Interpretation of 18th century music

Apr 16, 2022

No matter how carefully you notate, it is impossible to define each of the required dynamics on the score.” -D.G.Türk

“It is believed that in modern time, the eighth and sixteenth notes in 18th century music were always played in a equal length (the sewing machine rhythm). Nothing is more musically absurd than that.”


The closest contact I had with the so-called “baroque music” universe was while attending the Musikhochschule in Cologne, about 20 years ago. In addition to the basic subjects, I chose “ornamentation technique of 18th century music” among the elective subjects. Also, since two of my chamber music teachers were specialists in early music, and a member of my string quartet was playing regularly with the Concerto Köln, naturally my curiosity was stimulated and I started to explore some books, tried out the baroque bow for a while, and played with the fortepiano. In the meantime, I received an invitation from Sir Roger Norrington to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto and did try to play “without-vibrato” (more on this later) and wrote my own cadenza and so forth.

But to be honest, I was a little frustrated. It was like entering a deep forest, yet I didn’t have enough time to digest all the knowledge. As a young player who had just started a professional life, all I could do then was to learn each new repertoire, one by one.  It was also difficult to switch from a historical bow to a modern one, and I didn’t really get the meaning of those instruments in the first place.

So after wandering between the two worlds for a while, I decided stay with the “modern version” for the time being.  I preferred to prioritise the the most important emotional and spiritual message of the work in a language that I was familiar with, rather than being distracted by superficial issues with unfamiliar tools.  And I still think this way.

However, I’ve continued to doubt about preconceived notions of 18th century music style (such as the strictness of tempo or “being truthful” to every detail of the score), and I have continued to study little by little, incorporating them into my “modern version”, and kept wishing that someday, the time will come to confront the original version.

That “some day” (=sufficient time) arrived with the unexpected disaster of the pandemic in 2020/21. I started to dig into more researches and stepped into the endlessly deep forest… and finally, I ended up getting handmade plain gut strings, and a baroque bow as well as a classical bow.

Paradoxically, I do not believe that playing on historical instruments = the legitimacy of interpretation, and certainly I have not decided to play in this setting forever. (or at least I don’t think so for the moment).

The only thing I can say is that as a result of pursuing the unity of theory and beauty, and I simply became bewitched by the beauty of the sound of plain gut strings. Stradivarius sounds like a fish in water, as if he is happy remembering the sound that he heard once upon a time.

What is the role of a performer?

I think it is to deliver the music from the past in a “lively” manner, while  getting as close as we can to the original meanings of the composition.

We cannot know exactly how music was played at that time, but since so many musicians of the time left us numerous treatises, there is no way we should ignore them.

These historical treatises are therefore very useful for all musicians and listeners, and they often contain two main elements:  first, the countless rules, and second, “Affect” – which could be described as feelings, good tastes, emotions, intuition, musical insight.

This “Affect” is one of the mystery of music. In this universe, as well as in the music, there are some things that cannot be explained, and cannot be understood even by the most intelligent robot – “Affect” is one of them.

 “You have to play with a certain sensibility (Empfindlichkeit) instead of playing exactly as instructed. Immerse yourself in the effects that should be expressed, and add the nuances, Schleifer, accents, dynamics, etc. You have to be able to play well all what is necessary for a tasteful performance through healthy judgment from years of experiences.”  (L.Mozart)

I think often about what Türk wrote:  “The phrase ‘Wird er bald kommen’ (Will he come soon?) would make completely different meanings just by the tone of the person who speaks. It can express heartfelt wishes, intensive impatience, affectionate plea, arrogant orders, irony, and so on. “

And 200 years later, Harnoncourt wrote :

“Emotional ups and downs and extreme dynamic differences (in modern Mozart performances) make it ‘too romantic’.  Such performances are considered not suitable for Mozart. However everything in life, from deep sorrow to an innocent joy, is abundantly embraced. It scares us as if we were pointed a mirror against our face. The music is not just beautiful. Mozart’s music is even horrifying.”

As for the “rules”, one could say there are as many theories as there are treatises.  Many of the theories are in agreement, but sometimes the opposite. And it’s really fun looking into each of them.

Then for example, you begin to realize that “we no longer feel uncomfortable with the mistake of not putting a slur, which was the norm before.

Furthermore that “the ‘dot’  has many more meanings. Or it can be said that the meaning changes depending on the context of the music.”   This is similar to when we Japanese use Chinese characters, the way we read it changes depending on the characters before or after.

Just because the composer didn’t write a slur, it didn’t mean that the notes should always be played détaché, or just because the notes have dots, it didn’t mean that they should all be played staccato or spiccato. That was not the composer’s intention.

C.P.E. Bach says that those notes that aren’t staccato nor legato, nor holding full value, should be played half length of the value, but in Türk’s opinion, that may be too short and may not fit in every character of the music. The length of the staccato should depend on the character of the music.

According to Leopold Mozart, the stroke (Keil) also has many meanings. Sometimes it means a cantabile, sometimes it’s a short,  lightly-bowed note, or strongly emphasized note (because the accent sign did not exist at that time) so it changes its meaning depending on the context. He also writes:

“Written slurs must be respected. Also, many scores do not mention these at all, so you have to be able to put the slurs in the right place, or detach them.” 

In other words, composers would leave it to the performer when there is no instruction, but they want you to think carefully about the harmony and the character of the music.

“When playing two notes with a single bow, the first note is accented and not only played somewhat strongly, but also kept a little longer. The second is played soft and quiet, and continued with a slight delay. Accent emphasis for expression is usually attached to ‘Nota Buona’ (strong beat).”

Michel Corette explains that notes with dots mean “equal length” (not staccato), because at that time, notes were played with unequal lengths.

A long time ago, I heard a recording of an organ roll by J.C.Smith, the secretary and pupils of Handel. That was a testament of inégale playing.

Regarding the spiccato, according to Prof.Clive Brown, the critic G.L.P. Sievers marvelled the playing of the French violinist, Pierre Baillot (1771-1842) in the Wiener Zeitschrift in 1821 with great impression ;

His Schiolto (détaché), which he always performs with a hopping, never with a firm bow stroke, is the non plus ultra of violin playing in this genre : he plays passages of thirty or forty bars in this manner with such a degree of perfection that the last note has the same aplomb as the first.”  

Another review commented on the performance of Joseph Böhm (1795-1876), Joachim’s teacher, as follows:

“Mr. Böhm, although still a young man, he’s achieved high degree of mastery on his instrument. We do not know whether this artist ever had the opportunity to hear Baillot  and to take him either in whole or in part as a model : (*he never went to Paris, he never met Baillot). All we know is that he succeeded to a rare degree of perfection in imitating the staccato or schiolto newly invented by this artist which consists in separating the notes not with a horizontal motion but with a vertical hopping bow, which as far as we know has not until now been used by any German violinist.”

So Brown argues that these Viennese reviews prove that the works of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven  were not played with spiccato in the eighteenth century.

Schindler was opposed to the newly invented spiccato playing , calling them the style of the virtuoso, therefore not suitable for all works.  Use of it in Beethoven’s symphonies, Prometheus, or all kinds of classical repertoires causes a “diabolical effect”, he wrote. When the final movement of Beethoven’s string trio Op.9 No.1 was played with spicatto, he showed obvious disgust saying ”the most dignified composition is thereby dragged down into the class of ordinary salon music”.

  Ferdinand David told Schindler in a letter:

”The stroke can only be applied at a fast tempo is new to me; it is to be used at the slowest speed, but of course you must not let the ow fall on to the strings, it has to brush them so that the tone will not be dry but resonant”

And in his Violinschule (1863), he writes :

“The bow must never entirely leave the string : try to make the stick vibrate strongly (…) in playing forte use the middle of the bow, in piano more towards the upper half.”


Geminiani instructed to use as much vibrato as possible, but this is of course not the kind of vibrato that we hear today, but so-called Trembling, Tremolo, and Bebung, which were types of ornaments.

C.P.E. Bach writes “the long and emotional notes can be played with Bebung.” “In that case, it’s best to start in the middle of the note’s value. Especially with keyboard instruments, it is not possible to add enough light and darkness by sustaining the sound for a long time or increasing or decreasing the volume. It becomes obscure and ridiculous.”

Johann Friedrich Schubert (1779-1811) was a little extreme;

Once it was considered beautiful, but it is now never heard from a tasteful singer (…) Everyone who has a cultivated ear will understand that if it is often heard, this ornament will arouse disgust : but there are still Violinist who use it on every note that is long enough (…) I would only allow violinists to use a Bebung very rarely on a long isolated note, the singer never; he can give his sustained note more nuance and variety than the violinist.”


“It is a mistake to play all the notes with ‘tremolo’, You must play tremolo as if it happened naturally, as if it was the sound of an open string.” 

This is Leopold Mozart’s description and one of the reasons why I wanted to try the gut strings produced using the method of the time.

Because personally, I’ve never thought that open strings (especially E) played on modern strings are beautiful, though Leopold advises to avoid the use of open strings in general.


Regarding the appoggiatura, there are differences in the theory depending on the era and region, but for example, Türk’s explanation is very well organised and detailed. It can be roughly divided into the long appoggiatura and the short appoggiatura, and he explains 17 cases where the short appoggiatura is suitable, and 2 cases where it should be played extra short. Needless to say, as a general rule, the appogiatura must be played stronger than the principal note. (However, L. Mozart demands the opposite in the short appogiatura.)

“Ornaments are essential in the 18th century. No matter how good the composition is, if you play it without adding them, you will lose much of its charm and half of its original effect will disappear. However, it should not be added anywhere, and the tempo in general should not deviate to the slightest.”  “Furthermore, you should never overdo it with music that have characters such as sadness, pain, melancholy, innocence, and naivety. For slow music, Anschlag, Schleifer, and appoggiatura are preferred over Trill, Mordent, and Schneller. The ornament is played faster or slower according to the tempo of the work.”  Also, “Various ornaments should be replaced to avoid sounding monotonous.”  “Refrain from adding Nachschlag when there is no instruction because it may cause error in  harmony or go against good taste. Use it with moderation when the tempo is slow”  (Türk)

About trills, L.Mozart says You can finish it without or with ornamentation All short trills may be played with the trendy appoggiatura or Nachschlag.”

  “Ornamentation in fermata is simply played when Allegro , and must be ornamented in slow and emotional work.” (C.P.E. Bach)

“It is possible to ornament the appoggiatura before the fermata, or even the main note. Generally speaking, as long as the Affect requires, it is normal to gradually slow down the tempo already before the fermata. (…) I would rather recommend not ornament sad songs at all.” (Türk)


I think the punctuation is the most crucial point.

This is Türk’s famous metaphor: “The sentence ‘Er verlor das Leben nicht nur sein Vermögen’ can also be delimited as ‘Er verlor das Leben, nicht nur… [he lost his life, not only his property]’ , or ‘Er verlor das Leben nicht, nur [ He didn’t lose his life, he lost only his fortune.]’ “

The notes that should be emphasized are: the strong beat, the first note of the Abschnitt / Einschnitt (phrase), the note that is discordant with the bass, the note that anticipates dissonance, syncopations, notes that stand out due to length and pitch (high/low), notes that stand out due to harmony or other notes, and false cadences. And dotted notes in serious, solemn, and noble music should be kept heavy, and short notes played faster.


C.P.E. Bach says “The note that follows the dotted note is always played shorter than the note value requires, so it is superfluous to add a single line to this short note.”  But I would like to say that it is NOT superfluous AT ALL in the 21st century !

  1. Mozart reiterates also in his treatise that short notes that follow dotted notes should be delayed and played quickly. Many times he reminds you that dotted notes should be too long rather than too short.

“In slow movements, you can emphasise by pressing the bow first at the dotted rhythm to keep the accurate tempo. However, once the tempo is stable, it should never be emphasised.

In quick movements , you have to raise the bow for each dot. Then it will be a bouncing performance. In slow music, you have to keep the dotted notes long, in order not to make the performance boring. Short rests are often extended in fast music.” (L.Mozart)

Agricola explains that the same rule is adopted when the dotted rhythm is reversed.

According to Brown, the notation of dotted triplets didn’t exist until the 1830s, and Löhlein advocated that the dotted rhythm of 8th or 16th notes within a series of triplets in the fast-tempo are played as triplet.


There are also various interesting descriptions regarding fluctuations of tempo.

“Music of a character of fierce, anger, indignant, or frenzy can be played with some acceleration at the most powerful points.” and  “The gentle, memorable part between the two lively and ardent parts slows down somewhat (not little by little, but just a little bit immediately).” (Türk)

“When a minor music is repeated in a major key, it is performed somewhat slower due to affect. It is also common to slow down the beats somewhat when entering fermata, which expresses fatigue, tenderness, or sorrow.” (C.P.E. Bach)

Brown’s study shows that according to the Allegemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung (1841) , “the prevailing tempo can be changed in various ways by the performing artist (…) In the performance of quartet, quintets, and even orchestral pieces with which the players are familiar, there is hardly any expressive passage in piano cresc. up to fortissimo, so to speak , in a more excited, more intense affect, in which the prevailing tempo will not be imperceptibly changed, leading g to a temporary hurry or hesitation: this is a fundamental aspect of expressing what is vividly felt and vividly performed, for otherwise the performance would remain purely mechanical, just like a music box.”    The review claims that in fortissimo the music naturally speeds up and in unisono it naturally slows down.

Also, under Joachim, the asynchrony technique was taught at the Musikhochschule Berlin. The following is a description by Marion Ranken (1930) who studied there during 1902-1909:

“There was no sense of there being any anxiety in his [Jachim’s] mind about keeping in with the rest of the quartet, or that any of them made an undue effort to keep together but, instead of the mechanical ensemble and “fitting in” of the present day, one had an ensemble of spirit – a sense that one common objective bound them all together , and that they all meant to reach the goal in company.“  “Klingler said to me recently (1930), when discussing the <faultless ensemble playing> which gets so much praise from the musical critic nowadays: ‘As a matter of fact, I personally do not want that sort of ensemble, but if I put this in print I should only misunderstood.’ ”

Coming back to Türk :In tempo rubato, the bass should be  played according to the beat.

C.P.E. Bach says almost the same:

“When the execution is such that one hand seems to play against the bar and the other strictly with it, it may be said that the performer is doing everything that can be required of him. It is only rarely that al  parts are struck simultaneously. Proper execution of this tempo demands great critical faculties and high order of sensibility. He who possesses these will not find it difficult to fashion a performance whose complete freedom will show no trace of coercion.”

The description of L. Mozart is particularly interesting: “When accompanying a true performer who deserves its name, you must never stagnate or rush, and play at a constant tempo. Otherwise, the orchestra may destroy even though the soloist is trying to perform well.” “If the soloist is a decent musician, the accompaniment will not follow him. Otherwise it would harm his tempo rubato.”



It is said that if we trace back the lineage of our teacher’s teacher etc., you would certainly arrive at L.Mozart or Carl Czerny, and in fact, many important theories have been handed down to us. But many of them have been distorted or lost over time. It can’t be helped. Harnoncourt says that some traditions have been lost due to the French Revolution. I’m sure that the culture has been constantly changing after every conflict, revolution or pandemic.

For many of us, our musical education has largely been based on the understandings of the 19th century onwards, particularly that of the post-war 1950s. In addition, the clichés of “period performance” in modern times have taken on a life of its own with accessibility to plenty of recordings, that have lead to “non-vibrato” performances or playing all the notes “short, together, and evenly”.  In this way, however, we move away not only from the 19th century aesthetics, but even further from the essence of the 18th century.

How wonderful it is that many musicians of the period  have left us these treatises as if they had foreseen that.  The examples I’ve quoted here are just a small part of them, and surely there are many more knowledgeable professionals out there.  I’d be happy if anyone would find this interesting.


Thank you very much for reading!


-Francesco Geminiani : Art of playing on the violin op. 9 (London,1751)
-Johann Joachim Quantz : Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Berlin, 1752)
-Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin, 1753/1762)
-Leopold Mozart: Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (Augsburg, 1756)
-Johann Friedrich Agricola: Anleitung zur Singkunst (Berin 1757)
-Georg Simon Löhlein: Clavier-Schule (Leipzig, 1773)
-Domenico Corri : A select collection of the most admired songs, duets (Edinburgh, 1779?)
-Michel Corrette : L’art de se perfectionner dans le violon (Paris, 1782)
-Daniel Gottlieb Türk : Klavierschule (Leipzig, 1789)
-Bartholomeo Campagnoli : Nouvelle méthode de la mécanique progressive du jeu du violon (Leipzig, 1824)
-August Eberhard Müller/ Carl Czerny: Grosse Fortepiano Schule (Leipzig, 1830?)
-Pierre Baillot : L’art du violon (Paris, 1835)
-Louis Spohr : Violinschule (Leipzig, 1832)
-Charles de Beriot : Methode de violon (Paris & Mainz,1858)
-Ferdinand David: Violinschule (Leipzig,1863)
-Carl Reinecke: Die Beethoven’schen Clavier-Sonaten. Briefe an einer Freundin (Leipzig, 1897)
-Nikolaus Harnoncourt : Der musikalische Dialog (1984)
-Nikolaus Harnoncourt : Musik als Klangrede (1985)
-Clive Brown: Classical & Romantic performing practice 1750-1900 (Oxford, 1999)