4. Music as an Expression of Time

Time is something we are all aware of to some degree but since we cannot see Time we must create labels for it in order to allow Time to function in our lives. For example, to speak of the rotation of the Earth we call this a “day.” For the rotation of the Earth around the Sun, we label this a “year.” But the use of these man-made labels is very limited, as for example in describing the planet Venus using these same definitions do not work, for there a “day” lasts longer than a “year!”

When it comes to our daily lives the use of the left hemisphere of our brain, which contains words and numbers, becomes very difficult with respect to Time. For example, the moment we speak a sentence it immediately becomes past tense, and the future tense is not here yet. So Time in the present tense is actually a very thin place between the past and Time of the future.

When we experience Time in the right hemisphere of our brain, which is a library of our own experience — and thus is the hemisphere of the real us — a special phenomenon seems to exist. Here in Music the normal experience of Time seems to stop. When we listen to the movement of a symphony, for example, we seem to experience the entire movement in the present tense. We do not hear one measure which then passes into the past tense as we wait of the next measure to arrives, etc. This phenomenon is what makes Music possible for the listener.

In addition, movement, as an element of Time, also carries feelings and emotions. As a matter of fact the first use of the word “Movement” in France was a description of emotions and not as an element of form. I have known people in Europe who still used this word, in the description of hearing a symphony, as meaning “First emotion” and “Second emotion,” instead of First theme, Second heme. With respect to the association of movement and emotion, I might here remind the reader that in English we have the word “motion” which with the addition of a single letter “e” becomes “emotion.” Even in long works of music this phenomenon of hearing an entire movement as if it were all in the present tense even makes a da capo assume meaning as part of the whole. Nothing like this occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain. It would be absurd in the left hemisphere, for example, to read a book and then at the end find the statement “Go back and read the first five chapters!”

Because of this association of emotion with movement, one finds Arbeau in 1588 giving titles of basse danse works, Comfort, Forlorn and Patience. And after the 17th century Italian tradition of placing “tempo words” in the upper left-hand corner of a score began, Johann Matheson reminded the reader that Adagio meant Distress, Andante meant Hope and Allegro mean Comfort! He also added, “movement is a spiritual thing!”

The great crisis in music performance came in the late Middle Ages with the idea of writing music on paper, due to the need to speed up the training of choir singers. This was the first time that Music became associated with the eye instead of the ear. The problem with respect to performance is that when Music is written on paper it becomes frozen in place and has no sense of movement. Without notating movement there was no need to account for feeling or emotion. Even today, a thousand years later, we still do not have a single symbol which represents any feeling or emotion. This was because the Church, who sponsored the new invention of music notation, was trying to prevent the faithful from coming in contact with emotions. The Church warned its members not to go to the theater or the coliseum because there they would be exposed to emotion. St Basil (3rd century) even maintained that a good Christian should not even laugh, for laughing is a form of emotion! The very ancient need for individual expression by the performers was now replaced by Rules of performance.

Given the failure of the new notation system to account for feelings and emotion, it was natural that performers began to seek ways to accomplish this in performance and they soon found that expanding Time was the easiest way to make this possible. Performers began to seek ways to reestablish their personal feelings in performance. One method was by introducing the expansion of Time through rubato [“stolen Time”]. P. T. Tosi, a famous singing teacher of the Baroque, observed,

Whoever does not know how to steal Time in singing is destitute of the best taste and greatest knowledge.

Another very important kind of “stolen Time” in performance in the early Baroque was to have the ensemble pause, to allow time for the singer to improvise at the end of a phrase, to extend the cadence for the purpose of personal emotional elaboration. Then this was followed by a rest to preserve this feeling and then the resumption of Time as movement in the accompanying ensemble, would come on the basis of feeling as well, when it “feels right” to begin again, rather than observing the strict mathematical punctuality of the written page. Early music specialists today call this practice “Placement,” meaning to place the beginnings of phrases according to feeling, not according to the metrical description the eye sees on paper. This practice was the fundamental style of the first operas, which also began at the birth of the Baroque.

This practice of Placement remains a part of informed musicians even in the Classic Period. I think of the very moving Andante of Mozart’s Partita, K.384a where in the development section Mozart seems to have experienced his mind wandering off, perhaps a sudden recall of the death of his first child, Rimond, which occurred a year before. Here Mozart begins the development section with the restatement of his principal theme, but it breaks off suddenly and it hangs in the air incomplete, followed by two quarter-note rests. I must remind the reader that when rests occur for the entire ensemble, as here, Time for the listener has stopped and Time does not begin again until the movement of the music begins. Thus the two quarter-note rest symbols have no meaning in actual Time. Again the ensemble, or conductor, waits until it feels right emotionally to resume the music and in this case the wait can be lengthy. Mozart, coming back to the present tense, begins again and again the phrase stops suddenly and hangs in the air. And again for a third time, the same thing. Finally, Mozart’s train of thought seems to end as he realizes it is time to create a da capo back to the beginning of the movement. But apparently he was still not entirely back in the present time because he makes a mistake here. He realizes he did not want the music to go back to the first bar of the movement, but rather to a repeat of that melody, so he really wanted a dal segno, which he affected by creating his own unique symbol [a symbol looking much like the sparkler one sees today in fireworks celebration] here which he also placed back on measure nine.

The practice of making a ritard. was also a means of expanding time. Mozart, himself, never used this word but instead in places where he wanted the movement to slow down he wrote pp which, unknown to most performers today could mean “very slow” as well as “very soft.” In places like the ending of the Adagio of the Gran Partita, K.361, if the performance does not include this ritard. the ending doesn’t quite sound like an ending. In fact, in this case the slower the final fragment is performed, the more elegant it sounds.

In another means of expanding time, Mozart frequently expected, and sometimes wrote out, a brief melodic expansion in a solo part, which he called an eingang, for the purpose of making a smooth connections with the following music.

And, of course, the performers also expanded Time by creating cadenza. The Baroque cadenza consisted of a brief [“a single mouthful of air”] expansion at the end of an aria, to allow the singer to add his own emotional feelings. The cadenza of the Classical Period became a quite lengthy passage of solo improvisation.

Thoughts on Tempo

Yet another form of the expansion of Time came with the freedom to make changes in the written Tempo, a word we use to describe the speed of the music through Time. As with the practice with dynamic symbols in the early Baroque, Tempo also was expected to be a decision left to the performer. And, again, we have some freedom even today to make decisions about Tempo according to our own feelings no matter how precisely the composer may have notated this aspect of performance. There are in extant literature many illustrations of how important early performers regarded this aspect of performance. Some examples:

Frescobaldi, 1615

These pieces should not be played to a strict beat, anymore than modern Madrigals … By taking the beat now slower, now faster and by even pausing altogether, according to the meaning of the text.

Praetorius, 1619

To use, by turns, now a slower, now a faster beat lends dignity and grace to a performance and makes it admirable.

Thomas Mace, 1676

According as performers best please their own Fancy – some tempi very briskly and courageously and some again gently, lovingly, tenderly and smoothly.

Monteverdi, 1638

The madrigal must be sung to the time of the heart, and not of the hand.

Bonachelli, 1642

In accordance with the feelings one must guide the beat.

Beginning with the Classical Period this sense of freedom allowed the performer was now limited somewhat by an emphasis on the need to find the tempo within the music itself.

Joachim Quantz, 1752

It is necessary to take the tempo from the context of the piece and not from the Italian word at the top.

Leopold Mozart, 1756

Taking the tempo from the music itself infallibly shows the true quality of a musician.

These two points of view are still a consideration even in the case of a composer conducting his own music. Brahms was once asked about his experience guest conducting one of his own symphonies with the Meiningen orchestra, a very famous orchestra at the time, and he complained that he had difficult making “slowings and accelerations” in his performance — none of which, of course, are indicated on paper!

On the Metronome

Due to an industrial revolution which was also much in evidence in the 19th century, well-meaning inventors attempted to invent mechanical devices to help the performer deal with Tempo. There must have been a period of interesting competition among these inventions. I have a copy of a manuscript score which has markings for both the metronome and the “Vienna knife.”

The winner of this competition was, of course, the metronome invented by Beethoven’s friend, Johann Maelzel (1772–1838). He, by the way, eventually had to flee Vienna after demonstrating a mechanical chess player, which actually contained a midget inside, and later moved to Philadelphia where he ran a music store!

Beethoven was the first important composer to use his friend’s new metronome and thus helped its acceptance. In his own experience, however, Beethoven found the new machine to be of limited help. One day a young composer approached Beethoven and said, “Master, you must be so thankful that now it is possible to mark precisely the tempo of each movement of your music!” Beethoven answered, “Yes, but only for the first measures, because after that Feeling has it’s own Tempo!” And in his final years Beethoven was approached by one who wanted his advice on using a metronome and he answered, “Better none.”

And Beethoven was right of course, for we have our own metronome in the pulse of our own heart and it has a fundamental association with respect to our feelings.