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New Angles on Old Masters

by John Byrt

'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing' wrote Duke Ellington. He certainly had a point, for swing has been an important part of the musical scene for many years. Many folk songs have it, as we can see in example A:
Example A:

Technically swing means making the running notes of a tune alternatively long and short. This is easy to do in practice but rather tiresome to write down in notes, for it means adding a whole lot of extra dots and beams. Not surprisingly jazz musicians, who use swing all the time, write all their notes equal and just swing them automatically as they play. If we write 'Charlie' like this, it comes out like example B:
Example B:

But suppose for a moment that some time in the future a strolling musician were to come across an old piece of music paper with a bit of jazz written on it. Would he realize that all the running passages were meant to be played in a long/short manner? The notes themselves might be clear enough but their rhythm would have been lost forever. It would be like deciphering a dead language.

Strangely enough, the scenario that I am describing is becoming a reality in the 21st century. Indeed, at a time when the music of composers like Bach and Handel is becoming ever more popular, the question of exactly how they meant it to be played has become a burning issue. Musicologists like me are running back to their old musical scores, trying to establish whether the notation used by these early composers might have meant something different to them from what it means to us today.

Amazingly, there is solid evidence that swinging has been practised for many centuries. Indeed the dotting of short notes 'two by two' is recommended in 16th-century documents and it was certainly prevalent in 17thand 18th-century France, for many music tutors recommend its use. However, to complicate matters, in the late 1700s a major change of taste seems to have taken place in European music. Swinging, which had once been wildly popular, suddenly went out of fashion. Though it was certainly widespread in the days of François Couperin (who flourished in the early 1700s), by the time Mozart wrote his Marriage of Figaro in 1786 it had totally disappeared from what we now call 'classical music', though it probably continued among the lower classes.

So, although swinging suddenly vanished in the Haydn/Mozart period, it had definitely flourished in Couperin's France. Yet at this time (the early 18th century) major composers like Handel, Bach and Alessandro Scarlatti were also hard at work, though there is a dearth of written evidence to prove that they swung their music like the French did. Solving this mystery has been the chief focus of my research. When Handel wrote example C (from The arrival of the Queen of Sheba), I would ask myself,
Example C:

could he have meant it to be played like example D?
Example D:

Incidentally, in modern performances example C is usually played at a breakneck speed (around crotchet = 92) while if I were conducting it today, I would probably 'swing it' as at example D, but at a jaunty, rather steady tempo (around crotchet = 80).


I first came across the theory that the short notes in early music might have been played unequally when I was completing my doctoral thesis at Oxford, though at the time someone was already making a career out of jazzing up Bach – his name was Jacques Loussier. It was thanks to him that I got to know Miles Kington, which led to a fascinating correspondence that I shall never forget. The year was 1967 and Kington had written a piece on Loussier in The Times, where he was resident jazz critic. This began with a reference to an earlier review of one of Loussier's performances by William Mann, the senior critic. 'The Loussier trio are magnificent', Mann had written. 'Not by jazz standards,' Kington had retorted, 'his records reveal that Loussier's jazz rhythms are square and stiff, the harmony of his chords naïve, his phrasing often painfully corny and the total effect faintly comic.' (He was not a man to mince his words). He went on to muse over the intriguing idea that Bach and jazz might have had something in common, but concluded that 'it would be ridiculous to claim that Bach was somehow a forerunner of jazz'.

Far away in Oxford I found myself reading these words and I immediately sat down and wrote to The Times, suggesting that such an idea was not so absurd as Kington thought, for my research was pointing in this direction. Next morning a letter from Miles came through the letterbox and straight away it was clear that he was fascinated by the Bach/jazz issue. Soon he was coming out with gems that showed that he had an instinctive grasp of this new idea. 'I would be interested to learn what kind of evidence you have found in trying to prove your theory,' he wrote, boldly straddling the widely separate worlds of classical music and jazz, 'because I take it that the actual written and printed scores of music of the time offer no proof. At least, I know that if jazz had never been recorded and was no longer being played, it would be impossible to deduce from transcriptions of solos and jazz scores exactly how it was played. It seems to be one of those things which refuse to be pinned down, such as what the English accent of 400 years ago sounded like'. (He had put in a nutshell problems that had been puzzling scholars for years).

'From my own experience' he went on 'I know that jazz composers and arrangers use a sort of conventional notation which if played literally sounds quite wrong and which has to be interpreted by players who know the conventions. They don't really think in terms of written notes at all—in fact, Charlie Mingus prefers not to let his musicians see a written score and plays their parts over at the piano until they have memorized them. Was it also the case with Rameau that he wrote down what he knew to be an inaccurate approximation?'

Then he put his finger on an issue that was to become crucial to my research—how is a style like 'swinging' passed on from player to player? (or maybe not passed on, for this was the real problem that I was facing). 'In jazz at least', he went on, 'the music has become impossible to notate accurately simply because its evolution didn't depend on notation and musicians were never restricted by the limits of what it was possible to get on to paper. I remember reading of one trumpeter who was presented with a transcription of a solo he had recorded and found, after repeated attempts, that he could not play it from paper'.

After this he plunged even further into the unknown, asking the milliondollar question 'what is swing?' Answering it himself, he suggested that 'actually, from the jazz point of view, there is so much bound up in the concept of swing that no one has yet been able to pin-point it satisfactorily. However much one talks about swing being a question of variation on the basic beat', he went on, 'I'm still uncomfortably aware that a double bass playing four simple beats to the bar by itself can produce a good deal of swing. (This was profound stuff indeed. Mind you, he was on home territory, for he actually played the bass in a rather cheesy group called 'Instant Sunshine').

In early October 1967 we met at Oxford. He bought me a Duke Ellington compilation album, which is still one of my favourites. A few days later he sent me a further pile of records, featuring Tristano, Parker and Gillespie. We kept in touch for a time until eventually he took up writing a popular humorous column for The Independent. He tragically died of cancer some years later.

Meanwhile I had already started arguing in print that scholarly opinion on this subject was taking a seriously wrong turning and that the current orthodoxy, which held that 'swinging' was entirely confined to French music, was based on an absurd misreading of the sources. Since then I have spent 50 years arguing my case in learned journals and only recently have I begun to win some supporters for my cause. This may surprise some readers but not, I suspect, those with any experience of academic life. My research into this fascinating topic is recorded in a book, An Unequal Music (Tiverton, 2016). I would also urge the reader to visit my website at www.byrt.org.uk, which contains recordings of how I believe some of the composers of this period may have intended their music to sound.

- John Byrt




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Last modified: 05 June 2017