Choice Quotations From Historical Sources

The following have been gathered from a wide variety of sources; we find them useful both in teaching period performance style and – where necessary – in justifying some of our more extravagant musical decisions. Note, for example, that Quantz talks of adopting a different sentiment at each and every bar, or that Caccini suggests varying the tempo so radically that at times you literally halve the value of the written notes! It’s all here in black and white...


Mattheson (1738)

“Both the soul and the intellect are deeply moved by music. What causes this? Surely not just the sound-vibrations themselves, nor their shape, size and figuration; but mainly their original and endless combination, variation, application, mixture, character, interweaving, height, depth, stepping, springing, loitering, speeding up, turning strength, weakness, violence, usual and unusual tempi, softening, slowing down, silence and a thousand things more, which no compass, no ruler, no standard can measure, and none can judge except the noblest, innermost part of the man whom nature and experience have educated.”

Geminiani 1751

“Experience has shown that the imagination of the hearer is in general so much at the disposal of the master that by the help of variations, movements, intervals and modulation he may almost stamp what impression on the mind he pleases. These extraordinary emotions are indeed most easily excited when accompanied with words; and I would besides advise, as well the composer as performer, who is ambitious to inspire his audience, to be first inspired himself.”


Mattheson (1713 and later)

“Concerning such would-be luminaries who believe music has to follow their rules, when in truth their rules have to follow the music, one can rightly say: ‘they manage their thinking to understand nothing’.”

“Rules are valid as long as I consider it well and sensible to abide by them. They are valid no longer than that.”

“Rules are what I like and as long as I like it.”

“The rule of nature is, in music, nothing but the ear.”

Praetorius (1618) – on rules of keyboard fingering

“Let a player run up and down the keyboard with his first, middle or third fingers, or even with his nose if that will help him…”


Frescobaldi 1615

“Firstly, this kind of style must not be subject to time. We see the same thing done in modern madrigals, which notwithstanding their difficulties are rendered easier to sing, thanks to the variations of the time, which is beaten now slowly, now quickly, and even held in the air, according to the expression of the music, or the sense of the words.”

Caccini (1607)

“We see how necessary a certain judgement is for a musician… I call that the noble manner of singing, which is used without tying a man’s self to the ordinary measure of time, making many times the value of the notes less by half, and sometimes more, according to the conceit of the words.”

Thomas Mace (1676)

“You must know that, although in our first undertakings we ought to strive for the most exact habit of time-keeping that possibly we can attain unto (and for several good reasons) yet, when we come to be masters, so that we can command all manner of time at our own pleasures, we then take liberty (very often for humour and good adornment-sake, in certain places) to break time; sometimes faster and sometimes slower, as we perceive the nature of the thing requires, which often adds much grace and lustre to the performance.”

Mattheson (1731)

“If one is not able to execute the piece prestissimo at first sight, it is no shame if one plays it a bit slower to try it out. This is understandable for students. But those who wish to be professional musicians are not permitted to take such liberties: a professional may look at and play through the piece for a while, but then he must turn his hand to the task. It must be played as it should be played, which is to say, at the greatest possible speed.”

Kirnberger (1771)

“Tempo is not limited to the various degrees of slowness and quickness… For there are passions which, to be properly represented, flow evenly on like a gentle brook, others which flow on moderately without stopping, some which rush on like a wild stream swollen by heavy rain, sweeping away everything in its path, and still others whose passion is like the wild sea which beats violently against the shore, retreats and strikes again with new strength.”


Muffat (1701)

“From the first note where they are so indicated, forte and piano should be played by everyone in such a way that when piano is played it is scarcely heard, and when forte is played it sounds so powerful that listeners remain amazed at so much noise.”


Gottsched (1728)

“Nothing is so repulsive as continuous uniformity in speech. He who speaks in a monotone, always equally quickly or equally slowly, or finally, speaks in a sing-song fashion, makes his audience either sleepy or nauseous. By alternating the tone of words and syllables, by alternating the loudness and softness, quickness and slowness of the performance, one must guard against and indeed exorcise the disgust of the audience.”

Quantz (1752)

“Musical execution may be compared with the delivery of an orator. The orator and the musician have, at bottom, the same aim in regard to both the preparation and the final execution of their productions, namely to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners, to arouse or still their passions, and to transport them now to this sentiment, now to that.”

“We demand that an orator… avoid monotony in the discourse, rather allowing the tone of the syllables and words to be heard now loudly, now softly, now quickly, now slowly; and that he raise his voice in words requiring emphasis, subdue it in others.”

“Each piece… may have in it diverse mixtures of pathetic, flattering, light, majestic or jocular ideas. Hence you must, so to speak, adopt a different sentiment at each bar, so that you can imagine yourself now melancholy, now happy, now serious, etc. Such dissembling is most necessary in music. He who can truly fathom this art is not likely to be wanting in approval from his listeners, and his execution will always be moving.”

“A constant alternation of Forte and Piano must be observed… this is a matter of great importance.”

“And since in the majority of pieces one passion constantly alternates with another, the performer must know how to judge the nature of the passion that each idea contains, and constantly make his execution conform to it. Only in this manner will he do justice to the intentions of the composer, and to the ideas that he had in mind when he wrote the piece.”

Caccini (1607)

“Variety of affect is that transition from one affect to another… the singer being guided by the words and meaning from one moment to another. These must be carefully observed so that, so to speak, the bridegroom and the widower are not clothed alike.”

Ganassi (1535)

“Be it known that all musical instruments, in comparison to the human voice, are inferior to it. For this reason we should endeavour to learn from it and to imitate it… Just as a painter can reproduce all the creations of nature by varying his colours, you can imitate the expression of the human voice on a wind or stringed instrument… by varying the pressure of the breath and shading the tone by means of suitable fingering… I have heard that it is possible with some players to perceive, as it were, words to their music.”

“When you are imitating the vivacity of the human voice, you must ornament accordingly; if on the contrary, you wish to express its grace and elegance, your trills and divisions must be gentle and tender. You must regulate your breath with special deliberation and dexterity.”

“You must match your fellow players, and, for the sake of good intonation, change your fingering if necessary… you can sound every note softly by slightly uncovering a finger-hole and using less breath.”

“Know then, that your instructor should be a practised and experienced singer. When a piece of vocal music is put before him, his first care is to take into account the nature of the text. If the words are gay he expresses them with gaiety and liveliness by means of his art and his voice; if on the other hand the words are sad and heavy, he sings them softly and with melancholy. In like manner your playing should be soft and sighing, or gay and merry, as though you were giving expression to words of the same nature.”



“Even though an ornament be as well rendered as possible, it will still lack a certain indescribable something which constitutes its whole merit if it is not guided by feeling: too much or too little, too early or too late, too long or not long enough in suspensions, in swelling or diminishing, in the repercussions of trills: finally, when it lacks precisely what expression and context require, any ornament becomes insipid…: Taste flows from feeling; it adopts what is good, rejects what is bad… It will be by example and never by rules that [the master] can show the man of taste how to use his fine talents.”

Duval (1775)

“…the fine points of the art are infinite, very hidden and difficult to explain. They can be learned only by listening… they issue from taste and feeling. What compared to this are all the rules of the world?”

Quantz (1752)

“In a trio few embellishments may be introduced… the graces must be of such a kind that they are both appropriate to the situation, and can be imitated by the performer of the second part. They must be introduced only in passages that consist of imitations… If both parts have the same melody in sixths or thirds, nothing may be added, unless it has been agreed beforehand to make the same variations.”


CPE Bach (1753)

“A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved; he must of necessity feel all of the affects he hopes to arouse in his audience…. Those who maintain that all of this can be accomplished without gesture will retract their words when, owing to their own insensibility, they find themselves obliged to sit like a stature before their instrument. Ugly grimaces are of course inappropriate and harmful; but fitting expressions help the listener to understand our meaning.”

Marpurg (on JS Bach)

“I know a great composer on whose face one can see depicted everything that his music expresses as he plays it at the keyboard…”

Burney (1753)

“[CPE Bach] grew so animated and possessed that he not only played, but looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his underlip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance.”

Mizler (1754)

“[Bach] could, when it was appropriate, assume a light and witty style while performing.”

Raguenet (1702)

“I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away so much whilst he was playing on the violin as the famous Arcangelo Corelli, whose eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire; his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look like the same man.”


Quantz (1752)

“The Italian manner of playing is arbitrary, extravagant, artificial, obscure, frequently bold and bizarre, and difficult in execution; it permits many additions of graces, and requires a seemly knowledge of harmony; but among the ignorant it excites more admiration than pleasure. The French manner of playing is slavish, yet modest, distinct, neat and true in execution, easy to imitate, neither profound nor obscure, but comprehensible to everyone, and convenient for amateurs; it does not require much knowledge of harmony, since the embellishments are generally prescribed by the composer; but it gives the connoisseurs little to reflect upon… The French [style] depends more upon the composition than the performance, while the Italian depends upon the performance almost as much as the composition, and in some cases almost more…

In German music [of the past]… both style and melodies were rather flat, dry, meagre and paltry…Exciting and quieting the passions were things unknown to them.”