Is classical music too fast?

Time passes slowly in Orford. At the eastern end of the 14th century church of Saint Bartholomew the remains of the Norman chancel can be seen, with moulded arches and great shafted piers still standing. Six centuries later century the church saw the first performances of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, and the three church parables, Curlew River, The Prodigal Son, and Burning Fiery Furnace. (photo to right is a detail from the Church Parable window by John Piper in Aldeburgh Church).

Britten was a true polymath. His genius as a composer goes without saying. His genius as both pianist and conductor is immortalised in many great recordings. His genius as music visionary lives on today in the Aldeburgh Festival. In his autobiography Notes of Seven Decades Antal Dorati writes:

“…the English-speaking world lagged far behind the Latin and German countries in creating and performing opera. The change in this century – a sudden and dramatic one – can be attributed virtually to the life work of a single man: Benjamin Britten. He, almost alone, brought opera back to the English language for the first time since Purcell; or if one prefers to put it the other way round, brought the English language back to opera. This achievement is truly unique, and, notwithstanding the high esteem in which the music and image of Britten are held in his own country, still underrated and not fully understood.”

Curlew River, with its libretto by William Plomer based on the Medieval Japanese No-Play Sumidagawa, is typical of Britten’s multi-layered genius. It covers an enormous time span, from the medieval origins of the play on which it is based through the Gregorian chant Te lucis ante terminum (Before the ending of the day) which opens and closes it, to the contemporary musical idiom in which the body of the work is written. (Photo to right is from L'Opera de Rouen production).

The use of Gregorian chant is a stroke of genius. The plainsong which frames Curlew River is historically timeless, and transcends conventional concepts of speed and musical rhythm. And that prompts me to ask the question, is classical music too fast?

A lot of people are starting to think that classical music needs slowing down, and several of them are putting their money where their mouth is. Longplayer is a 1000 year long piece of music which started to play on the 1st January 2000 and will continue to play, without repetition, until the 31st December 2999. Then it will come back to the point at which it began - and it will start again. Longplayer was developed and composed as a computer programme between October 1995 and December 1999 by Jem Finer. It takes an existing recorded piece of music and uses this as source material. Six sections are played simultaneously from it, each at a slightly different position and different pitch. It's exactly the same principle as taking six copies of a record and playing them on six turntables, each one rotating at a different speed. The source music is primarily Tibetan singing bowls of various sizes, and gongs.

John Cage’s ASLSP was written in 1985 for piano, and became an organ work in 1987. The ASLSP of the title stands for As Slow As Possible, and since its composition there has been debate as to how slow can slow really be? The burghers of the German town of Halberstadt came up with a novel answer. It is 639 years since the famous Blockwerk organ was constructed in the cathedral at Halberstadt. So it was decided to play Cage’s work for 639 years.

To make this possible a disused 11th century church, which was a Cistercian convent for six hundred years, has been renovated. A rather beautiful ‘Cage organ’ has been specially built in the church of St Burchardi by the organ builder Romanus F. Seifert & Sons. The keys are counterbalanced allowing notes to be held continuously once played until reset, producing intentional ciphering. The first three notes were played for eighteen months, following the seventeen months of silence while the organ bellows were completed. Scheduled completion is 2639. But for those that can’t make the finale there are regular concerts when 600 odd years are taken off the performance time as ASLSP is given a half-hour ‘condensed’ performance.

A slightly less extreme advocacy of slower classical music comes again from Germany where 'authentic tempi' may be the next big thing after 'authentic instruments'. Uwe Kliemt is a leading advocate of the Tempo Giusto movement which sprang from the Dutch musicologist W.R. Talsma’s 1980 book The Rebirth of the Classics: Instructions for the Demechanization of Music. It is worth remembering that Maelzel’s mechanical metronome was only created in 1816, the year of the composition of Beethoven’s 8th Symphony. Prior to that tempi relied on the subjective interpretation of Italian instructions. There is a lot of scholarly support for some astonishingly slow tempi on Uwe Kliemt’s web sites, which is in German.

So is classical music too fast? Or is it just catching the ‘hurry sickness’ that pervades every aspect of life today? Support for the latter viewpoint comes from none other than flautist Richard Adeney who played at the premiere of Curlew River, and on the definitive Decca recording conducted by Britten with Peter Pears as the Madwoman. Time & Concord (Autograph Books, 1997) is a wonderful book of reminiscences from the first fifty years of the Aldeburgh Festival. Richard Adeney contributes the following from a time when mobile phones, iPods and digital cameras were unknown, and the world, if not classical music, moved more slowly.

“Curlew River had more rehearsal time than any other new work that I have ever played….I would walk around (Orford) church to the ruined Norman arches in the courtyard and stand by myself with an empty mind, feeling relaxed and happy. The eerie quality of the music, the singing of plainchant, and the repetitive rehearsals, tranquillized me into an unusually quiet state.

In time off, I took my new Hasselblad camera to the surrounding churches and photographed the amazing monuments and carvings inside them. Sometimes, the churches were almost dark inside, and, because of using slow film and small apertures for depth of focus, the time exposures were as long as forty minutes, and that slowness, that waiting with the open-lensed camera with its tripod slowly doing its work, while I wandered around in the sun outside or sat in a pew of a quiet, cool empty church, fitted in with the tranquil music of Curlew River, which still quietly played in my mind.”

This post was sparked by Carl Honoré's fine book In Praise of Slow. There is an excellent section on classical music, and the chapters on slow food and slow sex aren't bad either. You can sample the book on the In praise of slow web site. (In the US the book is called In Praise of Slowness for some reason).

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Lux Aeterna (but not Ligeti) invisible hit counter


Pliable said…
I have received an appreciative email from a reader who is relatively new to these overgrown paths.

He writes…

I have no formal musical training but a real hunger for great music. As well as being currently obsessed by Britten, I have become very keen on Part and especially Sofia Gubaidulina - but not being a Russian or German speaker am finding it hard to get beyond the one-page biographies on web pages such as BBC Music. Any help?
Any pointers? Much appreciated if you can.

I will send him suggestions for paths to follow, but any other pointers, and recommendations, added as comments here would be much appreciated.


Pliable said…
Re. the previous comment. Here is a link to a useful article on Sofia Gubaidulina.
Kathy said…
I agree with your latter thesis that the tempo of classical music in newer recordings and performances is indeed a symptom of our expectations based on our hurried lives. Quite simply, our internal clocks are tuned faster than they used to be. This goes for listeners as well as performers.
My husband frequently makes a concerted effort to perform ballads slowly, as intended, and the difference can be felt by listeners, even if they don't know why it *feels* different. The art of the pause, the hestitation, and the prolonging is lost in many of today's performances of all kinds of music, not just classical.
I cannot imagine passing a day without constant input, from radio, TV, the computer or the phone. 300 years ago, the day must have felt very long indeed.
Garth Trinkl said…
I recall a performance by pianist Grete Sultan, who died about three or four months ago at the age of 99, of John Cage's Études Australes, which Cage wrote for her [1975]. It was the most beautiful performance of a Cage work that I have ever experienced. (The German-born Ms Sultan also promoted music by other contemporary American composers such as Earle Brown, Stefan Wolpe, Alan Hovhaness, Ben Weber, and Christian Wolff. She was also known for her performances of Bach and Schubert.)

Here is a quote from Andrew Clement's 2002 review of Steffen Schleiermacher's CDs of the work:

"In the 1970s Cage abandoned the collages and mixed-media pieces he had constructed in the previous decade and returned to solo instrumental music, sequences that he grouped in books of technically demanding etudes. The Etudes Australes consist of 32 pieces. Cage obtained his material from star charts of the southern hemisphere that he traced and manipulated to obtain the parameters of the piano writing, though rhythms and durations are not specified. Each hand is treated utterly independently, and sets of silently depressed notes in the bass resonate through each study, providing a halo to the figuration above, which thickens from pointillist textures in the earlier pieces to dense chordal aggregates as the sequence goes on.",12102,767391,00.html
Pliable said…
With hindsight I should have called this post Dr Subsonic
Pliable said…
I have linked to this article today (July 23, 2009), but find that over four years some of the links - specifically the audio files/streams - have broken. Which is a great shame.

The lavish Longplayer website also seems to have disappeared.

I've edited out the most obvious broken links to tidy it up, but, unfortunately, this emasculates it somewhat.

But, I hope you agree it is worth giving this post another outing.
Unknown said…
They need to slow the tempo down, they have lost the ability to enjoy the beauty of music. Instead, its, look how talented I am, I can play so fast. I am so glad to see your post. Thought I was going crazy. Most recordings I buy are before 1970 . Something happened in people's brains.

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