Schumann’s incomprehensible lack of tempo judgment

Schumann’s broken metronome…

Schumann’s “incomprehensible lack” of tempo judgment

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 Leopold Godowsky 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 in this blog -or the video above- I give you my personal opinion on whether I share Godowski’s opinion Schumann might have been a great composer but musically ignorant. In the video, you’ll even hear me demonstrate some pieces at my Erard piano:

Kinderscenen : Träumerei – Reverie –  Dreaming

Kinderscenen: Ritter vom Steckenpferd- the knight of the hobby-horse

Metronome numbers: wealthy source of inspiration!

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. We are now in a time that we could consider as the heyday of the metronome, of which the interest of the new generation from 1840 onwards would rapidly decline. Schumann, not only a composer at the time, but from 1834 until 1844 an incredible talented writer as well, the leading force behind the ‘Neue Zeitschrift für Musik’, where he introduced his audience to new music as Chopin and Brahms.

Jumping back to Leopold Godowski, for which we can only have the greatest respect as a pianist and teacher – he lived from 1870 to 1938- we read in his edition of the Kinderscenen of 1915 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.”

So yes, you read this right: Schumann was a great composer, but a musical idiot who didn’t even know the tempi of his own music. Let’s skip the argument of a broken metronome, so often used just to not take the composer’s own indications seriously. It would mean that Schumann, or anyone else in his environment, Clara for instance, or Brahms, or Mendelssohn, never realized that poor Schumann’s metronome did not tick in seconds when put on 60… Yes, we may laugh a little bit because of so much early 20th century arrogance doubting Schumann’s own judgment as a performer on the pieces he wrote himself– and don’t make a mistake: Godowski was a giant in his time – but in our today’s performance practice, both on modern and period pianos, we may not say or write these kind of things any more, but we still act accordingly. At best, we play some of the pieces in a tempo that is exactly the half of what Schumann indicated. As for instance the famous Traümerei – Dreaming, that is actually played, with as far as I know almost no exception in a tempo around that what Godowski suggested: quarter note 54 instead of Schumann’s quarter note 100.

Let’s listen for instance to Martha Argerich.

Or Vladimir Horowitz

If we would read Schumann’s metronome marking literally, as we today read metronome markings, we indeed get a rather strange result: click here

So a tempo like this might lead to a increased risk on heart attacks, but looking at the other pieces, most of the tempi Schumann gives for his Childhood Scenes are really 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 a beautiful overview that was sent to me by Robert Klein.

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, again, if read as we do today. So if Godowski’s speeds are indeed more correct that Schumann’s own tempi, it indeed is incomprehensible how Schumann could have been off by so much.

So what’s the point we are missing here?

To me, honestly, the really incomprehensible fact is that Godowski, great pianist as he was, did not see how perfect Schumann’s tempi for these pieces really are. I mean what I say and it shouldn’t be a surprise by now, since I have uploaded few days ago number one to six of the Kinderscenen, played on my clavichord in tempi that are close to those Schumann indicated. I’m still waiting for my pianoforte that will be an almost perfect instrument to play these pieces on, much better suited than my clavichord, but as for know, I felt like playing them on the clav and honestly, I believe the instrument adds a kind of special charm to the music, although no doubt Schumann designed the pieces for the piano of his time. You’ll find links at the top of this blog post with some pieces demonstrated on my Erard.

What Godowski should have made him rethink his judgment is the fact that he choose 3 tempi that were about half as fast as Schumann indicated. The ‘Träumerei’ is the best example to demonstrate Schumann’s perfect tempo. You take your metronome, put it on 100 et voilà, there you have the tempo Godowski liked, the majority of musicians still today use, and actually was suggested by Schumann: click here

MetronomeI have made many videos and blog posts now on the old metrical reading of the metrome (click here to go to a playlists of videos) . Very short: you start from the idea of the tactus, the arsis-thesis, the up-down of a conductor, as a unity. In the world of a metronome , those ups/downs are indicated by the actual number, in this case 100. Both up-down, or in a metronome’s case, the left-right, belong together as one “Schlag” as the Germans say, and that two-fold unity is represented by the note value, in this case the quarter note. So on every ‘tactus’ – every quarter note here- two ticks are heard. Let me show you again: click here

It might be so that many tempi you’ll get like this may diverge from what Godowski in 1915 or we in 2018 are used to hear, but remember this: there are 180 years that separate us from the year in which Schumann wrote his Kinderscenen. That… is an awful lot of time.

Roughly said, for those pieces we have metronome numbers for, there are two options, at least, if you’d like to reconstruct the original idea: either you play the metronome markings according to the way we read them today (single beat) or you take the old metrical approach (double beat). Surprisingly though, few people, even the ones who would defend the single beat option, really do realize what a single beat approach would mean – if it were possible , which is not the case, because many of the metronome markings simply are out of reach for any living human being. To test this, YouTube gives a wonderful option, just go to settings, click speed and select 2 as double speed. When you do that with my recordings, you’ll hear my performance in double beat, the old metrical reading of the metronome number, whereas the video player’s double speed gives you at least a clue of what you may strive for in case you’d believe single beat indeed was in use back then.

I’ll play you the Träumerei and also number 9: Ritter vom Steckenpferd / The knight of the hobby-horse as to demonstrate two of the pieces in exactly the tempi Schumann gave. There are more questions to be answered regarding this topic. Some of them have been answered already in videos I did on similar topics – I’ll link some of them here– but feel free to leave all the questions you have in the comment section – on YouTube-. I do read those. There is a very special video/ blog coming up on Raoul Pugno, the famous piano student of Georg Matthias, a famous Chopin student. That will… blow you from your chair, not because of me, but because of the content. So stay tuned. Before I start playing to lead you gently out of this video, I thank you for reading/watching, and if you’d like to join me and over 13.000 other musicians and music lovers already now on this exciting journey of constant discoveries, hit that subscribe button and then… we’ll ‘meet’ soon again!