Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Ido Abravaya (The Open University of Israel)

Bach’s tempo practices: tempo changes

The relatively few tempo headings in J. S. Bach’s music have been considered, since its revival in the 19th century, an unsolvable problem for performers. Moreover, their rare use appears to be unsystematic. Various explanations have been proposed for this riddle. A well-known argument for the lack of tempo words is that they are ‘hidden’ in his music in one way or another, not as explicit time words but as implied by tempo conventions known to Bach’s contemporaries, such as the concept of tempo giusto, or by other indications (time signatures and barlines, or predominant fast note values used in a given piece)

A survey of the tempo words in Bach’s works shows that their distribution is highly variable, not chronologically, but mainly according to their genre. Bach’s sparing use of tempo headings is not much different from that of other composers of his time (Handel, Telemann). But surprisingly, in his vocal works he is unusually detailed in indicating tempo changes within movements. Their occurrence is unprecedented, exceeding by far such indications in the works of his contemporaries. The proposed paper will analyse Bach’s strategy, his independence of the operatic conventions of his time, his sensitivity to the meaning of his texts, as well as his tendency – and abilty – to transcend the accepted divisions of musical form and genre.

Last updated on 10 May 2004