2-Breathing and Phrasing




Rousseau, in the Dictionnaire de Musique (c.1775), defines a musical phrase as a:



"Melodic or harmonic suite which forms without interruption a more or less complete meaning and which ends on a Repos with a more or less perfect cadence."1 


The French term "Repos" can be translated literally in English as “Rest”. This English term is more commonly used nowadays to refer to the different interval of silence (half rest, quartet rest…). As pointed out by several authors, these intervals of silence do not always indicate the end of a phrase or the end of one of its sub-divisions. Only the melody, the harmony and the cadences determine the place of the Repos.2 Therefore, to avoid any confusion, the French term will be kept in this chapter.


The notion of Repos appears to be fundamental. It is the Repos which make it possible to distinguish the different phrases. Their degree of strength varies according to the nature of the cadence and the more or less complete meaning of the phrase. This variety of Repos provides an organisation to the music.

According to Rousseau, the beauty of music lies in the way phrases are structured, in the way they make sense in relation to each other, and in their proportions. Therefore, the role of the performer is to render a clear sense of this construction.3 

Full Respiration / Half Respiration


Mengozzi, in the Méthode de chant du conservatoire (1804), explicitly quotes Rousseau's definition. Like him, he stresses the importance for the performer of knowing how to phrase well. He states that "a good method of phrasing is to singing what knowledge of syntax is to language"4 

For singing and wind instruments, the art of phrasing is linked to breathing and especially to the ability to know how to place the breaths in the right places according to the structure of the music.5 By properly placing the breaths, the performer has the means to mark the different Repos, their degree of strength, and therefore the organisation of the music.

The general rule is to breathe only after the end of the phrase. This breathing is called full breathing (Grande Respiration). It is mandatory in order to clearly differentiate the different phrases. However, a single breath is sometimes not enough to get to the end of the phrase. It is then possible to place a half-breathing (Demi Respiration) on a less significant Repos, called half or intermediate Repos. It is found at the end of one of the members of the phrase. This half-breath is optional and must be taken quickly to avoid cutting the phrase.6 


This principle is widespread in all the singing and wind instrument methods of the early 19th century. Several musical examples are proposed by the different authors. In the first example, Mengozzi indicates the full breathing with the sign ;; and the optional half-breathing with the sign ;.




In the second example, taken from Lefèvre's Méthode de Clarinette (1802), the half breaths are indicated by this sign ^ every two bars.7 



Finally, in his Nouvelle Méthode de Basson (1803), Ozi shows on a first line the phrase as it is written (chant simple), and on a second line (exécution) the phrase as it can be played. The half-breathings are visible when he suggests shortened notes in the line below (bars 2, 4, 5).8 (Example 3)



Thus, the singing methods and wind instrument methods of the early 19th century show a very clear link between phrasing and breathing. The full and half breathing, placed according to the Repos and their degree of strength, helps to underline the structure of the music. It is divided into several phrases, themselves frequently composed of several sub-divisions, sometimes called Members.

In later methods, this structure is explained in a more detailed way. Different terms are used to describe the different divisions of the music. The analogy between the art of discourse and the art of phrasing, already common at the beginning of the 19th century, is developed more fully through a comparison of the different Repos with the punctuation used in spoken speech.

Musical Punctuation


Eugène Walckiers, in his Méthode de Flûte (c.1829), explains that:


"A piece of music is, like a speech, composed of Members and Periods. These Members and Periods are distinguished from each other by means of Repos established from distance to distance, which are called Cadences, and without which all ideas would be confused: this is the Musical Punctuation."9


The notion of Period does not appear in Rousseau's writings or in the methods of the early 19th century. On the other hand, it is defined by Castil-Blaze, in the Dictionnaire de musique moderne (1825) as a "musical phrase composed of several members whose union forms a complete meaning."10 Walckiers gives a similar definition.11 

The Period is concluded with a strong Repos, which "leaves nothing to be desired”. It is indicated by the perfect cadence, compared to the full stop (.) of the spoken speech.12 The example 4 presents a complete Period.




The different members of the period (apart from the last one) end with a less marked Repos, indicated by a half cadence. It is compared to the semicolon (;) of the spoken speech.(example 5)


Finally, each of these members may also present another sub-division. The different divisions of the member (apart from the last one) end with a very weak Repos, called a quarter-cadence. It is compared with the comma (,) of the spoken speech. In the example 5, these subdivisions are indicated with a circular-line and called Divisions.


The main Repos are therefore the half-cadence and the perfect cadence. As can be seen in the example 4 (bar 12, end of the 3rd Member), the conception of the half cadence is rather broad and does not limit itself to the suspension on a dominant chord. Walckiers explains that a quarter cadence can be confused with a half cadence, and the half cadence confused with the perfect cadence. This mistake should be avoided thanks to the “feeling”.13 


Similar explanations can be found in other methods such as Dauprat's Méthode de cor-alto et cor-basse (1824) or Lablache's Méthode complète de chant (1840). The different terms are used in a slightly different way to describe the different divisions: the Period is divided into several Phrases, which are themselves divided into several Members or Drawings.14 15 The same analogy with punctuation is used as can be seen in the example 6.16 


Finally, Frédéric Berr, in the Traité complet de la clarinette (1836), without going into detail like other authors, also refers to a division of music into Periods. He makes the same connection between the different Repos and the punctuation.17 



The idea of half and full breathing remains valid. The general principle is to take the full breath on the Full stop and on the Semicolon, that is to say on the main Repos. A half breath can be taken on the Comma if necessary. Walckiers applies this over the same period seen previously on the first example. In  example 7, the full breathing is called Respiration principale and the Half-breathing is called Respiration secondaire.18 



This all works very well for phrases that have a regular structure. Castil-Blaze states that the main ideas of a piece generally have this form, the phrase well known today as "antecedent consequent" being described as the most perfect and of an extremely widespread use.19

However, finding a good place for a half-breath appears in some cases less obvious. Therefore, the different authors try to give an idea of how to deal with different situations.

Mengozzi, for instance, shows how it is possible to breathe briefly in the middle of a three-bar phrase, even if the melody doesn’t suggest a clear Repos.20 (example 8)

In a passage work, many authors such as Walckiers21or Ozi22 suggest removing a note, which works particularly well when one of them is repeated.(example 9) 



Finally, Walckiers discusses the case where the final note of a phrase is also the first of the next one.23In the following example, this is the issue for the D of the fifth bar. The breathing should be taken earlier or later.(example 10) 

Example 8. Mengozzi24

Example 10. Walckiers25

Example 9. Ozi26

Example 2. Lefèvre27

Example 1. Mengozzi28

Example 6. Dauprat.29

Example 4. Walckiers30

Example 3. Ozi31.

Example 7. Walckiers32

Example 5. Walckiers33