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My primitive understanding of Bach's music tells me that an offbeat note cannot be the most accented or the most important note in a phrase. But in the last gesture of the ubiquitous C major prelude, that's exactly what seems to happen.

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What are the possible ways of thinking about this? Am I simply way off and the dynamics of a note has nothing to do with its count? Or is this phrase meant to be an unexpected exception meant to be a surprising change in rhythm? Or is everyone just playing it wrong?

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  • Bachs music is eternal and it is not my understanding that it is written just for his own time. You are free to make experiments and accents on any note you want. Have you ever tried to emphasize the 3rd and 6th note in the r.h..? – Albrecht Hügli Jan 30 at 20:07
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Well, Bach has many exciting rhythm patterns in his music. The accents certainly don't have to be on the first beat, but you will normally still feel the first beat as the most heavy part of the bar. What I mean is that the stress on the first beat is often felt even it is not played as the loudest note.

Often the stress on syncopated notes works because you kind of feel the normal stress on the beats and then play the syncopation against that so to speak.

Anyway in this piece the highest note, the f, will stand out because it is the highest note. You don't need to accentuate it. You could say that the accentuation is build into the music. The way it is written creates excitement and makes the ending of the piece really great.

By the way, the piece is written for harpsichord where you can not play an accent on the note, but as I said it stands out anyway because of the way it is written. When you play it on a modern piano the note will also stand out for the same reason.

Since it is possible to play an accent and/or make a crescendo and a diminuende on a modern piano that might very well be done. But you don't need to do that in order to feel the f somewhat accentuated as I indicated above.

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    "The accents don't have to be on the first beat". You seem to suggest off-beat, dynamic accents would be consistent with Bach's style. Can you give an example? I couldn't come up with any. – Aaron Jan 30 at 0:20
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    @Aaron Bach's double violin concerto 1st movement second bar, where the second beat is syncopated. Later on in the same movement when the solo starts, the theme there has some 10th jumps, four eight notes, where the second and the fourth eight notes are a 10th up from the former note, they stand out even if you play them softer than the lower notes. Also syncopation happens several places in this piece in all 3 movements. Then there is his Italian Concerto for piano where there are many syncopes especially in the first and second movement. – Lars Peter Schultz Jan 30 at 1:04
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    Good examples. Keep in mind thought, those aren't "dynamic accents" and wouldn't be played that way. They are agogic and tonic accents, which sound emphasized (even when played softer, as you say), but are not accents in the way the OP is asking. I suggest changing the wording in your answer to avoid confusion. – Aaron Jan 30 at 1:06
  • I meant that those upper notes, off beat notes, don't need to be accentuated. But you can certainly accentuate the syncopation that appears many places in the music. Bach didn't write dynamics and articulations in this piece (the double concerto), but that doesn't mean you shouldn't play with life and energy and you can definitely play with articulation. Here is a version played on periode instruments: youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=bVzN8O54rew – Lars Peter Schultz Jan 30 at 15:38
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None of the recordings of this Bach prelude I recall accent the notes with arrows louder than their respective notes one 16th note before. Every time I imagine a rendition of this piece, only the on-beat notes have the mild accents. I'm in the camp that those recordings I've never listened to are playing it wrong.

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Baroque music is inherently metric and has phrasing accents that are retained when shifting a theme by non-beat timings. A number of courtly dance forms are structured by their inherent meter and the omnipresence of the dance steps makes it possible to integrate voices and phrases against the beat. Indeed, dances like the Courante inherently have "a limp".

It's similar to poetry where good poetry by and large follows an inherent meter but a good reciter will not bend the language flow and accents and pauses to the meter and rhymes in the rare cases where they don't bow to the rigidity of a scheme.

Now all that being said and done, the points you indicate are pickup phrases, anacruses. They are the most important point of their phrase: the preceding on-beat note ends a phrase on the beat and is followed by the tiniest of a caesura (you'd change bow direction, string, position, take a breath or whatever else there) and the on-beat note after the anacrusis is the culmination of the phrase.

The notes you point out are important as the starting note of the phrase but you would not rest on them even when playing them the most distinctive of the off-beat note group: the rest note with a caesura after it (if at all) is the preceding note.

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It would be strange -- or at least a rare exception -- to make an offbeat note the loudest within a phrase in Bach. For certain, it would be stylistically anachronistic in the C Major Prelude to make the indicated notes the loudest.

The key to the question is that "that's what seems to happen" (emphasis mine). Rather than making the note loudest in volume, which is called dynamic accent, it appears to be loudest because it is the highest.

At equal volumes, we tend to perceive high notes as being emphasized relative to the surrounding lower ones. This is called a tonic accent. Some performers in this piece also linger slightly on those top-most pitches. Longer notes also tend to feel emphasized, which is called an agogic accent.

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Bach has written a flowing phrase in which the highest note doesn't come on a strong beat. I suppose we could describe it as a slight syncopation.

Bach is sometimes accused of writing 'sewing machine music'. But his strings of semiquavers - maybe interminable at first glance - are rarely predictably four-square, he rejoices in this sort of asymmetrical phrasing which I've re-written in an exaggerated fashion below.

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