V.com weekend vote: Do you feel tempos generally have sped up over the last 50 years?

November 20, 2020, 10:25 PM · I've never seen a scientific study on the subject, but from my perspective, it would seem that many pieces in the repertoire - from concertos to symphonies - are generally played faster than they were when I was growing up last century. Of course, different artists and conductors have their individual takes on tempi, but I'm talking about an overall trend. (Incidentally, it looks like the subject has been examined, when it comes to pop music!)


The thought hit me hard one night when I switched on the radio while driving, to find that the local classical station was playing one of my very favorite pieces, Symphony No. 1 in E minor by Jean Sibelius. It was a piece I played in youth orchestra, back in the day, and I had purchased a vinyl recording of a 1962 recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by conductor Eugene Ormandy. I played that recording until the grooves nearly wore out - I loved it so much.

Happy as I was to hear this beloved piece in 2020 on my radio, I started getting a little agitated as I listened on. It was most certainly faster, and to me it just did not feel like the same music. I've found my old recording on Youtube, to show you what I mean. Listen, for example, to this excerpt from the second movement, which I've cued up, about 11:20-13:05:

This is what I hear at this particular tempo: the movement begins with a heavy heart: plodding, sorrowful, sighing, hesitant, contemplative. Then it blooms into something grand and noble; the heart throbs a bit more hopefully. Every section feels neatly tied off.

And now here is a more modern version, a 2019 performance by Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, led by David Robertson. It's not the same as the one I heard on the radio (which I can't remember!) but it definitely has the same kind of tempo and feeling: (11:27-12:56)

Still beautiful and well-played - but it feels different to me. The melody flows continuously, and it even has an impatience to it. This is not necessarily negative, but it is different. One section flows into the next - in fact in places, I'd say the new sections interrupt the old ones.

I could come up with more examples. Here's another on Youtube: the Bach Double played by David Oistrakh and Yehudi Menuhin vs. the Bach Double played by anyone in the 21st century, for example Julia Fischer and Alexander Sitkovetsky.

It may not seem like much, just a few metronome markers. But to me, there is a real difference between how a piece feels. We literally call parts of a concerto or symphony "movements," and so the speed of that movement has a real effect.

I know that not everyone has been on the planet for 50 or more years, but we all do listen to old recordings (even my old Sibelius recording was older than me!). What are your thoughts on the matter? I'm open to the idea that I'm being selective, and that tempos really haven't changed that much. But does anyone else feel this trend toward faster tempi? And whatever you feel the trend is, do you like it? Please participate in the vote, and then share your thoughts. If you agree that there is a trend, why is it happening? In what way is it happening? Do you have your own examples? Are there groups or certain conductors that you notice going faster or slower? And when do you enjoy a more brisk tempo? Is there a place for slower tempos?


November 21, 2020 at 04:49 AM · The general impression I get is that only certain music is played faster than before: Baroque and Classical music tends to be played faster, and often concerto recordings are faster. I don't hear the same trend with post-Beethoven orchestral or chamber music.

Personally, I prefer the brisker tempi almost universally, especially if combined with a lighter texture -- in particular I find slower Beethoven almost painful to play or listen to. Perhaps I am in the minority among members of this site, but I also greatly prefer even second-tier 21st century soloists over virtually any soloist who recorded before 1970, most likely because I tend to prefer modern interpretations. This could be a matter of what I'm used to -- I was introduced to classical music mainly through the radio rather than through family or through lessons, so the recordings I heard early on tended to be much more recent.

November 21, 2020 at 11:09 AM · Laurie - you have expressed my own thoughts! Baroque tempi nowadays seem very much faster to me. I still love the old Philadelphia recordings with Eugene Ormandy: among my first musical memories. Also slow but majestic are the Philharmonia Beethoven symphonies with Otto Klemperer, I think they are from the late 50s or early 60s.

Like most of your readers I love the weekly votes. The topics are always most thought-provoking.

November 21, 2020 at 12:27 PM · While I voted for speeded-up tempi, I would point out that the slow movement of the Elgar cello concerto has, I gather, slowed down to not much more than half Elgar's metronome mark.

I, too, love the weekly votes.

November 21, 2020 at 07:35 PM · I can't find the link now, but there was a very good article with evidence from early recordings (from the early 20th century) describing some performance differences.

I do think the tempi were a bit slower in the past, but the most striking thing to me was the high degree of rubato used by the soloists. This was shown in orchestral and opera recordings

One example was of a pianist-composer playing his own work. With the left hand accompanying, the right hand was more "free" than in modern interpretations.

I do think that the availability of recordings has led to a standardization of interpretation. The community tends to me extremely prescriptivist as to how something "should" sound - HIP Bach is a great example of this to the extreme.

November 21, 2020 at 07:57 PM · So tempi have speeded up over the years? I'm glad to hear it, because there I was thinking it was me slowing down - but that effect's probably there as well ;)

On a slightly more serious note, I've noticed that many people on radio and television tend to talk significantly quicker (gabble?) than in my youth, not making the listener's comprehension any easier.

November 21, 2020 at 08:47 PM · The trend to generally faster tempi is, I believe, undeniable. Nonetheless, the word "generally" has to do quite some work in this sentence; it is easy to find counter-examples. E.g.in the Budapest quartet's recording of Mozart's "dissonance quartet" the last movement is insanely fast, so fast in fact that the movement is losing its character.

This trend originated probably in the HIP movement. When I was young it was an article of faith that Beethoven's metronome numbers were "insane". The HIP movement to its credit challenged this view and we are now not so sure any more.

Personally I generally prefer faster tempi, especially in slow movements--but again, generally.

BTW that Oistrach/Menuhin recording of the Bach double concerto? I find it bad, really bad.

November 21, 2020 at 10:28 PM · When I was in college (1970) one of my first violin recordings was Stephen Staryk's "400 Years of the Violin." It includes Fiocco Allegro, at a much slower tempo than especially Suzuki students play, or for that matter Perlman. It is so much more elegant, less of a race to the finish. I think sometimes soloists, ensembles and even orchestras use tempo to differentiate themselves from other groups. It might work sometimes, but it seems to become a sort of arms race. I have also heard some incredibly slow slow movements, that make you want to kill yourself!

November 21, 2020 at 10:56 PM · Back in the 1950’s, when I was a kid, my mom would shop at the local A&P. Back then, you could get all sorts of amazing things at the grocery store, way beyond the contemporary selling points of organic – free range – locally grown – Non-GMO – personally named - whatever things. (I live in Portland, Oregon. A lot of people talk like that around here.) Also, we didn’t have any money, so mom cut out coupons, and saved like crazy to feed five of us. Still, along with the cans of vegetables, cans of fruit, hamburger, and beer for dad, she managed to buy amazing things at the grocery store. For example, every other week, over the course of one year, she got an entire Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia; two books a month, one letter a time. Then she got my favorite item, classical records. Twice a month she would come home with something by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bach, and so forth. I would take the record and put it on our tiny record player and listen. I was a big fan of Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” on television. Still, I always got a little bored, with the records, so I’d jack up the speed to make it interesting. I’d spin those disks from 33 1/3 rpm to 45 rpm and then to 78 rpm. It was great. I’d get those records to sound like a Buggs Bunny cartoon. Then, for fun, I’d slow the whole thing down to 16 rpm. (We actually had that speed on that old record player.) Subsequently, I have no idea if things have become faster or slower - sorry.

November 22, 2020 at 01:26 AM · I love your posts, Michael. You’ve got a book in you there somewhere, if you haven’t already written one.

I have to ask, as Google is no help on this, what is the HIP movement that is referred to on this forum.

November 22, 2020 at 01:38 AM · HIP = Historically Informed Performance.

November 23, 2020 at 07:50 AM · another effectively affective strategy with tempi is to exaggerate their neighboring contrasts by some degree. :-)

If the fast movements are faster, and the slow movements are slower--

--? have the tempi "generally" changed (faster or slower) ?

I imagine it might be possible to see trends

(within particular pieces &/or repertoire categories)

in greater or lesser tempo contrast between large-sized regions or chunks of music (traditional movement-ish size or halves or thirds or quarters or so). Does anyone else observe such tempi-relationships and changes in those relationship trends?

Also-- I love all the comments and their differences, and the emerging idea that it all depends on what repertoire you're looking at, for different interesting reasons.

I think tempi overall on average are faster than fifty years ago;

but I voted generally same, because I think the general average shift is driven by surges in particular repertoire groups, as mentioned already especially in much of more recent Baroque and Classical era interpretations; whereas, overall overall, I think tempi are basically the same: different people different places different times in their lives averaging out pretty human-athletically similarly.

And yet, speaking of athletic human timing, Olympic times &c. keep getting faster, huh?

Also-- If the original question had included only a few decades further back, or esp. the full century back to WW I and shortages which drove the change: ?wouldn't we see a more distinct and obvious jump in overall average and general tempi due to the change of instruments??; I mean, due to the change from gut to basically universally metal e-strings on violins, and nearly all of everyone's strings on all instruments metal-wound, and all tensions generally significantly increased... ! ??

November 23, 2020 at 12:56 PM · Remember that the tenure of Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra lasted from 1936 to 1980. Here in the US, we associate 1936 with Jesse Owens and 1980 with Ronald Reagan!

Are there pieces that were recorded by the same person twice after a long time elapsed? Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations comes to mind.

I agree with Albrecht about Oistrakh/Menuhin playing the Bach Double. The reason for the slower tempo was apparently so that Oistrakh could still use his entire bow for every note.

November 23, 2020 at 02:05 PM · It's impossible to generalise. Baroque maybe, although 50 years ago things were already getting quicker. Laurie cites the Menuhin/Oistrakh Bach double as an example, but the Heifetz/Friedman is of a very similar date.

November 23, 2020 at 08:05 PM · With Bach, I do think the period performance movement has definitely had an effect. I know that, when I play with a Baroque bow, I just want to go faster - it's like having a race car! And I actually like those brisk tempos for Baroque music. But with something like a Sibelius symphony - different kettle of fish. Why would the slow movement in a Romantic piece like that be played faster? I'm less of a fan of that!

November 24, 2020 at 07:32 AM · "Are there pieces that were recorded by the same person twice after a long time elapsed?"

Karajan's Beethoven symphony recordings come to mind. Early in his career his tempi were somewhat faster than average. His later Beethoven recordings were quite ponderous.

November 25, 2020 at 03:43 AM · Tempos have set into a path of: How fast/Show off.....blah, blah. All about speed tech and showmanship....

Orchestras are at a point or crossroads of technical proficiency and ability never dreamt. so What the heck, let's get more subscriptions.

It makes it extreme, but only on recordings

November 27, 2020 at 11:07 PM · I've noticed the faster tempos in older music. For the most part, I like it -- e.g., Vivaldi. Some of his concerto renditions I've caught on YouTube in the last few years are noticeably faster than the performances I grew up hearing. Beethoven is another example. Check out John Eliot Gardiner's pacing of the 7th Symphony at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsskIs96smU. Gardiner observes all repeats -- I know because I have the score; yet his performance takes only 38-1/2 minutes. Still, I never get a feeling anywhere of being rushed. At least one author -- I don't remember which -- commented that Beethoven's metronome could have been off; but other writers have contradicted this. My professor of music history said Beethoven expected his musicians to be able to play at tremendous speeds.

Regarding Ormandy: I've always liked his tempos. His fast movements don't leave me feeling rushed, and his slow movements don't drag.

More on metronome markings: There is some question whether Paganini himself wrote the marking of 184 bpm in his Moto Perpetuo score or whether a publisher or editor added this later. The piece has a catchy tune, but 184, for me, dilutes this effect. I find 144-152 more convincing.

Opera is where speeding things up can really cause problems, because singers need time to breathe. The late Renata Tebaldi, in an interview, pointed out "this mania to hurry the tempos … against the composer's wishes." See http://www.renata-tebaldi.com/rasponi.htm.

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