March 5, 2010

Tempo Rubato

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin’s birth, a number of CD’s came out this year, one of which I promptly ordered and am currently enjoying. A collection of previously unreleased recordings from 1959 and 1967, Argerich Plays Chopin spotlights the great Martha Argerich’s earliest recordings. Ranging from “Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23” (when Martha was 18-years-old) to a concert performance of “Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58” (at 25), these are rare glimpses of an impressively brilliant talent already in full-bloom; at 16 she had won both the Geneva International Music Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition..

Particularly impressive (or controversial depending on whose critique you prefer) is Martha’s use of tempo rubato, the slight tempo variances of a musical composition in the interpretation of a performer by shortening or lengthening a note here or there. Classical music is quite often played in rubato and not just Chopin but Liszt, Brahms, and many other compositions have been open to individual expressions of the performers.(1) As one music scholar noted:

“There is in music no absolute rate of movement. The tempo, as we usually call it, depends on physiological and physical conditions. It is influenced by interior or exterior temperature, by surroundings, instruments, acoustics. There is no absolute rhythm. In the course of the dramatic developments of a musical composition, the initial themes change their character, consequently rhythm changes also, and, in conformity with that character, it has to be energetic or languishing, crisp or elastic, steady or capricious. Rhythm is life.”(2)

This speaks to me of art, specifically an artist’s life as a “performance” throughout the span of his or her life. We have bursts of speed in our production and in our thought, possibly affected by youthful vigor or ambiance, and just as often we have durations where little to no work is actually made. This evidentiary development of our “production,” marked by peaks and valleys, plateaus of thought alternating with deserts of doubt, seems to be the nature of our journey as artists. We may each experience tempo rubato as artists and Martha playing Chopin provides an exquisite accompaniment.


1. For an example of Martha's tempo rubato, listen to her playing of Nocturne No.16 In E Flat, Op.55 No.2.

2. Paderewski, Ignacy. “Tempo Rubato” in Success in Music and How it is Won (Henry T. Finck, ed.), New York, 1909/1927 [reprinted in Polish Music Journal.]

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