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Technical & Musical Terms & Abbreviations
Part 4: Musical Terms


Full Words




Ad Libitum

[Latin] At the pleasure of the performer, as regards time and expression. In the case of arrangements – ‘with violin or flute Ad Libitum’ – it signifies that the solo instrument may be left out or exchanged at pleasure




A composition for solo voice and accompaniment, occuring in Bach’s music mainly as part of a larger work such as an Oratorio or a Cantata




A type of heightened declamation in vocal music, somewhere between aria and recitative


Bc / Cont

Basso Continuo / Bass Continuo / Thoroughbass

Bach uses the Italian term for unfigured or figured bass parts. Figures placed below single bass notes indicate the harmonies to be played above them, e.g. 6/3 represents the third and the sixth notes of a common chord. The keyboard instrument for the continuo is, unless otherwise specified, the organ. The realisation (that is, the filling-in) of a continuo part on the organ, particularly in recitatives and arias, calls for great artistry and imagination. The other instruments Bach used in the continuo were violoncello, violone, bassoon, viola da gamba and lute/theorbo. When Bach called for b.c. requiring a bass bowed string instrument, the cello did not have the monopoly that today people imagine. The viola da gamba offerred very different characteristics, and Bach knew this intimately. At times the writing was quite idiomatic, calling for specific instruments, and at other times it was a case of the musician's discretion, what was available, and what went with what. For example bassoon and cello is a suitable combination; lute and viol is also good; violone with either combination works

Robertson / Veen / Fogliati



The title ‘cantata’ without qualification signifies the normal form of these works in which there is usually a chorale at the end



Chorale Cantata

The Chorale Cantata is based on a chorale first heard in the opening chorus and quoted in various ways thereafter



Solo Cantata

Solo Cantatas are works for one or more solo voices, but the usually end wit a chorale for chorus



Cantus firmus

The main melody

Veen / Braatz


Duetto / Duet

Italian term, usually used for a piece for two voices or instruments (with or without accompaniment) or for a two-part piece for a single instrument



Figured Bass / basso figurato

A figured bass consists essentially of a bass line with numbers written above or below it. It is a shorhand that tells us what accompanying harmonies the composer had in mind at that particular moment in his composition



Historically Informed Performance

See: Discusussions of HIP in General Topics Section



An instrumental piece, generally for an ensemble, used to announce or accompany an entrance, to inaugurate some festive event, or to begin a suite. See: Intrada Definition [PDF]




The American term Half-note. The half of a semibreve and equal of two crotchets.



A polyphonic composition, or sometimes one for solo voice and accompaniment, usually with a sacred text; the term has been in use since the 13th century for many different types of composition, secular as well as sacred. To a German speaker in Bach’s time a motet was a sacred vocal composition using no independent instruments – that is, only basso continuo and perhaps instruments doubling the vocal lines







[i.e. necessary] a term signifying that the instrument with which it is coupled is indispensable in that place or that piece. It is in this respect the opposite to Ad Libitum

Veen / Grove


One Voice Per Part

Refers mainly to the vocalists, but usually the instruments are also reduced to a minimum




A term used to refer to either a suite of dances or a set of variations



Period Performance / Period Practice


Olszowky / Francine


Recitative Secco (dry)

This type is accompanied only by a figured bass line indicating chords that punctuate the vocal line



Recitative Accompanied

The vocal lines are accompanied by written-out part for the chosen instruments








The recurrence of an instrumental introduction to choral or solo numbers, coming between lines or complete verses. The material is usually developed and so differs from the rondo-refrain type. The term is sometimes applied to the introductory matter itself




Repetition of a short phrase at higher or, more rarely, lower pitch. Bach frequently uses this device in the cantatas, usually making two repetitions but occasionally three




An Italian term used in various periods, and with a variety of applications, mainly for instrumental pieces. Bach used the term chiefly in the sense of an instrumental introduction to his cantatas




A term used in fugal composition for close imitation in which two or more statements of the subject (or answer) overlap. The dovetailing procedure may be continued through all the voices of the texture, producing a ‘stretto maestrale’




In the context ofBaroque music, a collection of instrumental dances, sometimes introduced by a prelude of some kind



Total Time

Total playing Time of CD or LP, or of a recorded performace of a complete work



The technical terms & abbreviations in this page are mostly compiled from the following sources:
Common – Common use, especially in e-mail correspondence
Alec Robertson's book 'The Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach' (Cassell - London, 1972)
Francine Renee Hall - Member of the BCML
New Harvard Dictionary of Music
Thomas Braatz - Member of the BCML
Frank Fogliati - Member of the BCML
Anthony Olszowky - Member of the BCML
Aryeh Oron - Member of the BCML
Oxford Composer Companion – J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Johan van Veen - Member of the BCML
Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (The MacMillan Company, 1952)

Prepared by Aryeh Oron (December 2000 - January 2009)

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Last update: ýDecember 7, 2011 ý08:51:38