by Allan Greene
I was thinking of starting this series by getting a few things off my chest that have been weighing me down for a while. Not a list of grievances (I can wait ’til Festivus for that), but instead a few lectures that I was going to give at an unnamed professional training program which, as happens, got lost in an administrative power play. I have decided that these would be no match for summer’s long days and their journey into, uh, serious refreshments, so I came up with something else.
Conductors. Tempi. The irrational fraction expressed by dividing the musician’s meter and the dancer’s meter.
Let me start with a story the late conductor/rehearsal pianist Harry Fuchs told me. Harry was working at the New York City Opera in the mid-seventies when they were producing Sarah Caldwell’s celebrated production of The Barber of Seville. As a conductor, Harry was curious as to how Ms. Caldwell would be beating time in the finale of the overture, at the point at which the tempo accelerates suddenly and concludes the piece in a breathless finish.
Now, this is the principle: the faster the musical pulse, the fewer beats the conductor can make per measure. In very slow music a conductor may indicate eight separate beats in a measure that is written in 4/4, four quarter notes to the bar. For a more moderate tempo (think “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”), a four beat pattern is best. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or most Sousa marches would be conducted two beats to the bar, as are most of the famous Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, like “Getting to Know You”, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. [Read more…]