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Alla Breve

Alla Breve in music dictionaries

Dale Gedcke
wrote (April 8, 2004):
RE: The alla breve issue in the appended e-mail:

Modern music dictionaries equate alla breve with cut time. In other words, 2 minims (half-notes) per measure and two beats per measure. See

The term, Breve, was also used in Medieval music as the name of the note that is essentially twice the duration of the modern whole note. This nomenclature survives today in that we call a whole note a Semibreve. In Medieval music the Breve was written on the staff as a solid square with no stem. One can also find it written as an open rectangle (See

There is an interesting reference on Notation in Medieval Music at

Thus I would speculate that the alla breve instruction in the Mass at least implied a faster tempo, just as one would expect with the modern "cut time".

Nuances of alla breve?

Dale Gedcke
wrote (April 9, 2004):
Brad Lehman wrote: ".... all the alla breve movements of the Mass really are played here alla breve. What does that mean? Literally, that the breve (white note with no stem) gets the beat. ......"
I am curious about the nuances of the alla breve instruction. If I look up the modern Italian translation to english, breve means brief, and alla is the preposition "to". It would seem to translate to "to abbreviate".

Brad, you are obviously very schooled in the interpretation of Bach's scores. In addition to the stressing of the beat on the whole note, does the instruction alla breve mean that you should shorten the duration of the whole note and leave a gap in the sound before you initiate the next note? Does alla breve imply anything about keeping the entire passage fast and of short duration? What are the nuances of alla breve for the performing musician?

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 9, 2004):
[To Dale Gedcke] Dale, I don't think it means that notes are necessarily shortened,'s all context. "Breve" is the name of a specific note value, not an articulation.

It helps to come to this from 14th-17th century music, looking forward, instead of from 19th and 20th looking backward. In the older music, those breves and semibreves really were the quick notes (briefer than the longs and double-longs). "Minim" really was the smallest note that existed in general use, for a while. Then, like monetary inflation, it all gradually changed....

Context? Sometime in a music library browse through the collections of older music: vocal works of Palestrina and Byrd, and the Denkmaeler of German and Austrian music, and more. Much of the notation there is white notes, and the semibreve (modern "whole note") is one of the medium-value ones. These are still the quick notes into the 17th century, as to tempo, especially in triple-time music.

Our modern habits of seeing a semibreve as a "whole note" shouldn't influence us to play/sing slowly, or to hold it all the way out, necessarily: it could still be a staccato articulation on such a note if the musical context calls for it! But it's that context that determines that, and related issues of style as well, not the notation itself telling us which notes to play shorter than written (separated by articulative rests). It's all relative to shorter and longer notes in the texture.

See also: Mass in B minor BWV 232 – General Discussions – Part 12

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Last update: ýJanuary 31, 2006 ý08:54:12