‘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)
Tempo Rubato is rhythmic flexibility within a phrase or measure, or a relaxation of strict time. Literally ‘stolen time’, rubato 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 shape within phrases or sections, can be dull and monotonous, both to listen to and to play. Playing with rubato allows more space and room to ‘breathe’, giving the music greater expression.
Other instruments, and particularly the human voice, 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 expression. 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’ or ‘gratification’ (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 a sense of delayed gratification. Done badly, rubato can sound contrived and self-indulgent; but done well, it can bring subtle shape and expression to a piece.
The opening of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau from ‘Images’
Rubato is not always written into the score 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 of our music as if it is a line of song. We can make subtle changes in the rhythm, lingering over one phrase, imbuing another with urgency, to communicate the feelings that the music awakens within us. Sometimes simply delaying our arrival at a certain note can increase the sense of an accent or sforzando rather than laying extra emphasis or force on these notes through finger or hand weight alone. It is the placing of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.
A crescendo marking can be used to set the music free and let it take flight. Often, our natural inclination when we encounter a crescendo marking is to increase the tempo slightly – just as we might slacken in 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, for example. The key to good rubato is for it to sound natural: it is the subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced. It is also very personal and something that develops through spending a lot of time with the music, and making a detailed study of the score (at the piano and away from it) to gain a fuller understanding of the composer’s intentions and a sense of one’s own ‘personal sound’. Gradually, rubato becomes intuitive as we achieve a greater understanding of the music’s shape and its natural ebb and flow.
This article first appeared on the Pianist magazine website and in the April 2015 Pianist magazine e-newsletter
I remember watching years ago a piano lesson being given by Fannie Waterman where she advised her young pupil to ‘play through the rests’ – surely what Schnabel was alluding to here.