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Rates of Tempo in the Past and Present

Dr. William Mason in his Memories of a Musical Life, comments on the exaggerated tempos which are more or less in vogue with many present-day players, especially in the case of Chopin’s works. He says:—

“In recalling Liszt’s playing I cannot help noticing the marked difference in rates of tempo as compared with those which were considered authentic fifty years ago. This is noticeable in many of Chopin’s compositions, especially the larger ones, such as the sonatas, ballades, fantasies, etc., with all of which I am very familiar, having heard them played not only by Liszt in Weimar, but in other German cities, and by artists of the highest rank, many of whom were contemporaries and personal friends of Chopin. They all seemed to adopt a certain rate of speed, as if in conformity with the composer’s intention, and it was in agreement with my own intuitions. Dreyschock and Liszt had often heard the composer play his own pieces and must certainly have been familiar at least with his rates of tempo. I was very close to the Chopin day, having been in Germany only a few months when he died. Two of my teachers and nearly all of the musicians I had met were his contemporaries and had heard him play his own compositions. I certainly ought to have the Chopin traditions.

Electrocuting Chopin

“The question is, Should Chopin be played in accordance with the spirit of the time in which he lived; should his works be played in the tempo in which he played them, or, because electricity has brought about so many changes and has enabled us to do so many things much more rapidly than formerly, should Chopin’s music be electrified, or, as it seems to me, electrocuted? I think there is a general tendency to play the rapid movements in Chopin, and, in fact, in all composers not of the extreme modern type, too fast. To play these movements rapidly and give the phrases with absolute clearness, one must have such breadth, command of rhythm, and repose in action that he can put the tones together like a string of pearls, so that each is rounded into shape, and the phrase is a complete and definite series of tones, and not like a lot of overboiled peas, so soft that they all mash together. In too rapid playing the effect of speed is lost. The Chopin Waltz in D flat major is often played much too fast. The theme is said to have been suggested to the composer by a lap-dog in his room suddenly beginning to chase his tail. Whether true or not, the story is suggestive. Destroy the contour of that waltz by playing it at too high a rate of speed, and the dog is no longer chasing his tail, but dashing aimlessly about the room.”

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