Stolen Time & Musical Expression

Understanding Tempo Rubato

Rubato (literally meaning “stolen time”) is often thought of as something that is added on top of a performance to create expression rather than an intrinsic part of it. In his recent presentation in our PTC Live series of online workshops, Kris Worsely explored the origins of tempo rubato and discussed how a better understanding of the musical language of composers can unlock its expressive potential.

Pre-romantic Origins

We tend to think of rubato as being largely associated with the romantic period, but elements of what we would call rubato can be traced back to as early as the 9th century! Although there were subtle differences in how it was used, it was very much a feature of music performance in both the baroque and classical periods.

In the 16th century publication, The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione talks about the idea of nonchalance in the context of dance, almost as an element of performance. If one was to approach a dance by counting the steps and doing everything at the right time, there’s no sense of humanity. This also applies to music – simply rendering the dots on the page in a calculated, mechanical fashion is not music making!

Nonchalance, dance & recitative

In the baroque period, rubato mostly appears in vocal music or music which is imitating the voice. This often takes the form of the recitative which uses the free rhythms of speech for expression and to give emphasis to particular notes. Even though written for the keyboard, CPE Bach writes “recitative” as an instruction in his Prussian Sonatas:

tempo rubato in CPE Bach

Ebb and flow

Many teachers in the 18th century taught that there had to be some flexibility with regards to tempo to allow for expression, albeit with the advice that it is not done to too high a degree. Changes in tempo for expressive purposes should be subtle and almost imperceptible.

However, the use of tempo rubato in earlier eras is slightly different from what we’d think of today. In his vocal treatise of 1723, Tosi talks about giving particular emphasis to notes and using subtly redistributed or inflected note values against a steady pulse in the accompaniment.

In 1756 Leopold Mozart published his treatise on the fundamentals of violin playing and in it, says that it’s possible as a concerto soloist to be slightly behind or ahead of the orchestral accompaniment. He also advises the conductor to ignore the soloist and allow them to be expressive with that ebb and flow.

In this video excerpt from his workshop recording, Kris shows how rubato is already written into Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor (K511) and doesn’t needed to be “added”:

If you would like to learn more about rubato and it’s use in from the baroque period through to the music of Chopin then you can purchase access to the recording of Kris’s March presentation here. In his next presentation on Sunday 14th May, Kris will be discussing composers who advocated later styles of rubato, including Hensel, Brahms and Rachmaninov. Click here for more information on this event.

PTC Live

The Piano Teachers’ Course UK is pleased to offer a new series of online workshops for piano players and teachers. Hosted in partnership with Informance Publishing, these workshops will give you new ideas, inspiration and practical tips wherever you might be on your pianistic journey!

Learning Phasing, Understanding Rubato & Performance Anxiety

Our fourth set of workshops in this series takes place on Sunday 14th May with presentations by Ilga Pitkevica on learning and teaching phrasing, Kris Worsley on understanding rubato in late romantic composers and Lucinda Mackworth-Young on strategies for dealing with performance anxiety. Click here to find out more.

Further information and links to purchase recordings for the previous events in this series are available here.