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The Tyranny of Rubato

Have you ever heard a beautiful performance of a romantic piano piece, played with expressiveness and sensitivity? An experience such as this touches us in musical and emotional ways and reminds us of why we are involved in music. When a certain expressive tool is used too many times in a performance, the result is called a “mannerism.” Recordings made by pianists from the 19th century reveal excellent examples of various mannerisms and distortions; the excessive use of rubato and tempo fluctuations are perhaps the most noticeable. Even current pianists and teachers indulge in these eccentricities to the point that a performance with accelerando and ritardando every one or two measures is considered an “expressive” performance. This, I believe, is not really artistic playing, but it reflects a mindset that gives in too easily to the “tyranny of rubato.”

What is “rubato”? Derived from the Italian language, it means “to steal or to rob” time in music. Another explanation refers to the “push and pull” of rhythm and tempo for expressive purposes. It is primarily used in nineteenth-century piano music, allowing for the greatest of personal expression, so important to that era. Rubato, however, has been much abused by pianists particularly in playing music from other periods and styles, for which it is not always appropriate. Even in Romantic piano music, excessive emphasis on rubato can distract from a truly artistic experience. Thus, the word “tyranny” was used earlier simply because rubato, to many pianists, is the only resource of expressive playing, and they are slaves to it.

The problem inherent in this philosophy lies in the limitations we place on ourselves; after all, rubato is one of several musical tools available. Tonal coloration, the emphasis of certain notes within a vertical sonority, allows for different effects. Voicing is related to tonal coloration and refers to the projection of melodies and counter-melodies above the rest of the texture. Thinking orchestrally -- which instruments might play which parts -- adds a clarifying element to the performance. Other resources include dynamics, dynamic gradations and the various shadings provided by pedalling. There is also the musical shape of the phrase, section and overall work. How and in what ways these elements are combined provides much of the fascination with creating different expressions or emotions in each performance; the pursuit of artistic expression, which incorporates all of our musical tools, seeks a multi-faceted performance which avoids mannerisms of any kind. Many of the greatest pianists have expressed similar ideas about rubato and its related topics of rhythm and tempo.

One of the most rhythmically abused pieces of the piano literature is Debussy's Clair de Lune. There is a misconception that one should play it however one “feels,” which leads to the ignoring of basic rhythmic relationships and the composer's notation. The opening section, in particular, provides many opportunities for distorting the delicate balance of time: the 9/8 time signature indicates an underlying pulse of three beats per measure, which, within the expressive liberties, must still be present and felt. The eighth notes in the melody, often rushed to an extreme, need to retain the gentle lilt of the meter. The material beginning in measure 15 is a beautiful example of the layering of sounds, with rich octaves in the bass and tender harmonies in the treble. The inclusion of duple rhythms in the upper parts creates a wonderful reinterpretation of the subdivisions within the beat, particularly in the contrast of triples and duples in alternating measures. This well-crafted and expressive rhythmic device is often unduly rushed. Granted, a slight accelerando is needed to build to the climatic moment of the section, but the distinction between duples and triples must be observed, as carefully notated by the composer. If the composer had wanted it to be played freely, he would have written it more like a cadenza, without barlines and perhaps in small noteheads. The fact that Debussy uses a time signature and notates the specific rhythms provides clues to his musical conception, that rhythmic relationships and tempo recognition are important to the musical result.

Although some rubato should be used, a masterful performance of this work will also include the other tools mentioned above. It is exciting to try out different voicings in the treble chords and bass octaves and to imagine different instrumental timbres for different parts. One can listen to the composer's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun or the orchestral suite La Mer for inspiration in orchestral timbres and sound layers. At the beginning, one can imagine the main melody played by the strings and, upon its return, being re-harmonized using woodwinds with string accompaniment.

If our goal in making music is to create beauty and to express the inexpressible, we must seek the same artistic height of expression that a composer envisioned in his work. This comes not from pseudo-artistic mannerisms but from the development and coordination of our entire range of musical knowledge, skills and tools. We must study and adhere to the rhythms, meter, etc., as notated by the composer in addition to the other elements of the musical score. Only by mastering the score do we become free to create an artistic experience.

©2010 Scott Carrell

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