p. 10 Clavier, May/June 1997 “Teaching Students to Use Rubato” by David Shaffer-Gottschalk
David Shaffer-Gottschalk defines rubato as “the distortion of the metrical pulse in music[,] for an expressive purpose.” One point I want to emphasize early is that the author’s definition includes the notion of acceleration as a form of rubato, as long as the pulse is restored. He believes nearly all pianists use rubato and that most people do so more often than they realize or intend. Rubato has been defined by many. In fact, there are schools of thought about the definition of rubato and its application.
Rubato may be defined as adjusting the tempo to the personal taste of the performer. It is a ‘give and take’ element in rhythm whereby what is elongated in one place is shortened in another, in order to ‘make up’ the lost time. The overall tempo is unchanged. Some say to play the left hand in strict time while allowing the right hand to have controlled rhythmic flexibility. Others define rubato as a corresponding and balancing of ritardandos and accelerandos, within certain guidelines. Opponents of the ‘compensation school’ say the treatment of rubato has changed over time and that there has never been a clear definition of what it means or when to use it. They also claim that it has meant different things to different composers and performers.
Five frequently used rubato effects are: 1) delaying the pulse, 2) lengthening the pulse, 3) splitting the hands--so they aren’t playing vertically, 4) accelerando, and 5) anticipating the pulse. The fifth one is the rarest and involves the lengthening of a note at the beginning, rather than at the end of the beat.
The author admits that it is ultimately up to the individual to decide where to apply rubato. Clearly there is a lot of uncertainty among performers about how to treat this very complex musical element. Certainly there are examples of renowned pianists, such as Van Cliburn and Vladimir Horowitz, to whom we can turn for inspiration and try to emulate. Rubato must be treated seriously, as it is easy to over-do it. Too much rubato results in the listener experiencing rhythmic instability or ‘losing the beat.’ Too little rubato results in a sterile performance, one that could have been more moving.
I agree with the author that we should strive for the perfect amount of rubato. Too much rubato is easily noticed, and listeners sometimes refer to this as ‘milking the tears.’ Developing one’s own sense of rubato and its uses is a matter of proper instruction combined with good taste and an aural awareness of the end product. It is impossible to express through the printed page the proper degree of rubato. It is an unwritten element of music that can only be vaguely addressed, partly due to rhythmic complexity and certainly hinging on artistic interpretation. A good sense of rubato is a cultivated skill that is handed down from one performer to another.
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