‘Swinging’ means playing a string of short notes in a dotted rhythm (usually long-short). This is a technique regularly used by jazz musicians and Irish fiddlers – it’s so common that we take it for granted. For many years now musicologists have been unearthing evidence that this style of playing was not confined to our own time. In fact the earliest evidence is dated 1550. A bit later, in 17th century Paris, a large number of music tutors survive instructing music students how to use ‘inequality’ (the respectable word for ‘swinging’) to improve their playing (or singing). This French evidence is so strong that scholars thought at first that this style was confined to France and today most specialists play French music like this.
My research, however, suggests that the style may have been in vogue further afield – in Italy and England, for instance – and that it might have been used by composers like Handel, Purcell and Alessandro Scarlatti. I have even explored the possibility that it might apply to the music of Sebastian Bach, though this is vigorously debated in academic circles. In spite of this, however, the linking of Bach’s name with jazz has become a habit in musical circles of a less academic kind. The noted Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, used to say that ‘nobody swings like Bach’ and the French jazz player, Jacques Loussier, made a career of doing just that. As far as I can tell neither pianist actually used inequality but they both clearly believed that Bach and jazz somehow belong to the same world.
Meanwhile elsewhere at a memorable crossover session in the 30s jazz violinists Eddie South and Stephane Grappelli took all this talk to its logical conclusion, recording the first movement of Bach’s double violin concerto with jazz-style swinging. Had they been reading scholarly tomes about baroque interpretation? Very unlikely. They probably thought it would be fun to jazz up Bach and were surprised how good it sounded. The recording is occasionally revived and may even be still available.
Over the years my views on how inequality should be applied have changed. When I performed Handel’s Dixit Dominus in 1968 I took it at a brisk tempo. Such fast tempi were normal then and have remained fashionable today. Over the years, however, I have realised that a ‘swinging’ approach to short notes does not necessarily point to a fast tempo. On the contrary, it can encourage a more expansive and less hectic approach to the repertoire. Some of my experimental performances – like the extracts from Messiah and the two Bach cantatas – demonstrate more measured treatments which I find rather convincing.
At this point you may be tempted to explore some of my own attempts at baroque inequality. If so, click Experimental Performances. You might like to start with some pieces that you already know in the usual ‘equal’ style of performance. I would recommend
1. Purcell’s ‘Hark the ech’ing air’
2. Handel’s ‘Rejoice greatly’ from Messiah
9. Handel’s ‘For unto us a child is born’ also from Messiah or
21. Bach’s Prelude in C minor for organ
or, if you are into the English madrigal scene, you could try
22. Morley’s ‘April is in my mistress’ face’ or
23. Bennett’s ‘All creatures now are merry-minded’
(these last two pieces are the fruit of my most recent research, which is very controversial and still awaits academic assessment.)
For those who wish to learn more, this web-site is intended to accompany a book which gives a detailed, academic account of my research, with copious musical examples and many footnotes to show the sources that I have consulted over the many years that I have devoted to this topic. There is a bibliography and a chapter devoted to the historical evidence for inequality with extracts in the original languages and accompanying translations.The book is already available in leading libraries and music shops, but copies can also be obtained from me at Dr. John Byrt, 26 St. Andrew Street, Tiverton, Devon, EX16 6PH.
Here is a list of my published work on inequality (also known as notes inégales):
‘Notes inégales, some misconceptions?’ Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 20 no. 3 (1967), p 476-480.
‘Just a habit with us’ in The Musical Times (Oct. 1995), p. 536.
‘Writing the unwritable’ in The Musical Times (Jan. 1997) p. 18.
‘Some new interpretations of the notes inégales evidence’, Early Music (Feb. 2000).
‘Alteration in Handel: a fresh approach’, Musical Quarterly (Feb. 2002)
‘Elements of rhythmic inequality in the arias of Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel’ in Early Music (November 2007)
‘Inequality in Alessandro Scarlatti and Handel: a sequel’ in Early Music (Feb 2012)
John Byrt was first conductor of the Oxford Schola Cantorum and for some years conducted the early music group Musica Reservata. He has lectured on notes inégales at the University of Bristol, at the Birmingham Conservatoire and at the University of Maryland, USA.
Site designed by John Byrt, and maintained by Ashley Allerton