The complete guide to dealing with tempo rubato

Rubato is a tricky beast to tame.

In many ways, it is a bit of an oxymoron. It must be planned, yet seem spontaneous. It must be subtle, yet noticeable. It must be clean, yet blurred. It must be unpredictable, but it must not be erratic.

It’s such a tricky beast to tame, I need 2400 words to tame it. Buckle in for a read.


So what does “tempo rubato” mean?

The dictionary says that rubato is:

the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace.

but that doesn’t really mean anything to me. Let’s go a bit further.

Rubato comes from the Italian word “rubato” (surprise!) which means robbed. This, in turn, comes from the Medieval Latin term “raubare” meaning “to rob” (again, surprise!). Together with “tempo”, we get “tempo rubato”, or robbed time

One of the very fundamental beginner mistakes when it comes to rubato, and one especially seen when students are just beginning to experiment with a freedom of rhythm, is the often over exaggerated and over indulgent exaggerations of it. See, for example, any beginner rendition of Clair de Lune or the Moonlight Sonata.

The concept behind rubato is one of borrowing time, not creating or destroying it. Thus, when a piece speeds up at the beginning, the general expectation is that it will slow down later on – hence the “robbing” of the time from that passage later on, to be used now. The idea behind rubato is that a 3 minutes piece without rubato should still be 3 minutes with it.

Daniel Barenboim explained it by saying that “tempo rubato means to “steal” time, and since we’re ethical people, we give back whatever we steal”. (Courtesy of Albert Frantz over at Key Notes).

A dictionary of foreign musical terms and handbook of orchestral instruments by Tom S. Wotton defines rubato as:

A tempo rubato. Lit. “in robbed time”, i. e. time in which, while every bar is of its proper time value, one portion of it may be played faster or slower at the expense of the remaining portion, so that, if the first half be somewhat slackened, the second half is somewhat quickened, and vice versa. With indifferent performers, this indication is too often confounded with some expression signifying ad libitum.

Many beginners often attempt rubato but end up with ad libitum, Latin for “at leisure”, or playing the passage at no real set metronome timing.


Types of rubato

There are two kinds of rubato – one where the accompaniment is kept in strict metronome timing and the melody is altered, and one where both are changed by the rubato. 

When playing Chopin, while many people argue that Chopin must be played with a both melody + accompaniment rubato, in Carl Mikuli’s Chopin as Pianist and Teacher (he was a student of Chopin’s), he writes this of the man himself:

In keeping tempo Chopin was inflexible, and it will surprise many to learn that the metronome never left his piano. Even in his much-slandered rubato, one hand, the accompanying hand, always played in strict tempo, while the other – singing, either indecisively hesitating or entering ahead of the beat and moving more quickly with a certain impatient vehemence, as in passionate speech – freed the truth of the musical expression from all rhythmic bonds

Henry T. Finck’s Success in Music and How It Is Won also talks much about Chopin, and says that he repeatedly drilled into his students the important of keeping them in the left hand.

Others condemn this approach and liken it to a singer soaring expressively while their accompaniment bangs away monotonously at one rhythm (Constantin von Sternberg did so in his Tempo Rubato, and other essays).

However, in terms of interpretation and taste, it all comes down to preference. Personally, I play Chopin pieces how Chopin played them because that’s probably how he wanted them played.


What should rubato feel like?

William B Yeats, one of the greatest poets the world has ever seen, said the following sentence in his poem “Adam’s Curse”:

“A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught”

In the same train of thought, rubato is difficult to pull off because although it should sound spontaneous – after all, that’s the point of it; as if the player has simply sat down and is changing the tempo as they feel the music needs to be expressed – it needs to be meticulously prepared. The key to rubato is actually sitting down and writing in, or perhaps highlighting sections that you think should be sped up and sections that you think should be slowed down.

One of the best ways to determine where to put rubato and how to implement it is to sing the melody line – do it in the shower! Try to remember where the rhythm naturally falls and later duplicate it in your playing.

At its very core, rubato is designed to create tension, and then release, sort like stretching an elastic band and letting it go. By delaying resolution, or delaying the momentum of the song, we heighten expectation, before quickly “catching up” in a movement that should feel like watching the tides at the beach.

Above all, remember that rubato is nothing more than an ornament – a flourish on the piece of music, in the same way a candy flower is a flourish to a cake. Never let the rubato take over, or control the piece of music. Rubato and pulse must not fight each other, they are not enemies. Quite the opposite. Rubato works to enhance the pulse of the piece, yet the pulse must always be clear, in order to bring out the best in the rubato.


Where to use rubato

  1. A change in harmony or mood

A change in key, or an unexpectedly dissonant note can often be delayed – kind of like the hush of the crowd before the fall of an executioner’s blade. Rubato here is used to hint at the change to come and then when it does come, heighten drama.

  1. Long, slow, “stretchy” pieces

Slow pieces with long, slow melodies such as Chopin’s Funeral March can get, quite simply, boring and monotonous without rubato, as the accompaniment is often the same for the entire piece. Rubato allows the player to make the piece interesting. When playing melodies for pieces like this, I find it useful to try and keep in my mind an image of stretching bubble gum. Barenboim does a fantastic rendition of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique below.

Barenboim Pathetique

  1. The ending of a phrase

The ending of a phrase is often very satisfying, as the key commonly resolves to the very first scale degree – the tonic key, which is the most stable and (I would say) most satisfying note in a scale. Delaying the resolution notifies the audience of a phrase ending, and often allows them to prepare for another section, or to applause.

  1. Resolution to a grounded scale degree

In a scale, there are three notes that are particularly “magnetic” – they are the most stable in the scale. These notes are the first note (the tonic), the fifth note (the dominant) and the third (the median). In the C Major scale, for example, this is C, G and E. All other notes tend to be “drawn” to these notes for a sense of resolution – 2 wants to do to 1, 4 wants to go to 3, 6 wants to go to 5 and 7 wants to go up to 8, or 1. For example, listen to the incomplete scale of C major below.

Unfinished Scale

Notice how you are expecting the final note to play. In the same sense, when the melody goes to a 2, 4, 6 or 7, with the intention of then going to the tonic, dominant or median, slow down the resolution! Listen to the scale below, with a slight speed up and then delay before going to 8.

Rubato Scale

The rubato is exaggerated but you get the point. It’s satisfying, isn’t it!

  1. “Reaching” to a note, particularly octaves

The piano is a tuned instrument – you press a key and a pre-set sound comes out. This is in comparison to, say, the violin, where you can press in between a key and get an off-tune sound. Violins, often when going from one note to another, like to slide along that note – the same for singers. You’ll notice that singers, even pop singers, will slide to a note, rather than going straight to it.

Unfortunately, we can’t do that on the piano, and so the second best thing we can do is delay the note, to create a sense of reaching to the note. This is particularly useful for octaves, or any sort of big leap, because it creates the sense of soaring, the feeling of height and flying towards the note. Listen to Chopin’s Nocturne No 2, Op 9 below, and note the “reaching” for the octave notes.

Yundi Li Chopin Nocturne Op 9 No 2


 

Famous composers and their approaches to rubato

We’ve already talked a little bit about Chopin, and his particular penchant for rubato in the right hand melody only, while keeping the accompaniment strictly in time. Each composer approached rubato differently, and when playing their pieces, although your interpretation may be different, I still think you should know how the composer felt about rubato when they composed the piece – their intention, if you like.

Bach

Bach came in a time when “rubato” as a concept did not really exist. Anybody who did not stick meticulously to the tempo was branded a bad player, incapable of even keeping basic tempo. However, Bach’s idea of “rubato” is often imprinted in his pieces, in the form of ornaments, such as trills and tremolos. Although these trills and tremolos are strictly timed, their function was similar to today’s rubato – to slow or speed a note.

Here’s what he himself said about rubato:

“[It is the presence of] more, sometimes fewer notes than the [usual] division of the measure allows. In this manner one can distort… a part of the measure, a whole measure, or several measures. The most difficult and essential thing is this: that all notes of the same value must be played exactly equally. When the execution is such that one hand appears to play against the meter while the other strikes all the beats precisely, then one has done everything that is necessary.”

Mozart

Mozart, even in passages marked with passion and expressivity, almost religiously kept time. He said himself that time is “the most indispensable, hardest and principal thing in music”. He too, like Bach, came at a time before our modern day definition of rubato was widely accepted, or even known.

Beethoven

Beethoven is a bit tricky. It’s not quite as simple as “he did use rubato” or “he did not use rubato”. There are many accounts of him using rubato, especially in his conducting – it is reported that he often discussed tempo rubato in orchestral music with individual wind players, and Ignaz von Seyfred said that Beethoven’s conducting, in the early 1800s, had an “exactness with respect to expression” including “an effective tempo rubato“.

Beethoven’s earlier sonatas contained far fewer tempo altercations than this later ones, yet even his Op 1 and 2 sonatas contained more markings than any of Mozart’s sonatas. Many of his earlier sonatas did not indicate any tempo change at all, apart from the occasional ritardando or stringendo, but the use of fermatas over certain crucial notes joining movements and sections suggest that he wanted some flexibility in the playing.

Starting from Op 31, however, Beethoven begins to include far more tempo markings into this music, including accelerandorallentandopoco ritardando, more fermatas, etc.

Ferdinand Ries described his own teacher’s playing with:

In general, he played his own compositions very spiritedly, yet for the most part remained absolutely in time, and only occasionally, but not often, hurried [the beat].

In Beethoven – An Introduction to His Piano Works, Dr Palmer writes in the introduction:

Although many modern pianists have expressed abhorrence at the use of rubato in Beethoven’s music, one can be sure that Beethoven used it. Schindler says, “He adopted tempo rubato in the proper sense of the term, as the subject and situation might demand, without the slightest caricature.” He also remarked, “Beethoven changed the tempo as the feelings changed.”

It seems, from the reports of his contemporaries, that Beethoven did not allow his pupils as much license as he permitted himself. To him it was important that the time be counted correctly, and he admonished many players to “play the music as I wrote it.”

But this does not mean that he did not permit freedom of interpretation. Upon hearing Marie Bigot de Morogues play one of his sonatas, he said to her, “That is not exactly the reading I should have given, but go ahead. If it is not exactly myself, it is something better.”

So basically, from all this, I gather that Beethoven used rubato himself, and probably intended for his pieces to have rubato, but I would warn against playing any of his pieces with anything more than a slight hint of it, unless you’re completely sure of what you’re doing, and have your heart entirely set on doing so.

Liszt

Like nearly all Romantic composers, Liszt loved rubato and put tempo changes in everywhere. Use it.

If you really want to read more about Liszt and rubato, here’s a short excerpt from The Uses of Rubato in Music, Eighteenth to Twentieth Centuries, by Sandra P. Rosenblum:

Rubato became part of the romantic expressivity and showmanship of the traveling virtuosos of the 19th century, among whom Liszt was apparently the most remarkable pianist.

The extent of his rubato can be gauged not only by the frequency with which he wrote such directions as ritardando, accelerando, stringendo, and espressivo in his music (no doubt he played with more flexibility than he indicated), and by the many descriptions of his playing and teaching, but also by his experimentation with new signs to indicate tempo flexibility.

In the Douze Grandes Etudes of 1839 he designated a single line for rallentando, double lines closed at the ends for accelerando, and short double lines over a chord or rest for a “hold of smaller value than the ^ .” He made only occasional use of these signs in later music but those shown here give an indication of the detail of his rubato. In some of his later orchestral works, such as the “Faust” Symphony (completed in 1857), Liszt again indicated rubato, this time by placing R__________A__________R__________A__________ (for ritard and accelerando) in rapid succession above and below the system in the score.

Liszt Example
Long dash = rallentando, small box = accelerando

Summary of the above paragraph: Liszt loved tempo markings so much that he created his own shortcuts to write them faster. Use rubato.


Conclusion

So there you go. 2300 words on rubato. Here are the sections above, listed in order, so you know what to look for if you want to scroll up:

  1. So what does “tempo rubato” mean?
  2. Types of rubato
    1. Melody only, strict accompaniment
    2. Melody + Accompaniment
    3. Chopin’s approach to rubato
  3. What should rubato feel like?
  4. Where to use rubato
    1. A change in harmony or mood
    2. Long, slow, “stretchy” pieces
    3. The ending of a phrase
    4. Resolution to a grounded scale degree
    5. “Reaching” to a note, particularly octaves
  5. Famous composers and their approaches to rubato
    1. Bach
    2. Mozart
    3. Beethoven
    4. Liszt

If you’d like to print this article for a physical reference, I’ve reformatted it into a convenient printable PDF format. To access it, just whack your email onto the subscriber list, and I’ll get you a password to The Forest, where you can download it yourself – and get access to any future free resources and guides.

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