Are You Playing Comfortably?

Imagine this. You're the queen of, say, Sheba. You're preparing yourself for a grand entrance. You are calm and steady, ready to present yourself to the rest of the assembly. You can hear the buzz of conversation being gently lulled to nothing. It's your moment. Time to enter the hall. The music starts playing, but what's this? It's playing a lot faster than you're used to, gaining momentum like a swollen storm. The strings whip around their melodies, furiously building to the moment, your moment, your entrance. It all happens so quickly. Stumbling over your velvet shoes, you swing your head from left to right, desperately trying to acknowledge everyone in the crowd. You imagine your face, furrowed at the brow, a bead of sweat catching over the pulsating vein in your forehead. You arrive at your place. Relief. It's over.

Of course, this is an entirely imagined scene set to Handel's The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, but in certain recordings, it has been played precisely thus, at nearly breakneck speed. How would the Queen face such a speed?

Speed and music go together like peanut butter and jam. Music is deeply rooted in time; it uses speed as technical measure to represent its mood. Whilst notation, accents and melodies are the obvious bread and butter of a piece's emotional core, if they are not in sync with time, then they just do not work. Each musical piece has a natural speed, intrinsic to its melodic tone and style. When the speed is messed with, the whole piece just sounds a little off.

Of course, the speed of certain works has become so intrinsic to our very way of listening, that when we hear an alternative, it sounds completely foreign. Beethoven is perhaps one of the most loved composers of all time, his oeuvre of work so iconic that it has earned him his very own period in the history of classical music. You only need hear the first four notes of Beethoven's inimitable 5th Symphony and instantly, you conjure up the wild, overbearing portrait of the composer. And yet, it turns out, everything that we hear when we listen to a work by Beethoven could be very wrong indeed. Previous discoveries have suggested that the time signature in which the majority of Beethoven's pieces are normally played are actually not at all what the composer had in mind.

Towards the end of Beethoven's career, he was sent a new product which promised to revolutionise the music composition process: The metronome. Set to a specific number of beats per minute, it counted precisely the speed in which a musician should play their music. In its early life, young prodigies could be found being put to work, forced to perform the most mediocre of pieces at dizzying speeds, enacting musical miracles.

In Beethoven's mind, there could have been nothing better than the metronome. Marking precisely the measures of time within a minute, the device enabled him and other composers to forever mark their musical preferences and in the process, have their piece played to the correct speed, each time. Immediately, Beethoven set himself to work, remarking the majority of his manuscripts with specific beats-per-minute markings. Despite his fervour, however, something went wrong, and somewhere along the way, the markings became lost. Everything that Beethoven intended for his music was overlooked and people played the pieces at the speed which felt most comfortable to them.

In terms of time, human beings are very simple creatures. We work according to set rhythms and timings; even the speeds with which our hearts beat are familiar, regular. Working outside of what we consider to be a "comfortable" tempo, is something utterly unsettling. Give us something too fast and we will naturally slow it down; give us something too slow and we will automatically speed it up. Despite working against our best instincts when we play music, we naturally revert to the speed with which we feel most comfortable playing. Pity for the frustrated conductor.

With Beethoven's original speed markings being uncovered, we have stumbled across some incredible developments and it turns out that the composer's Fifth Symphony, one of the most famous pieces of music of all time, was intended to be played at a much faster speed. The staid, foreboding piece is quite unlike what Beethoven had planned for the music and when played at the faster speed, it is furious, whirling and monstrous. Beethoven composed outside of the comfortable time signatures his musicians had grown accustomed to; he pushed his music to the very limits, he wanted to make his listener feel uncomfortable when they heard his compositions.

When we become comfortable in time, music suffers. Renditions of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho played at the very bottom of the time register failed to hit us with any sort of the gravitas at all. The same can be said of countless of other composers. Hear Shostakovich's 10th Symphony at too slow a speed and you do not feel the sheer terror of Stalin. Rather, you encounter something much more pedestrian; unaffecting, plodding music. Time and music go together hand in hand, yet comfort and music should be diametrically opposed to one another. The point is not to consistently make the listener feel unpleasantly uncomfortable when they listen but rather, to make them all the more aware of the music they are hearing. When we alter a piece of music so that it moves at a different speed, we not only readjust the meaning of the piece; we affect how it will be considered throughout time. Now that Beethoven's original ideas for his music have been unearthed, perhaps musicians everywhere will feel more comfortable to take temporal liberty where they feel it fit. If they do, we could encounter a musical revolution unlike any other and rediscover the real purpose of music.