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Tempo & Character in Bach's French Courantes

(Still in progress, more to be added!) In this penetrating article, Dr. Hall explains how the established tradition of playing Bach’s “French” style courantes (mainly those in 3/2 and 6/4 time) extremely fast and aggressively is historically incorrect and that French courantes have always been described by dancers and historians as “slow” and “majestic.” This article is an offshoot of Dr. Hall’s earlier article “Of Bach and Courante Tempos” (Clavier, July/August 2002).

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Introduction

Listen to virtually any recording of a “French” style courante in Bach’s keyboard suites — namely, any courante in 3/2 or 6/4 time in the Six English Suites, Six French Suites, Six Partitas, Overture in the French Style — and you will be given the impression that courantes are fast and lively “show” pieces like the Chopin or Liszt etudes. Ever since I embarked on serious study of historic Bach tempi, beginning in graduate school in 1992, this performance tradition has befuddled me. The French courante is by far the most misunderstood and misinterpreted dance style used by Bach in his suites, mainly with regards to tempo, touch, and character. With few exceptions, Bach’s French courantes were meant to be played moderately slow and majestically with a predominantly legato and cantabile touch. Aggressively pounding out Bach’s courantes at break-neck speeds is historically incorrect and irresponsible. The purpose of this article is to explain why this is true and to offer examples of my own playing that demonstrate my thesis.  

When I was in graduate school at the University of Kansas in the 1990s, I had the honor of working with a professional Renaissance-Baroque dancer and dance historian who was on the dance faculty (Professor Joan Stone). Professor Stone and I collaborated for three years on most of the popular dance forms used by Renaissance and Baroque composers and I learned first-hand what good and bad dance tempi were. This was also the time I was developing my tempo theories with Bach’s music. I remember it vividly. I had determined what I thought was the ideal French courante tempo having never danced a courante, which I determined through historical research, logic, and musical intuition. I then tried out a courante at my “ideal” tempo and Professor Stone told me it was a perfect speed for dancing the courante. This ideal tempo happens to be 108 bpm per quarter note, which translates to 54 bpm per half note for 3/2 courantes.

Composers, dancers, and contemporaries of the 16th-century court life invariably described the French courante as being “slow, “majestic,”  and “graceful.” The best way to become familiar with the courante is to watch a short clip of two dancers. Listen carefully to the music in the background and try clocking it on the metronome. The beat is almost exactly 108 bpm. Of course, it could be done a little slower or faster (Professor Stone informed me that beginners need faster tempi than experienced dancers), but 108 bpm represents the “ideal” speed under normal circumstances, as clearly demonstrated by these two dancers.

Notice the French Baroque music in the background and that its tempo is very close to 108 bpm. This is the ideal speed for French courantes, although slower or faster speeds may be taken depending on the skill of the dancers.

Bach's Courantes

I remember playing my favorite courantes (from English Suite No. 1) at 108 bpm per quarter note for Professor Stone, and she exclaimed that my playing of courantes with regards to tempo and character was the best she had ever heard. Contrary to common belief, these courantes should not be played with staccato quarter notes and a very fast tempo (as most pianists play them), but rather, at a comfortable and graceful Andante of 108 bpm with a smooth legato touch. The biggest mistake made by pianists is that they assume Bach’s French courantes are Allegro or even Presto, when in fact they are simply Andante. This slower tempo allows for more detail in the ornamentation, which is one of the hallmarks of the French courante style. Moreover, it is well known that Bach placed a high value on cantabile playing, as he specified in the preface to his Two-Part Inventions. I absolutely adore the two Courantes from English Suite No. 1. The Six English Suites as a whole are early works, and in my opinion, musically inferior the French Suites and Partitas; however, there are certain isolated movements in the English Suites, such as these courantes, that are absolute gems. I play them here Andante at 108 bpm with a predominantly legato touch.

These two Courantes from Bach’s English Suite No. 1 are delightful gems played best at 108 bpm. This Andante tempo allows for the graceful ornamentation and results in a majestic character.

Bach included slower French courantes in the first three French Suites, as opposed to the faster “Italian” style courantes (or, “correntes”) included in the final three suites. One of the defining characteristics of this slower style is the absence of sixteenth notes. If Bach wanted a faster tempo for his courantes or correntes he had only two choices, which was either to add more notes (triplet eighths or sixteenth notes) or to change the time signature. For example, French Suite No. 4 features a courante with triplet eighths, while French Suites Nos. 5 and 6 feature courantes with running sixteenth notes. These are all “fast” courantes due to the addition of more notes. In Partita No. 5, the Corrente is notated not in 3/4 time like the Courante from French Suite No. 2, but rather, in 3/8 with sixteenth notes. This was Bach’s other way of indicating a faster tempo. Pianists almost never make any tempo distinction between the Courante from French Suite No. 2 and the Corrente from Partita No. 5, although the latter obviously has a slower tempo than the former due to the slower looking notation (3/4 with eighths instead of 3/8 with sixteenths). Some commentators have described the Courante from French Suite No. 2 as a fast Italian-style “Corrente,” but this is wrong. This Courante is unmistakably the slower French variety. Do not be fooled by the famous and elite performers today who turn these graceful and elegant Baroque dances into 19th-century virtuoso etudes. Just because one is a piano virtuoso does not necessarily mean one is educated in music history. It is shocking (in a good way) to hear this Courante played at the correct Andante tempo of 108 bpm after hearing it played regularly two times faster at Presto as it usually is. Now, listen to the Courante from French Suite No. 2 (in 3/4 with eighths as the fastest note values) and the Corrente from Partita No. 5 (in 3/8 with sixteenths as the fastest note values) and compare the two tempi, which are considerably different due to the different time signatures. The correct tempi are 108 bpm per quarter note (a little slower than a standard minuet tempo of 126 bpm) and 144 bpm per eighth note, respectively, which I demonstrate here.

The time signature in this Courante is 3/4 and the fastest note values are eighths. A standard French courante tempo of 108 bpm is to be assumed. If Bach wanted a faster tempo here, he would have notated it in 3/8 with sixteenths as the fastest note values as he did in the Corrente to the right.

The time signature in this Corrente is 3/8 and the fastest note values are sixteenths. This indicates a faster tempo than the “slow” courante to the left, which is 144 bpm. This would have been considered around Allegro moderato by Bach.

Flanking French Suite No. 2, which features a slow French courante in 3/4 time, are two more slow French Courantes, one in 3/2 and the other in 6/4. These are the most common time signatures Bach used for his French courantes, which are related in that they both have six quarter notes per measure. Like the Courante from French Suite No. 2, the ideal tempo for these courantes is also 108 bpm. Do not be fooled by famous performers who play these Courantes Allegro or Presto, since their tempo choices are the result of long-standing 19th-century traditions that falsely interpret graceful Bach dances like Chopin or Liszt etudes. These Courantes are simply delightful when played at their correct and natural tempi, which is the same tempo as the graceful dance done by the two young ladies at the beginning of this article. Bach would simply be appalled at the tempi of these courantes taken by the famous and elite performers of today, who apparently know very little about historic dance tempi. Bach’s use of overlapping notes and ties in the Courante from French Suite No. 1 suggests a predominantly legato touch (except for detached quarter notes sometimes), while the less polyphonic and two-part texture in the Courante from French Suite No. 3 suggests a regular staccato touch for most of the quarter notes.

This courante is notated in 3/2 time, in which the half note equals 54 bpm and the quarter note equals 108 bpm.

This courante is notated in 6/4 time, in which the quarter note equals 108 bpm.

Bach’s courantes became significantly more complex in his Six Partitas. Partitas Nos. 2 and 4 feature the slower French variety of courantes, while the other four feature faster courantes that are faster either by way of more notes added (Nos. 1, 3, 6) or different time signature (Nos. 5, 6). The Courante from Partita No. 2, perhaps the most popular of all Bach’s courantes, has a peculiar notation that undoubtedly indicates a legato performance. In this courante, Bach used overlapping note values and ties in a way that if played literally one must play virtually the entire courante legato. This explicit legato notation naturally suggests the normal default courante tempo of 108 bpm. Once again, do not be fooled by famous and elite performers who regularly misinterpret this courante by pounding it out extremely fast and aggressively, for they have (Lord have mercy) unfortunately been ill-educated and misinformed. I demonstrate this Courante at the proper tempo of 108 bpm. Notice how I do not relentlessly pound this Courante out like a truck driver on steroids, like the most deified pianist in the world named “Martha” and the scores of other pianists (famous and infamous) who worship her.

This courante is notated in 3/2 time, in which the half note equals 54 bpm and the quarter note equals 108 bpm.

In Partita No. 4, Bach included the most overtly extroverted and joyful French courante in all his works. This is an exception to the norm, since French courantes are generally not extroverted at all, but rather, often somewhat restrained and slightly melancholic. However, this does not call for a faster absolute speed than any of Bach’s other courantes, since Bach creates a faster tempo simply by the addition of more notes. The jubilant character in this Courante can be enhanced by a mostly staccato touch for the quarter notes as well as some of the eighth notes. Once again, do not be fooled by famous and elite performers who turn “joy” into “aggression” by showing off how fast they can play. (Lord have mercy on them, for they know not what they have done.) The correct tempo for this Courante is 108 bpm, which I demonstrate here. Notice how the sharp and defined articulation I use makes the music seems faster than it really is. It is a paradox that the tempo I play in this Courante is exactly the same as the tempo I play in the Courantes from English Suite No. 1 earlier in this article, in that the character is so markedly different yet the absolute tempo is the same (108 bpm). 

This courante is notated in 3/2 time, in which the half note equals 54 bpm and the quarter note equals 108 bpm.

The least known and played of Bach’s courantes appears in the excellent Overture in the French Style (BWV 831), which Bach published together with the Italian Concerto in Clavierübung II. Sometimes referred to as “the 7th partita” (since it was published after the Six Partitas), the Courante from the “French Overture” is the most introverted and, in a way, the most beautiful of all Bach’s French courantes. If the Courante from Partita No. 4 is “jubilant and joyful,” then the Courante from the French Overture is more like “pensive with a tinge of melancholy.” There is no reason at all to race through this courante as most performers do. As usual, the appropriate tempo is a steady Andante of 108 bpm, as I demonstrate here.

This courante is notated in 3/2 time, in which the half note equals 54 bpm and the quarter note equals 108 bpm.

Conclusion

Bach’s French courantes have been the most misunderstood and misinterpreted pieces in Bach’s complete works. Hopefully, with the aid of this article, performers, teachers, and scholars will re-examine in a new light Bach’s courantes. Hopefully, this will lead to the dismantling of long-held beliefs and biases, namely, that “courante” is synonymous with “as fast as possible” and that Bach’s French courantes should be played like 19th-century etudes or showpieces. The beauty of Bach’s courantes — arguably the finest and most musically interesting of the baroque dances — deserves only the highest reverential treatment and care in the decision of tempo and character by performers.

(Completed -- August 9, 2018)