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Rubato In Baroque Music


Peter Clark
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How much rubato is acceptable in baroque music? I'm not just talking about the slower pieces such as O Mensch, disussed elswhere here recently, but some of the faster movements. The organ voluntary laast week at the Mass at Westminster Cathedral was Buxtehude D major P+F, and I swear that there was considrable latitude in this regard granted by a very capable player (whose name was not given but was not Martin Baker), for example at the first pedal entry in the prelude. Is it a matter of personal taste? Is there historic evidence either way? Is it a "fashion" thing - indeed does it depend of the instrument on which and/or acoustic in which you are playing? Would, say, Widor have played Bach significantly differently from a contemporary player such as Dr Jackson, were they to play the same insrument?

 

Peter

 

PS (editing) looking a Fiffaro's post in the Why do we bother thread, I am reminded that I too had to "shh" some people during this voluntary; not only were they talking but were taking photos with the attendant clicking and flashing despite this being forbidden by the cathedral authorities. And of course as has been remarked many times before, lots of people - not just organists - see the voluntary as part of the worship.

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For me most important when listening to music, is wether the performer is convinced of the work of art and expresses/communicates this to me/any.listener.

If he/she uses more/less rubato or anything is than secondary and possibly academic (using 'newer' techniques not know at the time of the composition etc.)

 

PS. I played Vierne Final from symf.I after (saturday) Midnight Mass last Easter. As 'we' reached the re-entrance of the main theme in the pedals (the last part) the fire-alarm went off with a 'slow-whoop' as it is called, slightly below D-major.

Beats any chamade :ph34r:

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How much rubato is acceptable in baroque music? I'm not just talking about the slower pieces such as O Mensch, disussed elswhere here recently, but some of the faster movements. The organ voluntary laast week at the Mass at Westminster Cathedral was Buxtehude D major P+F, and I swear that there was considrable latitude in this regard granted by a very capable player (whose name was not given but was not Martin Baker), for example at the first pedal entry in the prelude. Is it a matter of personal taste? Is there historic evidence either way? Is it a "fashion" thing - indeed does it depend of the instrument on which and/or acoustic in which you are playing? Would, say, Widor have played Bach significantly differently from a contemporary player such as Dr Jackson, were they to play the same insrument?

 

 

=============================

 

This is one of those simple questions which has the potential to roll and roll; some of which was answered in our thread about the "stylus phantasticus" style in the Hanseatic region, where Buxtehude and Bruhns practiced their performing and compositional skills.

 

Starting with general observation, and trying to move to more detailed things, perhaps I should start with a question.

 

What was it which drew Bach to Lubeck, on foot, and which kept him there for some considerable time?

 

I can only scratch at the surface, but certain things were happening there which made it an intellectual "hot spot" in Northern Europe. This was not restricted to music by any means, and the impact of Copernicus was still reverberating in the corridors of the great and the good; not to mention the pulpits. His work entitled "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" had set out his new heliocentric theory, claiming that the Earth was not at the centre of God's universe, but that it revolved around the Sun. In the history of church belief and theology, this was possibly the biggest upheaval of all time, and turned on its head everything which had gone before.

 

What is remarkable about this, is not so much the science (remarkable though it was), but the fact that he was able to say it without being burned at the stake as a heretic. He had challenged, and triumphed over long held beliefs, and rocked one of the pillars of accepted catholic theology. The fact that he was a mathematician, astronomer, jurist, physician, classical scholar, Catholic cleric, governor, administrator, military commander, diplomat and economist, may have had something to do with it!

 

What has this got to do with music, I can hear you asking?

 

In theory, it is unrelated to music, but in practice, it was part of the surge towards humanist expression, which of course lay at the heart of the Reformation. In a nutshell, it was the theological change from "God's alone is our help" to "God helps them that help themselves."

 

In other words, humanity now had authority, and was free to indulge in personal expression, even if this challenged the authority of God and his church.

 

Although Copernicus lived and died a Catholic, his spirit of inquiry and consequent dissent spread across Northern Europe like a forest-fire. Go to the Reijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and look at the old masters hanging in the galleries. In the space of just a couple of decades (at a guess), art had moved away from religious portraits and themes, to the Golden Age of civil leaders, traders, military men and everyday life on the streets. It was an artistic revolution.

 

Go back to Catholic Italy, and to the music of composers such as Palestrina. This was formal music, in which the overall musical effect is that devotional unity, where each contrapuntal line is subsumed to the principle of "other worldly" representation. You don't need to explain it: you just listen to it and let the musical prayer wash you clean of sin.

 

It is this breaking away from stylised formality which is at the heart of the Baroque, and which marks a point of revolution in so many different aspects of life: visual, religious, philosophical, scientific and musical, among other things. Mankind, for the first time in Christendom, was free to express itself in human as well as spiritual terms.

 

How does this affect the way we perceive the music of Buxtehude, Bruhns and the North German style?

 

Well, it is important to understand just where Lubeck stood on the pan-European agenda. It was a region which had links throughout the known world: outward looking, cosmopolitan and innovative. The old rules and formalities were giving way to something else, and a marvellous example of this is the wedding of Buxtehude himself. As part of his conditions of employment, the number of people allowed to attend the wedding celebrations was restricted to a small number of invited guests. In fact, his wedding turned into something of a riot, as people swarmed to the party and made a hell of noise. It was one of the biggest social events of the year!

 

Buxtehude could get away with it because he was a local celebrity, and a beacon of musical life in Lubeck. He wasn't allowed to break the rules, but he did anyway.

 

Now consider a couple of other things, which brought a little flamboyance into North Germany. Firstly, there was the virtuosic keyboard style, which had arrived via the Netherlands from Britain. Its influence spread rapidly across the North of Europe: the classic Bull - Sweelinck - Scheidemann trail of text-book history. We may therefore take it for granted, that as a major musician in an important place, Buxtehude would be an absolute keyboard virtuoso.

 

The flamboyant style also came from a long way South, from Italy to be exact. The German musicians complained bitterly about the number of Italian string-players who got the best gigs, just as English people to-day moan and groan about Polish migrants. Mattheson wrote about it, I believe, as he did about so many things. Like the Mafia driving Ferraris, they brought a bit of glamour and excitement to the region, and were readily snapped up by aristocrats and given key jobs in their private orchestras. In musical terms, they brought the greatest string-playing style in Europe with them, fabulous virtuosity, and of course, Italian passion. It is not insignificant that Bach, and especially Handel, plucked their love of beautiful melody straight out of Italy: the "Bel Canto" style, which relies so much on emphasis and rubato, as well as the resolution of heavily laboured dissonance.

 

So when we approach the music of Buxtehude and his pupil Nicolaus Bruhns, it should be with a free-spirit of adventure and an expressive sense of wanting to say something musically. In just a few bars, Bruhns could move from slow to fast, from open arpeggio to formal fugue and from consonance to dissonance. The music is wild, impulsive and, above all, free spirited.

 

This is what so enthralled Bach; the country boy from Thuringia, where they probably sang like "The Wurzels" and chewed straw.

 

Point me towards a baroque player with a metronome, and I'll show you a dead man.

 

However, in my own estimation, I think that rubato-playing needs to be measured; a contradiction in terms you may feel.

Rubato is not about altering the timing, or at least it shouldn't be. It is about rhythmic, expressive elasticity WITHIN A FAIRLY STRICT OVERALL TIMING. Anything other than this, and the music will fragment or even fall apart. This is purely a personal opinion, but if something is slowed down, something else needs to speed up to compensate for it, otherwise the essential pulse and drive of the music is lost. Unfortunately, certain performers take this to extremes, and without naming names, there is a certain gentleman with thick glasses and frizzy hair from the Netherlands, who can both infuriate and delight in equal measure, as the mood takes him. The fortunate thing, is that you know him to be alive, and not just an organ-playing robot.

 

I'm sure that the discussion will now continue for the next few months and years, but I do admire Peter's taste in mentioning Francis Jackson; one of the best Bach players I know, but who was never trumpeted as such. That's why I've always thought of him as a musician rather than merely as an organist.

 

I'll leave the bit about Widor playing Bach to others!

 

MM

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You can hear how Vierne played Bach through the odd recording he made. His rendition of the "little" E minor P+F is, to my ear, unbearable. He takes more than twice as long as any other recording I have of the work (Hurford, Chapuis, Bowyer, Weinrich). FJ is no speed merchant, but I would think he will get through it in little more than half the time Vierne took.

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Guest Barry Williams

It is interesting to compare your reaction to Vierne's performance of the 'Little' E minor with my own. I found it powerful, awesome and intensely musical - far more moving than some of the other names you have mentioned, excellent though they are. The very slow speed did not bother me at all - which is unusual.

 

How good it is that we have different tastes!

 

Barry Williams

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For Uni, i have just wrote a comparitative analysis of BWV 727 (the simple version of the passion chorale) comparing recordings by Vierne / Walcha / Preston / Vernet. The diffrence in tempo is quite interesting, as is how Vierne uses french string stops and heels, thus striving for what he considers to be the beauty of the piece, rather than what Bach, or Bach scholars consider the beauty of it

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It is interesting to compare your reaction to Vierne's performance of the 'Little' E minor with my own. I found it powerful, awesome and intensely musical - far more moving than some of the other names you have mentioned, excellent though they are. The very slow speed did not bother me at all - which is unusual.

 

How good it is that we have different tastes!

 

Barry Williams

I am glad to read this. I find myself somewhere in the middle between Barry and David. I know organists who would dismiss Vierne's performance (which, incidentally, is on YouTube) out of hand as turgid, unmusical rubbish. However, we ought to be wary of making such hasty judgements since they won't do us any favours. We are more likely to broaden our musicianship by trying to understand where the performer is coming from - why he is performing as he is (a bit like Pierre and his Romantic organs!) That said, while I admire the grandeur and solemnity of Vierne's interpretation, I can't quite bring myself to believe in the piece at this speed. Maybe if one were actually present in the nave at Notre-dame...

 

For Uni, i have just wrote a comparitative analysis of BWV 727 (the simple version of the passion chorale) comparing recordings by Vierne / Walcha / Preston / Vernet. The diffrence in tempo is quite interesting, as is how Vierne uses french string stops and heels, thus striving for what he considers to be the beauty of the piece, rather than what Bach, or Bach scholars consider the beauty of it

This sounds very interesting. Are you perhaps pinpointing how we today perceive the difference between Romantic and Baroque modes of expression?

 

I have just one CD of Vernet, but it displays an approach to Baroque music that is most satisfyingly musical without being at all Romantic.

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"How much rubato is acceptable in baroque music?"

 

This is already a confused question. 'Rubato' is a later way of describing a rhythmic freedom which, when present in baroque music, is the result of a number of other factors. Most important among these are rhetoric and beat hierarchy. A good example of the sort of piece where rhythmic freedom is the result rather than the means is anything with durezze e ligature. The most obvious examples are the elevation toccatas of Frescobaldi and Froberger, however the central section of BWV 572 also qualifies! If you treat the suspension and the resolution as rhythmic equals, then I'm not coming to hear you play. :ph34r:

 

"This is purely a personal opinion, but if something is slowed down, something else needs to speed up to compensate for it, otherwise the essential pulse and drive of the music is lost."

 

This is only true if the rhetorical structure allows for it. You have to be able to analyse the musical figures. In other words, the idea of all the bars being of exactly equal lengths because of 'give and take' is potentially misleading. Tempo in baroque music in general is actually another issue and one which in general is misunderstood and under-researched. I once again would like to recommend the book I mentioned here before by Clemens-Christoph von Gleich, "A Bach Tempo Guide" (GOArt, 2002).

 

MM, once again:

 

"it should be with a free-spirit of adventure ......Bruhns could move from slow to fast, from open arpeggio to formal fugue and from consonance to dissonance. The music is wild, impulsive and, above all, free spirited"

 

Please don't confuse the ideals of the Dutch gentleman with the frizzy hair with those of Bruhns. Aforementioned Dutch gentleman wrote an article in the Musical Times in 1991 in which he invited us to "take the risk to be dissident" in Buxtehude's music. Unfortunately he (and the majority of performers still) miss the most essential unifying element in the North German free style (perhaps it also applies in Muffat? I'm still working on that one), that of proportio, the relationships between the time signatures. The musical structure is much more formal than most people assume. To complete this evening's reading list, please see the article by Pieter Dirksen (in English) about the nature of the stylus phantasticus in the Westfield Center's essays in honor of Harald Vogel, which includes a fascinating analysis of BuxWV 163 (g minor, manualiter Praeludium).

 

It fascinates me (mostly because its my fault) how these threads wander from the initial subject. This one is a complex issue. I am going to be away from the computer for some days to play a recital in Germany and to go on holiday in Yorkshire, I'm glad to let you people take this one further....

 

As we've wandered so far away, I will just say I spent the day in Amsterdam with 1999 St Albans winner Pier Damiano Peretti, sitting in on his wonderful classes and enjoying an utterly stunning recital of music by Eben, Franck, Hindemith, Bossi and Bettenelli. PDP is one of the absolutely finest organists of his generation, and a quite phenomenal teacher, (I still study privately with him when he has time). We were all in awe today... Look out for his recent recordings of Buxtehude (IFO, recorded in Norden) and a forthcoming Naxos recording of Bossi.

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

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However, in my own estimation, I think that rubato-playing needs to be measured; a contradiction in terms you may feel. Rubato is not about altering the timing, or at least it shouldn't be. It is about rhythmic, expressive elasticity WITHIN A FAIRLY STRICT OVERALL TIMING. Anything other than this, and the music will fragment or even fall apart. This is purely a personal opinion, but if something is slowed down, something else needs to speed up to compensate for it, otherwise the essential pulse and drive of the music is lost.

When I was a student my organ professor and quite a few others impressed on me that tempo rubato means "robbed time" and what I robbed I must pay back so that the beat remains constant - so your opinion would seem to be widely shared.

 

Sudden changes of tempo/mood within a piece are found in Italianate Baroque music from Monteverdi onwards and Frescobaldi mentions being flexible with the tempo in his toccatas, lingering here, pressing on there. Outside Italy, there are some highly ornamented organ pieces that seem to require considerable flexibility if one is going to accommodate all the notes musically. One is Böhm's Vater unser where the arabesque melody makes much use of notes in a smaller size indicating (presumably) a lighter, freer treatment. The other is that famous Tierce en taille by de Grigny - there are a couple of bars in that where even some of the ornaments have ornaments! You can get all the notes in in strict time if you chose a fairly lethargically slow speed, but I find it difficult to believe that that was what de Grigny (or Böhm) wanted.

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"How much rubato is acceptable in baroque music?"

 

This is already a confused question. 'Rubato' is a later way of describing a rhythmic freedom which, when present in baroque music, is the result of a number of other factors. (snip)

 

=========================

 

 

This is quite fascinating, and if I understand everything correctly, I probably do this instinctively. I don't think I said that "strict overall time" should apply to each and every bar, because that is not something I would ever do. Rather, I would regard whole linear motifs as a vocal line, and seek to make them BEAUTIFUL to the ear.....a much mailgned word to many musicians.

 

"Proportio" I think we covered in a recent discussion about the relative pace of Bach Preludes & Fugues, and the St Anne in particular. I think I would agree with this in its entirety, if only because "proportion" is itself a classical aesthetic of form, which tends to dominate all the arts during the baroque period, and even spills into the fields of philosophy, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and architecture etc etc.

 

The usual slur that "Bach was a mathematician" is usualy uttered by those who do not understand "proprtion" and classical values, and from which can flow great mysticism and sublimity of expression.

 

For some strange reason, I cannot help thinking that good rubato is rather like the geometry and elegance of a "bend it like Beckham" goal taken from the side of the football field, which raises craftsmanship to the level of high art, and yet is so precisely calculated.

 

Other than that, I hate football.

 

MM

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As we've wandered so far away, I will just say I spent the day in Amsterdam with 1999 St Albans winner Pier Damiano Peretti, sitting in on his wonderful classes and enjoying an utterly stunning recital of music by Eben, Franck, Hindemith, Bossi and Bettenelli. PDP is one of the absolutely finest organists of his generation, and a quite phenomenal teacher, (I still study privately with him when he has time). We were all in awe today... Look out for his recent recordings of Buxtehude (IFO, recorded in Norden) and a forthcoming Naxos recording of Bossi.

 

Ooh Yes! He is superb! I came across him last year at the Edinburgh academy. He gave a superb lecture on Buxtehude (we heard extracts of recording of Nun Freut Euch, which is to be released - I will certainly buy this when it's out), a recital including Widor and Bossi at St Giles and he is a great teacher. He seems so relaxed and effortless when he plays - there's no unecessary movement or tension anywhere. Very nice, self-effacing person too.

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