11: Personal Insight and Musical Questions
The addition of our own insights, views, preferences, experiences, etc. to the “matrix” of parameters to be used when making tempo judgments has been saved for last, because it is only now, after all the original sources, contextual material, etc. has been weighed, in other words, after all the “scientific” work has been explored, that we should we begin to consciously apply our own experiences, insight and taste, confident that we have the weight and wealth of absolute evidence to “back up” and offer a rationale for our choices.
By this time, the tempo parameters of the work should be clear to us. Perhaps our own taste – our own wishes and vision – would instill in us a desire for a faster or slower tempo. We now know what the extremes are, and what may – and may not – be justified.
But even though we are only now consciously applying our own vision to the music, our personal insight is always with us, inseparable from our identity as musicians. It is impossible for us not to see all artistic decisions through the lens of our own unique personalities, even from the very beginning of the process. It is for that reason that the process should begin with the most scientific of assessments, and from there layer on more and more evidence – even if of a less concrete nature – to the ultimate step of consciously adding our own views of the work in question.
Some of these questions, mentioned in earlier blah-gs in this series, include, “What is this work about?” By this, I don’t mean, “the sunrise”, or “sheep in a meadow”, but rather musical questions that can be codified. It might be “about” an internal motor, or about sixteenth note ornamentation, or about massive root position brass chords, etc. Is there an “affect” that the composer is trying to express? Is there an adjective that can describe it? Of course, all these questions will have different answers for different musicians, to a greater or lesser degree, but that is what will make one performance different from another. What story is the composer trying to tell? Again, not in “picturesque” terms but rather as a narrative arch: for instance, if in Sonata form, how does the composer take us on the journey back to the recapitulation? What is the composer trying to tell us, where is he/she trying to lead us, and what is it, in that message or journey, that speaks to us on the personal/individual level?
Let’s take an example to which I’ve alluded in an earlier blah-g, the last movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra [N.B.: this work is not currently in the public domain in the US, so I am unable to offer a link to a score.] At the very opening of he movement, Bartok indicates the first four bars as pesante, quarter = 128. There is a fermata on the fourth bar (lunga) then Bartok indicates accelerando for the next three bars, arriving at a tempo of quarter = 134-146. There are already a few problematic questions here. An accelerando from quarter note = 128 to 134 over three bars is not much of an accelerando – more like a pochissimo accelerando – and the situation is not really mitigated if we take the faster suggested tempo in measure 8: there’s just not that much room to go between quarter = 128 and quarter = 146. We can make the accelerando a bit more marked if we take a slower tempo than quarter = 128 in measure 5, which would give the material more time to “fulfill” itself in the accelerando, but that is not exactly what Bartok wrote.
But are we asking the right questions? Remember that we are now assuming that the “analytical” work has already been done, the score has been studied, and that we are now allowing ourselves the luxury of our personal input into the equation. How can that element help? Let’ see…
Let’s ask, “What is the opening section of this movement about?” Clearly (and it’s a curious coincidence, considering our discussion of the Widor Toccata) this movement is a kind of Toccata for orchestra, with “perpetual motion” string figuration that begins in measure 8, little “exclamation points” in the winds (mm. 28; 36, etc.), accented horn events that emerge from the texture (beginning in m. 32), etc. Although it doesn’t always happen this way, my instincts indicate to me that the most easily perceived element in this section is the most important and prominent: the story is about the virtuosic string figuration, with the emphasis on “virtuosic”. And therein lies the problem: when a modern professional orchestra plays this figuration, even at the composer’s “extreme” of quarter = 146, it seems far too staid, steady, controlled… and slow. In fact, I take this section at a tempo much closer to quarter note = 164, substantially faster than indicated, and, although I am not intimate with their reasoning – though I suspect it echoes my own – so do such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Sir Georg Solti, Gustavo Dudamel and many others.
Rationally, I can defend the faster tempo on several counts. First, it completely eliminates the “gentleness” of the indicated accelerando in measures 5-7: traversing a tempo change from quarter = 128 to quarter = 164 in three bars is not only quite perceptible, it’s very exciting! Second, the presence of the offbeat “exclamations” in the woodwinds (already mentioned: m.28, 36, etc.) coupled with Bartok’s injecting uneven phrase lengths (five and seven bars: see mm. 16-20; 21-27; etc.) and changing from duple to triple meter a few times (m. 23, 78) all seem to indicate that the affect desired by the composer is one of the music being barely controlled, even unbalanced as opposed to more contained. The string figuration itself seems to want to have the impression of being slightly “out of control”. While an absolutely metrically solid and controlled tempo can work up an incredible “head of steam”, that does not seem to be the intent here. In fact, the composer himself seems to have written out a kind of controlled “falling apart” or disintegration of the “perpetual motion” figure in measure 52 (coming back together in m. 59) and subsequently in mm. 74-80, where changing meters also deliberately upset the balance and predictability of the material, as mentioned earlier.
And of course, the very name of the work itself gives us a clue as it is called Concerto for Orchestra as opposed to Really Fast Piece for Orchestra. Shouldn’t a concerto, particularly one that we judge is meant to be virtuosic, at least sometimes give the impression of being on the edge of careening out of control? Otherwise, where is the excitement?
I choose a faster tempo; I rationalize a faster tempo; but can I justify a faster tempo? Is there a reason for the faster tempo to exist? I believe there is. As a new work in 1943, I suspect that the indicated tempi really were on the edge of the technique of an orchestra – or at least, Bartok thought they were. Today, the work is part of the standard repertoire and is played even by advanced College/Community orchestras. Consequently, the only way to restore the sense of excitement, adventure and breathlessness that our insight and experience informs us the composer wanted is to choose a tempo closer to the technical limits of a modern professional orchestra. That tempo, based upon my choices and those of Solti, Boulez, Dudamel, etc., is apparently around quarter = 164.
So we see that, although our own wisdom, insight, experiences, preferences, judgments and opinions are always with us, filtering every artistic decision, there is an appropriate time to bring all of those personal elements into play when making an artistic decision about tempo, and it follows from the concept of interpreting the intention of the composer. Manifesting our view of this intention is not just our greatest joy and privilege in being musicians; it is also our greatest responsibility.
In the next blah-g, we take a major diversion into the world of hermeneutics, quantum physics, and how we can apply some of their concepts to these musical decisions.