Mozart´s Tempo-System
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Helmut Breidenstein

Conductor and musicologist


A question 200 years old: how are MOZART'S TEMPO INDICATIONS to be understood?

This question which so many authors have tried to answer in so many contradictory ways needs in my opinion a new undogmatic and practical approach. Like many other musicians I found the tempo suggestions for Mozart in the literature on performing practise in many cases not compatible with my experiences and needs as a performer. In my lifelong work as a conductor of opera and concerts in Germany I finally realized that the only way to get rid of speculation about pulse-rates, walking speeds, metronome markings, "tempo relations" and also from the comparison among more or less reliable treatises from the time before Mozart, is to ask Mozart himself.

Although the subject of tempo was mentioned only sporadically and not always clearly in his letters he was all the more exact with their indication in his scores. In a thorough comparison of all 1.576 movements which have autograph tempo indications in almost every case it is possible to find a similar movement with the same meter, tempo word and smallest note values. Movements slower and faster by definition can serve as comparitive standard.

In this way I am searching to clarify the order and characteristics of Mozart’s tempi, his tempo modules, and explain the logic in his system of tempo indications. Once this is achieved, each performer will be free to search within the highly sophisticated system used by Mozart for what could be the "right" tempo for the piece, the ensemble and audience on the day, in this particular theater, church or concert hall.

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„Mozart's Tempo-System. A Handbook for Practice and Theory“

Translated by Lionel Friend

Tectum - Ein Verlag in der Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden 2019

391 pages, DIN A4,
434 music examples. Hardback
ISBN: 978-3-8288-4291-5     68 Euro

More information here or  here 

"Helmut Breidenstein’s amazing opus about „Mozart’s Tempo-System“ is now completed - in so far as this can be said about a book which offers itself as „an aid ... for the in­terpreter in his or her own indis­pensable search for the right answer.“  I regard it as one of those rare und important books in which  mu­sic and mu­sicology form a vital association; a lifelong study that makes one very much aware of a field to which attention is rarely payed.  It accomplishes this by applying an understanding that never loses sight of the  musical foundation it is built on, and by a discerning intelligence that does not shy away from cal­ling topics into question, although without claiming infallibility.

One cannot be grateful enough to Helmut Breidenstein for his methodological accuracy which allows us Mozart interpreters to orient ourselves with ease and pleasure. The appendix assembles extracts from texts about performance prac­tices with a complete­ness that I have rarely found accessible in other places. This section of the book alone reveals - if one did not already know it – that one cannot do justice to a to­pic as complex and varied in shape and form as the one Breidenstein deals with by using only a few rules of thumb. Breidenstein’s book raises awareness, provides an overview, and, at the same time, makes us sensitive to each individual case. Admiration and gratitude."
                                                                                                                        Alfred Brendel, London 2011
(translation from the german original)

This book does not claim to know the „only right tempi“ for works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It wants to help the interpreter in his indispensable own search for „the true mouvement“ in his respective work – for himself, his instrument, his ensemble, the locality, the audience and the character of the event.  
On the one hand there cannot be absolute „authentic“ tempi for Mozart’s works; on the other hand his tempo indications – worded with greatest care – have to be taken as seriously as the other parameters of his notorious precise notation.

Written as a reference book for musicians in their practical interpretation, this book offers after a general explanation how tempi were determined in the 18th century:

-         a compendium of all the 1.576 movements labelled by Mozart’s hand

-          in 420 lists of pieces of the same character (usually with comments)

           enabling the player to compare with slower and quicker pieces

-         illustrated by a range of 434 typical music examples

-         as well as a collection of all relevant historical texts.

In the vast field of literature on Mozart as well as in the pertaining expert congresses the topic of tempi - so extraordinarily important for the rendering – has so far been avoided with few excep­tions. Starting point for the researches for this book was a puzzle of 2.727 movements or parts of movements with a new tempo not yet collected in a data file. A compiled data bank of more than 100.000 fields with all the relevant specifications for each single passage proved to be a useful tool.

In the five decades of research the author has tested his findings with singers, orchestras and choirs as a conductor in opera and concert. With new insights from literature and finally checking the latest state of the critical commentaries of the New Mozart Edition in May 2009, the studies of Mozart’s tempi could be expanded onto his total oeuvre with autographic indications, so that Breidenstein’s opus is now accompli­shed.

As uneven meters in Mozart’s times were quicker than even ones in an irrational relation, this book deals with them separately; the ‚large’ C and the ‚heavy’ ¾ meter are brought back from oblivion; the ¢-meter of the stile antico is distinguished from the classical ¢; the meters compound from two simple ones are explained; the „Recitativo-meter“ is treated separately; the virtual time changes are examined with respect to their effects on a whole series of tempo indications on the inside of the finali; the tempi of the minuets are seen in their historic development.

 For the first time the topic of the manner of playing – so essential for „the right logical rendering“ - is being treated in connection with the other parameters for the performance. Thus the interpreter is no longer exposed to his personal feeling, to his personal experimenting – nor to his intuition being overwhelmed by the lot of already existing interpretations. Of course the manner of playing can in no way be systematized; however it is interesting to find out which rendering of his composition Mozart had in mind when he chose with such conscientiousness among 420 modules (meter+smallest note values+tempo word) the most appropriate one for a cer­tain piece. Knowledge of their qualities should be the presupposition for a musician in finding the appropriate mouvement within Mozart's Tempo System for his interpretation. But this has only marginally to do with what is today understood by "tempo". 

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My Publications on MOZART'S TEMPI:

1. "Mozart´s Tempo Indications: What do they refer to?"

ABSTRACT: Three quarters of Mozart’s "tempo indications" do not refer to the beat. Examples from the composer’s works and contemporary musicological sources show that in late 18th century tempo words are no "tempo indications" by themselves, they are only part of these. Meter, smallest note values and tempo word combined produce a sort of module for the determination of metrical accentuationsspeed, character, articulation, agogics and manner of playing – i. e. the "movement" in the widest interpretation of the term.

2. "Das Tempo in Mozarts und Haydns Chorwerken"   
   ("Tempo in Mozart's and Haydn's works for choir")
This article has appeared in the periodical "Chor und Konzert" in 2004, no. 3 (part 1) and 2005, no1 (part 2)

ABSTRACT: Part I: "Musical time". Musical time can not be perceived independantly from the occurrences within it. That is why the term "mouvement" used in the 18th century does not only mean the physical speed but the movement of melody, harmony and rhythm in "space" (high/low) and within the hierarchy of accents as well. Even articulation (heavy/light; short/long) and the dynamics are comprised in it. The mere physical indications of the metronome which disregard the content of the music and the conditions of its rendering are therefore bound to miss the essence of classical music.            

Part II: "Twice as fast or twice as slow?" This part of the article shows by means of well known examples from Mozart’s church music and Haydn’s oratorios how the two composers determined the "mouvement": they used a combination of meter, smallest note value and tempo word. The old rule that ¢ means "twice as fast" is after 1770 no more valuable except for ecclesiastical fugues in the stile antico. The "twice as slow" of the school of Retze Talsma, the so called "metrical theory" is clearly proved wrong by Mersenne 1636, D'Onzembray 1732, Choquel 1762 , Gabory 1770, Joh. Nep. Mälzel and Gottfried Weber 1817, Adolf Bernhard Marx 1835 and Carl Czerny 1839. (for the concerning textes click on "Metronom").

3."Mozarts Tempo-System. Zusammengesetzte Takte als Schlüssel" 
  ("Mozart's tempo system. Compound meters as a key.")

This longer essay on the topic of compound meters in Mozart has appeared within the "Mozart-Studien" (editor Manfred Hermann Schmid), vol. 13, published by Hans Schneider / Tutzing, July 2004, p. 11-85.
ABSTRACT: Lost knowledge of the compound meters 6/8 (3/8+3/8), "2/4" (=4/8: 2/8+2/8) and the "heavy" 3/4 (2/8+2/8+2/8) is one reason for the alleged inconsistency of Mozart’s tempo indications. 'Tempo indications' in the late 18th century do not only refer to the physical speed. Mozart's and Haydn's complex tempo-system with its fine grades deter-mines the hierarchy of accents, the character, the articulation, the agogic and manner of playing by the "natural tempi" of the meters, their modification by smallest note values and by tempo words, i. e. the "movement" in the widest interpretation of the term.

This is why the purely physical metronome indications of the descendents for Mozart’s works are wrong in principle. The compound meters are here for the first time examined methodically by help of well-known examples from Mozart‘s works. Detailed quotations from Kirnberger, Marpurg, Heinr. Christoph Koch, J.A.P. Schulz, Türk, G. Weber will prove that applying the two generations older Quantz‘ pulse-related tempo table to Mozart is just as much a misunderstanding as the assertion of a still applicable ‚integer valor. A thorough comparison of Mozart's 1.576 autograph indications will clarify the order and characteristics of his tempi and explain the logic in his tempo system. It can be shown that Mozart’s "andantino" in contrast to Harnoncourt‘s argumentation is faster than his "Andante".

4. "Mozarts Tempo-System II. Die geraden Taktarten", Teil 1 + 2 
   (“Mozart’s Tempo-System II. The binary meters”, part 1 + 2) 

The first part of this comprehensive article has appeared in volume 16 of the “Mozart-Studien” (editor Manfred Hermann Schmid), July 2007, p. 255-299; the second has appeared in volume 17, spring 2008, p. 77-159, publisher Hans Schneider/Tutzing

ABSTRACT: Proceeding from my essay in Volume 13 of the “Mozart Studies” describing Mozart’s compound 6/8 meters, this one sheds a new light on the binary meters C, 4/4, ¢, 2/2, 2/4, 6/8 (à 2) and the virtual “4/8” comparing 418 movements in 105 groups and using the tempo word Allegro as a starting point.

Mozart makes use of 14 kinds of Allegro, distinguished as to meters and smallest note values. Up to now no distinction was made between the classical 4/4, pulsating in two accents per measure, and the slower ‘large’ 4/4 of the Baroque with its four accents shaping many pieces in Mozart’s church music (as the “Kyrie”-fugue in the Requiem). The latter defines a completely different Allegro than that of the concerts and particularly of pieces like Leporello’s “Madamina”-aria which is so often misunderstood as 2/2.

The general 4/4 time of Mozart’s recitativi accompagnati  plays a special rôle. It does not predetermine a metrical structure but allows for virtual meter changes into 2/2 and 4/8 within its frame – as they were indicated explicitly in time signatures in French récitatifs.

Numerous quotations prove the 350 years old chaos concerning the Allabreve. Kircher, Loulié, Janowka, Saint-Lambert, Samber, Heinichen, Marpurg, Hiller, Koch and Kürzinger deplored the arbitrary or careless application of ¢ and C by composers, copyists and typesetters. The doctrine  that ¢ was twice as fast as the 4/4 meter existed well into the nineteenth century, but is valid only for vocal fugues in stile antico until about 1770. From Larghetto with thirty-second notes through four clearly different kinds of Andante, up to Presto the pace of the classical 2/2-meter is faster than that of a classical 4/4-time with the same tempo word, yet definitely not “twice as fast”. 

More than half of Mozart’s 221 movements in 2/4-time with autograph indications are actually 4/8 meters, composed each of two 2/8 meters. As in the compound 6/8 (3/8 + 3/8) the tempo words here, too, refer neither to half measures nor to eighth notes. With their two - unequal - accents per bar the 4/8-time is longer than the 2/4 with its one emphasis only; due to the nimble-footed character of “small” meters a 4/8 is however shorter, i.e. faster, than a classical 4/4-meter with the same tempo word; traditional renderings often disregarded this.

Many well known problems of tempo in finali of the operas (e.g. in Don Giovanni) find an explanation and thus a solution in the virtual changes of meter (a phenomenon which has never again been described since Riepel, Marpurg, Koch and Sechter).

5. "Mälzels Mord an Mozart. Die untauglichen Versuche, musikalische Zeit zu messen" 
("Mälzel murders Mozart. The unsuited attempts to measure musical time")

This article has appeared in the periodical "Das Orchester", vol. 55, no. 11, november 2007, p. 8-15 (Schott/Mainz, publisher).

ABSTRACT: The sensational title accuses the invention of Maelzel’s metronome of having greatly damaged our understanding of Viennese Classical music: the levelling “tac-tac” of the metronome ousted the organical vibration of the musical metre from our conscience. For Haydn and Mozart the speed was defined by the combination of  time signature, smallest note values and tempo word, they did not regard it as an independent paradigma like we do. Even Beethoven inspite of his enthusiasm for the invention metronomized only ca. 6 % of his works. The pendulum experiments from Mersenne up to Maelzel - described here in detail - were based on a misunderstanding: the life of musical time can on principle not be related to the indifferent, linear time of physics. Only good judgement based on thorough comparison of a composer’s works can find the right “mouvement” of a piece of music.

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Your opinion on my theories, your propositions, objections, comments, or criticism will be highly appreciated. The new answers to the 200 year old questions, which I try to give in my texts, could very much profit by a broad discussion. I look forward to your mails!


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Last modification of this page 09.02.2019