On-line Book Review


Dimension 21.0 x 14.8 x 1.3 cm
TITLE On Bach's Rhythm and Tempo by Ido Abravaya. (= Bochumer Arbeiten zur Musikwissenschaft, Bd.4)
PUBL. DETAILS Kassel: Bärenreiter-Verlag (2006) x+232 pp. Paperback, Euro 33,95.
ISMN 3-7618-1602-2
TO ORDER Bärenreiter-Verlag, Heinrich-Schütz-Allee 35, D-34131 Kassel, Germany.
DESCRIPTION A monograph exploring a wider background theoretical issues concerning the rhythm and tempo in Baroque music, in particular Bach's works.
WORKS COVERED BWV 12, 21, 24, 29, 38, 52, 61, 67, 71, 80, 92-3, 95, 105, 115, 120, 140, 146, 163, 165, 169, 201-2, 206, 210, 227, 230, 232, 244-5, 527, 532, 546, 552, 565, 572, 575, 589, 656, 677, 686, 729a, 772, 777, 785-7, 789-91, 794-6, 798, 801, 829-31, 847, 854, 873, 878, 880, 883, 894, 903, 906, 912-3, 918, 927, 961, 971, 974-5, 982, 984, 988, 992, 994-5, 1003, 1006, 1006a, 1007, 1015, 1041, 1044, 1046-53, 1056, 1079-80, 1090.
READERSHIP Musicologists and serious performers.
Critical review of primary-source literatures of 16-18th centuries.

I f you are expecting to find in this book the ‘correct’ tempo at which one should play any of Bach’s compositions, you will be disappointed. This book is not such a practical manual: it examines the surrounding theoretical issues ‘on Bach’s rhythm and tempo’.

This book is a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation entitled “Studies of Rhythm and Tempo in the Music of J. S. Bach” submitted to Tel-Aviv University in 1999. As it is well known, Bach did not publish theoretical treatises, though many of his less-well-known colleagues did. By acknowledging that “Bach had outstanding knowledge of – and involvement with – older traditions” (p.ix), the author provides much ground for his readers to feel that with a better understanding of the relationship between tempo and other factors such as rhythmic texture, harmonic rhythm, articulation, affectual content, degree of accentuation, they can develop “a theory more in tune with actual musical practice, a theory that acknowledges the performer’s inherent freedom of choice and responsibility of choice, in relation to the tempo parameter.” (p.x)

Contents in brief

Some Questions for Introduction


Durational Strata and Musical Style

1. 16th-Century Vocal Style: Counterpoint Rules and Tempo

2. Early Instrumental Rhythmic Styles

3. Bach's Style and Durational Strata

4. The New Tempo: Partisans and Opponents

5. Durational Strata on the Threshold of Classicism


Measure, Beat, and Upbeat

6. Upbeats, Bach, and Old Traditions


Tempo: Rules of its Behaviour and Change

7. Goldberg Variations as a Counterexample: Proportions and the Myth of Bach's Mensural Tempo

8. Theorists of the 18th Century

9. Bach's Tempo Practices

10. Old Tempo -- New Interpretations

11. Some Doubts for Conclusion



A. Collective lists of Bach's Tempo Indications

B. Translated Quotations

C. Bibliography

D. Index of Bach's Works

E. General Index.

On Bach's Rhythm and Tempo by Ido Abravaya.
Kassel: Bärenreiter-Verlag (2006) x+232 pp
'It will serve as source of inspiration to performers' --- Bach Bibliography, Book Review by Yo Tomita
It will serve as source of inspiration to performers

The book is organised in three parts and eleven chapters as shown on the left. The actual areas of his investigation are:

  1. Searching for ‘internal’ evidence about tempo as revealed by the rhythmic texture of the music;
  2. Analysis of 17th- and 18th-century authors (Praetorius, Saint-Lambert, Mattheson, North, Quantz, Kirnberger, Türk and others) on the theory of tempo and its behaviour as an independent parameter;
  3. Discussion of modern attempts to revive the Renaissance concept of rhythmic proportion and to apply it to 18th-century composers, Bach in particular;
  4. Review of the controversy between the so-called ‘prestist’ and ‘lentist’ factions about the tempi of ‘old music’ in light of 18th-century French metronomic data; and
  5. Comprehensive survey and analysis of Bach’s tempo indications.

Abravaya begins his enquiries with the 16th-century vocal style. There he finds the background concepts to appreciate the subject matter, namely the differentiated behaviour of durational strata (i.e., ‘slow’ moving in semibreve, ‘middle’ in minim, ‘fast’ in semiminim, and ‘vocal-ornate’ in fusa), which are of fundamental importance for his central argument. By doing so he makes illuminating observations on the fast-changing views that one can observe in the published treatises during the course of the Baroque era: he argues, for instance, that the walking-bass texture was incorporated in Baroque stile antico as an additional ‘modernizing’ factor during Bach’s lifetime, whereas in his sons’ generation it represented a ‘retrospective’ element. Particularly revealing to me was his discussion of the fastest stratum in some of Bach’s compositions, which pushes the bounds of ‘fast’ to extend to ‘impossible’ or ‘forbidden’ fast notes, e.g. the final section of the F-major fugue of WTC II (written in 6/16 time), whether this has the implication of a slower tempo, compared with a similarly textured piece such as the C#-minor Fugue of WTC II (written in 12/16 time but without the ‘super-fast’ passages in demisemiquavers). For Bach, such ‘hyper-fast’ passages often emerge in a late stage of composition or revision, as an addition of virtuoso elements in the composition. Does this mean that the basic tempo of the piece should be broadened for a later version that has newly-worked out demisemiquaver passages?

Another was his careful examination of writings by Bach’s contemporaries such as Mattheson, Roger North, Quantz, and Kirnberger on their perception of tempi and their observations at particular time and place. To me Abravaya made a convincing case here, demonstrating how important it is to read and interpret these historical accounts from their correct contexts.

And from it also emerges how much care we need to take when considering how fast or slow Bach himself played when using these historical references, as he warns us (p.176):

But examining Bach’s actual policy of tempo indications is even more perplexing, as its lack of system does not even approximate any of the tempo philosophies of his time -- or ours.

In effect, he warns us that it is impossible to assign ‘right’ tempi for Bach; instead he encourages us to focus on examining what musicians of Bach’s former generations thought about tempo, and investigate its relationship with rhythmic texture and structure. This book thus does not offer any answers to how fast or slow one should play a specific piece. What it offers instead is a fair way to interpret 18th-century tempo theories, which will serve as a source of inspiration to performers of today.

Published online on 9 January 2007