Articulation in music is understood to mean the way notes are connected or grouped – this involves accentuation and, to some extent, rhythmic inflection.

While François Couperin was an obsessive control freak in this regard, it was only from Beethoven onwards that composers routinely marked articulations into the score. Open a score of Beethoven and you will see at a glance how he wanted the music to be articulated. You will find a few dots and slurs in Bach’s keyboard music, but for the most part we have to make our own decisions.

How? On what basis do we decide? I don’t think this can be done cosmetically, by which I mean I don’t think we can add slurs and staccatos willy-nilly  (“Oh, I haven’t had a staccato for a while, better stick one in on this note”). The articulation should enhance phrasing, help project rhythm and show the design features of the thematic material.

The long legato line is a 19th century concept – 18th century phrasing was based more on the articulation of shorter units, at the discretion of the player. Long legato lines are just as out of place (and boring) as long staccato ones, and the still-prevalent idea that quavers in baroque music should be detached is just not correct.

Now for some examples. The first is the subject from Bach’s B flat major Invention, for which I have given three possible articulations (scribbled, somewhat clumsily, one on top of the other). There will be other possibilities, but these were the first that occurred to me:

I would say it is important to stick with the same articulation in the second half of the bar as you use for the first half, because the second half is an inversion of the first half (it is therefore the same music, to be treated the same). Notice that all three articulations put a staccato dot on the first D of the third beat (and the first note of the second bar, etc.), because it strikes me as a priority to clarify the two phrases – the original and its inversion – by separating them. In the uppermost articulation, I would make the tiniest of breaks at the phrase ends, with the finger and certainly without lifting the arm. This will have the effect of introducing a consonant after the break (such as “ta-la-la-la”) and it shows the main beats. The second articulation, with the slur and two staccatos on the semiquaver groups adds a spring to the step, if you want it somewhat bouncy, whereas the lowest example (note the tenuto marks rather than staccato on the semiquaver groups) would sing more. If you were to choose a more legato approach – perfectly fine – then you would need to do something after this RH D, if you don’t want an audible break then perhaps a dynamic or rhythmic inflection.

In my second example, I include my articulation for the subject from the Gigue from the G major French Suite. The two short slurs are for rhythmic projection, and the longer one at the end is for a melodic moment as the notes now move by step:

My feeling about an articulation, once settled on based on the character and structure of the motive or the subject, is that it should be articulated identically wherever it appears. This is because the various subjects or motives are building blocks, and maintaining integrity in this regard seems more important than the actual articulation itself (given that there is a wide variety of possibilities). The analogy that springs to mind is of an architect who has designed windows in the facade of a building, each with a surround of tiles that are separate from the brickwork. Whether this surround is made of terracotta or slate, square, oblong or isosceles trapezoid is immaterial – the only mandate is that these tiles match each other (the actual choice left to the good taste and judgement of the project manager).

Touch

The harpsichordist’s control of touch is second to none. It ranges from subtle use of legatissimo (overholding) to varying degrees of separation (although the very short staccato is avoided as a rule).

In a series of like note values, I might prefer to show that the first of each group is important (somehow stressed), therefore I could either linger longer on it (an agogic stress) or slur it to the next note, or group of notes. Thus, for a smooth, melodic articulation I might simply make the tiniest separation between the last note of one group and the first of the next group. For a more rhythmically sprung articulation, I could slur the first note to the next, then play the remaining notes in the group detached.

Some definitions:

  • Legato: A vanilla legato is where the previous finger releases the key as the next one is being put down.
  • Legatissimo: The previous finger releases the key only after the next one has been put down. Therefore the two tones overlap, and there is a brief moment where they are sounding together. However, the ear will not perceive this as disssonance, because the overlap doesn’t last long enough. We hear it rather as a blending of the two tones as the attack of the second one is masked by the remnants of the first. It is even possible to overlap a series of notes, known as finger pedalling. In a harmonic context this is perhaps more obvious, as we are controlling selected dampers by means of the finger rather than by means of the foot (in conventional use of the sustaining pedal). If done skillfully, this can be done in scale passages, as long as the offending tones are released before the ear has had a chance to perceive the effect as dissonant, which would obviously be offensive.

Degrees of separation (percentages are obviously approximate, to give the general idea):

  • staccato: (bog standard) 50% sound/50% silence
  • staccatissimo: 25/75
  • mezzo staccato: 75/25
  • tenuto/portamento: 90/10

As a general rule, the greater the separation before a note, the greater the sense of accent. Instead of a generic slur, the gap can be almost imperceptible.

General Guidelines

  • Separate before a syncopation
  • Patterns of notes in conjunct motion tend to be more legato, disjunct motion less so.
  • The larger the interval, the greater the separation
  • In dotted rhythms in sharply rhythmical pieces, the dot may become a rest.

This post doesn’t feel quite finished (no surprise – this is a vast subject!). I think I will revisit it as new thoughts come to me. As ever, feel free to add your own comments.

I’ll leave you with the great keyboardist, George Malcolm, recounting an experience in the greenroom after a recital where a student quizzed him on this very question.

For Further Reading

Richard Troeger: Playing Bach On The Keyboard (Pompton Plains, NJ; Cambridge: Amadeus, 2003).