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10/6/97: I’m having a debate with a friend about tempi. When I hear a piece taken at a tempo very different from any I’ve ever heard, I’m inclined to call it “wrong” while my friend defends a musician’s right to his or her interpretation. We’re both highly opinionated, but very interested in your opinion.

As a rule, I come down on your side of the argument. While I sometimes have to make adjustments for a hall or an artist or an orchestra, I do feel there is at least a right range of tempi. I also think this is especially true for broadcasts or recordings. Absent the total experience of a live performance, eccentricities become less and less acceptable.

Further, I think many musicians tend to focus rather simplistically on speed in interpreting markings that are often mood indications. We can create “happy” or “heavy” with tempo, yes, but also by other means.

How do you respond, then, to those who defend a tempo as a matter of interpretation?

I suggest that it is the reverse: Arriving at the right tempo based on a study of the score, in large measure, leads you to your interpretation. Some have said that the tempo is the interpretation.

A musical work can be compared to a jigsaw puzzle, and the right tempo makes all the pieces fall into place. Now, this is not to suggest that these relationships among the parts are simple or that music should be purely mechanical. The options can be quite numerous and the judgments fine, especially when you segue from one meter to another.

An example: When you move from a 4/4 section to a 6/8 section, one rule of thumb you might employ is that the eighth notes of the second section should be half the duration of the earlier quarter notes. A different rule of thumb would be to keep the pulse (the time per measure) the same across both sections. (Note that these are two completely different strategies that create the same result--a satisfying sense of connectedness and wholeness.) Let’s say that you think keeping note value the same across the sections is the way to go. In trying to determine the precise mathematical relationship, it will matter whether one section is in cut time or whether one or both carry indications such as presto or adagio.

When you find these relationships and respect the composer’s architecture, the joints are smooth and the whole work takes on propulsion and a sense of inevitability. When all of the sections interlock and work together, there is generally not a wide range of tempi that will work through the entire composition. Once you think you have the tempo relationships worked out, you address any words the composer provided to suggest a mood (happy, sad, broad, heavy, labored, and so on).

A capricious or self-indulgent choice of tempo will often backfire, landing you in a place where you are going much slower or faster than you wish and have to make an abrupt adjustment that really underscores how disjointed the whole approach is. (Remember the joke in the form of a sign saying “plan ahead” where the writer starts with lettering too big, reaches the edge of the sign, and is forced to write the last few letters much smaller and running down the right-hand side? That’s pretty much how some performers box themselves in. They don’t look ahead to where their choices will land them.)

Those who find this interesting might also like to review an earlier discussion of the finale of Barber of Seville. That discussion contains an illustrative sound file. Consult the summary of subjects.

©1997 by Joseph Rescigno. The text here may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes as long as credit is given.

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