July - August 2005
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Waltz, bad nymph, for quick jigs vex
When I was a music student, my teacher Eugen Dombois selected me to demonstrate the lutenist’s point of view in a discussion in which two main opposing camps would have their say. The controversy arose concerning the central problem of tempo in music of the Pre-Classical era. Since no mechanical device commonly existed with which musicians could accurately specify the speed of a piece, it was and is necessary to refer to source literature which describes the process of arriving at the proper speed. A major source among many for music of the first half of the 18th century is Johann Joachim Quantz’s “On Playing the Flute”, from 1759. The importance of this work for the performance of music of the 18th century cannot be overestimated.
(My Movado watch, a reproduction of the original 1920's design, a watch for people who really don't care what time it is...)
Quantz worked at the court of Frederick II in Berlin, the centre of the powerful Saxon state which produced some of the most influential composers of the time, including Georg Händel and J.S. Bach. His work spans the ending of the fashion for French dance movements and opera styles and the beginning of the great Austro-German orchestral tradition which culminated with Mozart and Beethoven. He advocated a simple system for judging tempo which acts as a guide for the music of several generations in his past and future:
“The means that I consider most useful as a guide for tempo is the more convenient because of the ease with which it is obtained, since everyone has is upon himself. It is the pulse beat of the healthy person. I attempt to give instructions as to how each of the various distinguishable tempos can be determined without great difficulty by regulating yourself with it.”
Quantz goes on to describe in minute detail, allowing for various human psychologies, such as jovial and fiery temperament, choleric-sanguine temperament, and the exigencies of stress, the speeds he considers proper for various types of music and the interpretation of the words commonly used for describing modes of performance. He classifies the various commonly known Italian denotations for tempo and metre which came into instrumental use after Vivaldi:
“The Allegro assai is thus the fastest of these four main categories, the Adagio cantabile is twice as slow as the Allegretto, and the Adagio assai twice as slow as the Adagio cantabile…
He then establishes a tempo/pulse schema:
“In an Allegro assai, the time of a pulse beat for each half-note [auf jeden halben Tact, die Zeit eines Pulschlages]; In an Allegretto a pulse beat for each quarter note; In and Adagio cantabile, a pulse beat for each eighth note…”
For the stylized French dance suites which make up the principal forms of the harpsichord and lute repertoire, Quantz specified both tempo, accentuation, articulation and style:
“The entrée, loure and the courante are played majestically, and the bow is detached at each quarter note, whether dotted or not. There is a pulse beat on each quarter note. A Sarabande has the same movement, but is played with somewhat more agreeable execution…”
So Quantz’s tempo advice appeared clear and precise in the typical German manner, at least until Willem Retze Talsma exploded his bomb in 1979. The book was called “Wiedergeburt der Klassiker: Anleitung zur Entmechanisierung der Muzik” (loosely, Re-examination of the Classic period: Guide for the De-mechanization of Music). In it Talsma examined the development of musical time-keeping, early metronomic devices, and the rhythmic and rhetorical basis of the music of the later 18th century. He takes aim at the numerous assumptions which later composers and performers made in their interpretations of the Classic masters, principally Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
(My father's Rolex, for those who are serious about time...)
The big explosion took place when he re-defined the concept of the pulse as containing two, not one, beats. Basing his thesis (a deliberate word choice) on the earliest devices and their application by French writers Loulié, Saveur, La Chapelle and L’Affillard, Talsma systematically documented the early acceptance of the pendulum as having a single beat with two oscillations, like the frequency of a sine wave. A single beat would consist, in 18th century understanding, of a crest and trough. By examining the works of contemporary composers and their rhythmic structure, he established the accentuation of “gute” and “schlecte” accents (good and bad, or strong and weak), relating them to back and forth, the Greek classical dance theory of Arsis (lifting of the foot) and Thesis (placing of the foot on the ground). He establishes the much more important place of “Bewegung” (movement or more loosely, accentuation) in Pre-classical music, in which tempo is a function of choice of metre signature, surface rhythm and subsurface rhythm, and the all-important oscillation of the strong and weak beats at the micro and macro levels. Back and forth, hem and haw, teeter-totter, hither and thither, hill and dale…you get the idea. Roman soldiers counted a single pace only when the same foot struck the ground again. So he proposed that early tempo indications, including the early Loulié pendulum, and possibly Quantz, which had seemed quite clear, equivocally might have been meant as twice as slow, or half-speed.
A telling footnote in Quantz reads:
“What in former times was considered to be quite fast would have been played almost twice as slow as in the present day. An Allegro assai (fast enough), Presto (quick), Furioso etc., was then written and would have been played only a little faster than an Allegretto is written and performed today. The large number of quick notes in the instrumental pieces of the earlier German composers (Bach, Froberger et al.) thus looked much more difficult and hazardous than they sounded. Contemporary French composers have retained this style of moderate speed in lively pieces to a large extent.”
In other words he admits that he has perceived a halving of time values and the rhythmic accentuation in the metrical notation of music. This movement was clearly documented during the 18th century, and Talsma made a detailed study of music and music literature in his book, with a focus on the changes to notational conventions.
Talsma altered the landscape of our perception of the all important matter of tempo in early music. Confusion and controversy broke out among the community of musicians whose work it was to play the music in a historically aware manner. It extended the entire field from one dominated by orchestration and the choice of appropriate instrument, to an entire re-thinking of the relativity of speed in music.
In retrospect the development of instruments and notation during the earliest years of the pre- industrial revolution, the period which saw the harnessing of water and animal power to execute energy-intensive work, must have resulted in changes in rhythm and speed. The organ, the harpsichord, the flute and other winds, along with the developing world of the orchestra as a public event, all took part in a general increase in the speed of execution. In this transition, the rate of change of harmonies generally increased, as the old polyphonic vocal style receded and the homophonic basis of the Classical period took hold.
Notation changed too. We now transcribe works of the early medieval period and Renaissance with a 4:1 or 2:1 relationship. Lute tablature led the way early in the Renaissance by using the semi-fusa, or the sixteenth note, as its surface rhythm as early as the first printed books of music around 1500. The first tempo indications occurred in printed music in a vihuela (16th century guitar) book by Luis Milan in 1535 (apriesa, or fast, and espacio, slow).
So getting back to my initial assignment, it was my duty to demonstrate the lute compositions of Sylvius Leopold Weiss, an older contemporary of Quantz in Dresden. By asking me to play various movements at half and double speed, Dombois hoped to expose the rigidity of the opposing camps as being too glibly associated with orchestral traditions. Lutenists, as usual, play everything at the speed of lute.
From our point of view today Quantz's tempi seem impossibly fast, or very slow. I was asked by my teacher to play a lute piece according to the first and by comparison, second tenets and to have the assembly judge the result. I was very nervous, I had just arrived in Basel for the first time and I had to play a complicated and difficult music by Weiss, along with other typical pieces, at impossibly fast and slow tempi in front of some of the best musicians in the field. I'll never forget the controversy, argued in impossible-to-follow academic German.
The discussion quickly became heated as the flute players and singers, constantly running out of breath, generally favoured the faster interpretation, while organists and lutenists, who play chords, generally favoured the slower. The argument raged on for nearly two and a half hours. Charts were drawn. Examples were tested. Beads of sweat formed on wrinkled brows, especially mine. The controversy sensitized many students and teachers to the potential overwhelming implications for performance practice.
Shortly after this harrowing demonstration and discussion forum, I attended a number of concerts by the much-recorded Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, and I repeatedly observed him surreptitiously fingering his pulse before beginning pieces in order to establish the tempo. The observation hit me like a slap on the forehead. It seemed obvious that Leonhardt was taking Quantz’s advice and using his pulse to judge the tempo of his performance.
During Quantz’s lifetime the subtle complexities of seventeenth century rhythms—dotting, mixing widely differing rhythmic species in the same piece, rapid changes of harmony within the bar, the imperatives of the dance--gave way to a simplified rhythmic palette. The orchestra is a complex vehicle composed of varied temperaments and instrumental proclivities which, like an army, generally marches on its stomach. During the subsequent period of musical mechanization, new military rhythms and orchestrations were adapted to the needs of larger ensembles. The sonorities of the military bands, with their greatly expanded use of winds and brass, capable of being heard from afar across the field, were incorporated by Beethoven into the symphonic language, particularly in the Eroica and Ninth symphonies. These additions allowed for faster and much slower tempos.
With the overwhelming influence of Beethoven, the middle class could not get enough of the bass drum and tympani, the trumpet and trombones. The use of these louder instruments would have been considered tasteless in the previous century. Speed and volume increased because the bow is too short and is always running out, the wind in the lungs in never enough. Virtuosi such as Cramer, Hiller and Moscheles accelerated piano playing to new heights. There's something about transition from salon to concert hall, too. During the later 19th c. the symphonic ideas of Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler contributed multilayered texture to the symphony, in which very slow notes were juxtaposed against very fast ones. This reduced the tolerance for a variety of tempos, as the limits of human capacity were reached at both extremes.
In the 20th century, the industrialization of music continued as Stravinsky and Schoenberg incorporated new mechanisms into the structures of music, taking the industrial state as the model of music. Edison’s first wax cylinders appeared at the end of the 19th century. Swiss composer Edgar Varèse used sirens, fans, motors and metallophones to augment the resources in the early 30's. In the 50's tape recorders were used to record and create new noises and loop sounds together in a Mobius strip concept of time.
Your ears will tell you the rest of the history as the beat never, ever stops, or even slows, it just goes on and on and on…the triumph of the machine. Noise is become music; music noise. Or, to paraphrase Sartre: “Hell is other people’s music”.
Modern performers’ tempo choices in practice
The 19th century rediscovery of Bach’s keyboard music owed a great debt to the work of Carl Czerny, the Hungaro-German piano virtuoso and pedagogue of the mid-nineteenth century. Czerny was a pupil of Beethoven, (who was a pupil of Albrechtsberger and Haydn, who was a pupil of…). In the middle years of the 19th century Czerny published a very influential edition of J.S. Bach’s celebrated work, Das Wolhltemprirte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Keyboard Instrument), a collection of two sets of Preludes and Fugues in each of the twelve keys, major and minor. They are known today as “the forty-eight”, and every single student of the piano or harpsichord would be familiar with them.
About the pieces Czerny writes in the foreword: “It has been my endeavour to indicate tempo and interpretation: First, according to the unmistakable character of each movement; Secondly, according to the well-remembered impression made on me by Beethoven’s rendering of a great number of these fugues; Thirdly according to convictions matured by more than thirty years study of this work. Where and extremely rapid tempo is indicated, this is, of course, meant only for the piano-forte. When passages so marked are played on the organ, the tempo must be moderated very decidedly. Those who have no Maelzel Metronome at hand are reminded, that the Allegro in these old compositions is to be taken, as a rule, much more slowly and tranquilly than in modern works.”
(Susan's Paquet reproduction of Maelzel's design of c. 1812, which he stole form D. N. Winkel; the original instructions describe full and half beats.)
I came to know them as a guitar student of 17, when I inhabited the listening room of the Calgary Public Library, listening to the “WTC” in recordings by Wanda Landowska (made for RCA in the fifties) and Isolde Ahlgrimm on the harpsichord, and Glenn Gould (on the piano). While listening, I would follow the score with Czerny’s edition, taped, yellowed and falling apart, acquired by the CPL in 1939. I still have this book, and yes, I paid the fine. In it Czerny gives tempo indications and metronome speeds for the pieces. Recently I compared his indications with a recording of the work made in the seventies by Leonhardt, recently re-issued on CD.
Here’s what I found: (with Quantz equivalent pulse speeds of Czerny’s verbal tempo indications)
For the first Prelude in C major, Czerny indicates Allegro, M.M. (Maelzel Metronome) 112 beats per minute to the quarter note (very fast), which Leonhardt plays at about 88 to the quarter, where Quantz would recommend about 80 to the quarter, or 40 to the half note.
Looking at six of the Preludes and Fugues, Leonhardt is about a third or more slower, but still significantly faster than Quantz. Occasionally Quantz and Leonhardt are even. Czerny is consistently faster or notably slower. My conclusion is that Czerny, whose edition was published about a century after Bach’s death, had, despite his conspicuous disclaimer and the authority of no less a figure than Ludwig himself, significantly sped the music up to the prevailing keyboard traditions of his day. The use of the more resonant piano has allowed for greater tolerance of wide tempo variation. He set in motion a consistent increase of the tempos which are still in evidence in today’s piano performances, clearly audible in, for example Glenn Gould’s eccentric but essential recordings. A number of piano recordings or the WTC have recently appeared: Till Fellner, Vladimir Feltsmann, Andras Schiff, Angela Hewitt. A survey of WTC performances is found at www.bsherman.org/WTC
In orchestral recordings of the Classical period repertoire there has been notable intransigence in adopting more historical tempos. Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood, both big sellers of period instrument Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven recordings, usually adopt “virtuoso” tempos, seemingly bent on proving that their relatively small ensembles of hand-picked specialists can make the average symphony orchestra seem staid and uninteresting. Some ensembles of more recent times, such as the string group Il Giardino Armonico made a name accelerating Vivaldi and Bach to unheard of levels. Two notable recordings of Beethoven’s Eroica by Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner, both working with larger ensembles of very fine players, have widely differing tempos, with Norrington playing very fast, and Gardiner more relaxed. Neither of them has performed the controversial metronome markings by Beethoven himself, which Talsma suggested should be read at half-speed.
The Slow Movement
There had been an emerging fashion lately, especially in the world of cooking, for everything Slow. Slow Food consists of using only organic whole foods, locally grown, free range, without preservatives or excessive transport and storage. Artisan bread, organic vegetables, the use of the stove, oven or slow cookers, rather than the microwave or foil wrappers. No reheating, no to excessive fat, sugar or salt. Yes to increased sensory appeal, presentation and flavour. Cast iron cookware, rather than aluminum. Slow Food had its start in Italy, but has spread to Western Europe and more recently to North America. It’s an easy sell and sure profits in a world dominated by fast food and over-processing of staples.
Slow Food, Slow Sex, Slow Schooling, SuperSlow exercise, yoga, Pilates, Slow Cities, and in life as in music, Tempo Giusto (the “right” speed). Discussing music, in the words of Carl Honoré, writer of the recent best-selling book In Praise of Slow:
“This movement believes most music has come to be played much faster than it was ever meant to be. They believe this is partly because as modern life sped up, so did music. As well, advances in instrument technology, they believe, encouraged faster playing. Mirroring the modern obsession with efficiency, musical teaching took on an industrial ethic. Students began practising by playing notes, rather than compositions.
In [German pianist] Uwe Kliemt’s view, all of these trends help to fuel the acceleration of classical music.
‘Think of the greatest composers in the pre-twentieth-century canon – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms,’ he says. ‘We play them all too fast.’
This is not a mainstream view. Most people in the music world have never heard of Tempo Giusto, and those who have tend to scoff at the movement. Yet some experts are open to the idea that classical music suffers from too much speed. There is certain evidence that we play some music faster than before.
In a letter dated Oct 26, 1876, Liszt wrote that he took "presque une heure" to play the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata op. 106. Fifty years later, Arthur Schnabel needed just forty minutes. Today some pianists rattle through the same notes in thirty-five minutes.”
[Uwe Kliemt’s interesting website ( www.tempogiusto.de ), partly in English, has fascinating examples (called horbeispiel or tonbeispiel in German) of fast and Slow versions of famous piano works by Beethoven and Mozart.]
What about Slow downloads?
If the reader is wishes to refer to our samples or our recordings for Slow performance practice, then look in the music for fortepiano, harpsichord and lute solos. In the D minor Weiss suite the movement marked Allegro would barely qualify as Andante in the hands of a modern guitar player. De Visée’s theorbo transcription of Couperin’s rondeau “Les Sylvains” is scarcely recognizable as a Gigue, normally a faster piece. The theorbo is a bit of a hippo in a tutu anyway
A contemporary pianist would find the Haydn D major Sonata, played on the antique Broadwood square piano, significantly slower than a traditional performance. How many contemporary musicians would know that the middle movement is a Sarabande! In the Carulli Sonata for Guitar and Piano, all the movements are played more slowly, partly in accord with our observance of historically appropriate tempos, but also partly because we feel that the instruments largely dictate the speed through articulation, the dynamics and the overall character. It’s not that the instruments respond more slowly, if anything they are more immediate; it’s that we enjoy the actual sonority that they produce because it has more character, more overtones, more colour.
Slow Food for music lovers who like tofu,
My recipe for roasted tofu and vegetables, done in a cast-iron Dutch oven (any heavy pot with a lid or a slow cooker will do, but cast iron is best, the lid of the oven is specially designed to return the water to the pot). Cut the firm tofu pillows by cutting lengthwise in a cross, then cross-cutting the resulting four pieces, producing neat triangles. This maximizes the surface. Fry the triangles in a teaspoon of peanut oil (grape seed or olive, but peanut is best) stirring constantly until lightly browned. Add a teaspoon of sesame oil, then stir in some wheat-free tamari (for best color and no burning) or low-sodium soy sauce. The result should be somewhat leathery and deep brown. Toss in some small potato cubes, sliced green peppers, sliced carrots, celery, sliced zucchini, raw cashews or almonds (I don’t like garlic or onions, but be my guest). Cover and cook over very low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add some cumin seed, coriander, black mustard seed, fresh herbs such as marjoram or sage, oregano or basil. Asparagus spears, sliced cauliflower or broccoli may be added in the last 5 minutes.
Serve with a good quality noodle, soba or whole wheat pasta. It’s a good one-pot, high fibre, low fat, low sodium, high protein, easily-prepared meal, one which requires little attention thanks to the pot, but one which has maximum nutrition, colour and texture Avoid reading, listening to music or watching television while eating. Concentrate on the food while eating but listen to music while waiting. Try some nice early music downloads…Mozart is unbeatable. Look out the window, talk to someone. Enjoy treading lightly—and slowly.
From Susans Studio
Bechy comes home at last!
Its a Long Piano
You've come a long way! Susan and her toy piano at age three
Yippee, the happy day finally arrived and the Bechstein trotted into my studio. Well, not exactly trotted – it was wheeled in and set up by several burly gentlemen while I hid in the back of the house, pacing and wringing my hands. But all that stress was worth it, because it’s Wonderful! Amazing! Superb! It’s so smooth yet clear, rich yet light, and very well-balanced through the range. I never expected to have such a beautiful piano.
At present we are going through the usual ‘teething’ issues which one experiences with a new instrument, as the felt in the action compresses and the soundboard gets used to being under tension. All of this makes for tiny, fascinating changes which take place every few days. I can hear the sound becoming more complex and varied as the strings crystallize, and I can feel the action becoming smoother and more compliant as it gets played in. And the piano is influencing my playing as well: to quote Goethe in translation, “A good rider also learns from his horse.”
The new acquisition makes me think of the other instruments I have known and loved, some of which are still with us. First of all there was the charming toy piano, followed by a small Quidoz upright which was in our living room until I was eleven. Then came a very-baby Willis grand which lasted me through high school, a pretty piece of furniture but not very satisfying because of the short string length. In university I practised, of course, on the workhorses in the practice rooms and I developed a few favourites among them; notably a huge, ancient Heintzman upright with a loose action and throaty tone. During those years we also rented a variety of indifferent instruments, including one in which the frame had literally been forced (crookedly) into the case of the piano – a product of the We’ll Make it Fit School of Carpentry. By this time I had become smitten with the harpsichord, and wheedled my family out of money for a small Zuckermann with one manual and a straight side. That harpsichord was used in a lot of concerts, in spite of the fact that we lived on the top floor of a four-storey apartment building with – you guessed it – no elevator!
Finally I could buy my own piano, and ended up with a big Starck upright which had been thrashed so hard that the black keys, when depressed, sat a full quarter inch below the level of the whites. Oh well, I had the sharps replaced and kept that piano until we moved to the Vancouver area. Meanwhile we upgraded the Zuckermann to a beautiful Hubbard French double-manual harpsichord which remains with us today, and upon which I recorded many pieces.
After moving to the coast we had the opportunity to purchase a fine Italian harpsichord, made almost entirely of Port Orford cedar, and it still smells wonderful every time I open the lid. This instrument has a plangent attack and beautiful resonance – you can hear it in the samples of Scarlatti and Froberger. Piano-wise, a square Collard & Collard came through Marinus’ shop and we bought it unrestored. Clive had an interesting project restoring it, but we decided to part with it because funds were perennially tight. (No wonder!) Shortly after we moved, a Willis upright appeared and I bought it although I hesitated because of my previous experience with that make. It turned out to be a lovely and reliable instrument which I kept until I could upgrade to a grand piano, this time an 1870 Collard & Collard with pretty round-ended sharps on the keyboard and a very clear sound. The action was a bit heavy and intractable, so when the time was right I traded it in on the Erard which sits in my studio to day – eight feet four inches of bell-like sonority, owing to the straight stringing, and a luxurious action in which many of the parts are wrapped in kid leather. Meanwhile, Clive took a break from building lutes and guitars in the workshop and assembled a leg-o-mutton spinet which we have named Lambchop. Around that time we also acquired the excellent Viennese fortepiano upon which I have recorded many works by Mozart. It is truly a fabulous instrument with a fleet action and captivating sonority. Now the gorgeous Bechstein sits beside it and we are a happy family.
Our special thanks go to Marinus van Prattenburg for his impeccable restoration and to Buddy Tavares for his flawless refinishing. The result is stunning visually and musically. An amazing example of the realized potential of a good quality, in Marinus' words, "thoroughbred piano"
Do you remember in the last newsletter I joked about getting a Beethoven-vintage fortepiano? Well, all I can say is be careful what you wish for, because last week an 1809 Broadwood presented itself ….Guess what’s coming to our house?
In the Fall: Speaking of baroque lutes