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Choosing a tempo

We all know that tempo has a significant effect on the overall character of a performance. Baroque composers didn't include metronome markings on their music (the metronome wasn't invented until the early nineteenth century), so it is not possible to be certain about what tempos composers had in mind for their music. We have to find other ways to determine an appropriate tempo for baroque pieces.

Tempo/mood markings...

The titles of movements can sometimes help (e.g. Allegro, Andante, etc.). Although they give us an idea of where to start, we should bear in mind that these indicate the music's mood or character more than its specific tempo. Not all movements with the same title will work well at the same speed, and the implication of some tempo markings has changed over the centuries. For example, Ruth shows us here that the term 'Largo' (literally, 'broadly') can mean something different today from how it was understood in the eighteenth century:

Dance styles...

Although it is unlikely that Bach expected people to dance to his cello suites, it can help to consider the nature of the dance forms when choosing a tempo the dance movements in his suites.

In the eighteenth century, different dances were considered to have different characters. In his handbook to musicians, Der Vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739), Johann Mattheson (a contemporary of Bach) described what he believed to be the nature of several different dance movements. Some are serious and sombre in character (such as the Sarabande), others are much more light-hearted. Of the Bourrée, for example, he writes that 'its distinguishing feature resides in contentment and a pleasant demeanor, at the same time it is somewhat carefree and relaxed, a little indolent and easy-going, though not disagreeable.'

Here, Ruth shows how this information can help us choose a good tempo for the dance:

The dance known as the Allemande originated in the sixteenth century and the nature of its steps and accompanying music went through many changes over the following century. By the mid-eighteenth century the dance itself had fallen out of fashion, and Allemande movements became rather earnest in style. In his musical dictionary, Musikalisches Lexicon (Leipzig, 1732), Bach's cousin, Johann Gottfried Walther, wrote that the Allemande 'must be composed and likewise danced in a grave and ceremonious manner'. Mattheson described the Allemande as 'a serious and well-composed harmoniousness', adding that the dance expresses 'satisfaction or amusement...delighting in order and calm.'

This suggests that a relatively slow tempo would be appropriate for the dance.

Harmonic rhythm...

But how slow is slow? A good way to decide is by looking at the harmonic rhythm - the frequency with which the chords change. As a general rule, while taking into account the overall character and nature of the piece, the more frequently the chords change, the slower we need to play it.

You might think it is strange to talk about harmonic rhythm in a piece for a solo instrument consisting almost entirely of notes played consecutively. There is, nevertheless, harmony implied, either by arpeggios or by the notes which fall on the strong beats of the bars.

In the following extracts Ruth looks at the harmonic rhythm of both the G-major Prelude, which opens the suite, and the Allemande itself.

Here, she plays the opening bars of the G-major Prelude.

Because the piece is built on arpeggios, it is quite easy to discover the underlying harmonic rhythm:

In the following clip, Ruth plays the first four bars of the Allemande, and offers some tips for uncovering the harmonic structure.

The implied chords change more frequently in this extract (twice per bar - see below), so it is a good idea to choose a tempo that allows you to feel (and the audience to hear) the chord progressions. You will notice that Ruth chooses a slower tempo for the Allemande than for the Prelude.

Back to Allemande menu page