Extract from the concert on 10th February 2019
Extract from the concert on 10th February 2019
The classical music repertory has a few wonderful works that are famous enough on their own for the name instantly to conjure up the sound.
Mention “the 5th” (Beethoven) and we hear fate knocking on the door, – the “40th” (Mozart), “dada dum, dada dum, dada dumdum” the ubiquitous call waiting jingle.
The composition that immediately preceded the Mozart symphony, the 39th, is one of those pieces that can intrigue anyone who is interested in questions of tempo because, like the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, (see Moscheles Moonlight Mistake) the introduction is almost always beaten in four and almost never in two as the composer requests (beaten in 4 means that it is half as fast – or twice as slow).
You may ask what difference does tempo make to a piece of music. The answer is quite simple : the tempo controls how we feel the piece of music in the same way as the proportions of a room control how we find our place in it.
It is the parameter of length (time) versus height (density) which determines how we relate to it. Imagine Notre Dame de Paris being the same height but twice as long (or twice as wide). Or Michelangelo’s David twice as fat.
It isn’t the same building, nor the same sculpture at all.
The joke sculpture “David returns to Italy after a stay in America” is of course not a perfect parallel but all the same it does illustrate how proportions matter.
And the same goes for music.
This is particularly true in opera where singing something at the correct speed (the performer’s responsibity to respect the composer’s wish, if we read his instructions correctly) will communicate the spirit in which the chorus, aria or recitative was conceived that has a direct influence on the dramatic effect and on the way we think about the story.
In purely instrumental music, this is not as crucial but nevertheless has an impact on the meaning of the work which gives us a sense of purpose or, as often, the feeling that the composer is talking at us rather than to us.
To illustrate the point, I would invite you to listen to the following extract from a concert given by “L’Orchestre” I conducted on 18th December 1984 in the Church of St Germain L’Auxerrois in Paris. You can check how most people think it should go by looking the work up on youtube.
You will find the tempo faster than usual. This is a literal reading of the tempo indication from the urtext Neue Mozart Ausgabe Edition which shows “alla breve” indicating the composer’s instructions to play it by beating 2 in a bar (and not in 4 as marked in earlier editions).
Interestingly, the following allegro is perceived as slower and not faster than the introduction. The logic for playing it in three and not a slow 1 in a bar is that, following the same logic, if allegro is the movement, a tempo beaten in 1 makes the 16ths (semiquavers) unplayable at bar 72.
With the result that if the opening is faster to the point of exhilaration, the allegro at 3/4 is slower than we are used to and conveys a sort of lilting and pastoral atmosphere which introduces us into a different scenery altogether.
Allegro in 3/4
When the full orchestra joins the fray with the second theme (you’ll notice we hasten the pace there, as was common at the time), we are almost in Beethoven’s Eroica (key, tempo and almost the same notes) and the mood has changed completely.
In the following movement, to be played with two beats in a bar (2/4), we observe very short value notes to be played quickly. The movement is on no account slow. Mozart confirms the “andante” by adding “con moto“.
The accelerando at the end is not written (any more than the traditional rallentando).
There follows the (allegretto) Menuet and Trio (Ländler in the Viennese style) in 3/4 (beaten in 1). The question is whether to beat the music in 3 : it might be possible. If one did, one wouldn’t need to change gear for the trio.
Finale / Allegro in 2/4
The attentive listener to the recording will hear the musicians battling with tradition. The tension is almost palpable as the orchestra fields a score which doesn’t always resemble the music they know. The result is unquestionably unfinished and the listener can be forgiven for thinking we might have been kinder to the composer.
But it is an inevitable fruit of colliding opinions and a necessary stage in the process of re-evaluation of past methods. I am sure that the next time the same principles are applied by the same musicians, it will be more polished, more tender and more poetic, as Mozart deserves.
I would like to thank Professors David H Bailey, David Daniels, Steven Larsen and Michael Wittenburg for their interest in this question and engagement in a discussion about tempo (on another piece altogether – and we seriously didn’t concur) but which brought me back to this performance which still retains some of that energy so necessary to Mozart.
We were discussing about what “slow” meant when applied to “movement”. One should remember that in days when communication was slow, composers had to be really practical and were concerned with efficiency.
If you like, that means that the instructions for how fast the piece should be played should be read at face value, especially concerning the metre : 2, 3 and 4 and nothing else except the compound 6 and 9 and 12 (beaten in 2, 3 and 4 respectively and never subdivided, at least not for music written before about 1840). If the result is unexpected, perhaps we should say “well maybe that’s what they wanted”.
And that lastly, but probably most importantly of all, the morphing of the slow movement into slow music seems to have become for many of us an aesthetic altar on which to bare our souls. And in a weird sort of way, has made the music untouchable.
Maybe if we started fighting about the way music should be played, our concert halls would start filling up again. Perhaps we have to get back into the danger zone to survive.
I think that Mozart would have appreciated that. He loved life in the fast lane and would have been appalled to see how dead we have become in our attitudes to art.
His greatest pleasure was to hear people whistling his tunes in the street.
Have you ever wondered why the Moonlight Sonata was so famous ? And so slow ? And so long ? And so boring ?
These are, of course, loaded questions and not fact. But it is true to say that the work has for a long time been the object of fun, like in this exchange between Victor Borge and the Muppet.
So was it meant to be so slow ? And why have so many critics objected to the subjective, Romantic nature of the title “Moonlight”, which has at times been called “a misleading approach to a movement with almost the character of a funeral march” and “absurd”.
There is clearly a problem with this ultra-famous piece if 90% of music lovers think it’s the bee’s knees and some of us think it’s a complete mashup.
Well, let’s look at the score in the original edition printed by Giovanni Cappi in Vienna in 1802.
The small print in Italian is an instruction from Beethoven saying the pianist should play the piece very delicately and without the sordino pedal (the sordino was not like the soft pedal today and made a gentle metallic sound a bit like a clavichord).
But what else do you see ? Beethoven is telling us something we all seem to miss. It is that he writes at the beginning of the piece.
Now, all pupils at music school learn that this sign (also called “Alla breve”) means that it should be played (not thought, as some teachers tell them) in TWO beats in a bar and not in FOUR, which would be the case if there were no bar in the sign ().
Remember that the written instructions that the composers left us on their scores were the only way they had of telling us how they wanted their music to sound. They had no other way of making sure their creations weren’t turned into something else. In any case, there were no mp3s, to be sure, and Mr Mälzel’s metronome wasn’t yet completely satisfactory.
And so it is a bit naughty of us not to take what they wrote at face value, even just to see what happens.
And what happens in quite a lot of music is actually quite astonishing!
Because the reason that the Moonlight Sonata’s first movement is so slow, is that we all play it in FOUR beats to a bar, and not TWO.
Maybe we thought that the great Romantic Composer Ludwig van Beethoven was in love with Madame Guicciardi (to whom he dedicated the piece) and was dreamily thinking romantic thoughts on a summer afternoon.
A likely story !
No. What happened is what often happens when great men die. They get improved. The improver in this case was a famous pianist called Ignaz Moscheles who built up a reputation for being an expert in Beethoven after the composer entrusted him with the preparation of the piano reduction to his opera Fidelio.
Mr Moscheles was so in demand for his advice about the way one should play Beethoven that he published his own edition of a couple of Beethoven’s sonatas with metronome markings.
Beethoven wasn’t even dead and probably would have had a heart attack if he’d known what his protégé was doing to his music (this edition came out in 1814 in Hamburg, a long way from Vienna and news didn’t travel fast), and Beethoven had still 12 years to live.
You can see from the Moscheles edition that the alla breve sign has disappeared in favour of the common-time sign of . And to leave no doubt about it, Moscheles adds the precision afforded him by the metronome (his version of the smartphone in terms of contemporary technology) and states that the piece should be played at 60 beats per minute (BPM), which is exactly what Google states today. One can’t but admire his judgement !
But it’s not what Beethoven wanted nor asked for. It’s just what we’ve got.
This means that the music, at 60 beats per minute when one beat is the quarter note in C time (4 beats in a bar), goes like this :
At 60 beats per minute when one beat is the half-note as Beethoven asks us by putting the alla breve sign (2 beats in a bar) at the beginning of the stave, it goes like this :
I have asked the magnificent young pianist Ingmar Lazar to play this movement for us (and the rest of the whole sonata) at the speed that the composer indicates. When we are able to get that on line, you will be able listen to him and get an idea of the proportions between the movements which are completely different if commenced in this way.
So how did the Moonlight Sonata get its name ? The (quite correct) explanation on Google says : The name “Moonlight Sonata” has its origins in remarks by the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab. In 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, Rellstab likened the effect of the first movement to that of moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne [“der erste Satz klingt wie Mondschein, der auf den Vierwaldstätter See scheint”].
How interesting ! Why has no-one thought to look at the music and wonder why there is such a gap between the title and the sound ?
Unless, of course, the music that Rellstab heard made him think not of the romantic atmosphere of a “barque” or boat on the lake (the idea of gently swaying movement is plausible) – but of the reflection of the moon on the lake’s waves. Like this detail of a painting from 1858.
If you are see the same as I do, read no further. If not, I invite you to do a small experiment.
Close your eyes and beat a measure of two in a bar, going from presto, through allegro to andante, then slowing down to adagio and then to lento or largo (whichever you prefer).
Then go back to adagio.
Now look at the piece again and try and fit the first 6 eighth-notes into one single beat of the adagio tempo and bear in mind what is said elsewhere about it :
Many critics have objected to the subjective, Romantic nature of the title “Moonlight”, which has at times been called “a misleading approach to a movement with almost the character of a funeral march” and “absurd”.
How interesting ! Why has no-one thought to look at the music and wonder why there is such a gap between the title and the sound ?
For some unknown reason (difficulty to keep the music flowing ? imperfections in the early Broadwood instruments on which the piece might have been played ?) or some telluric influence we all fall under when we open the piece, we play the piece just TWICE as slowly as it ought to be played – and indeed as Beethoven instructs us to.
Why have we musicians have become so complexed about what the composer means, when most of the time we don’t even try the instructions out to see what happens when we do ?
Maybe it interferes with what we know he ought to have written because it doesn’t fit in with our knowledge of “performance practice”, a concept which is itself far from clear … because of the very nature of what we call it which is “how we practise performance” (back to square one).
It’s not always clear what the composer means, but that shouldn’t be a reason for not doing what he says, then disagreeing (perhaps).
So try it out ! Be scientific !
When we pick up a score we know from having heard and loved it, what do we look for ?
Confirmation, of course !
Confirmation of what we are sure we know. And this is one of the commonest traps that we musicians fall into, especially concerning that thorny issue of … tempo !
Because tempo dictates the speed at which we receive the message. And the speed is a very important part of the delivery, as any car crash will prove.
Just think of two very famous politicians from the 20th century, Hitler and Churchill. How did they speak ? Hitler, shrill and fast – Churchill slow and thoughtful. The message is decidedly not the same, nor is our reaction to it.
So when we read in a pre-1789 score “Alla Breve” or 2/2 or should we not think that the composer means that we should beat it in 2 and not in 4 ?
My question is now : why have we musicians become so obsessed with what the composer means, without trying out what he says when he says it ?
It’s not always clear what he is telling us and we might not like the result : but perhaps not, and in any case we would be the wiser for having tried.
Let’s not forget that some people get famous for doing things in a new way. A new school is born, with its priests, its disciples and its hangers-on. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right. It just means that they persuaded enough people to believe them for a consensus to be formed.
And if you try and find out from the specialists who’s right about this or that, you’ll get 50 replies roughly divided into two camps of “it’s obviously like this” and the other of “it’s obviously like that”.
So why is it important, what the composer means ?
It’s important because the composer is telling us something through his music. That we will miss if don’t know that essential rule, enounced with vigour by Ezra Pound in the ABC of Reading that “Literature is news that STAYS news” (Pound’s capitals).
In the same book, he writes : “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”. We could paraphrase him by saying that great music is simply sound charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.
Which is why, by sacralising music and transforming it into a secular religion where the musician is the priest, we transubstantiate the present into the eternal and in the process we void it of meaning.
And in the age of Facebook (see my other post on that subject) the younger generations aren’t interested in the eternal. What they want is NOW.
We have let them get away without the goods and if we aren’t clever, they ain’t comin’ back.
Mozart was a gambler. He was young and he loved life. He wasn’t writing for 70 year-olds, he was writing for people his own age.
But we play his music as if he wrote for our retirement. Aarrgh !
PS : respectacles are glasses one looks through at anything we think we ought to admire. Take ’em off !
PPS : “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true” – Francis Bacon
Cost isn’t always the best way to judge the value of something. This was particularly true of records and CDs (that we used to buy before mp3s came along and knocked them for six).
One can still find all sorts of treasures in the cheapest categories and clearance lines of the few existing record shops which are sometimes more interesting than much of what we listen to on radio or read about on internet or in music magazines.
One such recording is of Beethoven’s 5th by Paul Kletzki with its vigorous chordal acciaccatura (an appoggiatura triad of the dominant G major crashing into the tonic chord of C at 6:24 in the recording of the last movement below) at the beginning of the last movement between the woodwinds and horns on one hand and the combined forces of the strings and brass on the other.
Most recordings pull the punch at the critical moment and back off from the dissonance, perhaps to spare our delicate ears. Not a sentiment I imagine Beethoven would have approved of, since that was the whole point.
But probably the greatest discovery of all was the twopenny (5 Francs in a supermarket) record issued under the fly-by-night “Classique Perfection” label where the jacket proclaims Brahms’s Opus 116 to 119 played by the … “European Philharmonic Orchestra”.
Did anyone actually listen to the recording before they put it on sale ?
The pianist’s playing is luminous, with a clarity of musical thought almost unique for this repertoire. All the rhythmical implications seem to be realized in what is a defining reading of these magnificent works and one which informs our own thinking about the music (although there is not one jot more than the composer asks for).
Listen to the first movement (Capriccio in d minor) :
But by avoiding the exaggerated use of rubato (the pianist’s use of hesitation as a means of showing his own – the pianist’s – expressive qualities which disrupt the flow of the music), he allows us to follow the train of musical thought Brahms is so keen to share with us.
Which suggests that value is sometimes in inverse proportion to the cost.
The question of tempo that has occupied my study of music for the last 40 years is in my view far more important than any other parameter of the musical discourse, because, to employ a analogy, it is the speed at which the composer tells his story (the music is a story in sound).
And although this has been at the centre of arguments about how to play music since the first recordings came out in the 1970s, it has not occupied the stage as it should.
To take the analogy further, if the question of phrasing, temperament and pitch are comparable to how the music is, tempo is comparable to what it says. You only need to look at the effects of tempo on the drama of an opera to realize that a slow or fast reading of the composer’s instructions will fundamentally alter our perception of the character and the impact of the action.
To cite but one example, “Dalla sua pace” sung at the (normal) “retirement speed” of 4 in a bar will comfort all of us who are convinced that the man is absolutely useless as a lover and deserves to be cuckolded as the “rather bland persona, always following, never leading the distracted Anna” as Basil de Pinto’s very interesting article in LaOpera puts it.
On the other hand, getting him to sing it in 2 in a bar as it’s actually written, transforms the character and makes him appear far more virile and Donna Anna far more wily (and less of a victim) than current practice would have us believe.
Don Ottavio’s “melting” aria sung slowly makes us drool. Sung quickly, it makes us sit up since it portrays the man as a perfect foil to the strong-willed Anna and in no way her lapdog.
Many other examples are to be found elsewhere in Mozart’s masterpiece (including the character of Don Giovanni himself) as also in the repertoire, which if we musicians followed the composer’s instructions instead of repeating ad infinitum the mistakes we all made last year, would bring back the sense of urgency and drama so lacking in modern productions where, for want of meaning in the score as presented to them by us, have for the last 30 years opened the Pandora’s box of stage directors tailoring these masterworks to their often trifling political agenders (agendas).
It ain’t the public that’s making this up, unfortunately. It is we musicians who, because we’re a rather conservative lot with an unhealthy respect for “tradition” (i.e. how the more famous of our contemporaries play), quite often play the music differently from what the composer is actually asking us to.
But see my post on “Interpretation” as part of being a musician.
It may not be too late to bring the urgency back into music so as to make it a relevant mirror to our present, but time is running out, because the Western world is forgetting what culture is.
Thank God for the peoples of the Orient who know seem to be the inheritors of our wonderful heritage and the importance of time over pleasure or roots before flowers.
Over the many years I have been playing and conducting, coaching and teaching, I have constantly been challenged over why my tempi are sometimes so different from the norm.
I shall attempt to explain here what appears to me to be crystal clear.
It is based on the following premises :
Before the advent of audio recording, the composer knew he had to leave written instructions as clearly as possible in order for the music to be played as he thought it.
According to Beethoven’s first biographer, Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s first question about a performance he hadn’t been able to attend was « how was the tempo ? ».
Before the 1800, no-one ever thought of beating the component parts of a measure to fix the tempo. Tempo was beaten in 1, 2, 3 or 4 beats per measure. Never 6, 8 or 12, or in other words, never “subdivided”.
A slow movement was not necessarily nor even ever (at least in preromantic times), slow music, as demonstrated by the frequent use of 16th, 32nd and even 64th notes in the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. To show my point, here’s a few bars of Mozart’s violin concerto, 2nd movement :
Beethoven remarks that tempos in the fast movements had a tendency to become too fast as pianists’ technique improved (“especially in France”). Moscheles confirms this fashion in a letter of 1862 by remarking about the faster movements « (…) the racing speed that swallows many notes, » but goes on to observe « the spinning out of an Andante until it becomes an Adagio, an Andante Con Moto in which the Moto is missing, an Allegro Comodo which makes itself no longer comfortable. » (p.199)
However, for ten arguments in favour of taking the tempi slower in the outer movements and faster in the inner ones, ten will be found to contradict them.
But there are other reasons for defending this approach, which surpass its purely dramatic or aesthetic implications and which can partly be described as follows :
classical music has a tendency to replace religion as a collective expression of the ineffable
the act of interpretation is a modern manifestation of the changing rôle of the musician as unnecessary mediator between the composer and the public
it is also a manifestation of the musician as secular priest in a godless world
this tendency could be a reason for the younger generations not coming to it
music sinks, which is played too slowly for its own weight
the musician must be the servant of the music and not the other way round
the job of the musician should be to play the music, not to filter it
interpretation should be reserved to those exceptional cases where the instructions for playing it are in contradiction with what is humanly possible (think of Beethoven…) or which, exceptionally, seem to be nonsense.
If it were that easy, of course, we would all be doing the same things. The major reason for playing the slow movements in baroque and classical music faster than most of us do is personal : it’s because I’ve always found them boring and when I look at them, the instructions seem quite clear that they are not at the right speed : too slow in the middles and too fast at the ends.
One very interesting example of the paradox is given by the really interesting musicologist Wim Winders in this video, where he observes the metronome markings given by Czerny for one of his studies then flies in the face of what he just discovered to prove exactly the opposite…
In short, I have the impression that we musicians are (for all sorts of very good reasons) rather conservative and that this fear of movement is a sort of panic that prevents us from seeing what is staring us in the face.
I have sometimes sensed that the structural relationships in music between mass and speed have something to do with the relationship in classical buildings between height, width and depth, and the evolution of architectural proportions during the hundred years from 1750 to 1850. But that is an enormous task I shall not be able to undertake – perhaps someone else will.
And to finish, one of our best musicians, Maximilien, sent me a ticket the other day. On Facebook (but he’s left it since, so I have no proof…) :
BATTRE LA MESURE. Cʼest en marquer les Tems par des mouvemens de la main ou du pied, qui en reglent la durée, & par lesquels toutes les Mesures semblables sont rendues parfaitement égales en valeur chronique ou en Tems, dans lʼexécution. Il y a des Mesures qui ne se battent quʼà un Tems dʼautres à deux, à trois ou à quatre, ce qui est le plus grand nombre de Tems marqués que puisse renfermer une Mesure: encore une Mesure à quatre Tems peut-elle toujours se résoudre en deux Mesures deux Tems (in Collection Complète des Œuvres de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citoyen de Genève, IN-4°, 1780-1789)
Or, in English : “There are bars that are beaten in 1, 2, 3 or 4, which is the maximum number of beats possible in a single bar. But a bar in 4 can be beaten in 2.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, citizen of Geneva. 1780 – 1789.
When I was at school, one of the set works for the A-level exam in music was the Four Seasons by Vivaldi. I have no precise recollection of the music except the exquisitely boring movement in the Spring concerto (Opus 8, N° 1, 2nd movement) that goes like this :
This is what it sounds like, played by Iztak Perlman and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (the beginning only).
As you will notice, the score is full of text and on the viola line is marked “Il cane che grida” (the dog that barks). If played separately, it goes like this :
Well, I don’t know about you, but to ask me to believe that the dulcet tones of a viola was supposed to be a dog barking was stretching reality a bar too far. Until one of our fantastic musicians, Clémence, mentioned she’d like to do the piece as the soloist and I went back to the drawing board to see whether the music had changed since I was a boy.
And there, lo and behold, I see instructions that have appeared as from nowhere (they weren’t in the Eulenburg score we had, as far as I can recall). Not that anyone pays much attention, of course. The default position for most of us is what tradition dictates.
Because Vivaldi (who was the first composer to really use expression marks – see the brilliant book by Walter Kolneder on the subject) instructs the viola player to play “sempre molto forte e strappato” or “really loud and rough”. If you look carefully at the score you have the first violin (violin solo, remember – this is a concerto with a solo violinist playing the really difficult stuff) who is swanning about with a lovely melancholy air …
accompanied by the first and second violins in thirds with a swaying movement to suggest the wind playing in the leaves of the plants in the pleasantly flowering meadow (Vivaldi’s words) :
and what is supposed to be a really stupid dog in the background (actually, waking everyone up) playing loud and rough as you heard before (and not nice and genteel like we musicians prefer).
Now, there was a challenge. It looks from the score as if Vivaldi is doing a Monty Python. So here’s an extract what Via Luce made of it in Italy this summer at the Federico Tesi Festival in Trevi, to give you an preliminary idea (we will go further next time, the dog isn’t quite barking mad enough … yet). The illustration is a detail of Frans Snyders’ painting “Fruit Stall”. Flanders, Between 1618 and 1621. The State Hermitage Museum, Russia.
To hear the music, click the dog !
Although I must admit that French and English musicians playing Vivaldi in Italy is like taking coals to Newcastle.
They said they loved it.
* Tony = Antonio (Vivaldi)
With the disappearance of armed conflict from our Western European shores and the fratricidal urge having morphed into its virtual equivalent, sport, man has found in popular music with its concomitant drumbeat a way of sublimating the primeval instinct by turning its violence in on himself. It is perhaps understandable that the great majority of those who regularly listen to that outward celebration of harmony that classical music still represents is composed of men and women who either lived through or just after the second world war.
It follows therefore that a peaceful future for our civilization depends at least in part on whether we are capable of sharing this heritage with the coming generations. This is why the musical vocation is so important and why, particularly in France where this form of artistic expression has so much difficulty in finding its place, it is more than ever necessary to promote the values of harmony via the sharing of song and making music together.
Unfortunately, the past efforts of a dwindling number of music lovers to preserve the integrity of their caste by actively reproving such behaviour as applauding between the movements of a symphony or sonata have been met with resounding success. They are now almost alone in their admiration of the masterpieces they treasured and when they go, the art may die. Or will do if nothing is done to effect a profound change in the way young people are educated and react to the values held by those who went before.
To that end, it is perhaps time that we looked over our shoulders to the time when music was a science. Time also for the current role of classical music as a secular substitute for religion to be contested. We need to think about what we mean when we say that we play, or that we interpret and how much work is implied in the preparation of a concert. Words have great importance by virtue of their function as the tools of thought. In an increasingly verbal society, it is important that we name the things for what they are.
Paris, 18th June 2018