New Perspectives on Bach Performance with Tharald Borgir

WEKA invites you to attend a program presented by musicologist and harpsichordist Tharald Borgir:

New perspectives on Bach performance: agogic accents, upbeat phrasing, structural notes, and the meaning of slurs and dots.”

The event takes place in Seattle, WA, on March 10, 2012. Click here to register.

Tharald Borgir is a musicologist and harpsichordist with years of experience in ensemble and solo performance. His presentation will include extensive musical illustrations on the harpsichord. He will be assisted by violinist Tekla Cunningham and organist Leslie Martin.

The presentation will address a problem articulated by Clive Brown in Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900 (1999, p. 7).

Accentuation is perhaps the most basic of the principal determinants of style in performance, yet it is among the least thoroughly investigated and understood aspects of historical performing practice.

There are two basic issues:

  1. ACCENTUATION. By what means is the accentuation achieved?
  2. APPLICATION. What notes are accented and why?

The only kind of accent described in German sources in the first half of the 18th century is the agogic accent, i.e., stress by lengthening a note beyond its written value. Notes in strong metric position were described as having “inner length” and therefore held beyond their notated value. Practically all major theorists of the time either describe the practice or show familiarity with the concepts. Dynamic accents are rarely mentioned, but appear to have been used together with agogic accents.


  1. Metric stress. Notes in strong metric position were given agogic accents. Two important consequences are:
    1. When the note on a strong beat is held beyond its written value, another note, or notes, have to be hurried to make up for lost time. That creates an inherent tendency toward upbeat phrasing with movement towards the downbeat where structural notes are located.
    2. When agogic accents are applied to the strong beats in dance music they create an appropriate feeling of lilt. The effect is particularly noticeable in fast triple-time movements.
  2. Structural notes. Embedded in fast figuration are often slow moving lines, commonly with stepwise motion. These lines represent the structural basis for the passages. Bach’s use of slurs and dots, when interpreted in light of the principles outlined in this presentation, shows that the composer intended those lines to be brought out. The principal means to do so is agogic accents.
  3. Slurs and dots. Slurs and dots are both indications of (agogic) accent. Bach increasingly used slurs and dots in ways characteristic of string practices in all his music, a typical case being a single note with a dot (above or below) combined with several slurred ones. In string music this creates patterns of accentuation. In music for other media such markings make little sense but when interpreted in light of the effect on string instruments and the use of agogic accents the musical intent becomes clear. Much scholarly effort has focused on where to play legato and staccato in the music of Bach without producing tangible recommendations. That is because the fundamental issue is not legato or staccato, but which notes to accent.

Tharald Borgir had his early musical training in Norway, where he was born, and has a M.M. in piano performance (Yale 1960) and Ph.D. in musicology (UC Berkeley, 1971). His book The Performance of the Basso Continuo in Italian Baroque Music (1987) has been described as “a major reconsideration of the sound of 17th-century Italian music” (Choice), and was reissued in 2010 by University of Rochester Press. He taught at Oregon State, was extensively involved in early music performance on the harpsichord and fortepiano, and retired in 1993 after six years as department chair. Contact Tharald at