‘Sooner or later?’ Rubato and the poetry of the piano

Pianist, broadcaster and teacher David Owen Norris presented an engaging, informative and entertaining masterclass at the BBC Radio Theatre as part of the autumn season The Piano on the BBC. The event was filmed for the Radio Three website and BBC YouTube Channel and featured five young pianists, all recent graduates/post-graduates from music college or university.

The masterclass was called ‘Sooner or Later’ because it sought to explore, through individual performances of whole pieces by each pianist and then detailed work on aspects of the score, how pianists can play more expressively and ‘poetically’ by arriving at a note or phrase sooner or later, in effect using what musicians call tempo rubato.

Tempo rubato (literally “stolen time” in Italian) is perhaps most closely associated with the music of Fryderyk Chopin, his friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, and other composers of the Romantic period. But it is possible to achieve rubato effectively in Bach and other baroque music: indeed, all music, to a greater or lesser extent, should contain rubato in order for it to sound natural. While we should never lose a sense of pulse, music that is strictly metrical, with no sense of space or shape within phrases or sections, can be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Playing with rubato gives the music expressive freedom, allowing it space, room to breathe – just as the human voice has shifts in dynamic, tempo and cadence.

As David Owen Norris pointed out, other instruments are able to achieve greater expressiveness through sound alone, but because the piano is a percussive machine, the pianist must employ different techniques to achieve expressiveness. When listening to music, the audience want to be “surprised” or “satisfied”, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the score (unusual harmonies, suspensions, unexpected cadences etc) as well as instances of “satisfaction” (resolutions, full cadences, returning to the home key etc.). We can highlight these through dynamic shifts, and also 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 (though Liszt has “written in” rubato in many measures of the Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, largely through the use of syncopation) and is often at the discretion of performer or conductor. It is perhaps most obvious when one hears a singer perform, and as a pianist, we can learn much from reimagining – and singing out loud – the melodic line as a sung line.

David Owen Norris (DON) used the example of Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5 to demonstrate how the composer uses directions such as “sf” (sforzando) to highlight points of interest in the music. A less refined pianist might be tempted to simply lay extra emphasis or force on these notes, but as DON pointed out, a more expressive effect can be achieved by simply delaying the arrival at the note. It is the placing of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.

I also liked his definition of the hairpin crescendo marking being an indication to “set the music free” and “let it take flight”. Often, our natural inclination when we see such a marking is to increase the tempo slightly, just as we might slacken the tempo with a diminuendo. We can also highlight other aspects such as dissonance or unusual harmonic shifts by varying the tempo slightly, or allowing a certain spaciousness when playing repeated notes (example from masterclass – the ‘Andante’ from Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14).

Rubato is not easy to teach, and inexperienced students may find it hard to shape phrases or allow “space” between notes convincingly. The key to good rubato is for it to sound natural and uncontrived. In my experience, too many pianists, professional and amateur, when playing Chopin, feel the need to pull the tempo around far too much, making the music sound schmaltzy and saccharine. It is the subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. This is why it is a important to encourage students to sing a phrase, listen to the natural shaping the voice gives to the melodic line and then recreate that at the piano. My recent experience as an accompanist has also taught me more about rubato, and the subtle fluctuations in tempo that another performer will bring to the music: a skilled accompanist will have the requisite empathy to “read” or predict where the other instrumentalist might place notes or phrases. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced. I agree with David Owen Norris that this ability to play rubato convincingly and intuitively comes from both a detailed study of the score to gain a fuller understanding of the composer’s intentions and a sense of one’s own “personal sound” at the piano.

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!”

– Arthur Schnabel, pianist (1882-1951)

Music examples from the masterclass (links open in Spotify):

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte, Op.67 – No. 5. Moderato in B minor “The Shepherd’s complaint”

Mendelssohn: Rondo capriccioso, Op.14

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte, Op.53 – No. 4. Adagio in F “Sadness of Soul”

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

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

Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte, Op.19 – No. 4 in A (Moderato)

Francis Poulenc – Novelette

Billy Mayerl – Printers Devil

An earlier blog post on entasis and taking time in music

Emmanuel Vass, one of the participants in the masterclass will feature in a forthcoming ‘Meet the Artist’ interview. The film of the masterclass will be released on the BBC Radio Three website and YouTube channel on 17th September.

One thought on “‘Sooner or later?’ Rubato and the poetry of the piano”

  1. Highly educational. Thank you very much for this. Interesting idea that a ‘sforzando’ could be achieved with a tiny pause before the note. Decidedly worth trying (but maybe not so easy)?

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