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Notes inégales

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In another thread, jnong9497 asked:

I once learned that notes inegales for certain French music was mainly for slurred notes and/or descending seconds, but I now cannot find any good sources for his. Did anybody else learn this too? It seems that certain sources, on the other hand, claim that slurs mean the opposite, that the notes should be played evenly.

 

Rather than pursue an off-topic tangent on that thread I thought it would be better to open a new one.

I don't claim any scholarly expertise in notes inégales, but, from what I have gathered from reading around, it seems that slurs have little or nothing to do with the technique. They are not instructions to apply either inequality or equality; they are just articulation marks that may be consistent with either mode, depending on the context. There were various ways of cancelling notes inégales, but there can be confusion since some terms had different meanings for different authors. The clearest instructions are "notes égales", "croches égales", a series of dots over the notes, or dashes over them (the latter meaning equal and staccato). Notes inégales were an aid to playing elegantly: those who see them as a licence to make the music bouncy are missing the point entirely.

 

The most recent word on notes inégales (and also the most practical explanation of the topic I have seen) is Beverly Jerold's article, "Notes inégales: a definitive new parameter" in last May's issue of Early Music. There is a useful abstract of the article here. She doesn't mention slurs, but her purpose is not so much to explain the system comprehensively, as to dispose of the notion that notes inégales were practised outside France. She tells us that nearly 70 sources mention notes inégales, but none of them offers more than scraps of information. Occasionally the information is contradictory, partly because not all the authors were adept writers, but also because of changes in outlook over the decades. Notes inégales were essentially a pedagogical tool in elementary French music instruction. The main purpose of the technique was to develop in the student a sense of rhythm in an age when there was no metronome.

One of the more complete instructions is also one of the earliest, by Étienne Loulié (1696):

In any signature whatever, particularly the one of three beats, the half-beats are executed in two different ways, although written in the same manner.
1o Sometimes they are performed equally. This is called détachez les Nottes, and is used for melodies with notes in disjunct motion.
2o The first half-beats are sometimes made a little longer. This is called Lourer [connecting the notes], and is used for melodies with notes in conjunct motion.
There is yet a third manner [for executing two notes comprising a beat], in which the first half-beat is made much longer than the second, but the first half-beat must have a dot. This is called Piquer or Pointer.
It is Loulié's second manner that equates to notes inégales: the notes are played slightly unequally, long-short.

From other writers we learn that the note value carrying the inequality depends on the time signature:
  • 3/2: crotchets
  • 2, 3, 6/4, C-barré: quavers (but the sources disagree about applying inequality in the latter)
  • C, 2/4, 3/4, compound time: semiquavers
Several agree that inequality is cancelled by (i) predominantly disjunct motion and/or (ii) the presence of a note value smaller than the one carrying the inequality. Thus the presence of semiquavers in 2, 3 or 6/4 will mean that the quavers are played equally.
By the second half of the eighteenth century, notes inégales were on the wane. In 1772 the Parisian violinist J.-B. Labadens considered mild inequality to be only a study process that was not to be made apparent to the listener. Jerold writes: "As standards improved over the course of the 18th century, it [notes inégales] was less necessary and finally abandoned. This is not to deny that it was used to lend interest to a long series of equal conjunct notes, but such passages were fewer as composition became more complex." François Couperin didn't much like inequality and said so in 1717.
For Jerold's demolition of the notion that notes inégales were practised outside France you need to read her article.

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... There is a useful abstract of the article here ...

Following your link it was possible to download the whole article. Thank you! :)
M

 

 

Edit: OK, this is strange: after having opened the (mobile) website with the abstract on my smartphone I was able to download the whole article, but doing so on my laptop I’d have to subscribe to get access. Can someone confirm this?

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Thanks for starting the new thread, as well as the illuminating explanation and the link to the article. I seem to be able to get access to the article, so anybody who is having trouble with it should feel free to message me.

 

I suppose this wouldn't be notes inegales per se, but is there a term for slight adjustments to rhythms to get them to match, for example, if there are triplet eighths and then there are dotted eighths and sixteenths that clearly should be played as a triplet eighth and sixteenth? (Beverly Jerold does mention the difficulty of differentiating between the 2:1 notes inegale versus the 3:1 dotted notes and that many modern musicians have conflated the two, but she doesn't seem to have any clear conclusions in that section, besides saying that singers couldn't read music and were bad at rhythm!)

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That's interesting: I am glad if it is widely available.

I am not aware of a term for the adjustments you mention. I refer to them as assimilation, but I think I dreamt up that term myself. I may need to re-read Jerold's article to make sure I haven't misunderstood, but the way I read it was that she was studiously avoiding making any connection between notes inégales and notated dotted rhythms. Where dotted notes appear in the tutors they are purely visual aids to help explain the technique and are not meant to be taken at face value. She doesn't seem to acknowledge notes inégales meaning anything more than the subtly unequal lilt. I believe there is evidence of varying degrees of inequality, but Jerold doesn't address this. She is certainly in contrast to some previous writers who have maintained that notes inégales might be applied to dotted notes, making the rhythms even sharper (e.g. double-dotted) and I would suspect that, while there may be nothing wrong in doing that, it probably has nothing to do with notes inégales. I found it interesting that the Couperin example she printed provides clear evidence of a situation where two different rhythms are not to be assimilated.

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Assimilation seems to be a very good term to use.

 

I think the Couperin example might be more of an example of the exception rather than the rule. Of course, with most of this debate (inequality vs. dotted, dotted vs assimilation, inequality vs assimilation), we have the problem of determining whether two similar things that are notated differently are supposed to be the same or actually different and on top of that, whether we are looking at the general case or the exception!

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How much (if at all) might "gut feeling" be a legitimate way of deciding whether or not to apply notes inégales, or to "assimilate" (to use VH's term) 2:1 and 3:1?

I can see no logical reason for spending hours practising playing 2+1 exactly against 3+1 (in the opening of "Jesu, joy" for example).

Would the composers and performers of that time really have expected that?

Or would they just have aligned them (which IMHO provides a much more musical result)?

 

And how widely might one apply notes inégales to music of countries other than France? (Bach, and Purcell, just for example.)

I find it difficult nowadays to imagine "And the glory of the Lord" in anything other than quasi-9/8 (although, admittedly, one then has to argue about which quavers are sung inégale, and which not). But it's much more fun that way. Is fun allowed, or am I just being ignorant and/or naive?

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How much (if at all) might "gut feeling" be a legitimate way of deciding whether or not to apply notes inégales, or to "assimilate" (to use VH's term) 2:1 and 3:1?

 

Gut feeling: not at all. Objective musical consideration: most certainly! :) Seriously, I know what you mean, but I do think one should one's interpretations should thought through - there will still be plenty of room for spontaneity. Leaving aside the fact that, in "Jesu, joy", Bach's orchestral players would not have had to practice two-against-three, my opinion is that there is a strong case on musical grounds for assimilation of the dotted quaver + semiquaver figures in this piece - but not for the group of four, even, quavers that appears in the bass at one point, nor in the chorus parts. Having said that, I'd be very interested to hear what a performance with strict note values would sound like. I can't imagine it working at all, but who knows?

 

And how widely might one apply notes inégales to music of countries other than France? (Bach, and Purcell, just for example.)

I find it difficult nowadays to imagine "And the glory of the Lord" in anything other than quasi-9/8 (although, admittedly, one then has to argue about which quavers are sung inégale, and which not). But it's much more fun that way. Is fun allowed, or am I just being ignorant and/or naive?

 

With respect, you haven't read my original post properly - or Jerold's abstract/article!

That said, although such things tend to give me the screaming abdabs (and I might well have aired my views vociferously on given examples), I don't see in principle why a musician shouldn't be free to re-invent music completely, if that's what they really want to do. One or two organists from across the pond come to mind here. Just be honest about what you are doing, put your name alongside the composer's so credit/blame can be fairly allocated and don't try to justify such tinkering by foisting it on an inappropriate historical peg. B)

Once again: Jerold emphasises the subtle nature of the inequality. Nowhere does she mention pepping the music up. To think of notes inégales as an excuse to transform pieces into bouncy jigs is to misunderstand their purpose.

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Once again: Jerold emphasises the subtle nature of the inequality. Nowhere does she mention pepping the music up. To think of notes inégales as an excuse to transform pieces into bouncy jigs is to misunderstand their purpose.

 

 

If you want a good laugh then, watch this video, where they've certainly pepped things up.

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Oh dear! I'm afraid I'm very unreceptive to modern direction. At least the band are playing elegantly and, in its way, it's a very engaging performance. However, from my understanding I can't see why this music should have attracted notes inégales. For one thing, there are a lot of disjunct quavers which would have disqualified it. For another, I think that the speed perhaps brings it into the "four-square" type of music which, we are often told, was performed as written.

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And how widely might one apply notes inégales to music of countries other than France? (Bach, and Purcell, just for example.)

I find it difficult nowadays to imagine "And the glory of the Lord" in anything other than quasi-9/8 (although, admittedly, one then has to argue about which quavers are sung inégale, and which not). But it's much more fun that way. Is fun allowed, or am I just being ignorant and/or naive?

 

With respect, you haven't read my original post properly - or Jerold's abstract/article!

That said, although such things tend to give me the screaming abdabs (and I might well have aired my views vociferously on given examples), I don't see in principle why a musician shouldn't be free to re-invent music completely, if that's what they really want to do. One or two organists from across the pond come to mind here. Just be honest about what you are doing, put your name alongside the composer's so credit/blame can be fairly allocated and don't try to justify such tinkering by foisting it on an inappropriate historical peg. B)

 

Once again: Jerold emphasises the subtle nature of the inequality. Nowhere does she mention pepping the music up. To think of notes inégales as an excuse to transform pieces into bouncy jigs is to misunderstand their purpose.

 

In fairness, I should add that the question is (and I think it's the New Grove that points this out) not so much whether other European countries used notes inégales - they evidently did copy the style sometimes - but whether the composers ever declined to notate exactly what they wanted. There is at least one person who will probably continue to hold the line that the rhythmic alteration of visually equal note values was practised across Europe, but I am not sure he has a great deal of support. (In the same way, there are now probably only one or two people left who still believe that Tudor choral pitch was a minor third higher than ours.)

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