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Saturday morning quotes 5.29: Tempo and pitch I

December 5, 2015

This post is the first of two articles dealing with the interdependent relationship between historical tempo and reference pitch.

Once upon a time, early music was distinguished by two factors: 1) instruments are tuned to A=415, and 2) it must be played as fast as possible. In fact the two phenomena are somewhat related. When strings are slackened a bit they do not project quite as well to the ears of those who were first trained on modern instruments, nor do they produce ringing, sustaining tones that we like to hear bouncing about a large and live acoustic. The apparent solution is to play faster in order to cover the endless lull between notes, and also to add excitement to a performance by pushing the tempo beyond the limits of historical accuracy, musical sense and good taste.

Reviewers and publicists advance the silliness by calling such performances “dazzling” and “stylish”, and performers were called geniuses for giving old music a “breath of fresh air”. It turns out that genius was sadly mistaken for mere speed, and the fresh air was nothing more than the backdraft caused by the rush of cascading notes as they fled in panicked terror from the twiddling fingers of our performers.

Listening to recordings dating as far back as the 1980s and up to today, we hear a disturbingly consistent pattern of entirely ahistorical interpretations of tempo, particularly among solo lutenists and also among baroque violin bands.  It’s well past time to insert a fermata and examine this nonsense.

There has been discussion of performance practice and historical tempos in the usual books and journals, and all roads invariably lead to measurement of tempo as it relates to the beat of the human heart and the physical dimension of dance music.  Interpretation of dance tempo seems to be the crutch upon which our speed demons lean.  But the depth of research is lame and it is painfully obvious that armchair theorists have no actual experience in playing for actual dances.

Having the distinction of initiating the first folk-revival dances to live music in the now burgeoning Portland, Oregon dance scene, I (RA) know whereof I speak.  There are physical aspects of dancing that determine logical dance tempos such as momentum and physical endurance.  And smell.  You just try to play fast for a large room of out-of-shape people and what you get is the awful stench of sweat that is the aroma of the gymnasium.  This is not necessarily what people want when they come to a dance hoping to go home with a dancer.  And we can be absolutely certain that this was the case in earlier times when costumes were heavy and ornate, and bathing was rare.

One of the most frequently referenced examples for establishing dance tempos is the Galliard, always considered a vigorous triple-time dance.  Using one or two historical descriptions, our speedy instrumentalists like to play them as fast as humanly possible.  But if we dig a little deeper we find that there was always a flexible approach to tempo.

“The galliard is so called because one must be gay and nimble to dance it, as, even when performed reasonably slowly, the movements are light-hearted.  And it needs must be slower for a man of large stature than for a small man, inasmuch as the tall one takes longer to execute his steps and in moving his feet forwards and backwards than the shorter one.”

“There are some persons so nimble in the air that they have invented numerous leaps, sometimes doubling or tripling them as a substitute for the five or eleven steps [of the galliard], and upon completing these leaps they have finished so neatly on the cadence as to gain the reputation of being very fine dancers.  But it has often come to pass that when performing these feats of agility they have fallen down, when laughter and jeers have ensued.”

– Thoinot Arbeau, Orchésographie [1589], English translation by Mary Stewart Evans, with Introduction and Notes by Julia Sutton, Dover Publications, New York, 1967, pg. 78, 119.

We have heard far too many renditions of galliards played at such ridiculously rapid tempos that the the elegance of the musical phrasing is completely forsaken, the net result being that the performer trips and falls over himself.  It’s nice to know that playing that fast is possible but some of us are really are more interested in music rather than in a freak show.

The meaning of historical tempos and their measurement is an inexact science from our modern point of view.  As early as the late 16th century, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) conducted experiments with a pendulum, demonstrating its dependability as a tool of measuring time.  Marin Mersenne also discussed the pendulum as a means of keeping time in the first book of his Harmonie Universelle (1636), and Thomas Mace offered detailed instructions on its use in Musick’s Monument (1676).  Much later, William Crotch established a table of time markings that converted readings taken from a pendulum to the more up-to-date metronome.  But despite the noble effort of standardizing tempo markings, Crotch had to admit that many of the dance-related tempo indications were no longer related to dance.

“I am perfectly aware, however, that this order may be disputed.  By some, adagio, lento, andante,  alia breve, and vivace are regarded rather as terms of expression and taste, than of time.”

– Dr. William Crotch, “Remarks on the Terms at Present Used in Music, for Regulating the Time”, Monthly Magazine, London, January, 1800.

The pulse of the human heart was always the reference point for establishing tempo and even today typical listeners prefer music that synchronizes with a regular heartbeat.  But like so many other aspects of modern scholarship, this fact must be discovered through modern scientific analysis that turns a blind eye to the historical accounts verifying the thesis.

We live in an age where even the most mundane and accepted truths are typically given a show-biz treatment and transmitted through glitzy news releases and slick promotional materials.  Add to the left side of the equation the perceived need for performers to gain attention for their expertise in a little-understood aspect of early music—such as tempo—and the result is a disturbing anachronism.  This approach taken in the world of early music robs the listener of the dignified, intellectual, reverential dimension one associates with the better sort of historical music, further cheapening the experience by treating informed listeners as though they were yet another class of naive consumers and the subjects of targeted marketing.  A word to the wise: People are catching on and they are not buying it.

One Comment
  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    Looks like you have opened a can of worms. All in all, your observations seem to incline toward what most musicians were doing in those very old days.

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