7. Tempo Interpretations

a. Spectrum of Average Tempi
b. History of the Average Tempo
c. Tempo, Tempo Variations and Tempo Amplitude:
Austro-German and Russian/Soviet Pianists

a. Spectrum of Average Tempi

The cause for the different tempo spectra of the three sonatas is of course a highly complex and not easily answered question. We shall only make a very brief and very preliminary attempt to address this here.

The extreme spectrum of the choice of tempo of the Appassionata (see   Figure 6) is likely the result of a critical or even Dadaistic provocation. The fastest and slowest recordings were both made in 1967. Friedrich Gulda would turn down the Beethoven Ring of the Wiener Musikakademie two years later, on the grounds that such a conservative institution doesn’t have the right to award a prize that carries the name of the great musical revolutionary. ( 61) The other way around, in the liner notes to his Appassionata recording, Glenn Gould writes that this piece, which is so highly regarded by audiences, musicians and musicologists alike, is unsuccessful: The tone is as exaggerated as the substance is lacking. ( 62) The extreme durations of both interpreters appear to be an expression of a kind of Appassionata crisis, in the context of the ideology-critical tendencies of the late 1960s. Gould’s recording through the ‘time magnifier’ aims at a polemic against the ‘heroic style’—although it remains unclear if the slow tempo is supposed to conceal or draw out the supposed lack of substance. Gulda’s recording, which is a full minute faster than his recording from 1958, hypostatizes the revolutionary of all revolutionaries.

If we exclude these two extreme recordings, then the still broad spectrum of tempi is likely a function of the prominence and widespread popularity of the work. The search for originality or characteristic in the face of so many already existing interpretations led to extreme decisions about tempo as well—and with a score which suggests different tempi. Even Carl Czerny’s metronome marking for the movement from 1850 differs more from that of 1842 than is the case with other movements (dotted quarter = 120, instead of 108). ( 63) Where Czerny and most interpreters thereafter chose the dotted quarter for the tempo indication Allegro assai, Grigorij Kogan pointed out that the meter is actually 12/8. ( 64) Both supporters and opponents of a quick tempo have strong arguments.

The comparatively narrow spectrum of tempi for the Sonata op. 2/3 (see   Figure 7) may then conversely have to do with the fact that the piece is not as challengingly prominent, and that its virtuosic but classical gestures suggest a specific tempo, which should certainly be fast, but then again not too fast.

The spectrum of tempi for the Hammerklavier (see   Figure 8), which is broader than that of the Appassionata (excluding the provocative extremes of Gould and Gulda), is unquestionably related to the difference between this music’s orchestral texture—the character of which has been repeatedly described as “ponderous” (Hans von Bülow), “grand” (Samuil Feinberg), and “majestic” (Claudio Arrau)—on the one hand (see   Chapter 5), and Beethoven’s with exorbitant technical difficulties connected quick metronome marking on the other, for which ultimately an alternative aesthetic description was found: a largely rhythmically defined “explosion of energy” (Charles Rosen).

b. History of the Average Tempo

There is something that connects the tempo histories of these three sonatas: a slowing down of the tempo between the 1950s and 1980s (or 1990s), and then a speeding up in the decades that follow. Since this finding was also true of Schubert’s B Major Sonata D. 960, whose tempo one of our students examined using 50 recordings ( 65), it would seem at the moment that this may be a more general tendency. ( 66)

This data seems notable in the context of the repeatedly discussed question as to whether or not tempo had increased, decreased or remained the same over the course of longer periods of time. The first is the position held by Adolf Bernhard Marx ( 67), Theodor W. Adorno ( 68), and Grete Wehmeyer ( 69). Robert Philip diagnosed a general slowing down of tempo in the 20th Century ( 70), and Nicholas Temperly and José Bowen assumed that all in all, tempo had not changed. ( 71) Our tempo measurements differentiate the picture and show that for all three of the works that we examined, since 1950 there is a similar tendency: a slowing down through the 80s (or 90s) followed by a speeding up. The data for the preceding decades diverges: recordings of the Appassionata from the 1920s and 1930s are faster than those of the 1950s, in the case of op. 2/3 they are slower.

Robert Philip offers the LP era and the demand for technical perfection on recordings as an explanation for a tendency towards slower tempi after the Second World War. From our perspective there are three further factors to consider. We will only briefly make preliminary mention of these here—a larger study on the subject is planned.

First we would point out an increasing focus on the importance of the compositional or work aesthetic, which expects a kind of subordination or ‘servitude’ on the part of the interpreter and which is tied to a specific anti-virtuoso attitude.

The second factor is the increasing importance of a structural aesthetic, which not only captured the music of the avant-garde and musical analysis, but also musical interpretation. In contrast to the expressive aesthetic, an emphasis is placed on clarity of performance. The pathos of the structural aesthetic even captured a pianist like Claudio Arrau, who spoke of measures 14 and 15 of the Appassionata, which had always been considered emotional outbursts, as something “fully rhythmic.” ( 72) Arrau’s Appassionata recordings from 1965 and 1984 each set a new slowness record in the Appassionata discourse of the 1960s—1980s (see below)—excluding Glenn Gould’s of course.

Third, it seems that something like a cult of the slow developed in the 1980s in the course of the eco and peace movements under the catchword ‘deceleration.’ Not only were the 1980s the decade in which Sten Nadolny’s novel The Discovery of Slowness appeared and became a bestseller (1983); in the 80s there were discussions about the possibility of halving the tempi in the fast movements of Beethoven’s works: 1980 Willem Retze Talsmas Wiedergeburt der Klassiker, Volume 1: Anleitung zur Entmechani­sierung der Musik ( 73), then in 1989 the above-mentioned book by Grete Wehmeyer Prestißißimo. Die Wiederentdeckung der Langsamkeit in der Musik ( 74).

Since the 1990s then in contrast a new turn towards expressivity and virtuosity becomes apparent, motivated not least by historical performance practice, which far from increased attention to original metronome markings, operated under the assumption that composers of the Classical era were far more influenced by the aesthetics of Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang, as well as the phenomenon of virtuosity than had previously been believed.

The specific and continuous slowing down of the Appassionata (see   Figure 9) is likely a function of the long history of interpretations of the Classical hit, which initially assumed faster tempi. The quick tempi are not only documented by the recordings of the 1920s and 1930s, but also by performance editions since the 1870s (Hans von Bülow, and Frederic Lamond recommend dotted quarter = 126, Eugen d’Albert and Schnabel 120). Since the 1950s, a performance with an original choice of tempo had to be at a slower tempo. It almost seems as if a competition for the slowest Appassionata began in the 1960s: Svjatoslav Richter (1959) M. M. 103.9 or 10:00 Min., Richter (1960) M. M. 98.9 or 10:31, Claudio Arrau (1965) M. M. 95.5 or 10:53, (Glenn Gould (1967) M. M. 71.1 or 14:38,) Emil Gilels (1975) M. M. 95.9 or 10:50, Claudio Arrau (1984) M. M. 92.9 or 11:13, Richter (1992) M. M. 90.7 or 11:28, Tatjana Nikolajewa (1993) M. M. 93.1 or 11:10.

The reasons for the extreme increase of tempo of the Hammerklavier (see   Figure 11) in the 1990s and 2000s, other than the above-mentioned ‘Zeitgeist’ phenomenon, are equally difficult to identify.

1. Even if interpretations by representatives of historically informed performance practice are by no means the fastest—those that we analyzed were at 115.9 (Badura-Skoda 1978) and 108.7 (Brautigam 2008)—we can assume a general influence of historically informed performance practice, as it brought Beethoven’s metronome numbers back into view and with their realizations attempted, as had previous ‘Urtext’ movements before, to cite the autograph metronome marking of the Hammerklavier as the strongest evidence that tempi were once so quick.

2. Since it was rarely if at all satisfactorily met, the challenge of playing the Hammerklavier convincingly at the fastest possible tempo never lost currency. Originality or even exceptionality could still come to be in a shining performance of the work at the autograph tempo. And one can certainly assume that even Brendel’s repeated assertions, which everyone know and have read, that there is “no one in the world who could arguably play the first movement of the Hammerklavier-Sonate at tempo 138” ( 75), proved a special kind of provocation to young and ambitious pianists.

3. In contrast, one cannot say with any certainty to what extent the new tendencies beginning around 1970 sketched in   Chapter 5 above, especially as expressed in the texts by Charles Rosen and Joachim Kaiser, had any influence on the history of the work’s tempo. These new tendencies were also inherent in the culturally critical spirit of 1968—an iconoclastic moment. We see this when Rosen refutes the “majestic” character of the first movement and emphasizes its “harshness,” qualifies the “reputation for greatness” and trivializes the listener’s difficulties in comprehension; with Kaiser when he mocks the “homage-cantata tempo” and identifies the technical difficulties as an integral aspect of the work. The ideology-critical moments of both Rosen’s and Kaiser’s arguments interlace with ideas of the avant-garde discussions of the day. It must be stated, that the influence of these new tendencies from around 1970 did not catch on right away. The tempo of the work continued to slow down. One must also assume, however, that in the long run they did not miss their mark: Both Rosen’s and Kaiser’s publications are among the books most often read by practicing musicians and traces of their arguments are found in numerous more recent texts.

c. Tempo, Tempo Variations and Tempo Amplitude:
Austro-German and Russian/Soviet Pianists

Musical feuilletons have always postulated a difference between Austro-German and Russian/Soviet approaches. There has constantly been the discussion about the ‘German Beethoven performer’ on the one hand and the ‘Russian claw’ or ‘soul’ on the other. As far as tempo is concerned, José Bowen actually did not confirm any difference between Russian/Soviet and other interpreters. ( 76) Our tempo measurements, however, confirm this assumption for both the Appassionata and Hammerklavier (and also for Schubert’s B Major Sonata D. 960) ( 77), but not for the Sonata op. 2/3 (see   Figure 16,   Figure 17 and   Figure 18).

Even if one wished to postulate that the specific classical virtuoso manner of op. 2/3, which hardly leaves any room for tempo variation, presents an exception to the rule, our own source material would seem to be too limited to risk wanting to offer any kind of general thesis; above all for lack of cause. Should further tempo measurements confirm these results, an attempt at establishing an objective foundation—far removed from topos such as ‘German obedience’ and ‘Russian spirit’—would be one of the most distinguished challenges of a cultural history of interpretation.

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61. Friedrich Gulda, ‘Rede anlässlich der Verleihung des Beethovenringes durch die Wiener Musikakademie,’ in:    Worte zur Musik, Munich 1971, pp. 95–99.

62. Glenn Gould, ‘Beethovens Pathétique, Mondscheinsonate und Appassionata,’ in:    Von Bach bis Boulez. Schriften zur Musik I, edited and with an introduction by Tim Page, Munich 2nd edition 1987, pp. 84–87.

63. Kenneth Drake,    The Sonatas of Beethoven as He Played and Taught Them, Cincinatti 1972, pp. 36–41.

64. Mysli o Betchovene. Rossijskie pianisty ob ispolnenii (…) Betchovena, ed. Boris Borodin and Arkadij Luk’janov, Moscow 2010, p. 104.

65. Sven Werner will submit his musicology magister thesis in 2013 at the Humboldt Universität Berlin.

66. On the other hand, our study of the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 95 produced different results. Here the tempo has continuously increased since the 1970s. Beethoven himself gave this movement a very fast metronome marking. Heinz von Loesch and Fabian Brinkmann, ‘Tempogestaltung im Kopfsatz von op. 95: Eine exemplarische Studie zur Interpretationsgeschichte von Beethovens Streichquartetten,’ in: Beethovens Kammermusik. Das Handbuch, ed. Friedrich Geiger and Martina Sichardt, Laaber (Das Beethoven-Handbuch 4) (in print).

67. Adolf Bernhard Marx,    Anleitung zum Vortrag Beethovenscher Klavierwerke, Berlin 1863, p. 105, Berlin 1875, p. 62.

68. Theodor W. Adorno,    ‘Neue Tempi’ (1928), in:    Moments musicaux, Frankfurt/M. 1964, pp. 74–83.

69. Grete Wehmeyer,    Prestißißimo. Die Wiederentdeckung der Langsamkeit in der Musik, Hamburg 1989.

70. Robert Philip,    Early Recordings and Musical Style: Changing Tastes in Instrumental Performance 1900–1950, Cambridge 1992, pp. 35 f.

71. Nicholas Temperly,    ‘Tempo and Repeats in Early Nineteenth Century’, in:    Music & Letters 67 (1966), p. 323; Bowen, ‘Tempo, Duration, and Flexibility’ (  as fn. 11), p. 114.

72. Arrau, Leben mit der Musik (  as fn. 40), p. 246.

73. Willem Retze Talsma,    Wiedergeburt der Klassiker, vol. 1: Anleitung zur Entmechanisierung der Musik, Innsbruck 1980.

74. Wehmeyer, Prestißißimo (  as fn. 69).

75. Brendel, Ausgerechnet ich (  as fn. 46), p. 208.

76. Bowen, ›Tempo, Duration, and Flexibility‹ (  as fn. 11), pp. 137 and 144.

77. See   fn. 65.