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Tempo Rubato


“A question of the greatest importance in playing the music of Chopin is that of “tempo rubato.” That does not mean, as many think, that the time is to be dislocated. It means permitting great liberty to the singing part or melody of the composition, while the accompaniment keeps rigorous time... This kind of playing, demanding complete independence of the two hands, is not within the ability of everybody. Therefore, to give the illusion of such effect, players dislocate the bass and destroy the rhythm of the bar.”

 – Camille Saint-Saëns

Tempo rubato, or "l'accent pathétique", is difficult to describe in words or notate on the page, but this notion of tempo flexibility is I believe one of the more striking differences between modern and historically informed interpretations. In an earlier form of "melodic" tempo rubato, note values were stretched and shortened in an improvisatory manner over a steady bass accompaniment. Mozart commented in a letter from 1777, "what these people cannot grasp is that in tempo rubato, in an Adagio, the left hand should go on playing in strict time. With them the left hand always follows suit." Documented in the Baroque era and sustained as a performance practice through the ensuing centuries, in tempo rubato, performers continued to take liberties with their melodies while the accompaniment kept strict time. This push and pull of the melodic line, creating a spontaneous flexibility and near autonomy against a steady accompaniment, is almost completely lost in many twenty-first century interpretations. How to recreate this particular style of tempo rubato?

Here is a wonderfully natural illustration of melodic tempo rubato in the vocal sphere sung by Bea Arthur in "What'll I Do", written by Irving Berlin (left).

Tempo rubato is often closely associated with the music of Chopin, but performances that embrace this earlier melodic flexibility have been largely forgotten in our time. The recordings of Raoul Koczalski, a student of Karl Mikuli (who, in turn, was a student of Chopin), provide clues as to how this music was interpreted in Chopin's time. The complete freedom of the hands in Koczalski's interpretation and the added ornaments make these interpretations of Chopin's Nocturnes truly his own.

F. Chopin - Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9 No. 2

F. Chopin - Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27 No. 2

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