Do What I Say, Not What I Do! (Or maybe not....)

May 13, 2010

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.

Comments (19)

Judith Ogden
May 14, 2010

Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this insight - brilliantly put. Couldn't agree more that the inherent simplicity of Barber's Adagio is all-too-easily obscured by errant tempi

Ronan Guilfoyle
May 14, 2010

Very interesting John - I'm not a conductor myself, but as a composer I generally like the music to stick to the tempo I had in mind originally.

But sometimes I've had the experience where a different tempo has suggested itself through circumstances. A couple of times I've had a situation where a performer was 'working up' to the tempo I had in mind, just playing it for me, but at a slightly slower tempo because he/she hadn't got it to the tempo I wanted yet. And a couple of times I heard a more spacious aspect to the music at the slower tempo that I felt was worth preserving and told the performer to keep it at that tempo. These are not huge divergences - maybe 10bpm at most (though probably bigger than your allowable limit!), and sometimes I've had a situation where the piece can be played at two slightly different tempos and

I've enjoyed both of them for different reasons. Other times of course a divergence in the tempo can just awful............

Great blog

Eric L Broomfield
May 14, 2010

Great coment. I do remember Schostakovich being asked about his metronome marks to which he said, "oh just ignore that my metronome is broken." He also stated that composers play their own music too fast. I am waiting for Norrinton et al to have hip concerts of Adams. I wonder how they will obtain the correct instruments.

May 14, 2010

I find that I usually prefer the tempo of a piece as it was on the recording from which I first listened to the piece, which suggests to me that it’s not as much about the inherent nature of the piece as the composer thinks. Of course there are surely reasonable limits to this. I can understand the composer’s (or playwright’s, etc) impulse to want to control the variables of performance, but I think it’s usually a mistake to take such a proprietary attitude. Once it’s on the page, I say let it go! It’s not yours in some sense. It also shows confidence in the piece. Philip Glass seems to have a pretty hands-off approach to his compositions, which I’ve always respected. On the other hand, Boulez seems to place the composer’s authority above all else, with sometimes absurd results, to my mind. For example, he has said he would never perform the Mahler 10th as completed by Cooke or anyone else—it’s not what Mahler composed. But for most anyone who has heard a completed version of the Mahler 10th, that surely is patently ridiculous. It’s gorgeous music whether the composer sanctioned it or not, and that’s all that matters.

May 15, 2010

When it comes to the Adagios of Beethoven's late quartets, the music can always be longer, and so the tempo always slower...

May 15, 2010

We all know that music notation is an imperfect and imprecise system. Each composer can only strive to represent something unrepresentable, and each performer can only strive to learn something unlearnable, on the printed page.

I once heard a clinic by Nexus in which Bill (or was it Robin?) talked about performing Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood, and about how the piece worked at different tempi in different venues, based on the reverb in the room. The first woodblock entrance would take about a measure to settle in, and the members were always happy with the sound of the piece in each room despite the difference from night to night.

How many J.S. Bach works even have a tempo marking?

May 15, 2010

We have all heard Nimrod done a number of ways, and I am certain that we can all reasonably be at odds as to which parts should flow which way. I remember a conductor at an honor ensemble I was lucky enough to have placed into claiming something much more, that indeed different phrases or even individual measures deserved their own distinct treatment as tempo is concerned. It was the first time my eyes were glued to the conductor's whims of expression more than the suggestions of the score. Learning her idiosyncrasies as a conductor, in that place and time and of that specific piece, expanded my understanding of reading beyond the chart in those precious few rehearsals as much as years of jazz instruction did. While I, in bittersweet compromise, left my days of performance years ago, I must say there was something I recognized in your treatment of Nimrod with the NSO when I had the pleasure of being there on May 14th.

Copland was a fantastic choice as an introduction to The Wound-Dresser, of course and set the mood perfectly. That I had the opportunity to hear you lead that piece in person, as a lover of Whitman, will remain a well relaid highlight of the evening.

But it was your treatment of Nimrod that really took me someplace special. A third of the way through, my eyes were sealed shut and I sat up in my seat. Simply put, I was no longer where I thought I was.

Though I have left performance in past years, and as such willfully admit that my commentary is suspect, your performance brought a visceral reminder to me of the necessity of discretion. Simply put, that stuff on the page isn't music. It is at best blueprint, more realistically mere guideline. The creators of ideas, because of the tragedy of the fact that the ideas are their own, can only take them so far.

May 16, 2010

"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."

I grew up with Reinbert de Leeuw's Satie interpretations. These are slow, very slow, possibly not as the composer meant them to be? But everytime I hear them played faster I cannot stand the tempo.

May 16, 2010

I agree with Dan's comment about how one's first exposure to a piece can lock a feeling of the "right" tempo into place. In my case there has to be some strong impression made by the music - it has to "click". It's as though a different part of my brain associates the tempo with those strong emotional feelings.

I became hooked on Nielsen's 2nd and 3rd symphonies from Herbert Blomstedt's recordings with the SFSO in the 1980s. About ten years later, i heard Salonen program the 3rd in Los Angeles. He introduced a brief pause at one point in the first movement - my favorite point in the whole symphony - and hearing that pause ruined it for me. I have no idea whether the pause is marked in the score or not, but I don't care. Blomstedt didn't do the pause, and so for me, no pause sounds "right".

I was lucky enough to sing in Mahler's 8th with Klaus Tennstedt in London when I was a grad student. Although he was pretty consistent with the general tempo from performance to performance, he was almost completely unpredictable with rallentandos and accelerandos - we had to watch him like a hawk. I think the dramatic tension this created was what made Tennstedt so appealing to his admirers and so appalling to his critics......

May 16, 2010

This is bringing to my mind a controversial performance a few years ago under Leonard Slatkin's direction (still dearly missed) in which a visiting soloist decided with the conductor to perform Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto at roughly half its "acceptable" tempo. No matter what you think of Slatkin's from-the-podium pedagogical style (and I won't care anyway, in defense of this sadly slighted maestro whom we lost to...Detroit!), he introduced the performance with the NSO with full disclosure that the approach was deliberately experimental and probably controversial. He honestly framed the experience as an opportunity to digest and assess the work (which is already over-the-top) in a fresh and distinctive light.

This seems to me a wholly different matter than the problematic tinkerings with tempi that are so eloquently impeached in John Adams' opinion piece here. In other words, I'm OK with experimental tempi as long as we all have the chance to "get on the same page."

May 18, 2010

I agree that most music does usually suggest its correct tempo, though it's finding the agreement between phrase, section, movement, and piece that is the difficult bit.

D. Jackson
May 18, 2010

If you think Lenny's version of Barber's Adagio is long, wait until you hear his Enigma Variations with the BBC Symphony (who apparently didn't take very well to him, although their performance is splendid.)
However, although I wouldn't want to hear it often, and would never use it to introduce the Engima Variations to someone, I actually think the recording is quite beautiful in its way, and (as Paul suggests above in his Slatkin reference) can provide insights into the work that might be missed in a more "regular tempo" version. So I'm glad he took this approach to the piece (I feel the same way about L.B's 1986 N.Y. Phil recording of Tchaikovsky's Sixth). On the other hand, we can perhaps be grateful he's not still around to deliver the same treatment to, say, "The Chairman Dances" ("Long Ride in a Slow Machine," anyone?).
In general, I tend to agree that dragging something out doesn't necessarily make it any more expressive, and indeed it is the way the music is treated along and in between the beats that delivers the emotional variety (I have several recordings of E.V. played at a similar pace, but they're still all different in the feelings they elicit.)

I'm sorry I missed Mr. Adams conducting E.V. the other night -- but I was fortunate enough to be there yesterday for Shaker Loops and Chamber Symphony -- a rare and delightful treat.

May 19, 2010

I think most listeners form "how it's supposed to sound" expectations from initial exposure (sometimes not liking a piece based on an unfortunate performance/recording--for me it took years to overcome bad introductions to the Sibelius violin concerto and the third movement of the Barber violin concerto).

I don't recall any late Bernstein that seems too fast. Almost all strike me as lugubriously slow, and arbitrary rather than based on any fresh perspective.

Luke P.
May 20, 2010

hey, don't forget about the tiesto version of "adagio for strings"

I wonder why house DJ's love Barber...

John Dinwiddie
August 17, 2010

A few years ago I found a score of Shostakovich's 2nd Piano Sonata in a
remainder rack, took it home, soon fell in love with the piece. But its "allegretto"
vs. its metronome markings was a problem, one of many tempo issues in trying to play this difficult work where introspection seems to be at loggerheads with lock step pedal to the metal social realism.. I was thinking of it as I opened this article, and then I saw Eric Broomfield's reassuring post. It would be more reassuring were a recording by Shostakovich which takes the first movement at warp speed didn't exist.
The late pianist Julian White said something pragmatic about tempi. If you are bored, it is too slow, but if you are missing information, it is too fast.

John Dinwiddie
August 17, 2010

were...didn't yes, I know...geezers
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