I've been always told that whenever I play any baroque piece on the piano, I should take special care when attending to, for example, the amount of right pedal I should use. It sounded perfectly normal when it was explained to me, because there was no such thing as a "right pedal" during baroque era, or anything similar to it.

But when it comes to other things like the use of ritardando at the end of a movement on a suite, or at the end of a whole piece, I hesitate, because it doesn't seem to be a standard way to play it (if there is some), and I've heard opposite opinions about it. Some argue (the purists) that nobody should play a ritardando, because there is not explicit information in the piece that encourages you to do so; others say that though it's not a resource you should employ whenever you have the chance, there are moments where the music "forces" you to do so.

If I had to declare myself a follower of any of the opinions above, I'm more inclined to the second one. I can't imagine Bach creating the dramatic atmospheres he creates without thinking in slowing the tempo a little bit at the end of the phrase. But anyway, there's still some dispute about it, so my question is the following:

Is there any record that shows us whether baroque performers played ritardando or not?

  • 7
    In fact there was no such thing as a piano in the baroque era. There was the closely related harpsichord though.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 14:20
  • 2
    I've read somewhere that even though a lot of expressiveness was not written in the actual sheet music of the baroque period, it was understood that expressiveness would be added during performances. But I'm not 100% sure that's true or where I read it. Either way, it is always ultimately the performer's choice how to interpret something. Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 14:36
  • It also has to do with the nature of the harpsichord. Because the harpsichord is in essence a plucked instrument there was not a great deal of dynamics possible like it is with the modern day piano.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 14:53
  • 6
    @NeilMeyer, the fortepiano was in fact a late Baroque invention: Bach had a sales agency for Silbermann's fortepianos. Even at that, in various times and places (Siglo de Oro Spain, mid- to late Baroque Germany) the clavichord was the preferred home keyboard, and it could provide dynamics, albeit in a very soft range. However, from the point of view of rhythmic freedom, certain genres (e.g., unmeasured preludes) absolutely demanded it, and it was expected whenever the composer stipulated "con discrezione" or "avec discrétion" (with discretion).
    – user16935
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 16:29
  • 2
    @NeilMeyer 1720 is not the baroque era? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartolomeo_Cristofori
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 22:01

4 Answers 4


Baroque music was all about expressiveness, and the rhythm was not necessarily meant to be held as strictly as the Renaissance tactus. Wheat Williams has mentioned historically informed performance, and as he says, these things are debated academically. But there is some good indication that Baroque composers did think of slowing down at the end of pieces. In fact, it is often explicitly notated with an Adagio over the last few bars of a movement. You see this especially frequently in Handel and Corelli, especially in sonatas and concerti. A similar use of adagio occurs towards the end of the 3rd movement of Bach's Brandenberg Concerto No. 1, followed by an "a tempo" with the recapitulation of the main theme.

Aside from the use of "adagio" (or often, in tandem with it), you'll also see places where there is a fermata placed on a half-cadence a few bars before the end, which is followed by one or more rests (during which a cadenza may be improvised) and finally the close of the original phrase. Another way in which ritardandos could occasionally be notated was by actually using longer note values. In triple time, this frequently involved a so-called hemiola at the cadence.

Turning to documented sources, I found Robert Donington's "Baroque Music: Style and Performance : a Handbook" (1982) on Google books, which has a section on "Flexibility in Baroque Tempo". No doubt there has been much research in the intervening 30+ years, but even here, he quotes multiple sources as requiring liberties to be taken with the tempo -- sometimes faster, and sometimes slower -- as determined by the taste of the performer. He quotes Frescobaldi as saying:

Cadences... are properly to be very much drawn out...

Jean Rousseau said that:

there are people who imagine that imparting the movement is to follow and keep time; but these are very different matters.

Quantz is quoted as saying:

the performance should be easy and flexible...

A few pages later, there is a section titled "Notated Rallentandos", where he mentions a piece by Locke in 1675 that explicitly instructs "soft and slow by degrees" and discusses the use of "adagio" at the end of a movement (which I already mention above). He claims these types of instructions were used when a greater-than-usual slowing affect was desired, because "It was not... usually thought necessary to indicate anything so musically obvious." He further claims that ending a piece without such a slowing "is a special and not normal affect."

Here's an example from Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 2, Movement I (Andante larghetto) which utilizes a number of these techniques at once. You see a fermata (on a first inversion vii dim!), followed by a brief pause and resumption of the phrase, followed by an adagio, and finally ended with a dotted figure that uses note values twice as long as the preceding figures. This is not to say that every Baroque piece ends with such a dramatic coda, but rather to show that the concept of slowing down at the end of a piece was very much a familiar Baroque gesture, even without the use of the term "ritardando". The relevant section starts about 2:47 in this video. enter image description here

  • 1
    Caleb, you may wish to add that this flexibility dates to the very early days of the Baroque: Frescobaldi called for the use of flexible tempi in the Adagio sections of his toccatas in the preface to Fiori musicali. His pupil, J. J. Froberger, also required similar rubato in his slow works and programmatic pieces, and Froberger, through his extensive travels and his large role in setting the forms of Baroque keyboard music, was immensely influential.
    – user16935
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 18:33
  • The link "this video" is no longer available. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 17:07

Questions like this cause endless debate among scholars. The basic fact is that sheet music from the Baroque era tends to have a great deal less detail and specificity about interpretive matters than sheet music written in later eras. Bowing directions for strings are never given; the only dynamic markings used are often just "p" and "f", and there are no crescendos or decrescendos. Expressive indications like "accelerando", "ritardando" or "rubato" simply aren't written in the score. Yet this begs the question -- with so many obviously expressive matters omitted, does that mean that musicians never used them?

We are certain that musicians in the Baroque were expected to put a great deal of their own expressiveness and interpretation into the music, and that included improvising solo passages with much more freedom than classical musicians did in the 20th century, even when they were performing music written in the Baroque era.

With regard to your question about ritardando and matters of tempo, we cannot be sure in most cases. Obviously they were not able to make audio recordings back then. We have only to study what critics in the actual era wrote when they reviewed concerts, and what musicians and composers of the era wrote in treatises on musicianship.

All of this comes under the heading of historically informed performance of the Baroque era. Sometimes it is just called early music; there are university music schools with whole departments devoted to the study of early music and how to perform it, and you can get a degree in early music performance.

The historically-informed performance movement, a scholarly attempt to re-evaluate and research how musicians played those pieces, only got started around the 1970s. There is a Wikipedia article on Historically Informed Performance but I would not take anything in this article as gospel, as the musicians in the movement itself today find endless opportunities to debate all of it.

Now as to your piano playing: The piano did not come into wide practical use until the latter half of Mozart's short life, after the Baroque movement hand ended, so the piano does not figure into Baroque music at all.

All Baroque keyboard music was written for the harpsichord or pipe organ. None of these instruments had the ability to create dynamic contrast from the keyboard. You could not make a crescendo or decrescendo by playing the keys harder or softer. You could not make one note louder or softer than another with your fingers. So if you see a Baroque keyboard piece and it has different dynamic markings or crescendos or decrescendos in the score, you can be assured that the composer did not use those markings; they were added by editors centuries later, with modern piano players in mind.

You refer to the "right pedal" by which I think you mean the damper pedal, which is used to create the sustain effect. You are right in understanding that there was no keyboard instrument in the Baroque with this capability. So simply put, if you decide to use the damper pedal on your piano when you are playing a Baroque keyboard piece, you must understand that you are doing something that the composer would not have even been able to conceive of. You may make your own artistic decision to add some sustain in places, but when you do this you are not doing it in the Baroque manner.

Furthermore, keyboard instruments in the Baroque era were tuned very differently. They were not tuned in the modern fashion, which we call 12-tone equal temperament. In the modern fashion, the distance between the pitches of one key and the key next to it -- what we call a half-step -- are almost exactly the same all the way up and down the keyboard. But in the Baroque era they did not do it this way. The different keys described many different intervals of pitch between them. Some half-steps were closer together than those of the modern piano, and some were wider apart. This is a complex subject. There were many different schemes of what is collectively referred to as meantone temperament.

Well, now that I have introduced you to the topic of historically-informed performance practice of the Baroque era, you can look for resources and do some research on your own. You can read the opinions of the scholars and decide how you want to use their ideas yourself. And see if you can get to play a real harpsichord in a historic mean-tone tuning while you are at it.

  • I consider those with dynamic markings to be like any other piece that is been rearranged for a different instrument. If there's no name on it, it's probably still rather old in its own right. You could be doing a historical performance of a piano arrangement.
    – trlkly
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 18:09
  • While I don't mention this to call your point of view into question, the clavichord was perhaps the target of some Baroque keyboard music as well, and within its limited range it had the ability to make any sort of dynamic subtlety. Nevertheless, it's quite clear that fullscale crescendi and decrescendi weren't a part of Baroque music. I suspect in general that any crescendi and decrescendi were considered obvious as a matter of phrasing at the time, and were applied at the phrasal level rather than as a musical device over larger passages.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 6:10
  • @BobRodes, I know about the clavichord, but I chose not to mention it because there aren't that many pieces for it and they are rarely performed by modern pianists. My answers are overlong anyway. However, although this is little-known, the crescendo was described in the literature for Baroque ensembles such as the string orchestra; it's just that it wasn't practical on any kind of keyboard during that era.
    – user1044
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 7:31
  • Although -- the swell box on a pipe organ was an innovation that appeared during the 1700s, so it could figure into the late Baroque to create a kind of crescendo effect on a pipe organ. But I'm not out to write a massive treatise here; I'm trying to restrict myself to things relevant to a young modern piano player trying to understand how to play their instrument.
    – user1044
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 7:38
  • 1
    I was sure you knew about it and were choosing not to mention it for the reasons you point out. I mentioned it more as a curiosity than anything else, and because I'm fascinated by stuff like this: youtube.com/watch?v=Q_Nto_-j5Ao and also think that a young modern piano player might find the context informative to his own performances.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 7:45

Wheat Williams covered the basics of historically-informed-performance quite well.

I want to add that unmeasured preludes (not uncommon in Baroque music) indicate that Baroque composers did have a concept of give-and-take in regards to tempo. (You can look at examples of preludes here or here to see what the music looked like.)

So, while the purists may say that if it's not written in you shouldn't perform it that way, realistically performers who work extensively with Baroque music have to make some artistic decisions. Hopefully we do so in an informed way, with the knowledge that our performances are not for Baroque audiences but for modern audiences and must be meaningful to them.

Since many of the Baroque forms are originally dances, I try to think of what a dancer would do at any particular moment. Sometimes I don't slow down much, but I take a little pause before the last chord. Sometimes I do slow down (but probably not as dramatically as with a 19th century piece). Sometimes I delay my ritardando until the last measure or even the last beat or two. Sometimes I just take time with the last chord, letting it unwind slowly. There are no absolutely right answers, but there are also many options beyond ritardando and no ritardando.

  • Excellent points, @TangledUpInBlue. Most Baroque music is based on dance rhythms, and understanding each different dance form tells you a lot about how to play each phrase. And I had forgotten about unmeasured preludes, which were more common in early French Baroque keyboard music -- Couperin and Jacquet de la Guerre.
    – user1044
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 7:41

"Historically informed" practitioners will tell you all kinds of stuff overgeneralized from a narrow modern point of view. For example, that dynamics in keyboards are a modern invention. Clavichords were perfectly capable of nuanced dynamic play, and larger instruments like harpsichords had several manuals and registration possibilities in order to allow for dynamic changes.

What baroque composers left us with are mostly "scripts": the material needed for performances mostly done under their own supervision. Composing was not an independent profession. Bach tended to spell out a lot more than some of his contemporaries and predecessors in terms of embellishments and accompaniment (he did not use the baroque variant of lead sheets, figured bass, all that much). But that's partly because much of what he spelled out has actual harmonic function and is "part of the music" rather than its performance.

At any rate, when you are playing baroque counterpoint, the functional harmonies are often progressing at a much faster pace than once per measure, so the opportunities for using the pedal in accordance with the music are quite limited. Not because of any historically motivated rules but because it would mash together complex and nuanced harmonic progressions.

  • 3
    Bach didn't write out figured bass parts because he was playing the keyboard continuo himself and didn't need the figures. But I would add that your last statement is exactly why historical performance types pursue historical performance: those tools and practices, being the ones for which the music was written, are best suited for playing it.
    – phoog
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 22:09
  • 1
    Some harpsichords had two manuals and adjustable stops where you could choose two dynamic levels -- loud (two choirs of strings coupled) or soft (one choir). One or the other and nothing inbetween. But that hardly has anything to do with how to play a modern piano. It's hard to make a comparison. Furthermore the way that composers for harpsichord achieved dynamic coloring was to write out more or less notes into each chord, so if you are playing that piece on a modern piano, it's already written in for you. It's all quite complex, isn't it?
    – user1044
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 7:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.