Is Maurizio Pollini’s Chopin Etude Opus 10 no 9 too slow?

Chopin’s etude opus 10 no 9 in historical perspective. Tempo Reconstruction

Do we still live in a (post) industrial age?

We today, more than we perhaps realize, still live in a time that is driven by similar mechanisms that surfaced from the mid 19th century: an absolute believe in progression, new = better by definition.  Our social structures may very well have changed, but it is hard for us to accept a truth or reality that does not align with what we still believe progression should be defined with.  Industrial age

In a similar way, only the idea that early 19th century musicians are two centuries behind us on this timeline – and not an eternity ahead in terms of technical power, elevated almost to a God like status, is for many today impossible to accept.

1891 Luther H CaryWe would shiver from the idea of comparing those composers to the capacities of athletes even a century ago. Luther Cary in 1891,  did not run the 100 meter in the 9.58 of Usain Bolt in 2009. As perhaps Liszt wasn’t the titan that would make our current generation of pianist look like beginners. Or as Chopin, who might have been technically very gifted but human after all, far from the unrealistic image we created of the man who liked the intimacy of the living room more than the brilliance of the concert hall and fought his entire life against a weak health that would rip the world of this unique voice at the age of only 39.

In this video/blogI’ll give you some background and context of the notation and performance of  Chopin’s music in general, his etude opus 10 nr 9 in F minor which I’ve uploaded a few days ago in particular. At the end we’ll take a look at the performance Maurizio Pollini gave of the same piece. Not to criticize the performance of one of the greatest pianists of our time. Only to see if Chopin performances like these fit the original Chopin tradition, or more that of a late 19th century pianistic way of playing.

If you’ve not heard my version of Chopin’s etude opus 10 nr 9, click here

Only a tempo to strive for??

And don’t worry, I do realize that for many of you, certainly if you’re new to this channel and have not heard yet anything on the underlying research towards tempo reconstruction, my performance of Chopin’s etude opus 10 nr 9 must metronome art nouveauhave been a complete shock. Yes, often we are told – and I’m no exception to that- that the metronome numbers in Chopin’s case are only ideal speeds to strive for, not really meant to be reached.  As a piano teacher once told me, Chopin’s metronome numbers are given by the master to bring the best out of everybody.

Yes. I think that was the basic idea of Chopin… Or of all those others, Beethoven, Hummel, Ries, Czerny, Moscheles, Mendelssohn, Tomaschek, and so on. Therefore they took the effort and time of in one case marking a piece with 96, next piece 88, then 104, then 76, and so on. Imagine how much time they all could have saved just by writing ‘as fast as humanly possible’ above each piece!

Their metronome numbers were accurate speed indications instead!

No, contrary to this ‘as-fast-as-possible’ explanation, one of the easiest things to “proof”, is the seriousness and the accuracy with which those early 19th century musicians, Chopin included, marked their own performance speeds for their compositions. And realizing that the choice of tempo is one of the most important decisions a musician needs to make, a choice that influences a whole lot of other elements, including the character of the piece, we’d better pay a little more attention to these little numbers. It’s almost as good as a CD recording.

Hmm.. perhaps not almost as good as a CD recording, but in any case, it’s a huge difference with a situation where we would NOT have those speed indications.

Completely denied

Today, these metronome numbers are most often completely denied. Surprisingly as well by the so-called historical performance practice movement, for which group one would think this information- being prime PERFORMANCE indicators- should be above the beds of everyone involved. There will be many reasons for not wanting to deal with them, the main reason besides fear for change, for sure is the refusal, almost as a default position, to accept any explanation that might lead to an even minimal decrease of common tempi. Though we do see a change, especially with a younger generation of musicians that seem to be more open to change and experiment, the wish to be accepted as a musician with high technical standards, also in HIP circles is a big concern.

However understandable this attitude is, whoever claims to be interested in reconstructing the composer’s wish in his or her performance, will have to deal with the thousands of metronome numbers they left. Statistically, we have so many speed indications that they become relevant and errors easily can be filtered out.

Two metronome options

Yes, many of those numbers, including the Chopin ones, are extremely fast. Yet we have two options to deal with them. Either read them as we do today, where one tick gives the speed of the represented note value in the metronome number.

Or we take the old, historical method, described even from the middle ages onwards, where the note value represents the Tact (in German), or Mésure (in French) or Time (in English), in many historical writings on music synonym for ‘Schlag’.

You’ll find lots of descriptions up to the 17th century, full In the old mensural notation, one semibrevis – a whole note- had ‘one schlag’, where schlag litteraly was the arm of the leading musician going up and down. The ‘Schlag’ was completed when the arm returned to its original position. The up AND down together had the duration of the Semibrevis, the Tact Note.

I’m working currently on an article that will scetch you the evolution, easy to follow thanks to google search, into the 18th and 19th century. You’ll quicly find the same terminology related to the pendulum, chronometer or… a metronome number.

Also in Chopin’s time, that original meaning and understanding was still all around. For instance, a description on how to use the metronome, given by Eduard Jeu in 1838 . I quote:

Eduard Jeu

Excerpt from Music Learned without a Teacher by Edouard Jue (1838)

 De l’unite de temps ou de mouvement

On the unit of time or motion (tempo)

40. Le mouvement est la mesure du temps; c’est ainsi que la marche de l’aiguille partage le jour en heures, en minutes, etc.

40. Motion (tempo) is the measure of time; just as the progress of the clock hand divides the day into hours, minutes, etc.

41. Une ou mieux encore deux oscillations du pendule peuvent être prises pour unité comparative.

41. One, or better still, two swings of the pendulum can be taken as a unit for comparison.

42 .Pour figurer cette unité binaire (c’est-a-dire composée de deux mouvements), nous emploierons le signe que l’on appelle une noire, sans toutefois prétendre attribuer à la noire rien d’absolu sous le rapport de la durée; elle ne doit rappeler à notre esprit que les deux mouvements plus ou moins pressés, mais isochrones, c’est-a-dire égaux entre eux, par lesquels on marque l’unité. .

42. To picture this binary (that is, made up of two motions) unit, we use the symbol♩ which is called a quarter note or crotchet, without however assigning it any absolute duration; the symbol must only call to mind the two motions, more or less hurried, but isochronous (that is, equal to one another), by which the unit is marked out.

43.Imitons avec la main droite les deux oscillations du pendule, en frappant et levant alternativement. Au frappé commencera l’unité pour finir au frappé suivant, moment où une seconde unité lui succèdera.

43. A chacun de ces frappés nous articulerons un son, dont nous soutiendrons l’intonantion jusqu’au moment précis où le frappé suivant annoncera la fin de ce son et le commencement d’une nouvelle articulation. Soyons surtout attentifs à ne presser ni rallentir les mouvments, à les trnacher bien net, et à partager exactement par le levé la duré prise pour unité.

 Let us imitate the two swings of the pendulum with the right hand, by alternately moving it up and down. The unit begins at the downstroke and finishes at the following downstroke, the moment when a second unit succeeds it.

At each of these downstrokes we articulate a sound and hold its tone until the precise moment when the next downstroke announces the end of this sound and the beginning of a new one. Let us be especially careful not to speed up or slow down the motions, to cut them cleanly, and to use the upstroke to exactly divide the time taken for the unit.4

 {English translation by Laurence Hecht}

Now back to Chopin! 

chopin etude opus 10 no 9 first edition

So in our case here of Chopin’s etude n°9, which has the MM of dotted quarter note = 96, we place the weight of the metronome on 96, and each single swing will give us the half of the note value in the metronome number. Because, the two ticks together– in French : two temps  give the complete beat, Vibration or Schlag.  It sounds more complicated than it is. Just try it and you’ll enjoy the simplicity of it.

But even if we hadn’t libraries full of “proof”, it would not be too difficult to come with a similar explanation. Many pieces simply become unplayable in what we often call ‘single beat’. Just try a Czerny etude. Or this F minor one by Chopin.

The musicology ‘trap’

Do realize that we very rarely hear any musical piece performed in the speed indications given by the composers. So don’t fall into the trap that certain musicologists like to set for you, that every piece would become half as slow compared to what we today have set as a standard. That’s an ugly trap in fact, since we indeed rarely hear a piece that fast. Roughly said, for a reconstruction both in double or in single beat, a correction must be done of an average of about 30% in both directions.

Also for this etude. Even Pollini, not particularly known for his slow performances, is 10% under the literal speed as given by Chopin. And even then, he feels the need, technically or musically, to slow down drastically at the end of this etude. I’ll give you a fragment so you can hear (and see) for yourself. Pollini decreases the last page so much, as to play that page in… double beat tempo!

Click here

This kind of over-the-top rubato did not exist in Chopin’s time, but in any case is not indicated here by the composer either.  In the historical tempo, there is no need at all to suddenly pull the handbrake.

Not talking even on the character of this piece, which still is Allegro, and where the left hand depicts aspects of a world that rapidly changes through mechanization, where one almost hear the pulses of the steam train. Connecting people, or… taking them far from their home country.

Not talking either on those repeated 16th’s, forte, after a slight smorzando pianissimo in the previous bar. In the literal tempo, remember that is Pollini + 10%, there is no way those repeated notes can be played “a tempo”, even on a perfectly regulated Steinway of today. Let alone the Pleyel that Chopin loved so much, but has not given him a repetition mechanic at all. The Polish master was not after a repetition mechanic either, since the company Erard could have delivered it to him already since 1822.

Yes, we must realize how much we still are impressed, biased perhaps even by technical abilities, before we really can free our minds in the fascinating search for what could have been the original message of the composers we still admire so much today.

Certainly in Chopin’s case I’d say.

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