Allemandes of the Six Partitas […]
‘No less than two hundred and eighty-one musical examples illustrate his desire to encourage the player to become more flexible and, in fact, more musical. Here he has the enormous advantage of being a harpsichordist worth listening to on the concert platform, and therefore one who literally practises what he preaches; for this reason, I would encourage the reader to buy some of his recordings as well as his book.’

Penelope Cave, harpsichordist,
writing for BHS Sounding Board 4, May 2011

‘The book is absolutely first class: very learned yet imaginative and totally approachable. So much to learn from it, and so much to admire. Congratulations. I have already recommended it to several keyboard players.’

Sir Roger Norrington, conductor

The author’s research is overwhelming. Provided the reader is prepared to roll up his or her sleeves, this book gives the performer a wealth of information in a practical and non-didactic way, which will benefit all keyboard-players - pianists included.’

Stephen Kovacevich, pianist and conductor

‘This book is a “must read” for all musicians. Booth writes with a rare combination of learning and intuitiveness, practical insight and a clarity of reasoned argument that can only inspire. His elegant prose and apposite illustration make it a joy to read.’

David Titterington, organist and Artistic Director of the International Organ Festival at St Albans

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