Microtiming in Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor

On Thursday, March 7, we will have a guest workshop with Dr. Mitch Ohriner on the topic of prformance analysis and microtiming. In preparation for the workshop, listen to the two performances of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op. 24/4 posted on classes*v2 (in Resources>Performance Analysis Workshop; a score is also available in the same folder).

Think about the two following questions:

  1. Where are the major divisions in this piece, and what makes them seem like divisions?
  2. Compare the performances of Martha Argerich and Edward Auer. What are the similarities and differences? Which of those pertain to rhythm or timing?

Post a short response to these questions by Thursday, March 7 @ 10 AM.

8 thoughts on “Microtiming in Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor

  1. It seems to me that the major divisions of the piece occur at mm. 12, 20, and 23. Measure 12 is a clear division – not only does the continuous left-hand accompaniment finally drop out, but the rhythmic pattern of the melodic line (dotted half note followed by a quarter note) is interrupted with a rubato eighth note section. Both Argerich and Auer choose to slow the tempo during this section, and it launches us back into what seems like a recapitulation of the beginning material (making mm. 12 the boundary between the two “halves” of the piece). Measure 20 is perhaps a less salient boundary, as the left hand accompaniment persists and it is less cadenza-like, but we expect a boundary here (as it is in a parallel location to mm. 12) and brings us to a “coda” section. Measure 24 is an obvious boundary – a prolonged silence bringing us to the final cadential closure.
    Argerich and Auer’s interpretations of the prelude are quite different. Argerich performs with a greater disparity in volume between the left and right hands, bringing out the melodic line more prominently than Auer. Argerich also introduces much more fluctuation in tempo, slowing down on the final quarter notes in mm.1-11, taking much more liberty with timing in mm. 12, gaining speed in mm.13-15 as she leads into a dramatic section in mm.16-18, and finally slowing down from mm.18 until the end of the piece. While Auer certainly utilizes similar tempo fluctuations (e.g. slowing down during the last quarter notes of the opening bars), he keeps a much more stable tempo overall, barely speeding up in mm. 16-18.

  2. The major divisions in this piece can be described with the downbeat of measure 13 as the end of the first section of the beginning of the second, as this is where the opening finally resolves back to the tonic, and in turn, restates the opening melody. The pickup to measure 20 also signifies a new “section” or rather distinct after-thought, to the second section’s melodic idea. The fermata in measure 23 is what allows me to possibly call the last two bars a “sectionette”: this type of space created by the fermata cements the final V to I resolution as not just a cadence, but a distinct idea of its own that summarizes what the pieces has said (harmonically, to be specific).

    Both Argerich and Auer use expressive timing in their performance, using ritardandos at the end and slight accelerandos in measure 12. Where Auer’s accompaniment tends to fall on the back of the beat, Argerich places it slightly in front of the middle of the beat, creating the sensation of a ground that the melody can float on. Argerich also really “hears” all of the intervals, which if you were to “time,” she takes slightly more time on larger intervals, as a singer would physically have to do. Auer seems to cosmetically apply intellectual ideas of acceleration and ritardando, without expressing the difference between the intervals-all of the space in between his notes seem very similar.

  3. To my ears, this piece is divided into four main sections. The first section contains measures one through thirteen. This structure is made concrete by the continuing melodic and rhythmic pattern that resets itself after measure twelve, in which the rhythmic left hand part is largely omitted and the melody is used to fill in the space and connect to the next section whose first dotted half-note is the same as that of the first dotted half-note of the piece (B). Thus the musical form is repeated, signifying the entrance into a new section. The second section continues in much the same fashion as the first, although the chords are more dissonant and quickly increase in speed, culminating in the dynamic (change to fortissimo, forgive me if I got that word wrong), dissonant harmonies of measures 16-18, characterized by a more aggressive melody with several contour accents and a faster (in both performances, more so in Argerich) tempo. A slur carries this division into measure 19, and so the next section commences in measure 20. This section is a calm, less variant reprisal of the first section’s rhythmic organization, ended when the accented silence in measure 23 introduces the final cadence section in measure 24.

    The most salient difference between the performances of Martha Argerich and Edward Auer was their differing interpretations of the piece’s expressive nature. Auer was much more textbook in his approach, faithfully following notated shifts in dynamic, with natural (as well as notated) accompanies of dynamic alteration (generally, decrease in volume was connected to a slowed down tempo and vice – versa). Argerich was overall more aggressive, notably more intense in dynamic, as well as a more variable and expressive performer over all. The shifts in dynamics according to notation were less noticeable in her performance, and there was more variation outside of the notated shifts. Perhaps the most obvious difference (to me) was the differences in tempo and overall dynamics. Auer was much more reserved, and played the melody quite quietly. Argerich, on the other hand, played more aggressively, with more dynamic accents and an overall faster tempo with more minute changes over time. Expressive timing was, however, abundant in both performances.

  4. The major division seems to occur about two-thirds of the way into the piece. Prior to this demarcation, the music seems rather calm and even-flowing and soft in volume. Then, and for a relatively brief period, the piano becomes louder in volume and faster in tempo. In addition, more notes are played during this approximate twenty-second interval. The sense of calm seems replaced by a kind of “building up” and stormy quality. After this interval, the piece again becomes very quiet and subdued before it ends.

    Obviously, both performances follow the same melody, much of which relies on two noticeable beats. Both display the division described in the first paragraph. I heard the Augerich rendition as louder in volume throughout, and its beat sounded somewhat more distinct. Both performances tapered off in volume near the end, while the Auer performance seemed a bit longer overall. For example, the Auer division seemed to occur at around 1:15 minutes, while the Argerich one happened at around 1:05 minutes into the piece.

  5. This piece splits nicely down the middle. The first long 12-bar phrase is complemented by the second, which curiously consists of 13 bars (distorting the symmetry of the antecedent-consequent pair).

    You could break each of these two phrases into three 4-bar “parts,” but I wouldn’t do that – that the phrases are long and continuous is consistent with the sort of aimless, meandering quality of the music.

    Auer’s touch is lighter than Argerich’s. His dynamics betray an understanding of the first 12 bars as one long, meandering descent – other than in the flourish in m. 9, he’s basically on a constant decrescendo until the end of the first half. His opening anacrusis is deceptive – it’s fairly assertive, it drives forward, and it propels us into bar 1 (the dotted rhythm doesn’t hurt). He quickly pulls back, though.

    Auer adds an agogic accent beat 4 almost throughout (in the 2nd half, he starts doing this for beat 2, also). These elongations conflict with the metric accents on the downbeats, and create metric ambiguity.

    Argerich’s playing (as usual) drives more, dynamically and tempo-wise. Her left hand has a lot more momentum than Auer’s. Argerich also elongates beat 4, but more selectively, and more subtly. Her first 12 measures feel less like one unified idea, because she doesn’t move straight “down” (dynamically or tempo-wise). It felt like she was thinking smaller than Auer, who carves out a long 12-bar phrase; she shapes each bar with its own tempo envelope (a temporal analogue of the dynamic “hairpin”: accel followed by rit.) Maybe that’s why the elongation of beat 4 was subtler – it was incorporated into a temporal contour in each bar (whereas for Auer it was just sort of added. [which is not necessarily a bad thing – it very effectively creates a lot of tension.])

    I was also struck by how much grid-stretching she did in m. 12.

  6. In both performances, I hear divisions at measures 12, 13, 21 and 23; then additionally for Argerich at 15, and for Auer at 16.

    12: The accompanying left hand ceases, giving the attentional stage to the right hand, which continues only after a long pause on the first chord of the measure.
    13: There is a change in speed from the slower measure 12 back to that of the typical motif (ala the measures before measure 12; measure 13 is identical to measure 1). This boundary is reaffirmed by the re-entry of the left-hand, as well as by the re-articulation of the b at the beginning of the measure.
    15 (Auer): During this measure there is a quick crescendo (the first such in the piece thus far), signaling an upcoming change. This is dually signaled by a pick up in the speed of the left hand. (Auer and Argerich): The right hand in measure 16 solidifies this boundary by introducing a number of novel pitch events, including the trill and the jump to higher-pitched notes.
    21: The momentum that has been gathered by 16 slowly dies toward measure 20, pausing especially before the re-articulation of the e in 21. 21 also echoes the dotted half->quarter note pattern of earlier phrases, suggesting a return to an old idea (albeit one played at a lower pitch this time).
    23: A significant pause at the half note rests, followed by the change of dynamics played by long-lasting half note chords (the first of the piece), leading to a huge decrease in tempo.

    What strikes me is that, despite the differences in expressiveness by the two performers, I still hear most of the same divisions. The exception being that, in one instance Auer’s use of dynamics signals a division a little earlier than what we might call the natural arrival point of the division (based on the notation). It seems as though expected divisions (as based on the notation) are bound to happen, but can be reinforced/anticipated/or affected in some other way by the performers’ expressive variation

  7. The main break I experienced in this piece was at measure 12-13, where the 8th notes in the left hand stop and there’s a “reset” before the pattern of dotted half-quarter continues again. Other less salient but still important breaks occurred at measure 4, where the pattern of the quarter in the right hand being a C changes, and measure 16, where the pattern is entirely overthrown in a fit of sixteenths and dots. Measure 21 also marks a change back to the familiar pattern, so that also feels like a section break.

    Argerich’s performance felt much more deviant from the timing than did Auer’s. She pulls the quarter notes at the end of each measure much more, and pushes the tempo in measures 5 and 6. Measure 12 in her rendition is entirely freeform, and as a result the triplet does not have the same tripping feeling as it does in Auer’s more “accurate” performance. She also pushes the tempo in measure 16-18 (the crazy part!) which, in conjunction with her dramatic crescendo, heightens the tension. Auer’s performance, though less dramatic in it’s microtimings, still had moments of pushing and pulling, particularly in the underlying 8th notes, giving it a sense of movement. The way he pushes and pulls these subdivisions feels like plodding, like each step, each note, is an effort, which adds to the atmosphere of continuation implied by the ceaseless (except in measure 12 and the very end) pulsing.

  8. The major division for me seems to come around halfway through the piece. The piece kind of walks along in a pretty way before it, and then all of a sudden lightening strikes and there are a quick succession of loud violent notes. There is also a division about a quarter of the way through the when the second more dissonant and minor motive comes in. The violent change halfway through the piece allows the final quarter of the piece and the ending cadence to feel very grounded and almost a way for the listener to catch their breath.

    Argerich’s performance seemed much more expressive and emotionally charged then Auer’s. She seemed to play with the sense of expressive timing that pushes and pulls at the meter, more than Auer who seems to really follow the notation. The major division for Argerich is more drastic than Auer, but still they divide the piece at the same place. This is interesting because it suggests that the music implies a singular way to interpret it in performance.

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