Friday, April 25, 2014

Woa, Nellie!

If you've been reading this blog you already know that I often like to deal in small things--small, that is, unless you are a performing musician. Then you are ready to fight to the death over them. They're only small for everyone else.

I recently re-posted my blog about the Widor Toccata from last year, which involved a discussion of the appropriate tempo--from the composer's own point of view, and then also from that of the organists who frequently make a blurry mess of it trying to impress girls (or boys) or hoping to make it to their next gig, which started five minutes ago, on time. If you haven't heard my impression of the Widor Toccata as played in Prague for tourists a couple of summers ago, here it is (just the opening).

There is some risk associated with eschewing the hyperspace hurry of notes and instead taking a more relaxed tempo as the composer himself may have wanted. It is the same risk cereal manufacturers take when they only put five times the recommended daily amount of sugar in a single bite-size portion of their product, or when restaurants do the same dastardly thing with salt, making it necessary to nearly eat half the meal if you want a week-and-a-half's worth of the tasty rocks in one sitting. We love the stuff! down with the food police! booo!

Similarly, an artist who takes a less blazing tempo than the next guy is probably going to seem less impressive. The guy on the street is thinking: sounds like he can't play the piano as well.

Still, I cleave to my principles--sometimes. And when it comes to a Mr. Scott Joplin, another "cranky" old fellow how actually scolded his public that "It is never right to play ragtime fast!" on many of his published works, I try to give him what he wanted. I myself have been scolded by some smug listeners for playing Joplin too fast. But as I mentioned in passing in a page on my website from years ago, how fast is actually too fast might not be as simple as you'd think.

While Joplinesque speed-bumps adorn most of his rags, actual metronome markings are rare. Most of the time we are instructed to take them "march tempo" which is a little harder to gauge unless you live in a culture where marches are heard frequently and most people agree on how fast most of them should go most of the time. But the other day I sat down to play (and record) "Pineapple rag" and stumbled upon what, so far as I can tell, is one of only two metronome markings in his published solo rags. Since this is a reprint from the first edition, there's a pretty good chance Joplin put it there himself. Maybe.

It is 100 to the quarter note. These days I have a nice little metronome app on my smartphone so I punched it up to see how fast it was. "Oh, you've got to be kidding" is the sanitized version of what I said when I realized my assumptions about Joplin's notions of speed were a little off.

100 to the quarter is pretty darned fast.

To give an idea, the recording you are about to hear, the one I made that afternoon, is a little bit slower, actually. I checked it later and found it is around 94 beats per minute.

There is a letter in a museum someplace in which the governor of some state complains about early locomotives going at the "break-neck speed of 15 miles an hour!" I saw it a few decades ago when on a trip with my family as a child. Many things of that era (late 19th-early 20th centuries) were much slower than they are now--news, transportation, the half-life of the attention span--but not everything. Human beings could move their fingers on keys pretty fast. So fast, apparently, that even the guy with the reputation for wanting people to slow down a little wasn't as stately as you might think.

Of course, I am basing this on two metronome markings which might possibly have been done over Joplin's objections, though some research suggests 100 bpm is actually consistent with the ubiquitous "march tempo."

Still, I can conscientiously say I have done a little homework, and that it actually matters to me what the composer might have thought about his own music. Sometimes, of course, I like to try different tempi to see if it brings out different aspects of the music, or makes me discover over things in it. My previous recording, made 10 years ago on a smaller piano with a single microphone (which is why I'm not getting it back out to play for you) is about 34 seconds slower.

If you were keeping track.

listen to Scott Joplin's "Pineapple Rag"

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