‘Sooner or later’ – Tempo Rubato & the art of stolen time

This post relates to my earlier article ‘Curved Lines’ – phrases and how to shape music

I recently attended a masterclass for pianists, the theme of which was ‘Sooner or Later?’; that is, how tempo (speed) and the placing of a note, or group of notes, can affect the mood, drama, colour and shape of music. This technique is generally called tempo rubato – literally, in Italian, “stolen time”, and it refers to a subtle slowing or speeding up of tempo within the music. It is most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period, but we can also add tempo rubato, and similar effects, to music of any period – and indeed any genre (classical, jazz, pop, etc.). In fact, it helps music to sound natural: music with a very strict, metronomic pulse (beat), with no sense of space or shape within phrases or sections, would be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Just as the human voice has changes in dynamic (sound), tempo (speed) and cadence (movement), playing with rubato gives music expressive freedom, allowing it space, pr room to “breathe”.

When listening to music, the audience wants to be “surprised” or “satisfied” or by what they hear, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the music (unusual chords, changes in articulation – staccato/legato/accents) as well as examples of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these by the use of rubato – arriving at a note or end of a phrase sooner or later to achieve either surprise or satisfaction.

Rubato is not always written into the score as a musical sign, so it is up to you, as the pianist, to decide where it might be most effective to alter the tempo of the music slightly. As a simple rule of thumb, we generally slow down at the end of a piece, or the end of a section – unless the composer tells us otherwise with a marking such as accelerando (getting faster) or stringendo (pressing forward, which suggests an increase in speed and a greater sense of urgency in the music). This helps to signal to the audience that the music is reaching a conclusion or end point. (And always imagine, when playing to an audience, that they know nothing about the music, so you need to give them “musical signposts” to help them find their way through it.)

When thinking about slowing down towards the end of a phrase or section in music, imagine the bounce of a ping-pong ball – but in reverse: it is the gradual pulling back of tempo that can be most effective.

Sometimes, we might want to increase the tempo slightly to emphasise a crescendo: this can be particularly effective with a run of notes in a rising scale or arpeggio. This can create the effect of the music being allowed to “take flight” as it rises upwards on the register (i.e. towards the highest notes of the piano).

The next time you see an accent marked in your music, take a moment to consider why the composer has put it there. Is it simply to spotlight a chord, or a particularly note? Or perhaps the composer wants to create a surprise for the audience? Rather than simply playing the note with extra force/emphasis, experiment with placing the note fractionally later: the tiny delay creates a far more dramatic effect than just hammering the note. Try a similar technique with an unusual chord or dissonance – again, that fractional delay adds drama and makes the resolution (when the music moves to a more familiar chord, or the home key) far more satisfying.

The same idea can be used with repeated notes, for example in the RH quavers of Gurlitt’s Allegro Non Troppo (Trinity Guildhall, Grade 2 piano). The RH part would be very monotonous and dull to listen to if every single note were the same, as if played strictly to the beat of a metronome. But by allowing a little more space between the notes, for example, towards the end of a phrase or where there are dissonant chords, the music suddenly becomes more interesting.

We can learn a lot about rubato by listening to singers singing music. The human voice adds natural shape to a musical phrase or melody: as notes rise up the register, so the voice rises fractionally in dynamic. When practising, try singing a phrase and then re-imagining that sound at the piano

Remember, the best rubato comes from inside: it is hard to teach and for it to sound convincing and natural, it should feel unforced. Don’t be tempted to mess around with the tempo too much – rubato is “stolen time’, after all, and, as my teacher always ways, “you have to give it back eventually!”.

Listen to these music examples and see if you can hear any tempo rubato:

Felix Mendelssohn – Song Without Words, Op.67/No. 5. Moderato in B minor “The Shepherd’s complaint”

Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight”: Adagio sostenuto

Fryderyk Chopin – Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66

Billy Mayerl – Printer’s Devil

More advanced students may like to read a post from my sister blog on taking time in music

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