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This week's featured recording:

Sonata in E, Hob 13: III. Finale. Presto
by Franz Joseph Haydn

It's time to go fox hunting! This favorite pastime of Haydn's boss, the prince, naturally made its way into a number of his sonatas and symphonies via suggestive horn calls and the like. Here the visceral excitement of just going really fast is enough to keep this charming little movement from wearing thin for its short length, even if it is composed largely of musical clichés. Note to all the princes out there: It's already October; time to leave your summer palaces and let your musicians get home to their wives! (just a thought).

upcoming events:
   Friday, October 30, 7 pm Faith United Methodist Church, 1719 S. Prospect Rd., Champaign, Illinois, USA
      "Scary Organ Recital"
    After convincing everyone last year that an organ recital wasn't all that frightening, now I'm taking it all back! All the spooky music you can stand without running away screaming. Favorites like the famous Toccata and Fugue in d minor, and several pieces you haven't heard before that will thrill you just as much. Come if you dare!
"Classic" Blog (week of Sept. 29)

The blogger returns October 5th.

Monday 2/25/13
Must be a real snoozefest
It was the best of fugues, it was the worst of fugues (not necessarily in that order)

Wednesday 2/27/13
I can't think of anything good to write so I think I'll just throw some words together and hit 'publish.' Is that ok with you? 
Sometimes even Haydn couldn't think of anything

Friday 3/1/13
Lento ma non troppo 
This year I'm not giving up my brain for Lent
from the concert hall:
from the teaching studio:
from the organ bench:

Do you Have Somewhere to Be?
first posted May 5, 2010

He was going too fast, I thought. I couldn't help thinking that Mozart would have shared my opinion. I am guessing that based on a letter to his father in which Mozart complained about the speed at which some fellow raced through his piece, and another in which he complained about that practice in general.

But what it might really have come down to wasn't that actual speed, per se, but that he was playing the piece in a way that made it sound fast. And I began to imagine reasons for that.

I was in the car at the time.  As I pulled into the parking lot, a Mozart sonata had come on the radio, as played by some fellow who had won some international competition or other. Recently, I think. And I wondered whether that had anything to do with his treatment of Mozart.

You see, Mozart doesn't give us enough notes per measure to show off with by comparison to much of the music that came after him. At the time, his was the high water mark for piano playing prowess, but, like most measures of faster, higher, stronger, it was soon superseded by people in the next century who came pouring more and more titillating passagework into their pieces; artistic merit be damned, some of the time. And it is all the better for those who think lots of rapid runs are what constitutes artistic merit in the first place. But as Arthur Schnabel pointed out, adults are afraid to play Mozart sonatas precisely because there aren't very many notes (to hide behind). This unfortunate malady of Mozart's is often 'corrected' by pianists who want to win competitions, or just generally stun persons with their command of a piano, by keeping the tempi crisp, and the runs even crisper. Haydn, I think, has also suffered from many a prestissimo. In a world where it is possible to travel at speeds undreamt of by our forefathers, a world in which we all have places to go, what's the harm in shaving a few minutes off a sonata in the process?

Maybe the way to answer that would be to examine the motives of the pianist. Is it really about the musical intentions of the composer, or is it primarily about using the piece as a vehicle to show off?

As I said, his treatment made the piece sound fast. When I've played the same piece in the past, it is not really that much slower. A metronome tick or two, perhaps. And that might be, for me, what makes all the difference. And it brings up the issue of tempo, which is something that people argue about constantly, which makes it a great thing to discuss.

Not that the discussion always yields great insights. Once on a discussion of somebody's recording of Schumann, posted on Youtube, an irritated comment poster said: "he plays the piece like he has a train to catch." I don't recall thinking the pianist's choice of tempo was really all that out of line, but then, as the internet has made very clear to all of us, I/we am/are just one individual in a sea of wildly different opinions, often buttressed by shouting, or at least all caps, and occasionally, something resembling a good argument. When it comes to postings on say, Youtube, of some of the greatest pianists of the last century, there is no pleasing some people. They simply sniff and say that some other pianist plays the piece a thousand times better. It is really astounding how much shorthand erudition is out there--humbling, really. I went to music school for years and I am still not so sure of some of my opinions sometimes.

But I know enough to disagree with some people's choice of tempo once in a while. Why?

1. The speed with which we play/sing a piece has a lot to do with the way we hear it. In this regard, professionals, or people who are highly developed musically, often take faster tempi than those who are not. This is because the perceived speed of the piece has a lot to do, not with how fast the notes are going by, but by the rate at which the musical argument proceeds; in the other words, the stuff that our ears perceive as important. Imagine you are on a very fast train, looking out the window, watching the telephone poles go by. If they are very far apart, they may not seem to be going by too quickly even if the train is travelling at 90 miles an hour. Shift your gaze to the gravel bed below, or to the railroad ties, and the picture is an absolute blur. Similarly, a person whose ears are trained on, say, the rate of harmonic change in a piece, may feel that the piece isn't really moving very fast, since an entire measure or two consists of the same harmony. It may also have a few dozen notes in it, but those are details like the railroad ties that are only noticeable as they contribute to the whole. Even if an entire phrase goes by in a second or two, and it is followed by another whose relationship to the first one is easily perceived by the listener, then that recognition of the larger pattern keeps the piece comprehensible at higher speeds. People who read well can do it out loud very quickly because they can understand what they are reading even faster. You can talk to your neighbor at high speed, and understand him or her just as quickly, but try listening to someone in another language and it quickly becomes apparent just how many varied sounds we are spitting out of our mouths every second. If you are listening for the meaning of the words, this isn't a problem. Lose the meaning, and the individual sound bits suddenly seem to have formed an army laying siege to your mind! Thus, part of our understanding of tempo is related to our understanding of the material. A sea of notes which turns out to be merely a scale can go by very fast without losing anything in intelligibility--for the player. There is no guarantee it will function this way for each member of the audience!

2. This is not to say that every gifted artist takes fast tempi. Some have been known to take extremely slow ones. The reasons may be philosophical, which is to say they are various. Sometimes an artist feels that more emotional intensity can be achieved that way; tension takes longer to build, and longer to dissipate. There are many who would tie the piece's perceived message or mood to the speed of various bodily activities, and these are sometimes rather slow. It is even possible for an artist to adopt a cantankerously slow tempo just as a reaction to irritatingly fast ones, or because it will stand out (again for competitive reasons). Glenn Gould, one of the last centurie's most eccentric pianistic personalities, tended to play his pieces either very fast or very slow. Either way, they were out of the ordinary.

3. There is tradition, or custom. I learned rather quickly during my stint as a vocal accompanist in graduate school that every aria from every opera has a customary speed which may have little or nothing to do with what it says on the page. Some adagios seemed very lively, and a few of the prestos were a bit andante; this might have been due to the idea that the composers, most of whom were/are not singers, didn't have the requisite sympathy for the voice to know the appropriate speed at which one could get through a phrase without passing out. Vocal traditions in particular rely on a lot of unwritten knowledge, particularly in the opera house when every high note has an understood fermata on it, entitling the tenor to hang on to the note long enough to impress us all with his lung capacity.

4. I've often found that the speed with which I play a piece changes as I am learning it; on becoming reacquainted with it after some time away I may change the tempo as well. I am not sure always why I do it, only that it seems as if what the piece has to say to me comes through best at that speed. Certain passages stand out with more clarity in my mind. This change of tempi takes a flexibility that is not easy to achieve. One of the toughest things for some of the choirs I play for is to adjust to a new tempo. They get used to singing it one way and can't get out of that rut. Last fall some fellow caused a problem by conducting part of a piece much slower than our own conductor had prepared it; I suppose he thought he had some sort of a right just because he had composed the piece!

Tempo is dependent on meter and rhythm and these are but a series of relationships, not something fixed with absolute precision (unless you have metronome markings, and we'll have to argue about their accuracy another time). There are some composers, and performers who encourage changes in tempi, and others who do not, which is really no surprise. People are people, which means they hold opposite views on the matter.

Being of the school of cheerful adaptation, I would suggest that when someone takes a different tempo in music, or in life, rather than merely scowling at it, we see what can be learned from it. If the piece is familiar enough, there may still be something that can be discovered in that mysterious relationship of sounds that may not have been as obvious the last time you heard it, and the new tempo may have something to do with that little revelation.



9/29 (5/5/10)