Chopin and the Tempo Rubato

Music of Yesterday


Definition: “Tempo Rubato”. Taking the portion of the time from one note of a melody and giving it to another, for the sake of expression. It is much employed in the playing of Chopin’s music. DR. RALPH DUNSTAN.

IN Mr. Henry T. Finck’s volume on Success in Music and How It Is Won, there is a chapter on “Tempo Rubato,” written by Paderewski. The eminent pianist quotes the well known advice Chopin is said to have given his pupils, namely, to play freely with the right hand, but to keep time with the left. Paderewski labors to show that in many of Chopin’s pieces the left hand did not play the part of a conductor, but “mostly that of a prima donna ;” and, as supplementing this, he repeats the old story that in the opinion of some of his contemporaries, Chopin really could not play in time. THE FOE OF THE METRONOME.

The point is worth looking into. Of course, to begin with, one must differentiate between tempo rubato and an inherent inability to “keep time.” Tempo rubato, “this irreconcilable foe of the metronome,” as Paderewski calls it, is one of music’s oldest friends. It is older than the romantic school; older than Mozart; nay, older than Bach. Girolamo Frescobaldi, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, made ample use of it. And yet there were those among the classics who did not believe in any deviations from strict time not expressly indicated by the composer. Mozart prided himself on the fact that he always kept strict time, even in passages of marked expression and passion, which is just where free treatment as to tempo is most allowable, not to say called for. Time, Mozart added, is “the most indispensable, hardest and principal thing in music.”

Beethoven, as his pupil Ferdinand Ries relates, “kept time like a metronome,” Hummel, once absurdly regarded as Beethoven’s rival, wrote: “The player must strictly observe the time throughout the entire piece; the accompanists should not for a moment be led astray by the player about the prevailing tempo, but he must execute his piece so correctly and according to rule that they can accompany him without fear, and not be obliged to listen attentively at almost every bar for a deviation from the time”.


Schumann was also all for playing in strict time. He protested against the practice of certain virtuosi of his day, whose “time,” he said, was “more like the gait of a drunken man than anything else.” From Schumann to Karl Reinecke is a descent, and yet it may be worth while to listen to Reinecke on the subject. “So long,” he says, “as I have any breath left I shall not tire of denouncing the nuisance, which is evermore gaining ground, of fluctuations of tempo in classical works, even if I were to be stoned for it ! Nowadays, one no longer listens to a classical symphony in order to enjoy the work, but in order to observe in it what licenses this or that conductor admits; and if it is now quite different from how one has always heard it, then one hails it with joy and cries, ‘He understands it; one does not recognize the work again at all.’ The object is attained, for the conductor has produced an effect; it does not, indeed, depend any more upon the work. And even the better class of critics seem nowadays to have become indifferent to such inartistic runnings after effect, or shrink from censuring them.”


Of course, the vagaries of orchestral conductors as regards fluctuations of tempo are not, correctly speaking, to be classed with tempo rubato effects. Tempo rubato, in the strictest sense, is the more or less emotional prompting of the individual performer, unpremeditated, as a rule, and varying in degree according to mood and circumstances. And, as regards Chopin especially, it must be insisted that tempo rubato is an essential element in the rendering of a large majority of his compositions. The zephyr-like and exquisite delicacy of his style, and his tenderness of sentiment, often verging on the extreme of sweetness, call for impassioned and unrestrained treatment in the matter of tempo, as well as for the “imploring and pleading touch” which Dr. Mason desiderated. It is superfluous to say that Chopin himself recognized this. Liszt, indeed, declares that he tried to impart his ideas on the subject to his pupils; but he adds, very significantly, that it is extremely difficult for those who never heard Chopin himself play to catch the true secret of his tempo rubato.


That Chopin either ignored the value of strict time or could not himself “keep time” in playing is entirely out of the question. “Time is the soul of music” was one of his sayings, and what he preached he practiced. Carl Mikuli, one of his pupils, categorically asserts that in the matter of time Chopin was inexorable. “It will surprise many to learn that with him the metronome did not come off the piano,” Mikuli adds. Mme. Friedericke Streicher, another pupil, tells us that “he required adherence to the strictest rhythm, hated all lingering and lagging and misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos.” George A. Osborne, who resided near him in Paris, and heard him  play many of his compositions while still in manuscript, has left it on record that “the great steadiness of his accompaniment, whether with the right or left hand, was truly remarkable.” Mr. Otto Goldschmidt, the husband of Jenny Lind, supports this by saying that Chopin’s rubato playing was really no rubato playing at all: “his left hand kept a very distinct rhythm and perfect time, whilst the right hand performed independently, just as a finished vocalist would sing, properly supported by a sympathetic accompanist.”


Contemporary critics who did not understand his style, spoke of Chopin’s “exaggerated phrasing.” Dr. Hanslick, the German critic, who was quite as incapable of appreciating a delicate genius like Chopin as he was of appreciating the revolutionary art theories of Wagner, denounced his “morbid unsteadiness of tempo.” But it is perfectly clear that, while Chopin looked to tempo rubato as a means of emotional expression, he never intended that it should obscure the rhythm never, certainly, in his own practice, fell into that error. One hand might be unfettered; it must be the function of the other to mark the beat. He was with Mozart at least in the maxim: “Let your left hand be your conductor, and always keep time.” His own form of the maxim was: “The left hand should be like a capellmeister; not for one moment ought it to be uncertain and hesitating.” The assertion that he could not himself keep time is too ridiculous to demand serious notice. To be sure, it was made by Berlioz, but Berlioz had a weakness for exaggerated statement, and was, besides, not sympathetic towards either Chopin or Chopin’s style. We have the authority of Henry Charles, the eminent London critic,  for saying that Chopin could be “as staid as a metronome” in compositions not his own, and there is ample  testimony to corroborate this.

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