Do composers really care about whether their tempo markings should be followed? I guess it depends….
I am thinking this a lot this week, as I’m doing two very familiar pieces with the National Symphony in Washington that are both frequent victims of tempo abuse. One is the Elgar “Enigma Variations” about which I’ve already written a little. The centerpiece of the Elgar is the inimitable “Nimrod” variation, a slow, stately hymnlike anthem in 3/4 that has been dragooned into any number of ceremonial uses and abuses in its hundred-plus years of life.
The other is the almost too familiar “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. Like “Nimrod,” the Barber has been victim of more than just tempo abuse—you can find it on albums with titles like “Bedtime Classics,” “The Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe,” and in “Hollywood Goes to War,” where it’s only identified as “Platoon.” Film directors love the Adagio for Strings because, when mixed with violent imagery, it shows how incredibly sensitive they are about the human predicament.
And it’s not just Hollywood directors, but also big time conductors who can’t resist “selling” the piece. They do so by pushing and pulling its carefully balanced emotional architecture and ignoring it for what it really is, a work of great simplicity and quiet dignity. The fact that the piece was originally the slow movement to a string quartet is all too often forgotten.
Barber doesn’t give a metronome marking for the piece—he says only “molto adagio,” which could be just about anything from slow to virtually motionless. But ah-hah! Up on the left hand corner of the score is a tiny little box that says “Playing time: 7-8 minutes.” Bela Bartòk gave durations in minutes and seconds for his movements also, although he was much more precise in his timings. Giving a performer the liberty to do two different performances as much as 12.5% in tempo is very very, well, permissive. If I hear a conductor doing something of mine at quarter=100 when I’ve asked for quarter=88 (a seemingly miniscule difference) I utterly freak out and can barely sit still.
iTunes has several dozen Barber Adagio recordings, and you can go nuts, if you like, listening to the same piece played much too fast (Ormandy) or absurdly, murderously drawn out (Bernstein). You can even treat yourself, for purposes of true edification, to techno version by an all girl band named BOND. That one clocks in at a breakneck 4:23, but we’ll forgive them because someone unplugged their drum machine during the studio session.
Elgar’s own recording of the “Enigma Variations," done in the 1920’s when electric sound recording was a very new thing, is much at odds with the tempo markings in his score. He virtually flies through some of the faster numbers, in some cases leaving his struggling players in the dust. It’s possible that he had no choice—he may well have had to squeeze some movements into short time spans to accommodate the demands of the nascent recording technology. Nonetheless, I get the feeling that he knew the piece so well by the time he recorded it he may have been even a bit bored with it. Rachmaninoff’s own recordings of his piano concertos can often seem strangely abrupt—as if he had a train to catch right after the session.
Or maybe these were genuinely modest composers who were embarrassed by the emotionalism of their own music and in performing it actually downplayed its expressive potential.
The justifiably famous and intensely moving “Nimrod” variation is marked at quarter=52. No one does it that fast. (Well, OK, I haven’t had the Norrington Xperience on this yet, but it seems almost impossible not to take it at least a little slower, if only to savor the perfect way in which the music builds to its climax.) Elgar himself does it slower.
There is a small cottage industry of Stravinksy scholars out there who have parsed the variables between Stravinsky’s recordings and his score markings. Later Stravinksy recordings become even more an area for speculation because not only was he very old and physically frail while making them, but there was always a question about the influence of Robert Craft, who seems to have done his best to respect the master’s intentions, even when they contradicted the printed score.
In some cases, great composers were not very good conductors. Stravinsky, at least when younger, seems to have been good enough to get the tempo he wanted, as was Copland and most certainly Britten, who was a very skilled conductor. Should conductors consult a recording if the composer conducts that recording? Yes, absolutely.
But if what the composer-conductor does is at odds with the printed tempo marking, which version do you follow? Ultimately, one has to respect the metronome marking in the score, and then use the recording as a proposal to experience the music differently.
The bottom line comes down to taste and discretion. Most music, once you start playing, usually suggests its right tempo. I can’t explain why this is, but something having to do with weights and balances and the mimesis of human gestures and even human speech inevitably arises, providing a very strong clue to the composer’s intentions. I have on rare occasions had a great performer, or perhaps even not a performer but rather a very deep listener, suggest to me a different tempo that over time I ultimately grew to prefer. But that is rare. My feelings about tempi in my pieces change very little over the years, and I suspect that’s pretty much the case with most composers.
When Leonard Bernstein, a great but in his later years an aggravatingly willful conductor, does the Barber Adagio and drags it out to just shy of ten minutes he’s trying to make it into something it emphatically is not. That is indeed abuse, a disfiguring of the composer’s intent that is no better than Bond’s four-minute techno version. Unfortunately extreme tempi, either VERY slow or VERY fast, are often how conductors (and pianists and other performers) think they can say something special about the music. But more often than not they are only saying something uncomfortably revealing about themselves.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
All rights reserved