Tempo Giusto: Putting the brakes on music

zooming_christmas_lightsYes, music can be exciting at breakneck speeds. Virtuosos and conservatory students feel the need to “show their stuff,” (meaning their incredible technique at ear-defying speeds),  and may even risk censure for playing “under tempo.”  But is the tempo we now play Beethoven or Mozart the tempo the composers intended? Or do we need to occasionally rethink our tempos, and explore the classics at a slower pace? You might be surprised at the subtleties of harmony and melody, movement of inner voices, and playful counterpoint that escape the ear when the “fingers” do their thing at top speed. There is even a Tempo Giusto movement  today among musicians  to encourage slower, more expressive performances of music, trying to arrive at the “correct tempo” that the composer may have intended.  As the Industrial Revolution sped up the world, so too did the tempos of music increase from generation to generation. The blinding speeds of music were encouraged by 19th-century virtuosos such as Franz Liszt, and the technical advancement of instruments encouraged this greater speed. While the emotions may be heightened by speed, there is a converse reaction that perceptions may be flattened. Just as the eye cannot take in the visual details of a painting without slow contemplation, likewise the ear cannot appreciate the exquisite nuances of music if it is played too fast.

In addition to the Tempo Giusto movement, other welcome trends toward “slowing up” life are in the works, as seen in increasing popularity of the “slow food” movement and such leisure activities as gardening, reading, and knitting. Educators caution against the “hurried child” who is herded by parents into a race to learn too much too soon, with every available moment scheduled with structured activities from sports to the so-called leisurely arts, leaving little time for imagination, exploration, and old-fashioned “play.”  Is our desire to rush our kids into early structured “learning” experiences actually counter-productive to our goals? I remember the delight I felt as a child on a summer day, eating a peach that had fallen to the ground and reading the latest Bobbsey Twins mystery, with nothing to interrupt my reveries and no classes to disrupt my delectable summer idle.  The first day of summer stretched endlessly in my mind. . .and the possibilities were ripe for the plucking, just like the peaches on my favorite backyard tree.

If you can slow up enough to read it, pick up In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore. It has inspired me enough to drop my very busy weekend schedule and enjoy instead the rainy afternoon and a good read. And now I think I’ll tackle Beethoven’s slow movement of the Pathetique, at the Tempo Giusto. Time is precious; timelessness is even more so.

(Speaking of Tempo Giusto “slow music” trends, you should check out the longest piece of music in the world. It will last 1000 years. Maybe they should pick up the tempo a bit on this one?)

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