I recently began contributing to Stack Exchange, where I wrote an answer today on the topic of Rubato. I’ve adapted it here:


In the movie Amadeus, there's a scene of a chamber orchestra where the conductor uses a large pole and pounds the floor to indicate downbeats in a strict time. And in earlier music, such as Bach fugues, the complexity of the rhythmic subdivisions and independent lines seems to demand a very strict time.

But rubato wasn't invented just for the Romantic era, right? Classical-era music requires some small degree of "breathing", right?

For concrete examples, how should my rubato differ when playing Mozart's Piano Sonata, KV 331 vs. Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18, Op. 31/3?

Edit: This question was inspired by a memory of my (Russian) piano teacher telling me that I played Fur Elise too freely, and that I needed to be more strict with the time to be accurate for the period. While I didn't really heed the advice at the time, it has had a growing influence on me these past 20 years. So I'm more interested in the *scholarly" view, how to be period-appropriate.


In the case of Rubato, the Harvard Dictionary of Music offers two related definitions. The main distinguishing factor is that an older sense of the term occurs at a micro-level, changing note durations in the melody without allowing the beat to move around, and that includes accompaniment that closely follows the beat, say in the singing of an aria. This sense of the word carries forward to every popular recording today. You could claim that every commercially popular singer makes use of this sense of rubato no matter how quantized the accompanying tracks are. In truth, here, you aren’t robbing so much as constantly borrowing time, which you are also constantly repaying. By this standard, you would have to put Frank Sinatra at the very top of the list!

The second sense of rubato is the “modern” sense in which changes in tempo occur “in all parts at the same time without any compensation”. We typically point to Liszt for this sense of the term. However, as a matter performance, the documentary records for this sense of the term go all the way back to Frescobaldi.

It is important interpreters search for a sense of appropriate rubato, and that can involve a great many layers of nuance. Take the case of Mozart and Beethoven. How different should one’s approach to these composers actually be? I would say that the answer is pretty simple: not much

There is a spectrum of time manipulation between absolute metronomic rigidity and absolute improvisatory fluidity approaching chaos. Within that larger spectrum of what is possible there is a certain range of acceptability along the spectrum for any given passage of any given work. By means of physical comparison, a passage is kind of like chop sticks. For any given pair of chopsticks, there is a certain amount of bending possible before you snap and break them. You could make the same analogy with glass. So that range of flexibility can be generalized to given periods, or better, given composers. Bartok, for instance, gives us not only metronome markings, but precise timings for sections as a second check against grossly deforming his works. He believes his music to be more delicate with regards to timing, so one wrong move and snap. Mahler, on the other hand, gives loads of instruction with regard to tempo, some metronome markings, but a degree of sturdy flexibility to his music. It seems that his approach to harmony and orchestration further supports this.

As for the difference in approach to  Mozart and Beethoven, and my answer (“not much”): the two occupy a close relationship in time and practice. I don’t want to suggest in any way that this means that their music sounds similar. This is obvious to all but the most basic unacquainted listeners. But they occupy a similar placement in history, and it is logical to see that their music, as performed by their contemporaries, would have received somewhat similar approaches to performance. By that I mean that words like *Allegro* and *cantabile* still meant roughly the same thing to Mozart’s contemporaries in the 1780’s as it did to Beethoven’s in the 1820’s.

The yawning chasm between the two is the abundance of additional performance instructions that Beethoven gives. Remember that not until Gabrieli did we even have the innovation of notated dynamics but even Mozart did not fuss too greatly with them, frequently limiting himself to simply p and f with fewer marked crescendi and diminuendi, while Beethoven added more of these, including the more frequent use of pp or ff. (Caveat: Mozart uses almost all of these markings some times, but it is a question of frequency.) This process of specificity progressed further by the time of Tchaikovsky and still further with Mahler. But does that mean that we do not want to make a distinction between different forte sections in Mozart, or shape the phrase? I say no. It is simply that Mozart generally left it to the performer, familiar with the prevalent style, to know what would be appropriate, while Beethoven explicitly directs the performer, lest there be any doubt. All of these comments map almost perfectly onto their use of expressive tempo markings. Mozart tends toward the implicit, Beethoven toward the explicit. In fact, it is even more true in the case of tempo.

Take for example, two piano sonatas, Mozart’s KV 331 and Beethoven’s Op. 31, No. 3. It’s hard to make a direct comparison because of the variability between them. What would be easier would be to compare opening movements in the genre that begin in the same key, same time signature, and same tempo marking. But to quickly compare, KV 331 opens immediately with a stable tempo that is maintained until variation V, but with no indication as to how or when to change tempo. Beethoven, on the other hand, starts Op. 31/3 Allegro, can’t make it just three measures into the work without directing for a change in tempo!  So we can see a wide diversity between the musical style of the composers in how they manage time, but less diversity in how much we should additionally mold it beyond the directions of the composer. Not that we shouldn’t do it, but that we shouldn’t do it with an altogether different approach between these two composers. A comparison of the range of acceptable rubato usage between the performance of Mozart and of Beethoven would show that in both cases, one would be wise to tastefully but very judiciously shape time. The best way to see this is in careful study of many different recordings of the same work.

 Gunther Schuller:  The Compleat Conductor

Gunther Schuller: The Compleat Conductor

For the most thorough set of interpretive analyses of recordings that I’ve encountered, look into Gunther Schuller’s The Compleat Conductor. It is a fascinating look, microscope in hand, at 8 masterworks. It contains dozens of tabular comparisons between the approaches of different conductors, each table to one very small phrase or interpretive decision, to get a sense of what the range is. Most often, given that tempo is the conductor’s most essential domain, a trend emerges as to what consensus, if any, there may be between a range of interpreters. I would love to know if anyone has made a similar effort in covering another genre or other works.

If you liked what you read, please stop by and up-vote my answer for a look at the original post and contribute your own comments either here or there.

Jordan Randall Smith is the Music Director of Symphony Number One.