By Miranda Wilson

Today’s performers have grown up in an age of ultra-specific performance instructions, whether in contemporary concert music or film scores that can only be recorded with the aid of click-tracks and minutely detailed metronome markings. It can be disconcerting, therefore, to determine tempo when there is no metronome marking, or when the composition in question predates the metronome.

Inventors had been experimenting with pendulum-like structures intended to help musicians keep time since the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the second decade of the 19th century that a device we’d recognize as a metronome was patented—that is, a device that musicians could set to a certain number of beats per minute and that produced an audible clicking sound. The metronome had a dual purpose: to help performers keep better time in practice, and to help composers indicate a preferred tempo. However, the device was not without problems in the 19th century—in fact, a team of mathematics scholars established in 2013 that Beethoven’s occasionally erratic tempo markings could have been due to an inaccuracy in the weights of his metronome. It stands to reason that many 19th-century composers’ markings are also unreliable—as anyone who’s ever attempted the scherzo movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49, at the composer’s marking of 120 to the dotted quarter can attest!

So when there is no exact instruction for a tempo, how can performers go about establishing one in a way that is both respectful of the score and practicable for performance considerations in music of the 19th century and earlier?

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1. Movement Titles & Tempo Descriptors

When we’re studying music in childhood, we memorize long lists of Italian terms and their translations into English, but these translations often aren’t entirely accurate. Every child in elementary-school orchestra can tell you that allegro means “fast,” but its literal meaning is “cheerful.” Similarly, the terms lento, largo, and adagio are often used interchangeably by English speakers to mean “slow,” but in fact only lento has that meaning. Largo is better translated as “broadly” and adagio means “at ease.” Andante doesn’t mean “at a walking pace”—it means “going.” (Going on foot, perhaps, but the translation is still only an approximation.) Playing “at ease” for a Corelli sonata movement titled Adagio suggests a completely different character than playing “broadly” in a movement titled Largo—these descriptive titles can provide clues in figuring out tempo as well as mood.

By the same token, if a movement has a dance title rather than a descriptive one, this can also be powerfully suggestive of a tempo requirement. One often hears the Sarabande movements of Bach’s works for solo violin and cello played painfully slowly, but learning what a danced Sarabande looks like (YouTube is a mine of information on period-dance performance) can be illuminating. In a Sarabande that has no strongly linear melody, such as the one in Bach’s C minor cello suite, BWV 1011, a not-too-slow tempo can bring out the implied harmonies more poignantly, while retaining the jagged, fragmented character of the line (Ex. 1).

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2. Time Signature & Division of the Beat

Many cellists also play the Allemande of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012, with such extreme slowness that no one would guess that Bach’s specified time signature is common time. Trying to keep the feeling of four beats to the measure, albeit slow ones with many small divisions and subdivisions, is illuminating in the search for an appropriate tempo (Ex. 2).

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3. Consistent Tempo Based on the Smallest Note Values

Most performers would prefer to maintain a consistent tempo through a movement, allowing for some flexibility and rubato here and there. It can consequently be useful to go through a piece with the aid of a metronome, looking for places in which divisions of the beat may make it impractical to go too fast. An example of this is the Prélude to Bach’s D major cello suite, in which performers often take the three-eighths figure that features throughout most of the piece at a rapid pace, but slow the underlying (dotted-quarter) beat down significantly at the cadenza-like section in the last part of the movement, where the note values are 16th notes (Ex. 3). Why not choose an overall tempo that’s consistent with how fast the 16th-note section can go?

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4. Instrumentation & Moving Parts

It’s all too easy for a string player who works mostly alone in a practice room to determine tempo by what’s happening in his or her own part rather than by what the other instruments in a composition might be playing. You should be careful to learn all chamber music from the full score to avoid determining the tempo for your personal convenience rather than for the composition as a whole.

It’s tempting to play the Largo movement of Chopin’s cello sonata exceedingly slowly, because who doesn’t enjoy doing what the cello is most famous for? But to play at 50 to the quarter note, as many do, is to ignore the fact that Chopin’s specified beat note is a half note. The movement is in triple time—3/2—although from the way it sounds on some recordings, the audience could be forgiven for thinking it was in 4/4. Furthermore, the arpeggiations for the pianist’s right hand sound very pedantic at a too-slow tempo.

To get a better sense of both the time signature and the piano’s broken-chord accompaniment, a tempo of 45 to the half note accordingly seems truer to the composer’s indications (Ex. 4). The half notes for the pianist’s left hand and Chopin’s pedal markings in the first two measures should dispel any doubt about the underlying beat pattern the composer had in mind.

Absence of a metronome marking can leave the interpreter feeling adrift. But the lack of specifics also gives players freedom to use the dual gifts of musical logic and musical imagination in breathing life into a composition, whether it is a little-known work or a beloved classic.

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