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Tempo flexibility and Chopin

Joseph Todd Allen, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Tempo flexibility seems to be an undeniable demand of musical common sense, in which subtle expansions or contractions of the musical pulse, not specified by the composer, are made at the discretion of the performer. This study gathers evidence to establish solid historical authority for this practice, especially with regard to the music of Frederic Chopin. As a supplement, thirty sound recordings by thirty pianists, of Chopin's Nocturne in E♭, Op. 9/2 are analyzed, in order to get a picture of how tempo flexibility has been used in the era of recorded sound. ^ The sources consulted comprise primarily those contemporaneous with Chopin and from the later eighteenth century. The emphasis is on those, which address the area of piano performance. This study also uses some later sources that are relevant to the manner in which Chopin played. From these sources, extracts are collected that pertain in some way to tempo flexibility. These extracts establish the existence of the practice and include some specific guidelines for its usage. ^ The sources show that pianists active at the time of Chopin did indeed incorporate some degree of tempo flexibility into their performances, and that Chopin was no exception. It seems equally clear that this practice was nothing new at that time. However, it is possible that the general trend in the early nineteenth century was towards a more extensive use of tempo flexibility, and that this continued throughout the century. (The recordings do not show a clear trend in this regard, but do prove the pervasiveness of tempo flexibility throughout the twentieth century.) The surviving accounts of Chopin's playing do not present a uniform picture, but the evidence seems to suggest that Chopin's approach to tempo was somehow stricter than many of his contemporaries. Though we cannot know the exact degree of tempo flexibility used by Chopin, the evidence of how he used it in specific places in his music shows that his playing could not always have been metronomic. ^

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Allen, Joseph Todd, "Tempo flexibility and Chopin" (2000). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9997004.