I was working with someone on Schubert’s B flat Impromptu last week, a set of variations on the so-called “Rosamunde” theme. Variation form always poses a tempo challenge to the performer – how to adapt the basic tempo we have chosen for the theme as the variations unfold. 

The edition my student was using was by the one by Howard Ferguson, from the ABRSM’s Signature Series. Ferguson is a musician and scholar for whom I have a lot of respect, so I was very interested to find in the preface some tempo suggestions that are “in no way authoritative, but may prove helpful if only as points of departure”. 

Schubert marks the theme Andante – most important, of course, to notice the all breve time signature, so that’s two beats in a bar (on no account must it feel like four). I’ve just been on YouTube to sample the tempo from a few recordings, here are the first five that came up in the search:

Lisitsa – c. 35

Pires – c. 35

Brendel – c. 40

Schiff – c. 45

Zimerman – c. 46

It was difficult to find a fixed pulse for the Horowitz recording I found. He brings his own inimitable Romantic approach to the work that has a magic all it’s own.

Howard Ferguson gives his suggestions in crotchet beats (strangely), and a tempo of 80 for the theme (40 for the minim beat). This increase to 88 (44) for the Variation 1, the slight increase making sense in light of the forward-flowing semiquaver movement that always reminds me of the sort of music Schubert writes when describing brooks or streams of water. Variation 2 pushes the pulse still further, at 96 (48), before a new, slower tempo of 60 (30) for the sombre Variation 3 in the tonic minor. Ferguson goes on to recommend a tempo of 84 (42) for Variations 4 and 5, and 54 (27) for the closing più lento. 

I wish I had time to go through each of the YouTube recordings I sampled to find out what becomes of the initial tempo, but you can be sure of two things. Firstly, it will change from variation to variation and secondly, each pianist will have come up with his or her own proportions that will be personal to that artist (on that particular occasion). 

Glenn Gould had a theory about tempo relationships in a large-scale work, based on the principle of a flexible tactus that should be traceable throughout. Here is a short extract from a 1982 radio interview with Tim Page, in which he explains his theory.

GG: I’ve come to feel over the years that a musical work, however long it may be, ought to have basically—I was going to say ‘one tempo’ but that’s the wrong word—one pulse rate, one constant rhythmic reference point. Now obviously there couldn’t be anything more deadly dull than to exploit one beat that goes on and on and on indefinitely —that’s what drives me up the wall about rock, you know, and . . . about minimalism . . .

TP: Oh-ho! I think we should argue that one another time. 

GG: Yeah, probably so. Anyway, I would never argue in favor of an inflexible music pulse, you know, that just destroys any music. But you can take a basic pulse and divide or multiply it, not necessarily on a scale of two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, but often with far less obvious divisions, I think, and make the result of those divisions or multiplications act as a subsidiary pulse for a particular movement or section of a movement . . .

GG: So in the case of the Goldberg, there is in fact one pulse, which—with a few very minor modifications—mostly modifications which I think take their cue from ritards at the end of the preceding variation, something like that—one pulse that runs all the way throughout. 

When it comes to preludes and fugues from the 48, I always try to find a tempo relationship between the prelude and the fugue that feels natural. This not only helps the performer to create an organic whole, but it also reassures the listener that they are hearing one work, rather than two pieces tacked together (this listening response will be felt even if it is not conscious). For some, it feels very appropriate that the tempo should stay more or less the same, even if the way the tempo moves is different. For example, the F minor from Book 1 works well this way, but it doesn’t have to! I can also imagine a more flowing tempo for the Prelude (surely an allemande), then something more stately for the Fugue.

In a Bach suite, I aim for an uninterrupted arch from the beginning to the end, not stopping the flow between each dance movement. One movement links to the next, carrying the listener along on a single thread. 

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