1. Tempo and Tempo Variations—A Brief Preliminary Consideration of the Relevance of the Line of Questioning

“You know how little time I have for arguments about tempo and how for me it is the inner rate of movement alone that matters. Then the faster allegro of the cold carries more weight than the slower of the sanguine.” ( 2)

It is with these skeptical words that Robert Schumann begins his discussion of Mendelssohn’s interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, in order to then explain at length the reasons why he felt the tempo of the Scherzo was too slow.

No matter how you spin it, tempo is an important musical parameter and parameter of musical interpretation. Anton Schindler reported on Beethoven that whenever a work of his was performed, his first question was always: “ ‘How were the tempi?’ Everything else seemed to be secondary to him.” ( 3) Sir George Smart, conductor of the English premieres of several of Beethoven’s works including the 9th Symphony, traveled himself to Vienna in the summer of 1825 in order to receive Beethoven’s exact tempi from him. Even if he did find these “totally impossible” after Beethoven had played him several of the themes at the piano. ( 4) With the advent of the metronome, an instrument became available with which one could define the tempo exactly and, as has been well documented, Beethoven made extensive use of this. Equally well known is that as this happened, a fight about the correct tempi in Beethoven’s music broke out that continues to this day; a fight that most likely reached its pinnacle with Rudolph Kolisch’s Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music from 1942/43. ( 5) The central argument of the primarius of the Kolisch and the Pro Arte Quartets is that by way of a comparison of themes and characters of Beethoven’s works that had been given exact metronome markings, one could also unquestionably establish the correct tempi for those of Beethoven’s works, to which he did not attribute metronome markings. With this thesis, Kolisch had a loud exchange of words at the 1942 Congress of the American Musicological Society in New York with Artur Schnabel; who, although he himself had recorded the Hammerklavier Sonata with Beethoven’s metronome markings (see below for an extensive discussion thereof), nevertheless found Kolisch’s thesis exaggerated and arrogant. ( 6)

Of equal importance to the overall tempo, is the question of tempo variation, the question of tempo flexibility and constancy of tempo. Richard Wagner’s well known polemics against Mendelssohn’s conducting were sparked by the supposedly too fast and too constant tempi. ( 7) More specifically that he didn’t slow down enough in the lyrical passages. ( 8) On the other end of the spectrum, interpretations with a freer approach to the shaping of tempo became so miscredited in the 20th Century, that their protagonists were even subjected to moral judgment. Arnold Steinhardt, of the Guarneri Quartet, once reported the following about a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under George Szell:

“When I wanted to take more time during the lyrical G-minor section in the development of the first movement, he (Szell) became furious with me, finding it maudlin and disruptive of the architectural structure; he insisted that I play it absolutely in tempo at the concert. Szell could on occasion let himself go and change tempos, but he probably thought I was terribly self-indulgent and needed to be taught a lesson.” ( 9)

What is remarkable about this anecdote, assuming it is an accurate representation of the events, is not only that Szell passes moral judgment on Steinhardt for his taking liberties with tempo, but also that Steinhardt does the same with Szell. Steinhardt also calls Szell’s tempo liberties “let himself go”. Svjatoslav Richter was even more rigid in this regard. In an interview on the Appassionata on the occasions of Beethoven’s 200th birthday and Lenin’s 100th birthday in the Sovetskaja muzyka 1970, he accuses pianists who do not maintain the tempo in the transition of the first movement of a lack of discipline, indolence and of having a “washcloth mentality”. ( 10) Tempo variations became so frowned upon in the 20th Century that these were sometimes avoided even where the composer specifically asks for them. Among others, José Bowen demonstrates this with interpretations of Pjotr Iljitsch Tschaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. ( 11) Even advocates of so-called historically informed performance practice are hardly willing or capable of realizing the appropriate measure of tempo variations when approaching music of the Classical and Romantic periods suggested by current knowledge of source materials. ( 12)

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2. Robert Schumann,    Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker, Leipzig 1854, vol. 1, p. 194.

3. Anton Schindler,    Biographie von Ludwig van Beethoven, Münster 4th ed. 1871, vol. 2, p. 247.

4. Sofia Krastev and Matthias Haenisch, Art. ‘Smart, Sir George (Thomas)’, in:    Das Beethoven-Lexikon, ed. Heinz von Loesch and Claus Raab, Laaber 2008, p. 697.

5. Rudolf Kolisch,    Tempo und Charakter in Beethovens Musik, with editorial commentary and afterword by Regina Busch and David Satz, Munich 1992 (Musik-Konzepte 76/77).

6. Konrad Wolff,    Interpretation auf dem Klavier. Was wir von Artur Schnabel lernen, Munich and Zurich 1979, p. 20.

7. Richard Wagner,    ‘Über das Dirigieren’ (1869), in:    Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, vol. 8, ed. Wolfgang Golther, Berlin, pp. 261–337.

8. Ibid, pp. 289 f.

9.    The Art of Quartet Playing. The Guarneri Quartet in Conversation with David Blum, Ithaca/New York 1987, 2nd ed. 1992, p. 90.

10. ‘ ‘Appassionata’. Mysli masterov’, in:    Sovetskaja muzyka (1970/4), p. 86.

11. José Antonio Bowen, ‘Tempo, Duration, and Flexibility: Techniques in the Analysis of Performance’, in:    The Journal of Musicological Research 16 (1996), pp. 111–156, especially pp. 137 ff.

12. Richard Taruskin, ‘Resisting the Ninth’, in:    Nineteenth-Century Music 12/3 (1988/89), pp. 241–256; Wolfgang Auhagen,    ‘Furtwänglers Tempogestaltung im Spannungsfeld zwischen Konzerttradition und Reproduktionstechnik’, in:    Jahrbuch des Staatlichen Instituts für Musikforschung Preußischer Kulturbesitz 2005, pp. 35–51.