Freedom of Rhythm and Tempo (Time)

From the late fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, writers regularly refer to altering notated rhythm (often to correct compositional errors) and/or to varying the beat (battuta or tactus), measure (misura), or time (tempo) within a work (that is, adjusting the speed of delivery to mirror the passions in the text), and even though compositional style changed dramatically between c.1500 and c.1850, these two practices seem to have remained in vogue for at least 350 years.

Authors from Angelo Poliziano (1498), through Giulio Caccini (1614) and Domenico Corri (c.1781), to Maria Anfossi (c.1840) and John Addison (c.1850) discuss the sort of flexibility that has disappeared in modern times, and while some musicians today argue that rhythmic freedom and variable tactus (beat) run counter to early seventeenth-century Italian practices, documents throughout the time period considered here, particularly from Italy, suggest otherwise (in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, writers often define tactus as the up and down motion of the hand in beating time).

The quotations below present a representative selection of information that confirms the importance of rhythmic and beat / measure / time flexibility in earlier musical cultures.

Altering the Notated Rhythm

According to writers from 1540 to 1840, singers should be wary of compositional defects, even in works by the most celebrated masters. Giovanni del Lago (1540: 40-41) offered this advice to composers:

               “do not commit barbarisms in composing notes to words; that is, do not place a long accent on short syllables

               or a short accent on long syllables, which is contrary to the rules of the grammatical arts, without which [that is,

               without these rules] no one can be a good musician, which [grammatical rules also] teach how to utter and write


               “non far barbarismi nel comporre le notule sopra le parole, cioe non ponete lo accento lungo sopra le sillabe brevi,

               over l’accento breve sopra le sillabe lunghe, quia est contra regulam artis grammitices, senza la quale niuno puo

               esser buono musico, la quale insegna pronunciare et scrivere drittamente.”

These sorts of barbarisms forced singers to perform long syllables as short ones and short syllables as long ones (Vanneo 1533: 93r-93v), and since these errors violated basic principles of grammar, singers corrected problems they encountered by altering the lengths of the offending notes, or at least so suggested Biagio Rossetti in 1529 (fol. ciiv):

               “in hymns and proses or sequences, and in psalms and antiphons, one can make a master of the maidservant

               grammar, for when one delivers a short syllable, one should shorten the melody’s note, even if there are two

               notes set to one short spoken syllable.” 

               “in hymnis et prosis vel sequentiis et in psalmis et antiphonis possumus de ancilla grammatica facere dominam,

               ut quando pronunciamus syllabam brevem debemus abreviare notulam cantus etiam si fuerint duae notulae supra

               unam syllabam dictionis brevem.”

Along these lines, Andreas Ornithoparchus, writing in 1517 (p. 89 in John Dowland’s 1609 English translation), praised singers in the Church of Prague for making “the Notes sometimes longer, sometime[s] shorter, than they should,” and at the end of the sixteenth century, Luigi Zenobi (c.1600: 80, 97), expected vocalists to improvise solutions to the errors of composers and copyists:

               “the eighth [quality ... for singing with assurance] would be that he [the singer], on finding an error, either by

               the composer or the copyist, would know how to improvise a remedy to the mistake.”

               “la Ottava [conditioni ... per cantar securo] sarebbe, ch’egli, ritrovando errore, o di compositore, o di copia,

               sapesse rimediare improvisamente all’errato.”

Furthermore, if vocalists did not correct the problems they found, Gioseffo Zarlino (1558: 341) felt they would fail to achieve a beautiful and elegant manner of singing (“viene a mancare il bello; & lo elegante modo di cantare”). In fact, the mispronunciation of words, especially when singing in another language, would, as Nicola Vicentino suggested in 1555 (fol. 85v), reduce native speakers to laughter:

               “if, ... for example, in the French, the Spanish, and the German language, they [singers] would pronounce

               long syllables short and short [ones] long, that nation would laugh at such a pronunciation.”

               “si ... (in essempio) come se nella lingua Franzese, & Spagnuola, et Tedesca, le sillabe loro lunghe fussero

               pronuntiate brevi, & le breve lunghe, la natione loro riderebbe di tal pronuntia.”

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Giulio Caccini claimed in Le nuove musiche (1602: “A i lettori”) that he had introduced a new type of music that allowed singers almost to speak in tones (“quasi che in armonia favellare”), especially if they used a certain noble negligence of song in their delivery (“una certa nobile sprezzatura di canto”).


Although he did not explain what he meant by “negligence / sprezzatura” in Le nuove musiche, he defined the term in his 1614 publication Nuove musiche e nuova maniera de scriverle (“Alcuni avvertimenti”):

               “Sprezzatura [negligence] is that elegance which is given to song through the transgression of diverse crome

               e simicrome [eighth notes / quavers and sixteenth notes / semiquavers] on various strings [i.e., pitches],

               together with that [transgression] made in time. It [sprezzatura] removes from song a certain confining

               rigidity and dryness; thus it renders [song] pleasing, free, and airy, just as in common speech, eloquence and

               fecundity [abundant variety] make the matters on which one speaks easy and pleasant.”

               “La sprezzatura è quella leggiadria la quale si da al canto co’l trascorso di più crome, e simicrome sopra diverse

               corde co’l quale fatto à tempo, togliendosi al canto una certa terminata angustia, e secchezza, si rende piacevole,

               licenzioso, e arioso, si come nel parlar comune la eloquenza, e la fecondia rende agevoli, e dolci le cose di cui si favella.”

Hence, writers such as Caccini believed singers could make their delivery more eloquent if they altered the printed page to free songs from the “confining rigidity” of their notation. He even annotated a piece in Le nuove musiche to show singers where they might introduce this form of rhythmic negligence (excerpt from “Deh dove son fuggiti”):

The words above the passage, “senza misura; quasi favellando in armonia con la suddetta sprezzatura,” may be translated as “without measure, as if speaking in tones with the aforesaid negligence.”

In the preface to L’Euridice (1600: “A Lettori”), Jacopo Peri praised one of the most famous Italian singers of his day, Vettoria Archilei, for adding an elegance to his music that could never be written down or learned from the notation (see the last two lines of the quotation):



               “Signora Vettoria Archilei ... has always made my music deserving of her singing, adorning it not only with

               those gruppi and those long circlings of the voice, simple and double [?slower and faster divisions?], which by

               the nimbleness of her wit are found at every moment, more to conform to the custom of our times than because

               she supposes [that] in them consists the beauty and the force of our singing, but also with those charms and

               elegances, which one cannot write down, and [if] written one cannot learn them from the notation.”

               “la Signora Vettoria Archilei ... ha sempre fatte degne del cantar suo le Musiche mie, adornandole, non pure

               di quei gruppi, e di quei lunghi giri di voce, semplici, e doppi, che dalla vivezza dell’ingegno suo son ritrovati

               ad ogn’hora, piu per ubbidire all’uso de’ nostri tempi, che, perch’ella stimi consistere in essi la bellezza, e la

               forza del nostro cantare, ma anco di quelle, e vaghezze, e leggiadrie, che non si possono scrivere, e scrivendole

               non s’imparano da gli scritti.”

Further information on the way singers put the final shape on the music they sang may be found in the anonymous treatise Il corago, o vero alcune osservazioni per metter bene in scena le composizioni drammatiche / The Choragus, or Some Observations for Staging Dramatic Works Well (c.1630). The author states the following in relation to pausing (p. 90):

               “One should not sing continuously, even if there is no pause in the musical part, but at the end of every senso

               [sense / thought], the singer should stop a while ...”

               “Non si deverà cantare seguitamente anchoré nella parte musicale non vi sia pausa ma ad ogni fine di senso si

               deve il cantare fermare alquanto ...”

This tradition continues into the eighteenth century, and around 1781 Domenico Corri characterised the relationship between notation and performance unambiguously (p. 2):

               “Indeed, either an air, or recitative, sung exactly as it is commonly noted, would be a very inexpressive, nay,

               a very uncouth performance; for not only the respective duration of the notes is scarcely even hinted at, but

               one note is frequently marked instead of another, as is the case where a note is repeated, instead of that note

               with its proper appoggiatura or grace.”

Moreover, William Kitchiner, writing in 1820 (unpaginated), was of the opinion that:

               “The finest Compositons do not produce half their effect, if the words and the music are not in perfect unison;

               and we have heard even the strains of the sublime Handel, and our Orpheus Britannicus Purcel, however

               delightful to the ear, sometimes fail of producing half the impression they are capable of making on the mind,

               from being sung with an injudicious accent.”

Thus, we see in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that singers continue to be warned about the trustworthiness of notation, no matter how exalted the composer. Kitchiner provided examples of the problems singers face, and in Handel’s “Let the bright Seraphims” from Samson (1743), he thought vocalists would falsely emphasise “let” and “their” and incorrectly accentuate “uplifted” if they read the notation literally (see the illustration below). The longer values Handel assigned to “let” and “their” emphasised the wrong words, instead of the correct ones, “bright” and “loud,” and the quarter note / crotchet Handel used for the final syllable of “uplifted” would accentuate the last syllable and not the middle one.

The following year, Kitchiner generalised his concerns (1821: 64): “unfortunately for Singers, Composers do not always write down their ideas, exactly as they intend to express them, and Songs seldom can be sung exactly as they are set down,” particularly in strophic songs, as J. P. Le Camus had suggested (c.1835: 88): “it is very rare that the melody written for the first verse can be exactly adapted to the others. The Singer’s intelligence must then make up for this defect, by altering or diminishing the value of the notes, in order to avoid resting on short or intermediary syllables.”

These principles applied to both aria and recitative, and the attitude towards the performance of composed recitative was summarised in the middle of the nineteenth century by John Addison (c.1850: 29):

               “In the notation of Recitative, ... altho’ the Composer may have arranged the progression of the notes, so as

               to suit the natural inflections of the voice, according to the Poetry, yet they can only be considered as the

               Skeleton of his ideas, the rest is left to the Singer, who must give the finish according to his taste and judgment.”

This notion harkens back to Corri’s statement from c.1781 quoted above, and in 1810 (Vol. 1, p. 70), Corri provided an example from Handel’s Theodora (1750) to show what he meant:

Around 1840, Maria Anfossi (p. 69) confirmed that in her day performers still needed to be wary of the sorts of compositional deficiencies that had plagued vocal works since the sixteenth century:

               “This musical license of shortening the duration of one note, and increasing the length of another, is also

               of great use in correcting a false accentuation of the words; as when, by an oversight of the composer,

               or of the copyist, a note set over the accented syllable is of equal or even less value than the notes assigned

               to the unaccented ones of the same word.”

In fact, singers in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries frequently used tempo rubato (stolen or robbed time) to correct the errors Anfossi identified. Domenico Corri defined the term in 1810 (p. 6):

               “Tempo Rubato is a detraction of part of the time from one note, and restoring it by increasing the length

               of another, or vice versa; so that, whilst a singer is, in some measure, singing ad libitum, the orchestra,

               which accompanies him, keeps the time firmly and regularly.”

In 1824, Richard M. Bacon (p. 84) explained how the practice of “robbing” time could be used to remedy poorly set words:

               “tempo rubato, or the taking of a portion of the duration from one note and giving it to another, is one of the

               greatest helps to powerful elocution in singing, and enables the singer frequently to throw great force upon

               a word of importance, which would otherwise be deprived of its meaning by the passage to which it is attached ...

               indeed we frequently find long and short syllables, or such a trisyllable as repentance (which consists of a short,

               a long, and a short syllable,) set to notes of equal times. In this case common feeling dictates the propriety of

               shortening the first and last, and allowing the time thus taken, to the middle note – in short, wherever it is possible,

               without absolutely disturbing the rhythm or those accents with which the cultivated ear cannot dispense, the time

               of the notes should be made to conform to the syllabic arrangement of quantity as completely as possible.”

Varying the Speed of Delivery

In the late fifteenth century, Angelo Poliziani (1498: Bk. 12, fol. pviiir), in a letter to Pico della Mirandola (c.1488), described the changes a young singer, Fabio Orsini, had made in his speed of delivery when he sang a solo song:

               “He then delivered a heroic song that he himself had recently composed to honor our Pietro dei Medici ...

               The voice itself was not entirely that of someone reading aloud nor entirely that of someone singing, but yet

               both could be discerned, neither separated from the other. Nevertheless, it was varied according to what the

               passage required, either even or modulated – now punctuated, now continuous, now raised, now restrained,

               now subdued, now vehement, now slow, now swift, always faultless, always clear, always delightful, the gesture

               neither indifferent nor sluggish but yet not affected or offensive. Anyone would have said that a young Roscius

               [the ancient Roman actor] was on the stage.”

                “Pronuntiavit heroicum deinde carmen, quod ipse met nuper in Petri Medicis nostri laudem composuerat ...

               Vox ipsa nec quasi legentis, nec quasi canentis, sed in qua tamen utrunque sentires, neutrum discerneres:

               varie tamen prout locus posceret, aut aequalis, aut inflexa, nunc distincta, nunc perpetua, nunc sublata,

               nunc deducta, nunc remissa, nunc contenta, nunc lenta, nunc incitata, semper emendata, semper clara,

               semper dulcis, gestus non otiosus, non somniculosus, sed nec vultuosus tamen, ac molestus. Rosciolum

               prorsus aliquem diceres in scena versari.”

During the early sixteenth century, writers began to describe the practice of varying the speed of delivery in terms of the elevation and suppression of time. Giangiorgio Trissino (1524: fols. C3r-v) depicted the abilities of Isabella d’Este in self-accompanied song:

               “But when, then, this woman turns to sing a few [songs], especially to the lute, ... [she] diligently preserves

               the harmony, in a manner that in not one way oversteps the boundaries of rhythmic propriety, but moderates

               the song with elevation and suppression of the tempo [time], and maintains concordance with the lute, and

               at once accords her language, and one and the other hand [in playing the lute], with the inflections of the song.”

               [Among other things, Trissino seems to be saying that the accompaniment followed Isabella’s vocal inflections.]

               “Ma quando poi questa alcuna volta canta, e specialmente nel liuto, ... il serbare diligentissimente l’harmonia,

               in guisa che in niuna cosa il rithmo si varchi, ma a tempo con elevatione, e depressione misurare il canto, e

               tenerlo con lo liuto concorde, e ad un tratto accordare la lingua, e l’una, e l’altra mano, con le inflexioni de i canti.”

               (Cited in Prizer 1999: 49).

By the middle of the century, the close relationship between speaking and singing had been further elucidated by Nicola Vicentino, when he advised singers to model the practice of moving or changing the measure (muovere la misura / mutare misura) on the art of the orator (the quotation below is from a chapter of his treatise that discusses ensemble performance: “A method for singing in consort every kind of composition” / “Regola da concertare cantando ogni sorte di compositione,” 1555: fols. 94r-94v):

               “The experience of the orator teaches this [the value of muovere la misura / mutare misura within a song],

               for one sees how he proceeds in an oration – for now he speaks loudly and now softly, and more slowly and

               more quickly, and with this greatly moves his auditors; and this way of moving the measure has a great effect

               on the soul. And for this reason one sings the music from memory ready to imitate the accents and effects of

               the parts of the oration, [for] what effect would the orator make if he recited a fine speech without regulating

               his accents, pronunciations, fast and slow motions, and soft and loud levels of speaking? That would not move

               his hearers. The same should occur in music, for if the orator moves his auditors with the aforesaid devices,

               how much more powerfully would music, recited with the same devices, accompanied by well-united harmony,

               make a greater effect ...

               sometimes [singers] use a certain method of proceeding in compositions that cannot be written down, such as

               uttering softly and loudly or quickly and slowly, and following the natural course of the words, to move the

               measure to demonstrate the effects of the passions of the words and harmony. It will not seem a strange thing

               to anyone, this method of changing the measure all at once [that is, suddenly], for it is understood that while

               singing in consort, where one has this change of measure, it is not an error. And a composition sung with a

               change of measure is more pleasing by means of that variety than [a composition] continued to the end without

               being varied. And experience with such a manner [of singing] will make everyone secure [in it], for in vernacular

               works, one will find that this procedure will please listeners more than the measure always continuing in one

               manner, [for] one should move the measure according to the words, more slowly and more quickly.”

               “La esperienza, dell’Oratore l’insegna, che si vede il modo che tiene nell’Oratione, che hora dice forte, & hora

               piano, & più tardo, & più presto, e con questo muove assai gl’oditori, & questo modo di muovere la misura,

               fà effetto assai nell’animo, & per tal ragione si cantarà la Musica alla mente per imitar gli accenti, & effetti delle

               parti dell’oratione, & che effetto faria l’Oratore che recitasse una bella oratione senza l’ordine dei suoi accenti,

               & pronuntie, & moti veloci, & tardi, & con il dir piano & forte quello non muoveria gl’oditori. Il simile dè

               essere nella Musica. perche se l’Oratore muove gli oditori con gl’ordini sopradetti, quanto maggiormente la

               Musica recitata con i medesimi ordini accompagnati dall’Armonia, ben unita, farà molto più effetto ...

               qualche volta si usa un certo ordine di procedere, nelle compositioni, che non si può scrivere, come sono, il dir

               piano, & forte, & il dir presto, & tardo, & secondo le parole, muovere la Misura, per dimostrare gli effetti

               delle passioni delle parole, & dell’armonia, ad alcuno non li parrà cosa strana tal modo di mutar misura,

               tutti à un tratto cantando mentre che nel concerto s’intendino, ove si habbi da mutar misura che non sarà

               errore alcuno, & la compositione cantata, con la mutatione della misura è molto gratiata, con quella varieta,

               che senza variare, & seguire al fine, & l’esperienza di tal modo farà certo ognuno, però nelle cose volgari si

               ritroverà che tal procedere piacerà più à gl’oditori, che la misura continua sempre à un modo, & il moto della

               misura si dè muovere, secondo le parole, più tardo, & più presto.”

Around 1600, Luigi Zenobi (p. 101) commented that singers “should at times carry their voices with disregard, at times with a dragging manner, at times with a gallantness of motion.” / “Deve tall’hora portar le voci con disprezzo, tall’hora con modo strascinarle, tall’hora con galanteria di motivo.”

This notion of varying the speed of delivery according to the passions of the words was echoed by Girolamo Fescobaldi in his discussion of the connection between playing toccatas and singing madrigals (1615: “Al lettore”):

               “First, that one ought not in this way of playing be subject to beating [keeping time], as we see employed in

               modern madrigals, which although difficult one makes easy by means of beating, delivering it [beating or

               keeping time] now languidly, now swiftly, and also sustaining it in the air according to their [the madrigals’]

               passions, or the sense of the words.”

               “Primieramente; che non dee questo modo di sonare stare soggetto a battuta, come veggiamo usarsi ne

               i Madrigali moderni, i quali quantunque difficili si agevolano per mezzo della battuta, portandola hor

               languida, hor veloce, e sostenendola etiandio in aria secondo i loro affetti, o senso delle parole.”

And in Germany, Michael Praetorius (1619, Bk. 3, Pt. 2, Ch. 8: 79) said more or less the same thing:

               “For to sing without law or measure is to offend God himself, who assigns everything number, weight,

               and measure, as Plato says. But nevertheless, according to the text’s meaning, to use by turns now a slower

               tactu [beat], now swifter, has a singular majesty and grace, and song is wonderfully adorned.”

               “Nam sine lege & mensura canere, est Deum ipsum offendere, qui omnia numero, pondere & mensura

               disposuit, ut Plato inquit. Sed tamen pro ratione Textus interdum tardiore Tactu, interdum celeriore per

               vices uti, singularem majestatem & gratiam habet, & Cantum mirificè exornat.”

Later in his publication, Praetorius reinforced the notion (Bk. 3, Pt. 3, Ch. 1: 112):

               “But so often the composition itself requires, as well as the text and meaning of the words on their own, that

               one sometimes, but not too often or really too much, moves the tact [beat] now quickly, now again slowly.”

               “Es erfordert aber solches offtermahls die composition, so wol der Text und Verstand der Worter an ihm selbsten:

               das man bisweilen / nicht aber zu offt oder gar zu viel / den Tact bald geschwind / bald wiederumb langsam fuhre.”

Daniele Friderici (1619: Ch. 7, Regula 16) further documented the practice of varying the beat:

               “in singing, one never intends a monotonous beat [tact] to be conducted and felt, rather [the beat should]

               be in conformity with the words of the text. Hence, the beat must indeed be set so that an agreement and

               decorum will be kept. Thus, cantors err, who measure out the beat just as uniformly lined up as the

               clockwork mechanism [measures out] its minutes.”

               “Im singen soll durchaus nicht einerlei Tact gespühret und geführet werden / sondern nach dem die worte

               des Textus sein / also muß auch der Tact gerichtet sein / also das eine convenientz, unnd decorum behalten

               werde. Irren demnach die Cantores / welche den Tact so schnurgleich abmessen als das Uhrwerck seine


As these quotations demonstrate, the custom of beating time flexibly dates back to at least the late fifteenth century, and in the early seventeenth century, Vincenzo Giustiniani (c.1628: 108) gave a detailed description of the performing style a group of singers employed in the late sixteenth century (note that Giustiniani’s mention of “stopping” is similar to Frescobaldi’s idea of “sustaining [the beat] in the air”):

               “by moderating and increasing their voices, forte or piano, diminishing or swelling, according to what suited

               the piece, now with dragging, now stopping, accompanied by a gentle broken sigh, now continuing with long

               passages, well joined or separated [that is, legato or detached], now groups, now leaps, now with long trills,

               now with short, and again with sweet running passages sung softly.”

               “col moderare e crescere la voce forte o piano, assottigliandola o ingrossandola, che secondo che veniva a’ tagli,

               ora con strascinarla, ora smezzarla, con l’accompagnamento d’un soave interrotto sospiro, ora tirando passaggi

               lunghi, seguiti bene, spiccati, ora grupi, ora a salti, ora con trilli lunghi, ora con breve, et or con passaggi soavi

               e cantati piano.”

Moreover, according to Il corago, o vero alcune osservazioni per metter bene in scena le composizioni drammatiche  / The Choragus, or Some Observations for Staging Dramatic Works Well (c.1630), the practice of singing freely (that is, without a steady beat) also applied to early seventeenth-century stile recitativo. In chapter fourteen of the manuscript (“Whether the reciting style ought to be sung with a beat or without” / “Se lo stile recitativo debbia essere cantato a battuta o senza,”  pp. 89-90), the anonymous author mentions that although some musicians perform stile recitativo with a beat (primarily for the greater sicurezza [assurance or security] 

of the singer and accompanist), the common feeling and fashion among those who sing on the stage is indeed not to employ a beat (“il 

commun sentimento et usanza di quelli che cantano in scena si è di non usar battuta”). The writer then offers the following explanation

for what was apparently the norm. Because perfection in taking the reciting style to the stage lies in displaying and imitating a natural manner of discourse (“perché consistendo la perfezione dello stil recitativo portato in palco in mostrare et imitare il modo naturale di ragionare”), an actor (“l’attore”) not only needs to stop and sigh at length (“dovendo l’attore fermarsi, sospirare a lungo”) but also should follow the force of the passions freely, which is of great importance in reciting well (“liberamente assecondare l’impeto dell’affetto, il che è di molta importanza per il recitar bene”).

If we move ahead to the early nineteenth century, Charles J. Smyth (1817: 17-18) said something comparable for recitative, the reciting style of his day (see, in particular, the last three lines of the quotation):

               “Singers are apt to deliver the words too strictly according to the notes to which the composer has adapted

               the words. It was necessary for the composer to fill up his bar: but he never intended the singer should pay

               mechanical attention to his notation. Some passions require rapidity; others should be delivered slowly ...

               the best Italian masters ... leave it entirely to the singers to accelerate or relax the time, agreeable to their


Seven years earlier, Domenico Corri (1810: 70) had expressed a similar opinion:

               “No particular degree of Time is marked to Recitative, but it is left to the Singer to prolong or shorten notes,

               which he ought to do agreeable to the passion and accent of the words,”

and previously in his treatise (p. 6), Corri had discussed varying the speed of delivery under the heading “Quickening or Retarding of Time”:

               “Another improvement, by deviation from strict time, is to be made by the singer delivering some phrases

               or passages in quicker or slower time than he began with, in order to give emphasis, energy, or pathos, to

               particular words.”

Clearly, just like in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, flexible time was linked to the emotional qualities of the text. In 1820, Ephraim Reed wrote (p. 23):

               “The performer therefore should endeavor, as far as possible, to acquire a complete knowledge of the tune,

               its connection with the sense of the words, the peculiar accent, and the energy and force, which the music

               derives from the subject. He will then be enabled to quicken or suspend the velocity of the movement,

               agreeably with the change of the subject, and thereby diversify and give effect to the performance.”

And in 1833, J. Feski observed that flexibility of tempo had become an expectation of the public (Caecilia 15: 270):

               “Ritardando and accelerando alternate at every moment. This manner has already become so established in the

               minds of the musical public that some are of the firm belief [that] a diminuendo must decelerate, a crescendo

               accelerate; a tender phrase (e.g., in an allegro) will be performed more slowly, a powerful one more quickly.”

               “Jeden Augenblick wechseln ritardando und accelerando. Diese Manier hat sich bereits in den Köpfen des

               musikalischen Publikum so festgesetzt, dass Manche der festen Meinung sind, ein Diminuendo müsse retardirt,

               ein crescendo accelerirt; ein zarter Satz (z. B. in einem Allegro) langsamer, ein kräftiger, schneller vorgetragen


As the quotations above show, the practice of quickening and retarding time was known in the late fifteenth century and continued well into the nineteenth century (in other words, this type of flexibility originated long before the 1800s). Indeed, a number of sources recommend linking the speed of delivery, that is, quicker or slower movements, to the various states of mind exhibited by the character in the text. Moreover, tactus (the up and down motion of the hand in beating time) certainly was not immutable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for throughout the eras considered here, the beating of time in measured music (aria) changed in accordance with the passions singers needed to arouse in listeners, while in unmeasured music (stile recitativo and later recitative), sources indicate that many performers seem to have set aside regular time altogether.

                                                                                                                  ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖

I give Isaac Nathan (1836: 290) the final words on the freedom singers once enjoyed (the following quotation is Nathan’s paraphrase of a passage from the 1767 English translation of Francesco Algarotti’s treatise on opera):

               “I coincide with Algarotti, that there are certain suspensions of the voice, certain short pauses, and a certain

               insisting on one place more than another, that cannot be communicated [in the score], which are therefore

               resigned to the singer’s sagacity and discretion: for it is in such minute refinements that chiefly consists the

               delicacy of expression, which impresses the sense of the words, not only on the mind, but on the hearts of all

               who hear them.”    

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