Tempo Indications in Baroque Music
and interpretation today


Bach Portrait in Old Age


Traditionally, tempo instructions are given in Italian.
These are the most common tempo markings.

Grave - very slow and solemn (pronounced "GRAH-vay")
Largo - slow and broad ("LAR-go")
Larghetto - not quite as slow as largo ("lar-GET-toh")
Adagio - slow ("ah-DAH-jee-oh")
Lento - slow ("LEN-toe")
Andante - literally "walking", a medium slow tempo ("an-DAN-tay")
Moderato - moderate, or medium ("mod-er-AH-toe")
Allegretto - Not as fast as allegro ("al-leh-GRET-toh")
Allegro - fast ("al-LAY-grow")
Vivace - lively and brisk ("vee-VAH-chay)
Presto - very fast ("PRESS-toe")
Prestissimo - very, very fast ("press-TEE-see-moe")

To those may be added:
(un) poco - a little ("oon POH-koe")
molto - a lot ("MOLL-toe")
piu - more ("piew")
meno - less ("MAY-no")

The siciliano is a musical style or genre often included as a movement within larger pieces of music starting in the Baroque period. It is in a slow 6/8 or 12/8 time with lilting rhythms making it somewhat resemble a slow jig, and is usually in a minor key. It was used for arias in Baroque operas, and often appeared as a movement in instrumental works. The siciliano evokes a pastoral mood, and is often characterized by dotted rhythms.


Tempo Interpretation Today

Many "authentic" performances of Bach's cantatas adopt a fast, almost racy tempo which would never have been considered or tolerated in the staid atmosphere of a Lutheran church service in 1730. Tempi if anything would have been slower and more deliberate than we today would probably want to accept. Likewise many "authentic" performances of orchestral and solo works adopt a tempo the speed of which may display the players' dexterity but obscures much valuable and enjoyable detail. The tempo should never be faster than that which will allow the fastest (=shortest-value) notes to be articulated clearly.

Another issue of authenticity might also be considered in relation to tempi: the question of relative tempi as between movements of a concerto. Many believe that the ultra-slow middle movement contrasting with excessively fast and often hectic outer movements was a 19th century creation. The respected Romanian/French conductor/composer Georges Enesco believed that the three movements of a baroque concerto (or sonata for that matter) should be approximately equal in duration, that the slow movements should be faster than current practice, and the "fast" movements should be slower. He put this principle into practice in his wonderful Bach clavier concerto recordings dating from the late 1950s, now thankfully re-issued by the Baroque Music Collection. Internal evidence of the music itself suggests that the difference between the two outer, and the middle movement was one of character not speed. The outer movements would be lively and outgoing, while the center movement would be more introspective or lyrical. Thurston Dart, a major pioneer in the search for authenticity in performance during the 1960s, was also of this view.

As a simple rule, "slow" movements should move along gracefully, never drag, while "fast" movements should never express haste, and should always respect the player of the fastest notes, so that every note is distinct. As Alessandro Scarlatti wrote in a letter to the Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici: Where 'grave' is marked, I do not mean 'melancolico'. 'Allegro' should be judged so that too much is not demanded of the singer.

Many "authentic" performances also adopt unsteady tempi, so that the music seems to move in waves, or fits and starts, ignoring the fact that a regular tempo was universally accepted in baroque times when the major concern was keeping unruly players and singers together. Indeed it was quite usual for conductors to beat time with a heavy object on a desk, or, more commonly still, on the floor with a staff. The French composer Lully was conducting a Te Deum to celebrate Louis XIV's recovery from illness; he was banging loudly on the floor with a staff when he struck his foot with such force that it developed an abscess, from which the unfortunate Lully died shortly after. Slow, steady and deliberate tempi were the order of the baroque day. And clarity of contrapuntal line was paramount, which itself dictated a slow and deliberate rendition.


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