Saturday morning quotes 4.9: Tempo
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 with 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.