The Book – Introduction

I first became aware of rhythmic inequality in 1967 when, as a young post-graduate, I performed part of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes with the Schola Cantorum of Oxford in and edition by Antoine Geoffroy-Dechaume. Every pair of quavers in the parts was rewritten as a triplet. The result was electric. But of course this was French music and even then many scholars claimed that all French music should be played unequally. Today many people still believe that this style was essentially French but for some time a minority have held the view that its use extended throughout Europe. I am one of this minority and in these pages I shall put the case on our side of the argument.

After the Rameau experience I was determined to find out more about inequality. When did the convention start beging applied and for how long was it in force? And why did some people confine it to French music? I read everything I could find on the subject. Someone put me in touch with the great Arthur Mendel, an American professor who had been chairing seminars on this convention. “To claim in print”, he wrote to me, “as Babitz so often does (Babitz had been contributing to the seminars), that one way sounds so much better than another seems to me futile, since the claim is so easily answered by the equally futile ‘No, it doesn’t“. This taught me a lesson in subjectivity. In another letter I suggested that, in spite of the absence of references to inequality in German and Italian documents, the convention might have been universally understood. Mendel responded devastatingly. “It would be dangerous to assume that the reason German and Italian writers did not discuss playing the violin upside down is that ‘the convention was universally understood’. Ref 1 Here was another lesson – this time about negative evidence.

I’m older and wiser now. I know that you can’t prove anything without evidence – all you can do is go off and find some. And that’s what I have been doing ever since. Very soon I found I had joined a scholarly debate. My chief opponent was another American scholar called Frederick Neumann who in 1965 had just published a pivotal article on inequality. He was responding to some distinguished German musicians who had argued for the use of the convention in JS Bach’s works. Neumann strongly opposed their case, emphasizing that inequality should be confined to French music. This stimulated an immediate reaction in the pages of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, especially from Robert Donington, Sol Babitz and Michael Collins. I added a contribution of my own. The four of us continued to argue for a wider use of inequality. In his Performer’s Guide of 1973, for instance, Robert Donington was still asserting that:

“... contemporary instructions for performing inequality survive from before, during and after the baroque period, and are of all nationalities

Another fighter in the cause is David Fuller, the writer of the notes inégales entry in Grove’s dictionary, which contains the sentence:

The best efforts of a Frederick Neumann can produce nothing but silence to prove that Bach did not want alteration (here ‘alteration’ means applying inequality to a piece of baroque music).

Rhythmic inequality throughout Europe became a life-long research project for me and this book is a record of the experience. I hope it will also serve as an introduction to the subject for early music enthusiasts who want to master this tricky subject. At the same time I should like it to stand as a scholarly account of the progress of academic knowledge in this field during my lifetime.


The working title of the book is AN UNEQUAL MUSIC –  a history of rhythmic inequality from the 16th to the 18th centuries

. The chapters are as follows:

  • Preface
  • The scholarly background
  • What is rhythmic inequality?
  • Source Material
  • The ‘French-only’ view
  • Source material
  • Italian inequality reconsidered
  • Handel and the Italian muse
  • The Neapolitan scene
  • Misinterpretation of the evidence
  • Hotteterre and Corrette – a broader perpective
  • Signs of inequality in Restoration England
  • Germany and the allemande
  • J.S. Bach
  • Quantz’s Solfeggi
  • Tudor and Stuart times
  • Postscript