By Nathan Pell (The Graduate Center, CUNY and Mannes College)
This past Fall, I presented at a nineteenth-century performance practice conference at the Sydney Conservatorium, convened by Neal Peres da Costa, Daniel Yeadon, and Clive Brown. (Fellow PAIG member Jocelyn Ho also gave a paper, on Debussy’s performance style, that showcased her truly stunning piano playing.) The theme of this symposium was “Correct, but not Beautiful, Performance,” a phrase borrowed from treatises by Hummel and Spohr.
The idea, these treatises say, is that beginning music students must first learn to execute notes, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, and phrasings with exactitude. This sort of discipline sits at the core of Western musical training, and lays the groundwork for a student’s solidity in musicianship, technique, and ensemble playing. Performing the music precisely as written in the score—the principal goal, I and the symposium’s participants would argue, of most modern-day musicians—is only the first step, however. It is “correct, but not beautiful, performance”: for composers can only notate so much, and to play a dry rendition of the score, therefore, would be to miss their point.
Beauty in music-making, for musicians of two hundred years ago, required performers to read between the lines, intuiting the unstated implications of the printed page in accordance with a shared awareness of musical practices and styles, so as to tease out what elements the composer might have left out of the score. To be sure this is an interpretive process, but not really in the modern sense that performers ‘make their mark’ on the music. Rather, it was understood that composers really wanted to hear such liberties in performance, and as such a certain spirit of fidelity existed even in especially free realizations of the score. So, the conference organizers were quite right to charge participants with “deciphering the hidden messages in nineteenth-century notation”; for this is the same activity that sensitive nineteenth-century performers engaged in—albeit with the advantage of living and breathing these performance practices rather than trying to reconstruct them.
The result was a fascinating symposium that brought together musicians of many stripes and included a large number of performances by participants. Several of these, easily among the best “historically informed” performances I have heard, will stay with me for quite some time: Ho’s aforementioned Debussy, Peres da Costa’s performance of John Field in the manner of Carl Reineke, Koen van Stade’s 1870s-style rendition of “O Isis und Osiris,” and an open rehearsal/coaching of the Brahms Horn Trio with Anneke Scott, Robin Wilson, and Peres da Costa. So I was thrilled to learn, a few days ago, that a follow-up conference is planned for this September in Vienna.
My own contribution to the symposium was a paper called “Tempo as Form: Orchestral Recordings from 1910–1940 in Light of Earlier Sources.” (I have since delivered versions of this paper at several American theory conferences.) Especially since the topic touches on questions of analysis, I think it will be of interest to PAIG members. This medium does not give me space to rehash my full argument, but I will summarize some main points.
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Many musicians believe that tempo fluctuation in orchestral performance began with Wagner. And, further still, some think that rubato in general is a trapping of “Romantic,” but not “Classical,” performance. I stressed that I consider these among the major misconceptions in music history. Ample evidence surely exists that eighteenth-century tempos were flexible, and that this was a sine qua non of “beautiful” performance. The most commonly discussed sort of rubato is that in which the performer speeds up in vigorous, loud passages and slows for tranquil or soft ones:
In compositions whose character is vehemence, anger, rage, fury, and the like, the most forceful passages can be played with a somewhat hastened motion… For extraordinarily tender, longing, or melancholy passages, in which the emotion, as it were, is concentrated in one point, the effect can be very much intensified by an increasing hesitation. (Türk, 1789)
But in the eighteenth century such flexibility was mostly confined to solo and chamber music, for reasons of ensemble:
Certain purposeful violations of the beat are often exceptionally beautiful. However, a distinction in their use must be observed: In solo performance and in ensembles made up of only a few understanding players, manipulations are permissible which affect the tempo itself; here, the group will be less apt to go astray than to become attentive to and adopt the change; but in large ensembles made up of motley players the manipulations must be addressed to the bar alone without touching on the broader pace. (CPE Bach, 1753)
(At the end of this last sentence Bach makes an implicit distinction between tempo rubato‘s original meaning—where a melody weaves in and out of tempo against a steady accompaniment—and an actual fluctuation of the main pulse across a musical texture. As time went on, the term tempo rubato began to refer to the latter practice too, causing a bedeviling confusion in terminology.)
Exceptions were rare enough to earn special mention. But by the early nineteenth century, when the capabilities of Europe’s orchestras were growing to match the demands composers were placing on them, this was no longer the case: CPE Bach’s rule underwent reformulation, and the differences between solo and orchestral tempo styles began to fade. Indeed, important composers are known to have varied the tempo in their orchestral performances, and treatises began to single out specific moments in orchestral works that call for rubato.
If you know of Schindler, it is probably for his many forgeries and outlandish claims surrounding the life of Beethoven. But his testimony here must be reliable, given its full-throated endorsement by Ignaz Moscheles—a far closer friend of Beethoven’s than Schindler was and, moreover, a rather conservative musician:
I agree with M. Schindler in these remarks. The slight deviations of time recommended must give life and expression, not only to this movement, but also to the imaginative compositions of all the great masters. Their success, however, can only be assured by intimate acquaintance on the part of the band with the manner of the conductor, and his mode of conveying his intentions, either from long intercourse or careful rehearsals.
Carl Czerny, another prominent pupil of Beethoven’s, provided the fullest account of tempo flexibility in the first part of the nineteenth century—and it is very likely that his precepts reflect the performance practice of his teacher. Below I have reproduced his advice for the use of the ritardando, interspersing links to a number of early recordings (mostly orchestral performances from before 1940) that, to my ear, exemplify Czerny’s discussion. I do this not only so we can more easily grasp what Czerny is getting at, but also to make the case that the practices described in early nineteenth-century treatises can be heard to have survived into the twentieth century. This should come as no surprise, considering that most of these musicians were born and educated in the nineteenth century. (I have deliberately chosen recordings that display a wide array of approaches, from the subtle to the ridiculous: there have always been stiff performances and over-the-top performances, and the nineteenth century was no exception.)
§8 The Ritardando, according to the generally established Rule, is much more frequently employed than the Accelerando, because the former is less likely to disfigure the character of the piece, than the too frequent hurrying on in the speed of movement. We may retard the time most advantageously.
a. In those passages which contain the return to the principal subject.
b. In those passages, which lead to some separate member of a melody.
c. In those long and sustained notes which are to be struck with particular emphasis, and after which quicker notes are to follow.
d. At the transition into another species of time, or into another movement, different in speed from that which preceded it.
e. Immediately after a pause.
f. At the Diminuendo of a preceding very lively passage; as also in brilliant passages, when there suddenly occurs a trait of melody to be played piano and with much delicacy.
g. In embellishments, consisting of very many quick notes, which we are unable to force into the degree of movement first chosen.
h. Occasionally also, in the chief crescendo of a strongly marked melody, leading to an important passage or to the close.
i. In very humorous, capricious, and fantastic passages, in order to heighten the character so much the more.
k. Lastly, almost always where the Composer has indicated an espressivo; as also
l. At the end of every long shake which forms a pause or Cadenza, and which is marked diminuendo.
Let’s take stock. Recall the eighteenth-century paradigm described by Türk: vigorous/fast, tranquil/slow. The place one is most likely to find tranquil music in a sonata form is the second theme. We know that performers in the nineteenth century would have slowed here. Sure enough, so did performers on early recordings, where the second theme is usually one of the slowest passages in a sonata movement.
The music just before the second theme, the transition, is normally quite vigorous—as we might expect given its harmonic purpose. This too is borne out in performance; the transition often contains some of a sonata movement’s fastest music.
Czerny tells us (in Letter A above) that one should slow before thematic restatements. The biggest of all thematic restatements is the sonata’s recapitulation, and performers almost always heed Czerny’s advice.
From these principles we can begin to construct a generic tempo plan that a typical sonata movement might follow. Although by no means typical in most other regards, Mozart’s G minor Symphony demonstrates most of the standard tempo conventions of the high classical sonata:
Click here to listen along with Strauss’s famous recording while looking at the chart. Notice how closely Strauss’s tempos match up with our familiar formal units. This is what I mean by my title, “Tempo as Form.”
How these practices changed across the twentieth century (and change they very certainly did!) is beyond my scope here. But because the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had conventional ways of varying tempo in response to specific musical situations, we can surmise that composers wrote their music with these tempo variations in mind. (In the full paper, I discuss in detail what these specific musical situations were.) If, indeed, tempo was written into the music in such a way, we would do well to consider tempo a truly form-defining feature, much like harmony and thematic design.
As always, comments are welcome. Share your thoughts below!