10: Acoustic and Real-World Considerations
Although there is still one essential ingredient that must be added to the mix of factors to consider when selecting a tempo – and we will discuss that element next time - we must still acknowledge the fact that music is made in the real world. Not every concert hall, church, instrument, orchestra, etc. offers the same possibilities of clarity, acoustic imaging, etc. Simply put, our “armchair” study may suggest one tempo, the performing space or situation may demand another.
Several years ago I was conducting a Bruckner symphony in a very large sacred space on the East Side of Manhattan. The acoustic was so… generous… that the only way to make the subito “softer” effects work was to literally take a luftpause – a “breath” if you will – to allow the louder music to dissipate in the space and prepare the entrance of the softer dynamic material.
Is this changing the music? Yes… and no. On one level, it’s in the interests of the music to make minor modifications to accommodate a performance and enhance its clarity, but only if it doesn’t distort the actual unfolding of the musical phraseology as the composer wrote it.
The opposite situation can also exist and may need to be accommodated, i.e., adopting a faster tempo may mitigate an extremely “dead” acoustic environment. Each individual situation will suggest – and demand – its own solutions. A great deal of thought has actually been given to some of these issues in the past. In the fascinating book Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Music, Acoustics, (Yale University Press, 2009) authors Deborah Howard and Laura Moretti explore the direct relationship between architectural design and sacred music in Renaissance Venice.
In the particular world of organ music, if the instrument cannot be played at the speed our own study and judgment requires, should we change the tempo to accommodate? Likewise, if an orchestra under our direction is facing similar difficulties, do we modify our musical decisions?
In a perfect world, of course, we’d simply pick different repertoire, better suited to the acoustic environment. The world is rarely perfect, however, and I think we would all agree that reality must always be the arbiter of what “works” and what is appropriate.
And how do we define what “works” and what is appropriate? Simply put, modifications (to tempo) must be considered in order to enhance the clarity – and quality – of the performance.
Next blah-g, we will (finally) explore the most important element in all musical judgment: the performer’s personal insight.
[I wanted to add a brief postscript to this blah-g regarding the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which inspired this whole series of blah-gs on tempo. It does not necessarily follow that long reverberation times carry with them an obscured acoustic. The reverberation time in the Cathedral is close to eleven seconds, but the organ itself is so well designed and situated that it is perfectly capable of absolute clarity of line. More on the Cathedral organ can be found at the Cathedral’s website, http://www.stpauls.co.uk/.]