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We Still Serve Chopin NAKED in his Etude "La Tristesse"?

If you are reading this post, I assume you are familiar with the name Frédéric Chopin. I'm also assuming that you know his music quite well, or at least a few pieces. Am I wrong in suggesting that we, as a musical society, consider Chopin's music to be among the most emotional ever written?

Chopin would have agreed. Legendary are the instances when he quit playing in the middle of a piece and, with a glissando on the piano, simply disappeared. For Chopin, his music was too close to his heart to share with an audience. You could even say he hated his audience, almost as if he felt exposed, being served naked to a group of strangers.

But we love that aspect of Chopin's music. It's partly what makes his music so unique. An example is his D-flat Major Nocturne Opus 27, No. 2, or his Étude Opus 10, No. 3, also called "La Tristesse." Pieces like these seem to have something special, but they also share another characteristic: many of them are played much slower than the metronome markings suggest. In the case of the D-flat major Nocturne or Étude, many performers today still play them at a tempo we describe as the WBMP, or Whole Beat Metronome Practice. Or, in other words, half of the tempo that the metronome mark seems to suggest.

If you've never heard of the WBMP, it’s believed to be the original use of the metronome. Back in the day, they used two ticks of the metronome for every beat, so a full cycle determined the length, the duration, of the note value in the metronome marking, much like many physicists today still use their pendulums.

So, do slower tempi and emotion correlate? Not necessarily, but when you play slower, you can see more details and immerse yourself in the harmonic jungle that characterizes many of these pieces. Those aspects are often lost when you play faster. While playing slower doesn't always equate to playing more emotionally, it definitely helps.

The idea of the WBMP is no less of a paradigm shift, I'm aware of that. And I don't have a crystal ball to predict how the idea of Whole Beat and our work, like our Beethoven recordings or the book we're going to publish, will impact the future of music. But I do know that opposition to the WBMP exists largely because the majority of musicians and listeners are unaware of its existence. Once that changes, a lot will change quickly due to increased awareness.

It's also true that, when musicologists or musicians fight the idea of the WBMP, they seem not to be inspired by the desire to solve the metronomic problem but rather by the wish to maintain the status quo. A beautiful illustration is the Étude Opus 10, No. 3. Today, this étude is never played close to a Single Beat (modern reading) of the metronome mark given by Chopin. Ironically, this is one of the rare cases where playing in Single Beat would be possible. It's no surprise that the general audience increasingly questions why we play this piece much slower than indicated.

It is not an easy question to answer. Especially from the awareness that hundreds if not thousands of MMs are simply impossible to play in a modern Single Beat reading. Let's go to YouTube to get an idea of how this interesting question is solved. If these answers hold, we’ll see soon.

The opinions of these pianists represent a general stance among musicians and musicologists regarding this specific question. A follow-up would be nice, though. The strange thing is that the metronome mark is taken as proof that we need to speed up this piece significantly, to almost double the tempo. Yet, these same musicians then advocate for a slower tempo, immediately abandoning the same metronome mark they used to speed up this piece so much. So, where do we end up? Somewhere in the middle between Single Beat and Whole Beat, which seems nonsensical, but surprisingly, this view suffices for many people.

It becomes even stranger when you listen to recordings of this piece by these musicians.

Both play this piece at around the mainstream 60 to 66, not 100. If you compare these performances to mainstream performances, criticized for being too slow, there's even no noticeable difference. So why make those claims if, in the end, nothing changes?

As a side-note in favor of our trusted WBMP, it's striking to see some late 19th and early 20th-century editions, a time when the transition from Single Beat to Whole Beat occurred, changing this metronome mark. For Opus 10, No. 3, the Single Beat metronome marking is exactly the tempo we play today—a little faster than Chopin, but still much slower than a single beat interpretation of the original mark. This isn't surprising. Tempi in the 19th century sped up significantly, a trend that continues today.

It may seem like I'm criticizing these musicians, but I'm not. I'm just hinting that if you think about this for five minutes and try it out on the piano, it's easy to take a piece that allows for double tempo. But you should also try other pieces and see that this “solution” doesn’t work there. They should know better. But I understand we all live in our little bubbles with narrow perspectives that are hard to change. It took me years to have a light bulb moment and see the other reality. Just turn your head 90 degrees and look at the same pieces, the same music, the same elements that created so many problems. I was searching for tempo solutions, looking at metronome marks, and didn't see it for years.

Opinions like this are still possible today because the idea of the WBMP hasn't reached enough people. When that changes, everything will change. I'm sure of that. Because in the end, we do love Chopin being served naked, not just in a few of his compositions.

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