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The Limits of Notation: Reading Bach’s Rhythms - Lecture with Jonathan Leathwood

  • UBC School of Music - Room 113 6361 Memorial Road Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z2 Canada (map)

Co-presentation between VCGS and UBC School of Music

UBC School of Music Room 113 (basement)

The lecture Begins at 5:45 pm. Please plan to arrive by 5:30 pm to avoid disrupting the lecture once it has begun. The Vancouver Classical Society will be hosting a Masterclass before the lecture which is free for the general public to audit. 


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In the guitar repertory, Bach is the touchstone of quality: a chance for students and professionals to demonstrate their technical mastery and interpretive insight. As a result, performers can be reluctant to treat Bach’s notation of rhythm in anything other than a scrupulously reverential—that is to say, literal—way.

And yet certain key features of Baroque music were impossible to notate clearly at the time. Tuplets of all kinds, unequal rhythms and rubato could be notated only as approximations. 18th-century composers chose between two approaches: (1) simple approximations that do not fit into the notated meter or (2) more complex but rational approximations. Bach tended to choose the latter approach, but the complex appearance of the resulting rhythms lends itself easily to misunderstanding and awkward performances.

In this lecture, we shall see that understanding the limits of Baroque notation can lead to some surprising interpretations, some of them yet to be heard in any standard recording. Examples will be drawn from the guitarist’s standard Bach repertory: the works for lute, violin and cello. 

Students are often anxious about deviating from the notation in front of them: as we shall discuss, this anxiety comes from Romantic concepts of not only a notation, but of the musical masterpiece itself. Redefining our concept of a Bach work in terms of its historical context can only liberate our performances.