How Slow is Slow? – Practising the Piano

How much notice should we take of a composer’s metronome markings, and how do we decide the tempo of a work that contains neither a metronome mark nor a tempo or character description? Is it carte blanche? The Dolmetsch site has plenty of very helpful information on the various indications we find throughout musical history, particularly useful when we are dealing with baroque dances or dance-like pieces that would fall into a specific category. Did you realise that in 1703 France the menuet was a very merry dance, whereas in 1750 France it became noble and elegant, moderate rather than fast? Neither did I until I looked it up.

But what about Bartók’s ultra-precise metronome markings and timings at the end of a work? Surely these are too fastidious and deliberate to ignore? Bartók’s student György Sándor explains all this in an interview with Bruce Duffie:

GS: “Why did he [Bartók] write so precisely the metronome signs; why did he write so precisely the duration of the piece?”  That’s simply because in those days when he wrote his music, nobody knew a thing about his style; they didn’t know what to do with it at all!  So he had to write a lot of information.  But when he played those pieces which he marked so very carefully he played them completely differently!

BD:  So he assumed that any performer who got under the skin of the music would then make it his own and take it beyond the printed page?

GS:  Just like any other music!  Just like with any other music!  Very often he wrote down exact metronome markings, and he played those totally differently.  A very good example is the First Piano Concerto.  I happened to study with him the First and Second Concerto.  The metronome markings in the third movement of the First Concerto are excessively fast, but all our colleagues — the honest, good musicians — all read the markings and say, “That’s what Bartók meant; let’s play that way.”  I heard Bartók play it very differently.  If you follow exactly the metronome marks in that particular one and in some of the other pieces, too, the character totally changes!  In the last movement of the Opus 14, which is a slow movement, the metronome marking is incredibly fast!

BD:  Then why did he make this outlandish marking?

GS:  That question comes up all the time.  He had a little pocket metronome.  Not the one that you use or I use, but one with a little string and a weight hanging on it.  It wasn’t accurate at all!  So his metronome markings should be considered as relative markings.  When 64 is followed by 80, then you know that this section is faster.  But certainly do not take the absolute measurements with the markings.

BD:  Then why don’t the publishers go back through the scores and either eliminate the metronome markings or change them from precise measurements to “slower,” “faster,” and so forth?

GS:  Good question.  Right now we are involved in re-editing Bartók’s music.  I’m in touch with Peter Bartók.  He sends me lot of things including the Third Piano Concerto, and whenever I come up with any idea of interpreting it, the answer by the publisher and by everybody is, “Bartók wrote this down; it must be exactly the way he wrote it down.”  Who am I to argue?  I recorded the concertos again in Hungary, last year.  They are coming out in April, and we spent hours with the correct tempo markings.  The real answer is, “Because he wasn’t fussy.  He wasn’t dogmatic or pedantic.”  He wrote an approximate something, and he knew very well that when it gets played in Orchestra Hall or Fischer Hall, the acoustics are different and the tempo will be different.  Check his recordings of the Mikrokosmos.  He recorded, I think, 45 of them and the exact metronome markings are there in the music.  Just listen to him and how he plays!

Check out Bartók’s own recording of his Romanian Folk Dance No. 6. By my reckoning, his performance clocks in at 47″, as against the 36″ he stipulates in the score. In such a short piece, that’s actually quite a bit slower.

There is of course a lot of flexibility with tempo even in the presence of a composer’s metronome mark. In the slow movement of Schubert’s B flat Sonata, D960, marked Andante sostenuto (no metronome mark, of course), I did a quick survey of a few great pianists’ approaches. Two in particular stand out for their contrasting styles (and therefore tempos) – Schnabel and Horowitz.

To spin out the long line and to make the most of the texture changes, Artur Schnabel requires 11:24.

Vladimir Horowitz plays the movement with a good deal more forward movement in general, allowing him opportunities to take time in those special places. His performance lasts 8:02.

There is slow and there is slow. Something extremely unusual happened during the New York Philharmonic’s concert of April 6, 1962. After the intermission, the audience was expecting to hear the First Piano Concerto of Johannes Brahms featuring Glenn Gould as soloist. Conductor Leonard Bernstein stepped onto the podium and said a few words to prepare the audience for what would come next, a performance so slow and so at odds with his own that he felt he needed to offer a disclaimer. This performance (together with the disclaimer) has gone down in history as one of the most remarkable – and controversial – collaborations between conductor and soloist. What is your reaction to Gould’s ideas?

Don’t you just love some of the whacky ideas creative artists come up with? John Cage wrote a piece entitled Organ²/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible) in 1987 for organ (adapted from the earlier work ASLSP 1985, in which he chose to omit the detail of how slowly the piece should be played). A 1997 conference of musicians and philosophers decided that Cage’s instruction to play the piece “as slow as possible” could work well on an organ, and a project emerged to perform the piece for 639 years.

Since a properly maintained pipe organ has no specific lifespan, the duration was chosen to commemorate the first documented permanent organ installation, in 1361 in the Halberstadt Cathedral, 639 years before the proposed start date of 2000. Darn, I missed the last note change on October 5, 2013 and will have to wait until September 5, 2020 for the next note change. Not too long now!

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