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Saturday morning quotes 4.9: Tempo

July 12, 2014

What if the Trois Gymnopedies of Erik Satie were lost for hundreds of years and rediscovered in a dusty old archive, but lacking the all-important tempo indications of Lent et douloureux, Lent et triste, and Lent et grave? What if virtuoso keyboardists with highly developed technical skills that demonically overpower any sense of taste and context decided that the pieces should be played with a sense of frantic destination rather than calm effect?

Robert Donington (1907 – 1990) dampened his feet as a neophyte paddling in the wake of the grandfather of the early music revival, the infamous Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 – 1940).  But he charted his own course in quest of objective information that might lead to intelligent interpretive details, and we owe a great deal to his own extensive research of historical source materials, first made available in his book The Interpretation of Early Music, Faber and Faber (London, 1963).

Donnington condensed his presentation of helpful quotes from original source material in a very important book, Baroque Music: Style and Performance, a Handbook, W. W. Norton & Co. (New York, 1982).  His chapters on Shaping the Tempo and Shaping the Line contain clear directions quoted from the writing of the old ones; directions that seem to have been forgotten by many of today’s performers.  Leaping from Donnington’s quotes from Quantz and C.P.E. Bach, we turn to his excellent summation of the information.

The most valuable working rule for baroque tempos is not take the fast movements too fast or the slow movements too slow…In allegro, steadying the tempo literally leaves time for those subtle nuances of phrasing and placing which make so much more of the music, and which sometimes may actually sound more brilliant to the audience than that tempting turn of speed which aims directly at an effect of brilliance.

In adagio, it is extraordinary how all sorts of problems over phrasing, articulation and dynamic inflection fall into place of their own accord so soon as it is decided to move the tempo on a little. It is so necessary in a baroque slow movement to feel you are going somewhere, generally with a certain sense of tension though not of haste; and in a fast movement to retain just that sense of dignity and spaciousness which Couperin…perhaps meant by being ‘more pleased with what moves me than with what astonishes me.’

Today, we still have baroque bands who choose tempi that evoke desperation rather than suggest tension.  A composer may have had in mind a sense of gentle disquiet or pensiveness, but instead we are given a frantic chase to the death pursued by demonic double reeds; hoboys honked horribly by the hounds of hell.

Racing tempi by some performers is an indulgence that affects the very small world of the lute, even the simplest historical music for which is nearly always a thing of dignity and refinement.  A performer will attack a certain technically challenging piece as though it was a contest between composer and performer, dots and digits, triumphantly leaping to his feet after the last chord in what amounts to victory dance.  Someone is missing the point, astonishing with hollow dramatic gesture instead of moving the audience with refined content.

Donnington summarizes his excellent essay with the following observation:

Tempo is indeed the most crucial of all problems of interpretation, in baroque as in most other music, and the surest test of good musicianship.

  1. David Lamb permalink

    Good observations about tempo here. It is certainly the best test of musicianship, and this applies to new as well as ancient music. I agree with Couperin in that I would rather be moved than astonished. I have had the occasional displeasure of hearing one of my fast movements played too fast and ruined. And I have heard Glenn Gould kill Bach and Mozart with warp-speed allegros and funereal adagios. That said, it is very hard for a composer to set the ideal tempo for a piece, and a metronome is not much help. The best tempo is something that is intrinsic in the nature of the piece itself, and it is up to performers to discover it.

    • Thanks for your well-put words of wisdom, David. Living with a piece of music and discovering its twists and turns is something many capable performers dismiss in favor of reading through the next piece in the book. I think committing a piece to memory is the first step, and of course playing functional dance music helps develop that ethic. Endless repetition inspires a searching mind.


  2. Dan Winheld permalink

    What if virtuoso keyboardists with highly developed technical skills that demonically overpower any sense of taste and context decided that the pieces should be played with a sense of frantic destination rather than calm effect?

    Art Tatum on cocaine & vodka at 3 AM. Tape recorder running out.

    • Thanks, Dan. Tape recorder running out indeed. As you must know, the reason for fast tempi as heard on many recordings of the more famous baroque bands is because they wanted to cram the piece onto one LP or CD.


  3. lemon kun permalink

    I think we shouldn’t forget how long ago Donnington wrote this text; how much more musicological research has advanced, how many more sources about historical tempi have been found in the meantime. Frankly, from today’s perspective, the text reads very “1960ies-style”, and it breaths the aesthetics of that time.

    Your example with Satie you could equally do with “An der schönen blauen Donau” from Strauß – what if there wouldn’t be a continuous tradition of dancing Viennese waltz, and some musicologist/amateur-interprets would try to play a waltz with their recently rediscovered instruments (let’s say a long forgotten instrument like the violin) – of course without ever trying to dance the actual dance… Probably, with their little practice they wouldn’t be able to reach the tempi of the 19th century violinists and slow the whole thing down. They would get used to the slow tempo (probably they’d say: “the Donau flows slowly, flooows slooowly”) and start to embellish the whole thing with their recently found and sooo-very-interesting articulations and nuances they found in an book, taken out of context. Well then, here you see what happened with the menuet for example…

    Since Donnington’s days, a lot of research has been done, and thanks to people like Donnington we aren’t as clueless about the tempi of “the old ones” as some like to believe. So the better approach for a piece would be to find the right tempo of the piece (with help of the sources) and then: practice. When you are able play the piece in tempo, THEN start with your “interpretation” – most of the articulation you will then find very easily, because it develops naturally out of the music. You won’t fall into the traps that are the typical mannerisms one can find in most of the older HIP-recordings – because there is simply not enough time for that at a more “historical” tempo.

    Unquestionably, this requires a lot of work: 1. learning about the style; 2. the technical part.

    1. learning about style isn’t so difficult, because lots of sources are available, today even collected in books – we just have to accept that our pre-conceived ideas could be wrong; for some, this is hard to accept, especially if they really identify with the lute as kind of an esoteric meditation instrument (what it can be, but not always has to be). However, once one is open enough to follow this path, the re-discovering is rather exciting and rewarding.

    In case of the menuet (my example from above), we would have to know how quickly it was commonly danced considering epoch, region, time-signature, smallest note-value etc. We have sources from the 1700′ on, to quote some (turned into MM-marks):

    L’Affilard (F, 1705):
    3/4, dotted half note = 71
    6/8, dotted quarter note = 75
    Feuillet (F, ca. 1705-10): dotted half note = 75
    d’Ozembray (F, 1732): dotted half note = 71
    La Chapelle (F, 1737): dotted half note = 64
    Marquet (F, 1747): dotted half note = 60
    Choquel (F, 1759): dotted half note = 77
    Engramelle (F, 1775): dotted half note = 48, 54, 72, 74
    Quantz (Berlin, 1752): dotted half note ca. 53

    Rather quick tempi!

    But of course these numbers don’t make much sense if we don’t learn about the development of the menuet-form over time and how it was danced. We need to set these numbers, and the lute-pieces we play into a context. Exceptions (like D’Angleberts “lentement”-menuet, quoted by Saint-Lambert) can only be understood on the basis of a menuet tradition – very similar to the tradition of the Viennese waltz. However, what we shouldn’t do, is to ignore the sources, because it doesn’t fit our picture of our instrument, the music and our technical abilities. If we ignore, we will not find the composer’s, but just our own pre-conceived ideas. How boring that would be.

    Considering sources etc., I think we lutenists – generally – play the music of the baroque epoch to slowly. We got used to the slow tempi, even they often don’t fit the music, something violinists, singers and harpsichordists very often complain when hearing a lute recital. To quote Czerny (my translation): “when a Pianist [or a lute player!] has studied, familiarised himself and embosomed the piece with a self-selected tempo, it will be very hard for him to befriend himself with another tempo and interpretation, even if the latter is the better.”

    2. The technical part requires much more work and takes longer – it is as rewarding as the theoretical learning, if not even more rewarding (when you feel your progress), but it requires patience and frankly, some things are just not achievable given that most of us haven’t started to play the lute at a very young age.

    It is true that many musicians, especially in Germany to the mid of the 17th century, played multiple instruments and therefore were not a virtuoso at any instrument – but the virtuosi from Italy were trained from a very young age on and usually specialised on one instrument (and those held the positions at the German courts…). In many sources one can read that they reached the limits of the possible (some sources even give how many notes a second they could play maximum).

    When we read in the sources about practicing, it becomes quite clear that “the old ones” practiced a lot. Quantz recommends four hours a day for beginners (two in the morning, two in the afternoon). Türk recommends 2-3 hours a day for an amateur, but for a professional this isn’t enough at all, in his opinion. Milchmeyer recommends 6 hours a day. There are others who tell about longer practice-times (Marcello something about 10 hours a day) but I can’t quote them. Anyway: practicing-time is usually the point where HIP-people lose the interest in being “historically correct” 😉

    Regarding the lute, isn’t it interesting that many claim that Weiss is so much easier to play than Dowland? Isn’t it possible, that they just play the pieces all too slow? Couldn’t it be that Weiss was a virtuoso in the technical field too, as well as in composing and improvising?

    You are right, there are some who see music as kind of a race, a competition and this isn’t a good thing. They use the music of others as sort of a vehicle for their show-off. However, those others who use the music as a vehicle to show-off their esoteric-subtle-nuances and knowledge of a thousand different articulations are just doing the same: show-off. It’s not so much a question of fast or slow but of if we are interested in the composers or just have interest in ourselves.

    In any case, before criticising somebody or an ensemble for playing too fast, or even allege vanity to that somebody, we should ask if there may be research-based reasons for his/her/the ensemble’s tempo choice. Maybe we can learn something of it, find a new perspective – perhaps we were all wrong ourselves…

    To come back (and close, finally!) to your quote from Donnington: as for the working rule not to take the fast movements too fast and the slow movements too slow – here a quote by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach “…dieser Fehler …, daß man die Adagios zu hurtig und die Allegros zu langsam spielet.” (“the error, that one plays the adagios too fast and the allegros too slow.”)

  4. Thanks for your essay. We usually don’t allow anonymous comments but you obviously put a great deal of thought into your response. In future, perhaps you will own up to your point of view.

    That said, I completely disagree with your dismissal of Donington’s work as outdated and representative of an underdeveloped sense of interpretive approach from the 1960s. While some later research that has built upon Donington’s presentation of bits from primary sources may have helped clarify and contextualize the information, his work stands as guidelines transmitted directly from the work of those who wrote and performed the music when it was new. I have come to believe that most of the best research has already been done and published, and publication of current research has more to do with newbies developing his or her academic career rather than advancing insights and ideas inspired by intellectual curiosity and a real desire to get to the heart of the matter. Cynical outlook perhaps, but confirmed by observation.

    As pointed out before on this blog, the character of “successful” baroque or early music has much more to do with today’s commercial trends than with a desire to partake of an earlier sense of musical aesthetics. Directors of baroque bands choose their tempo based on what will excite an audience, not what will calm them and inspire them to deeper thought. It would take a great deal to convince me that a faster tempo in allegro movements was the norm. What possible reason would an 18th century person have to even fathom the pace of life today? You produce an original 18th century recording of frantic allegros (not via misunderstood metronome markings), and I will concede that you are correct.


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