Recordings (Chap 15)

February 1968
Dixit dominus (April 1701)
This is a recording of a live performance in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, by the Oxford Schola Cantorum, of which I was the conductor at the time.

The soloists included Christian Hunter, James Bowman and Peter Reynolds


i. Dixit dominus (chorus)




The opening ritornello is built on semiquaver arpeggios, which the strings play unequally. These are copied by the vocal soloists.


 ii. Virgam virtutis (alto solo)


Here the cellos and soloist perform the semiquavers unequally, which requires some virtuosity, especially as they leap, as they occasionally do in the cello part. There is a short passage near the end where Handel includes written short-long inequality – Bowman intelligently applies this rhythm to a similar passage where the inequality is not written. 


 iii. Tecum principium (soprano solo)


This aria has a continuous triplet motif which Christian Hunter embellishes by lengthening the first note. Both soloist and violins have to manage triplet runs which they do very skillfully..


iv. Juravit Dominus (chorus)


This doesn’t involve any inequality, apart from a few paired semiquavers..


v. Tu es sacerdos secundum ordinum Melchisedech (chorus)




This is a real tour-de-force for Handel, for he sets it syllabically for unequal semiquavers. As in the opening movement of Bach’s Cantata 21, the inequality gives the music a special drama and follows the natural rhythm of the words.


vi. Dominus a dextris tuis



Here Handel uses equal quavers in the style of an Italian corrente, for the Italians always played their quavers equal (unlike the French).


vii. Judicabit in nationibus (chorus)



Here the fast unequal semiquavers at the words ‘implebit ruinas’ (‘He shall fill the places with dead bodies’) are very virtuosic for singers and players alike, especially when they involve string-crossing in the violins. The soprano parts go up to top B. The ‘conquassabit’ section at the end (‘and smite in sunder the heads over divers countries’) goes back to the brutal corrente rhythms of Number 6.


viii. De torrente in via bibet (chorus).


Here there is no inequality, but the soprano soloists did some effective fioritura.


ix. Gloria Patri (chorus)




Bravura unequal semiquavers in voices and instruments.


x. Et in saecula saeculorum



 Here we dropped the inequality as Corrette says the Italians sometimes did in his day (the 1740s) in the very fast sections.


Further Further inequality in Handel

Handel’s Brockes Passion

In the Spring 2002 issue of The Musical Quarterly I explored the use of inequality in Handel’s music. It seems that the voice part of a Handel air may require the use of inequality to make it conform with the same music written with dotted notes in the orchestral parts (see p. 206). In the article I illustrate this point with reference to various movements from the little-performed Brockes Passion, some of whose rather lurid text Bach was to use in his own Passion according to St. John. Below are three of the extracts quoted in the article, both in notation and sound, followed by complete performances of the two soprano pieces. In each case what you hear is what I believe Handel intended.

In the soprano arioso ‘Besinne dich, Pilatus’ the basso continuo part is dominated by a vigorous ostinato, which is written throughout with semiquaver dotting. When at bar 24 the voice part takes up the same motive, however, it is expressed only in even semiquavers. This is particularly odd, since the diminutions at bars 25 and 26 are clearly based on this motive and sound very weak without any form of inequality. I believe that this is just one example of ‘dotting for the band, not for the singer’, a procedure that Handel uses in a variety of instances when apparently short of time.


Example 1: ‘Mich vom Strikke meiner Sünden’ (extract)

Catherine Bass, Hannah Reynolds (soprano), Peter Allsop (violin), Michael Edwards (cello), John Byrt (harpsichord). There is no bass singer on this recording.

In ‘Mich vom Strikke meiner Sünden’, the opening chorus of the Brockes Passion, the technique of ‘dotting for the band and not for the singers’ is taken even further, for here the complete choir (with oboes) read from even notes while the strings and continuo have dotting. This means that in some passages players and singers perform simultaneously music that is written with dotting for the orchestra but in even notes for the singers.


Example 2: ‘Besinne dich, Pilatus’ (extract)

Emily Hindrichs (soprano), Michael Edwards (cello), John Byrt (harpsichord)


Example 3: ‘Laß doch diese herbe Schmerzen’ (extract)

Emily Hindrichs (soprano), Michael Edwards (cello), John Byrt (harpsichord)

In the soprano aria ‘Laß doch diese herbe Schmerzen’, also from the Brockes Passion, the continuo part has dotting throughout while the entire vocal part has only four pairs of dotted semiquavers. In the opening ritornello the cello has an attractive semiquaver figure featuring undulating arpeggios, which is developed at the end of bar 10 and appears in the closing ritornello as well. Each time it is notated in written-out dotting. When the singer takes up this motive in the middle section of the air (at bar 19), however, it is notated in even semiquavers throughout. Once again Handel seems to be using ‘dotting for the band, not for the singer’.

Here follow complete performances of the arioso and the aria:

Performance 4: ‘Besinne dich, Pilatus’ (complete)

Emily Hindrichs (soprano), Michael Edwards (cello), John Byrt (harpsichord)

Performance 5: ‘Laß doch diese herbe Schmerzen’ (complete)

Emily Hindrichs (soprano), Michael Edwards (cello), John Byrt (harpsichord)

Here the continuous dotted semiquavers of the continuo part accompany a vocal line in which the semiquavers have no dotting at all. consequently in an ‘equal’ performance the diminutions of bars 25 and 26 fall very flat indeed by contrast with the continuous dotting in the continuo part. The evenly-written semiquavers in bars 29 to 33 also need to be sung unequally to match the dotting in the bass.

Though the triple metre and jagged rhythms of ‘Mich vom Strikke meiner Sünden’ could be French in origin, the soprano solos quoted above are clearly Italian in style. They are both in common time – not the most favoured metre in French music – and they have the busy counterpoint and walking basses that we associate with late baroque Italian opera. This confirms that Handel’s use of inequality is in no way limited to his French style music.

‘Dotting for the band, not for the singer’ is implied in other Handel pieces, including the tenor air ‘Erwäg, ergrimmte Natternbrut’ from the Brockes Passion, ‘From this dread scene’ from Judas Maccabaeus, ‘Clouds o’er-take the brightest day’ from Susanna and ‘Egypt was glad when they departed’ from Israel in Egypt (bars 30 to the end). JS Bach uses a similar technique in the opening chorus to his Trauerode.


Other examples of inequality in Handel

6: ‘The Lord is my strength and my song’ from Israel in Egypt.

the_lord_is my_strength

Catherine Bass, Hannah Reynolds (soprano), Peter Allsop (violin), Michael Edwards (cello), John Byrt (harpsichord).

Once again Handel dots most of the semiquavers in the instrumental parts while leaving most of the semiquavers in the voice parts undotted. Our singers perform their parts unequally throughout.


Unequal performance of Messiah in St. Peter’s Church, Tiverton, October 1997

7. Air: ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (opening)


In the violin part of ‘O thou that tellest’ Handel exploits the effect that inequality has on groups of six semiquavers. He splits up each six-note figure into two 3-note units. This means that, in an unequal performance, long-short-long units perpetually alternate with short-long-short units, providing a rhythmic tease for the listener. Of course all these subtleties go by the board if inequality is not used.


 8. ‘For unto us a child is born’for_unto_us

This chorus was adapted by the composer from the first movement of “Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi”, a duet of his own. Our performance shows off the use of semiquaver inequality in the running passages that Handel gives to each voice part in turn. At the huge climactic refrains (they come three times altogether) the semiquavers are taken over by the violins in thirds, while the choir sings the words ‘Wonderful, Counsellor’ in big block chords.

East Devon Choral Society, conducted by John Byrt.


9. Air: The trumpet shall sound



East Devon Choral Society, conducted by John Byrt.

In ‘The trumpet shall sound’ Handel plays the same game as he did in ‘O thou that tellest’ except that this time the metre is French 3 so the inequality is at the quaver level. Example (a) shows six-note figures of the trumpet part as they appear in Handel’s autograph (from bar 8) and in example (b) this is written out in dotted notes as it sounds in performance. Now the reader can clearly see how inequality makes the first three notes of the six come out in long-short-long rhythm while the last three come out short-long-short. This last rhythm is that of the suspirans, a feature beloved of all baroque composers.

Inequality in JS Bach

February 1997
Recordings by Catherine Bass, Heather Crossman, Guy Crossman and John Draisey with John Byrt (harpsichord)

10. Opening movement of Cantata 21: “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis”

First extract:

Second extract:

I regard this recording, and the next one, as the most persuasive I have made as regards to the use of inequality. They certainly present a strong argument for playing Bach unequally. They use very steady tempi and show Bach employing unequal semiquavers in a very playful way (see Chap. 20). No 8 contains two passages where the word “Seele” (soul) is sung to an extended semiquaver run in full four-part harmony. If sung in the normal way this comes out in a dull, legato style (unless one attempts an inappropriately fast tempo). Sung unequal however, these passages take on a power and splendour which is at one with the mood of the words. 


11. Extracts from the opening movement of Cantata 140: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”

First Extract



Second Extract 

Wachet auf (extract)

Here the huge increase in articulation that the semiquavers receive in an unequal performance is amply demonstrated. The ritornello is based on a very clever piece of syncopation which only works properly when inequality is used (see bars 5 – 8). The secret lies in the fact that the second (weak) semiquavers combine with the syncopated notes that follow to create a crisp fanfare-like effect which suits the ‘wake up’ message of the words admirably. In an ‘equal’ performance those weak semiquavers are far too sluggish to have this effect. Bach uses the same syncopated motiv in the episode that starts at bar 134 (see the second extract)


JS BACH Keyboard Music  – John Byrt (harpsichord) 1993. (Goble harpsichord kindly loaned by Dr Marilyn Pocock)

 12. Fugue in D major (Book I of the 48)

Interpretation by Dolmetsch and Donington

My unequal interpretation

In this fugue I establish the usual overdotting at the beginning.but this does not match the rhythm of the semiquavers at bars 9-10 and 17-19 if they are played equal. Yet Arnold Dolmetsch seemed to be able to live with the awkwardness of the above interpretation and it was later endorsed by Rober Donington. If you play the semiquavers unequally however, the parts click rhythmically into place and so this is what I do. I would extend this principle to the grave sections of any of Bach’s French overtures which have running semiquavers as, for example, the overtures to the first, third and fourth orchestral suites.


13. Allemande in G major from French suite no. 5, opening

The allemande, with its C time and running semiquavers, was a symbol of German influence in the late baroque. No doubt as a tribute to the Germans, and especially to the work of Froberger, it was widely cultivated in France too by Louis and François Couperin and their fellow-countrymen. This allemande conforms to the French style, for it contains a freely-moving inner part in what was called the style brisé.

14 Allemande in B minor from French suite no. 3, opening


This allemande is in the Italian style, which is made clear by its consistent two-part texture.


15. Fugue in D minor from 48 Book II

When semiquaver triplets occur, playing the regular semiquavers unequally helps the two rhythms to co-exist, while otherwise they conflict.


16. Prelude on “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” (Orgelbüchlein), opening

As an organist I wanted to include short piece of organ music. Its common time metre links it up with the harpsichord pieces. This prelude is built on a thick contrapuntal texture of semiquavers and inequality creates a powerful rhythm, suitable for the ‘wake-up’ mood of Advent.


17. Fugue in F sharp minor from 48 Book I, opening

This fine fugue is in a French metre and requires quaver inequality, which was normal in French music. Here the quavers are often grouped into luxurious, falling cascades. This piece might be compared to the third prelude from Couperin’s L’art de toucher le clavecin, which resembles it in gravity and contrapuntal ingenuity.


18. Prelude in C minor from 48 Book II, opening

Original (Right Hand only)

My unequal interpretation

This prelude is built on a series of suspirans (see chapter 13, under ‘The suspirans‘) In playing this example, I am following the baroque practice (endorsed by Saint-Lambert) of sustaining notes that remain in tune with the prevailing harmony: the ‘good’ notes. This creates the illusion of a four-part texture, though there are, of course, only two parts. In spite of this, it is the four-note suspirans that is the principal idea of the piece, and Bach treats it with considerable skill.


19. Fugue in E flat major (Book I of the 48)



In my ‘pre-inequality’ days the subject of this fugue always seemed to me an odd jumble of notes, but the use of inequality (see ‘My interpretation’) turns it into a strong four-note motif, linked by two suspirans.


20. Prelude in F sharp minor from 48 Book II, opening

This prelude blends two styles of notation: ordinary semiquavers (which I play unequal) and semiquaver triplets which I play in a manner which derives from the research of Michael Collins, an American scholar who has made a special study of triplets in Bach. 

21.  Allemande from Partita No 4 in D major, opening

Here Bach supplements the rhythmic features of the previous allemande by frequent syncopation, which gives a jazzy flavour to the piece. An important feature is my treatment of


In Chapter 14 I have explained that I think that Bach uses both rhythmic signs to indicate the same thing. I believe that the triplet is simply shorthand for the other rhythm and in my performance I play them both in the same way.The grouping  I play by putting a “quantitative accent” on the fourth note.


22. Invention in C major (BWV 772)

Like the other two-part inventions this is in imitative two-part counterpoint.

23. Triplet version

This invention also exists in a version (BWV772a) in which Bach turns the paired semiquavers into triplets by adding extra notes in the spaces:-


24. Prelude on “Das alte Jahr vergangen ist”.

Like no 13, this is in four parts but this time the soprano part with the chorale melody is highly ornamented. I play the demi-semiquavers freely but the semiquavers in the melodic and inner parts I play unequal.


25. Prelude BWV 546.
Performed on 14th March 1973 by Kenneth Mobbs, on the Nicholson organ in the Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol