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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

The other area in which the rights of the romantic subject are paramount in Chopin is in the realm of performance practice, particularly the crucial matter of tempo rubato. Chopin's playing was so unusually marked by it that there were those among his contemporaries who actually thought that he had invented the technique of arbitrarily “stealing” time from some notes so as to lengthen others for expressive effect, an arbitrary act being referable to no standard save the actor's subjective desire for it. Chopin was indeed one of the first to use the actual word rubato as an explicit if fuzzy performance direction, rather than relying only on traditional directions for tempo modification like accelerando (or stretto), ritenuto, etc., or else (like several eighteenth-century composers, including C. P. E. Bach and Mozart) indicating its effect with melodic ties and syncopations.

The first such usage came in the first mazurka Chopin published after leaving Poland: the one in F♯ minor, published in 1832 as op. 6, no. 1 (Fig. 7-6). The word is used alongside ritenuto and rallentando, and probably means a subtler broadening than the more traditional terms imply, here intended to point up the repetition of the opening period and distinguish it (as more expressive or emphatic) from the first playing. If Chopin's own description of tempo rubato is applied, it would appear to mean a slight delay of the melody with respect to the bass, probably not to be righted until the next downbeat.

Playing “Romantically”

fig. 7-6 Original edition of Chopin's Mazurka in F-Sharp Minor, op. 6, no. 1 (Leipzig: Kistner, 1832).

Chopin always maintained, like Mozart in a famous letter with which Chopin must have been familiar, that for him, rubato did not mean a general alteration of tempo but only a dilation of melody over a steadily pulsing accompaniment. Wilhelm von Lenz, a Russian government official who took lessons from both Liszt and Chopin in Paris, reported Chopin as saying that “the left hand is the conductor; it must not waver, or lose ground; do with the right hand what you will and can.”15 Whether Chopin always practiced what Lenz here had him preaching may be questionable. Earwitness reports of his playing are very inconsistent. Mendelssohn accused him in 1834 of playing in the “Parisian spasmodic and impassioned style, too often losing sight of time and sobriety,”16 and the French music publisher Aristide Farrenc, who had known him throughout his Paris years, chided Chopin in 1861 for the “tempo rubato, of which one makes today a usage so ridiculous and tiring.”17 Hackneyed or exaggerated post-Chopinesque rubato eventually produced a backlash in the early twentieth century, when an “objective” style of playing, characterized by uniform metronomic tempos, became fashionable. Stravinsky, whom we have already identified as a ringleader of the anti-Beethovenian reaction, was at the forefront of this movement, too, receiving “special thanks” from his friend, the Italian composer Vittorio Rieti (1898–1994), “for not asking us to swallow crescendo porridge, pedal sauce, and rubato marmalade.”18

Needless to say, this “objective” attitude was just as significant a cultural indicator in the early twentieth century as Chopin's style of performance had been in the mid-nineteenth. And what should also go without saying is that Chopin performances in the early twentieth century had to conform to the new attitude if they were to be considered “authentic.” Even “Chopin specialists” like the Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982), who made a special point of presenting themselves as the composer's heirs, performed his works in a much “straighter” fashion than the Chopinists of the preceding generation, the first to leave recorded evidence behind.

The assumption, or claim, was that those earlier pianists, such as Vladimir de Pachmann (1848–1933), had exaggerated and vulgarized the “true” Chopinesque rubato, which Rubinstein's generation had restored to its original dignity. It seems just as likely, however, that Chopin's own playing would have been considered vulgar (full of “porridge, sauce, and marmalade”) in Rubinstein's time, and that Rubinstein and his contemporaries had not restored Chopin at all but rather altered him (perhaps unwittingly) to conform to a new set of expectations.

The mazurkas, where Chopin was most apt to include the word rubato in his notation, were a special case, and a wonderfully instructive one. A reviewer of Chopin's last public concerts, which took place in London in 1848, wrote that the mazurkas “lose half their characteristic wildness if played without a certain freak and license, impossible to imitate,”19 and to which the composer alone possessed the key. Most suggestive of all is a memoir by the German (later English) pianist and conductor Charles Hallé (1819–95), who lived in Paris during most of Chopin's residence there and came to know him well. “A remarkable feature of his playing,” Hallé recalled,

was the entire freedom with which he treated the rhythm, but which appeared so natural that for years it had never struck me. It must have been in 1845 or 1846 that I once ventured to observe to him that most of his mazurkas (those dainty jewels), when played by himself, appeared to be written, not in 3/4, but in 4/4 time, the result of his dwelling so much longer on the first note in the bar. He denied it strenuously, until I made him play one of them and counted audibly four in the bar, which fitted perfectly. Then he laughed and explained that it was the national character of the dance which created the oddity. The more remarkable fact was that you received the impression of a 3/4 rhythm whilst listening to common time. Of course this was not the case with every mazurka, but with many.20

Of course one wants to know which ones, exactly, but Hallé did not say. The most plausible suggestion is that the distension applies mainly to the basic mazurka rhythm noted in Ex. 7-4, beginning with a dotted figure that might easily be extended beyond a beat's duration in the interests of enhancing its noble effect. But note that this time Chopin explained the practice not by referring to the expressive dimension of the music, let alone his feelings, but instead referred to its “national character,” an impersonal criterion.

The question thus legitimately arises as to whether the application of tempo rubato, even the kind that affects not just the melody but the general tempo, is really as arbitrary and romantic as it may seem, or whether it may be governed by rules of rhetoric that have their origin not in an individual's subjective expressive impulse, but in the intersubjective expressive conventions of the musical community. And from this arises the further thought, disturbing to some, that what we subjectively perceive as our own personal expressive impulses may in fact be grounded to a greater extent than we realize in the historically contingent values of the communities to which we belong.

But none of this should really be surprising, let alone disturbing. Artists like Chopin, who in their composing and performing created a highly prized impression of extreme subjective spontaneity and unique original inspiration, but whose work was nevertheless intelligible to the nonprofessional audience that it addressed, were obviously working within the boundaries of the normal (which is to say, the conventional), even as their more adventurous conceptions, like the A-minor Mazurka, served to extend those boundaries (or “push the envelope,” as the saying lately goes). When the boundaries have been thus extended, what was once considered radical behavior will seem normal, and may eventually (as in the work of Stephen Heller, or the reputed abusers of rubato) become hackneyed.


(15) Wilhelm von Lenz, Die grossen Pianoforte-Virtuosen (1872); quoted in Richard Hudson, Stolen Time: The History of Tempo Rubato (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 191.

(16) Felix Mendelssohn, Briefe aus den Jahren 1830 bis 1847, Vol. II, ed. Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy (Leipzig: Hermann Mendelssohn, 1864), p. 41; quoted in Hudson, Stolen Time, p. 176.

(17) Aristide Farrenc, Le trésor des pianists, Vol. I (Paris, 1861), p. 3; quoted in Hudson, Stolen Time, pp. 176–77.

(18) Vittorio Rieti, “The Composer's Debt,” in Stravinsky in the Theatre, ed. Minna Lederman (New York: Da Capo, 1975), p. 134.

(19) The Athenaeum, no. 1079 (1 July 1848), quoted in Hudson, Stolen Time, p. 185.

(20) The Autobiography of Charles Hallé, ed. Michael Kennedy (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1973), p. 54.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007008.xml