The Presto in Bach's Music
By: Heather DeRome, with thanks to Frank Koonce
This is a short essay discussing how one might approach Bach’s presto markings. There are two presti in the Sonatas and Partitas. In recent years, research has shown that the main purpose of music in Bach’s time was to stir the human emotions, or as they called them, the “passions.” In fact, some writers are now moving away from referring to music of the Baroque period as being “baroque,” and rather calling it “rhetorical music.” Theorists of the period discuss the rhetorical aspects of musick, and how those may be used to stir the passions of the listener. However, the goal was not really to convey the emotion in the same was as it was in the Romantic era: A skilled romantic performer feels the music and conveys, or shares, his or her own personal emotional reaction to it. A performer skilled in the art of rhetoric, on the other hand, will persuade her or his listeners to feel those emotions themselves (rhetoric being the art of persuasion). 

There were many hints in the music that players could draw on, to guide them as to which emotions might be applicable. These attributes have stood the test of time. For example, if a phrase has big leaps and quick little snippets in 16th notes, then there is a good chance that this music will be joyful and spirited. Certain dances were also associated with specific affeckts. For example, in 1738 Johann Matheson described the French courante as “lovely and tender” (lieblich und zärtlich) with the affeckt of “sweet hope” (süsse Hoffnung); the melody expresses “something heartfelt, something longing and also something hopeful.”1 Another clue is often given right at the beginning of the piece: Allegro, Grave, Andante, Largo, —or Presto

Now Allegro is rather easy to come to terms with if you speak Italian. It means Happy. It does not mean metronome = 120BPM; although of course a tempo was always inferred, allegro refers to a state of being, more than to a tempo. Happy things do tend to be jaunty and 120 often suits that, however when Bach wrote an Allegro, he was letting his performer know that they should try to evoke happiness in their listeners. But what of Presto? This word is more enigmatic. 

In Italian, Presto, presto! means "Hurry, hurry!” However, if a piece was only meant to be played very fast, the indication would have likely been molto veloce. There is a difference between “fast” and “hurried.” “Fast” is just a speed, but “hurried” implies a feeling of being rushed, harried, and maybe a little panicked. In other words, presto has an emotional connotation that molto veloce would not have had. In French presser can either mean “pressing forward" or “rushing”. So, again, here we have an emotion attached. If someone is pressing forward, then they feel a certain determination. 

What follows is a quote from Sebastien de Brossard’s (1655—1730) dictionaire de musique (1703 and 1708)
“Presto: one must press forward in the measures, or make the beats very short. This usually denotes gaiety, or abandon, rage or rapidity, etc."
(il faut presser la mesure, ou en rendre les temps fort courts. Ce qui marque ordinairement de la gayeté, ou de l’emportement, de la fureur, de la rapidité &c)

This is much richer than just playing a presto as fast as it will go. Especially interesting is the affeckt of rage. Regardless of which passion one choses to evoke, Matheson says: “One must know that even without words, as in pure instrumental music, always and in every melody the intention must be oriented toward presenting the governing passion, so that the instruments, through their sound, make a speaking and understandable performance.”2

1. As quoted in Peter Crofton, Performing Baroque Music on the Classical Guitar, a Practical Handbook Based on Historical Sources. 2015, CreateSpace, an company, 219.
2. Ibid., 37.

Copyright © Koonce/DeRome, 2020.