Did Bach Really Mean That?

Deceptive Notation in Baroque Keyboard Music

by Colin Booth
Hardcover, 349 pages, £ 45


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. Yes, there are now plenty of recorded examples, but do we really want to imitate other performers parrot-fashion and without questioning their interpretations in turn? Which of these resources approach any degree of accuracy, and how indeed do we know what is accurate or even approximate to what the composer intended in the first place?
As a great fan and avid collector of recordings of Bach’s keyboard music and Das Wohltemperierte Klavier in particular, I think the differences most immediately noticeable between performances is that of ornamentation and to approach when it comes to rhythm. Many readers will already know how widely interpretations can vary, ranging from attempts at absolute authenticity to the highly personal and idiosyncratic approach of someone like Glenn Gould. Until now any observations I may have had on the subject as a reviewer were based more on taste and experience rather than any scholarly knowledge of the subject, but with Colin Booth’s Did Bach really mean that? such a vague basis for criticism can now be explored and analysed in considerable depth.
Colin Booth has come up with a magnificent text, illuminated by a multitude of useful musical examples, which deals comprehensively with these problems as they arise in keyboard music of the Baroque period. Bach’s name is invoked in the title, but the examples involved cover the entire spectrum of European styles. For instance, French solutions to certain notations, such as those of Couperin or Rameau, inevitably differ from those of Germany or England. The basis for many of these notational conventions boils down to “economy of time and effort.” Any composer writing a score by hand will know how time-consuming a process it is, and the same goes for copyists and performers. All music notation is a kind of compromise, an attempt to communicate in writing something which is of its very nature more accurately communicable through “oral transmission”. We need to make considerable efforts today to revive conventions which would have been understood by contemporaries with a few marks of the Baroque composer’s pen. The development of what Booth calls the “technology” of notation has reached a peak of complexity today which is supposed to enable – in theory – any sufficiently trained musician to play accurately any modern score without a need to consult with the composer as to his intentions. Not that this is always the case, but that is the aim. In the Baroque period a menu of conventions existed which are comparable with those of jazz in our era. Putting a Big Band score in front of a classical orchestra unaware of the conventions of jazz can be considered the equivalent of where we are today presented by the notes of a Baroque composer without foreknowledge of the conventions of his day, and attempting to re-create what he would have expected to hear.
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. There is rarely a single answer to any one problem. Issues are put in context with examples, and it is then shown how Baroque composers adapted techniques to their needs. Trills for instance, can be seen notated – written out ‘in full’ by earlier composers such as Gibbons and Byrd, but given the example of Froberger with a probable element of flexibility built into their literal metric content. Symbols take the trill beyond this more restrictive practise and exist simultaneously with notated ornament, and the relationship between symbols and notated turns or appoggiaturas is explored. This is then taken into the realms of decoration in cadences, and where undecorated notation is seen against the contemporaneous instructive additional notation provided by publishers for musicians geographically removed from the music’s origins and its presumed familiarity.
Looking at the extreme précis above, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a dry and unapproachably learned tome. A fairly extensive website has been made for this book which provides a good idea about what to expect, including the first page of each chapter so you can gain an impression of the style and content. This is interesting, but does conceal a vast quality and quantity of depth which you can only obtain from the book itself. Many of the headings which appear in this book are not wholly exclusive to keyboard music, and much can be learned from universally applicable points which are as relevant to wind and string instrumentalists and even singers. As far as I can tell Colin Booth takes nothing for granted, and definitions in language as well as in notation are cleared up before the main subject is dealt with. For instance, you will be in no doubt as to the difference between a ‘grace-note’ and an ‘appoggiatura’ before the 17th century, in which late Baroque, French and English practices are further covered, along with a dose of Scarlatti’s “random approach”, the eclecticism of German composers and usage by Bach in particular. You will hardly be left with questions unanswered, and that’s only the chapter on The Single-Note Ornament.
This is a book mainly but not exclusively for performers, and its essence can be paraphrased in a comment by Steven Kovacevich on the back cover. Provided you are “prepared to roll up your sleeves” and put in the necessary work to get the best out of Colin Booth’s research in a practical way, then the gains from studying his examples and his reasoning behind them is as close to limitless as makes no difference.
Dominy Clements
The gains from studying Colin Booth are as close to limitless as makes no difference.