If you ever had the dream, fantasy or wish to hear Robert Schumann play his own works, you better put that dream aside, because the great pianist Leopold Godowski suggested in 1915 that this time-travel might not worth your effort at all. Godowski wrote in his edition of the Kinderscenen – or Childhood scenes – that Schumann showed in his metronome indications an – and I quote: “an incomprehensible lack of judgment in deciding the speed of every number”. End of quote. Godowski corrected all speeds by mostly lowering the metronomic indications, sometimes even by as much as … exactly half. So was Schumann a musical ignorant? Or do we miss something? Let's find out!
Contrary to what many musicians today believe, there is much inspiration to be found in the early 19th century metronome numbers. Too often we forget that those numbers reflect actual speeds of metronomes that in real time were ticking on the pianos of the composers we admire so much but never heard perform their music. If you are fascinated by the idea of coming as close as possible to those final seconds before the composer started to write down your favorite piece of music, the often hated metronome will bring you closer than anything else. Because what will influence your performance more than your choice of speed, your choice of tempo?
In this blog, we will focus on Schumann’s Kinderscenen, composed in 1838, for which the master provided no Italian tempo words, but only metronome numbers instead. Leopold Godowski (1870-1915) for which we can only have the greatest respect as a pianist and teacher –writes in his 1915 edition of the Kinderscenen following strong statement:
“The metronomic indications (speed regulations) throughout the series of pieces are attributed to Schumann. With few exceptions, the tempo is incorrectly given, owing either to a defective, improperly adjusted metronome, or to the composer’s incomprehensible lack of judgment in deciding the speed of every number.”
But how could Schumann have missed the obvious here? Broken metronome? That would imply that Schumann, nor anyone else in his environment, Clara for instance, or Brahms, or Mendelssohn, ever realized that the poor device did not tick in seconds when put on 60. Not really convincing.
Truth however is that we do play many of these pieces today much slower, even exactly half of the tempo indicated by Schumann. For instance his famous Traümerei - Dreaming. Schumman's marks Quarter = 100. Listen to Martha Argerich or Vladimir Horowitz, playing it in Q=54.
Looking at the other pieces, most of the tempi Schumann gives for his Childhood Scenes seems extremely fast, sometimes even on the edge of still being playable. That’s the more surprising, since in the subtitle of the bundle, the composer let us know these are all pieces that he considers to be Leichte Stücke – Easy pieces.
So was Godowski right after all? Let’s have a look on all the corrections he made:
Of the 13 Schumann pieces, Godowski gives 3 3times a metronome number that is about the half of Schumann’s, in 6 cases he is about 25 percent slower, in 3 cases he matches the indication of Schumann and in one case he is about 20% faster. The majority of Godowski’s tempi are considerably to even much slower than Schumann’s metronome numbers. So if Godowski’s speeds are correct, it indeed is incomprehensible how Schumann could have been off by so much.
There are not so many solutions to "fix" this problem. Either Schumann really was a musical ignorant, or he used his metronome in a different way as we do today. Just like most other composers throughout the entire 19th century. We call that here the #WBMP or the Whole Beat Metronome Practice. Each left and each right, just like in physics still today, indicate the subdivision of the indicated note value, not the entire duration of it. Didn't Godowski knew that in 1915 you ask? Maybe yes, maybe no. Or maybe he couldn't accept a different interpretation compared to the way Schumann was supposed to be played in his days. That wouldn't sound too strange to us, right? Because, go out there and try to "justify" a different tempo approach yourself. You'll see the world still isn't ready for that today!