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 contour 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.

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

– Artur Schnabel, pianist (1882-1951)

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 listener wants to be surprised or satisfied, and when we are playing, we should be aware of musical “surprises” within the score (unusual harmonies, intervals, 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 as a specific direction 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.

In Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5, 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 give extra emphasis or force on these notes, but a more expressive effect can be achieved by simply delaying arrival at the note. It is the “placing” of the note and the fractional silence before it that can achieve the most poetic effects.

In addition, hairpin crescendo markings can be interpreated as 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.

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. It is the very subtlety of rubato that makes it so convincing. This 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. Often rubato within a piece develops over time, as one grows more and more familiar with the contours and shifting moods of the music. The best rubato comes from within, and it should always be intuitive and unforced.

Mendelssohn – Song Without Words in B minor, Opus 67, no. 5


Frank Bridge – In Autumn: II, Through the Eaves


If there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally recreative point of view… to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before. And if one can’t do that, I would say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else.
– Glenn Gould

R is for “robbed”. R is also for “rhubarb”. And, aged four, sat on a plump cushion, on top of my teacher’s piano stool, having just played the Minuet in G from the Associated Board’s edition of Eighteen Selected Pieces from ‘A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach with about as much feeling as the Honda production line in Swindon,  I first came across what I initially thought was a portmanteau of the two. (By the way, I wouldn’t have known, then, what a “portmanteau” was, either. And I still have the very same music perched on my piano, today: such is the rustiness of the current state of what I laughingly refer to as my “technique”.)

“Technically, that’s excellent,” said Mr Bury (or words to that effect); “but it could do with some rubato…” – and then, of course, he went on to explain and demonstrate, beautifully, what that was.  And, although I have hunted it ever since, Snark-like:  at such a tender age, my emotional range was narrowly-focused. All I could see were Boojums.

My personal definition of the word Rubato is aural; rather than written or visual. Listen to the two (fantabulous) recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations which (the fantabulous) Glenn Gould made at each end of his career. The first, from 1955, <https://itun.eslasts 38:34, and is a demonstration of pure technical genius. The second, from 1981 – at 51:18 – lasts exactly one-third longer – and transforms each variation from what could easily be a mechanical Baroque exercise (see above) to something of a romantic, yet contrapuntal, serenade: particularly the opening (and closing) Aria. The difference, I believe, is not in the time taken – although there is a definite contributory effect from the time taken between making the two recordings. Subtract the first from the second – although I have to admit, given my word limit (and being, ahem, robbed of time), this is a little simplistic (and may be over-egging the pudding a little): there are a few more repeats, as well… – and what you are left with (IMHO) is the very essence of rubato.

The tempi are not so much “robbed”; as generously donated. Or, as Michael Kennedy so wisely states in the 1980 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (which also sits atop my piano), rubato is…

A feature of performance in which strict time is for a while disregarded – what is ‘robbed’ from some notes being ‘paid back’ later. When this is done with genuine artistry and instinctive musical sensibility, the effect is to impart an admirable sense of freedom and spontaneity. Done badly, rubato merely becomes mechanical.

…and I’m sure you can easily evoke your own guilty parties with regards to that last comment. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised if you disagreed with my exemplar, above. (I’m sure Chopin would.) But, surely that’s what rubato is really all about – the individual, “instinctive” subjectivity (hopefully dredged up from your very soul, and bypassing most of your mind) that you can bring to any piece of music: whether it be from your emotions; or even from a desire to stress a melody hidden deep within a morass of complex notes (see, for instance, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto).

In other words, rubato – whether applied to one note, or a thousand – is simply a symptom, an expression, of one’s own interpretation.

Stephen Ward AKA The Bard of Tysoe


sergei_rachmaninoff_loc_33969uUp, up in the highest echelons of the pianistic pantheon sits Sergei Rachmaninov….

Regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, Rachmaninov had legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover the interval of a thirteenth on the keyboard. Today, his piano music remains amongst the most well-loved and widely-performed in the standard repertoire, yet in the 1950s the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismissed it as “monotonous in texture….. consist[ing] of mainly of artificial and gushing tunes….”. He was composing at a time when music was undergoing huge sea-changes (atonality and the development of the 12-note tone row, for example), yet he remained true to his own compositional vision and his music is unashamedly Romantic, full of sweeping melodies and rich textures. Even in his miniatures (for example, the Preludes, Moments Musicaux, Études-Tableaux) his music seems to express the vastness of the Russian landscape. It has a visceral and deeply honest quality.

“A composer’s music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books which have influenced him, the pictures he loves…My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music”

Sergei Rachmaninov

Here is Sviatoslav Richter in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op 32, no. 12

Many of his piano works enjoy legendary status, and are performed around the world by the famous and the lesser known, such is their beauty, appeal and scale of challenges. Take the Third Piano Concerto, by his own admission his “favourite” of all his piano concerti – “I much prefer the Third, because my Second is so uncomfortable to play”. Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff could not practise the piece while in Russia, and instead he practised and memorised it using a silent cardboard keyboard that he brought with him while sailing to the United States. It was premiered in New York on 28th November 1909 by Rachmaninov himself, and was dedicated to the pianist Josef Hofman, whom Rachmaninoff regarded as the greatest pianist of his generation, though Hofman never actually performed the Third Concerto.

The opening theme of the Third Piano Concerto

Monumental, treacherous, gorgeous, its fearsome technical difficulties reflect the composer’s own transcendent prowess at the keyboard. For the pianist it is forty-five minutes of almost continuous playing, the equivalent in energy expended to shovelling three tons of coal just to move the keys – and this excludes the emotional and intellectual energy used. For the audience, when played well it, it encompasses the full range of human emotions in its towering virtuosity.


Following my recent post about tempo rubato, here is the film of BBC/ISM Masterclass with David Owen Norris, which I attended recently, and which inspired the article. One of the participating pianists, Emmanuel Vass, features in my Meet the Artist series. Read my interview with him here.