In the following piece from J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, the nearly constant triplet line seems to be incorrect:

excerpt from Orgelbüchlein

The time signature is 3/2, but there are 9 eighth-note triplets per measure rather than the 9 quarter-note triplets I would have expected. The composer’s intent is perfectly obvious, but I’m still curious—it seems there are a few possibilities here:

  1. I am simply wrong, and this is a well-accepted way to notate the rhythm in question
  2. Bach (or the editor) has made a mistake and they should be quarter-note triplets
  3. Neither of us is wrong, but the proper notation for triplets has changed between the Baroque and now. This was considered entirely correct in Bach’s day.
  4. Notation of lots of things was far less standardized then than it is now, and this is simply an example of that. My search for a “proper” notation of triplets in this era is anachronistic in much the same way as a search for the “correct” spelling of English words in the 17th-century would be.

I’m sure there are other possibilities as well. Does anyone know for certain?

  • 1
    Interesting catch! Bach himself seems to have notated it this way; see page 14 of the manuscript. – Richard Feb 17 at 16:53
  • Never seen, never heard. But in Baroque rhythmic notation was not so nit picking like today. I.g. triplets in the courante of the french suite in Eb have been notated as 3 eighth notes. Double dottet notes weren’t notated as such. My question would be: To / for whom wrote Bach this autograph in this Orgelbüchlein? For himself? In this case I’d say: He just didn’ mind. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 17 at 17:55
  • 3 and 4 are not exactly inconsistent with one another. – phoog Feb 18 at 4:53
  • @phoog I meant for them to be mutually exclusive, but didn’t word it very well. In 3, I meant to suggest a situation in which there was indeed a entirely standardized notation for triplets, just one different from today’s. In 4, I meant a situation where there was no standardized way to notate triplet (or several ways that were widely considered to be acceptable variants). – Pat Muchmore Feb 18 at 12:31

I was thinking that it makes it easier to read, because you can easily distinguish the triplets from the quarter notes this way. Then I googled Bach’s Orgelbüchlein and found this Wikipedia page: Orgelbüchlein. Here is a quote from that link from the section on In dulci jubilo:

Bach notated the triplets in the accompaniment as quavers instead of crotchets, to make the score more readable for the organist.

  • It's not clear to me that the unsourced assertion of a pseudonymous contributor to Wikipedia should have any more weight than your own thinking. – phoog Feb 18 at 5:12

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