Rhythm in Baroque Keyboard Performance Practice:
A Systematic Approach to Maintaining Metric Comprehensibility

Robert T. Kelley
September 2000

Note: This guide is an idealization of the technique of creating rhythmic accent and weight. Use of these principles must be tempered by a careful attention to the effect they have on the sound of the music. Exaggeration of the techniques can lead to an unappetizingly mannered performance. It is important for performers to make liberal use of the critical ears of their colleagues, teachers, and friends before committing themselves to a particular way of playing a piece of music.

The Philosophical Basis for this Approach

Some of the guidelines given here are the exact opposite of what most musicians are taught. This is because interpretive choices are often given more importance than an unambiguous performance of what is given in the score. Because of fundamental principles of how musical accent, weight, and importance are perceived, the guidelines in this text will tend to remove all rhythmic ambiguity from music where the composer intended no rhythmic ambiguity. A natural "musicality" comes from unmistakable metric definition, and many matters of interpretation become much more natural once the music itself is made lucid. Thus, this is not a guide to interpretation, but rather a guide to correct execution of rhythm. For resources on interpretation, see the Guide to Listening and Interpretation.

The Stylistic Component of Rhythmic Performance Practice

Many of the ideas in this guide may be used to enhance the clarity of the performance of any piece of music; however, some articulation guidelines and all of the ornamentation principles are specific either to Baroque keyboard instruments or the Baroque style. A simple rule for making rhythmic decisions based on the period of the piece is that later music focuses less on articulation for rhythmic definition and more on timing and agogics. A good familiarity with the principles behind these rhythmic definition techniques will also help with the performance of later music (see IV. Non-Dynamic Rhythmic Techniques below).

Detailed Outline of the Technique

  1. Articulation

    1. Longer (quarter notes, half notes, whole notes) note values tend to be played shorter with more space between them. (Increasing space with increasing note value)
    2. Likewise, shorter note values (eighth notes, sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes) tend to approach a "legato" touch. (Notes that are rhythmically closer together are increasingly difficult to play détaché.)
    3. Larger melodic intervals tend to be played with more space than smaller intervals. (Stepwise motion is melodic and vocal; large leaps are expressive and important. Note: In the 19th-century style this expressivity is grounds for an extreme legato instead.)
    4. Notes on stronger beats tend to be played with more length than notes on weaker beats. ("Accent of Relative Length")
    5. Always break before a strong beat. (Never slur into the beat.) ("Accent of Space")
    6. Always break before a syncopation. ("Accent of Space")
    7. When there is a rest on a strong beat, the release of the note before the rest defines the downbeat. ("Accent of Space")

  2. Timing (Agogics)

    1. Notes in particularly strong metric positions and notes that require strong accents are given great enough length that the tempo is very slightly distorted. ("Tenuto Accent")
    2. If a note is of particular importance to warrant accenting, a slight hesitation in the break before the note will create an "Accent of Delay" or "Accent of Expectation".
    3. Ritardando: When slowing the pace at an important cadential event, a strategy for creating a sense of arrival at the goal is to double the factor of mental subdivision at a regular interval (usually every beat) (and then apply a "Delay Accent").

  3. Ornamentation

    1. Rolled chords
      • Rolling softens harsh attacks
      • Arpeggiation helps to sustain a chord better if it is to be held out
      • The "strumming" gesture gives a chord more perceived weight.
      • A quick roll on the harpsichord can serve as an accent.
      • A slow roll can show a relaxation point in the music
      • The effect of a roll can also be varied by increasing or decreasing the speed of the attacks during the roll.
    2. Mordents
      • Mordents function to enhance the attack of a single note
      • Mordents slightly lengthen the attack and sustain (though they should be played as quickly as possible). To enhance this, one can add more repercussions of the ornament.
      • This "biting" ornament can add dissonance to a sonority for the sake of accent.
    3. Trills
      • Trilling can serve to enhance the arrival of a cadence
      • Most long trills in the Baroque style begin on the dissonant note and (after lingering there very briefly) alternate quickly between the two notes before resolving to the consonant note. If the trill is on a dotted note (in duple meter), stop trilling on the the part of the duration represented by the dot.
      • In the 19th century, trills were more decorative, and generally are begun on the note given in the score and have no set rhythmic interpretation except to alternate quickly between the two notes.
      • On harpsichord, a long shake will help to sustain an especially long note. In this case, one may begin on the given pitch. (Avoid using trills on bass pedal points which can be simply repeated for sustain.)
      • Trills can increase the perceived dynamic of a note or chord
      • Short trills can function much as mordents do.

  4. Overview of non-dynamic (and non-timbral) accent techniques

    1. Relative Length Accent – Notes played with more length (closer to legato) tend to sound louder.
    2. Tenuto Accent – Combines the idea of Relative Length Accent with the concept that notes that are sustained beyond the time allotted them by a steady tempo tend to seem more important.
    3. Space Accent – This accent goes hand-in-hand with the Relative Length accent and is exploited by the Delay Accent. Silence before the attack of a pitch makes it seem more important. It is also important to understand that a note's release can be as significant a rhythmic event as its attack.
    4. Delay or Expectation Accent – Stretching the time before when a note would normally be played according to the current tempo creates extra expectation as to whether a note will be played at all; an accent is thus created when the note is actually played.
    5. Ritardando – A well-timed slowing down can create an especially strong sense of arrival.

  • For a list of bibliographic resources on Baroque Keyboard Performance Practice, see my Clavichord Performance Practice Annotated Bibliography.
  • There are many additional resources for performers in my Guide to Studying Piano.
  • Finally, see my pages on Interpretation and Criticism.

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