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Clayton Haslop

When a Dot Means Naught

March 24, 2009 at 8:16 PM

An interesting question came my way a couple days ago.  One of my faithful asked me, "so, what IS the deal with dots over notes? I have a couple editions of Bach that have many staccato indications over notes, yet in recordings I don’t hear any evidence of them."

This is a good question, really, and there is no simple answer. 

You see, articulation marks were virtually unseen in musical manuscripts before the mid-18th century.  Even in the 19th they were a something of a rarity in the manuscripts of many composers. 

It’s not that performers didn’t play staccato, the technique was well known, it was just that it was left up to the discretion of the performer when and where to do so.

However, as amateurism began to flourish in the 18th and 19th centuries, folks wanted to have more direction in manners of interpretation.  And publishers of music were only too happy to oblige; hence editions.

Problem was, they didn’t always agree with one another as to what such things as a ‘dot’ over a note meant.  Nor did many composers as they began adding them to their manuscripts.

Today we generally say that a dot over a note shortens the duration of sound by half it’s specified value – the remaining value taken up with silence.

And for much common practice of the 18th-20th century this works as a decent rule of thumb.  But certainly not always.

In the music of Brahms, the master used dots over notes to indicate emphasis, rather than staccato.  I myself was not aware of this until I brought the Brahms D Minor Sonata to play for Milstein in my early 20s.  In the second theme of the first movement there is a great example of Brahms using the dot this way.

But getting back to Bach, and baroque music in general.  Here I would take anything you see in most editions – urtext editions less so – with a grain of salt. 

When I asked Milstein about some of his slurrings in Bach that didn’t match Bach manuscripts he said, ‘well, I think I’m a better violinist than Bach, and besides, Bach was an improviser.  He would not have done the same things every time.’

End of discussion.

This reminds me of an interview I saw on DVD last night with famed film director, Howard Hawk.  He said that he would play with scenes until they just ‘"work for me."’  So there wasn’t any set formula for his creative process, other than being true to some deeply felt, non-quantifiable aesthetic sense within himself.

This must be true of music making.

For a while 'period practice’ specialists used to criticize Fritz Kreisler for his interpretations of early music.  Yet today you hear period performances that are all over the map.  There is, and never was the kind of a set formula for the performance of music.

If there was, it would be a dead, wooden thing for sure.

And it’s not that I think everyone should turn a blind eye to musical scholarship.  In fact for some this kind of exercise stimulates and enriches creativity.  It’s just that one must not mistake ‘knowledge’ for ‘meaning’, if you know what I mean.

So the bottom line is this.  If your Bach E Major Preludio wants to come off the string now and then, let it.  If not, enjoy playing ‘a la corda’ from top to bottom.

All the best,
Clayton Haslop


From David Tseng
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 4:32 PM

We often read some music critic writes, "so-and-so's interpretation of that music is not authentic." My attitude is: I want to hear what I like to hear and don't care whether it is authentic or not authentic.

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