“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”

BPYO - Rehearsal no. 9 - Recap

Benjamin Zander
Ben's Blog — December 5, 2020




RUBARE is the Italian verb to steal. Rubato means stolen. So really it means to play with stolen time – in other words to play with freedom. 

Let’s begin at the beginning.

To give emphasis to a single note, you can either play it louder or you can play it longer – i.e.to steal time with it. If you take time on a single note, for instance to launch a phrase, it is called an agogic accent, but if several notes are involved in order to draw  attention to a specially rich or surprising  harmony, an expressive moment, a climax, an unexpected dynamic, or the end of a phrase, it is called RUBATO. 

Take the very first note of the 3rd cello suite of Bach. It’s a high note and it launches a long phrase with immense momentum, so, as well as playing it louder, you will also want to lengthen it slightly. That is an agogic accent. The C, an octave below it, is also important  and so is the C below that (the long note on an open C string). Those notes will want to be lengthened slightly to make clear to the listener that Bach is saying: “Hello! We are in C major!”  Then, as you go on, each of the C’s all the way to bar 6, will want a slight lengthening. By the first note of bar 7, C major has been firmly established as the point of departure for the whole Prelude. But now instead of lengthening a single note you will play several notes with a slight expansiveness:

For instance the group of 5 sixteenth notes at the beginning of bar 4, and again in bar 6. Especially in bar 6. That way the arrival on the C (on the second beat) can be emphasized, before the scale down to the C, which mirrors the opening scale in bar 1.

Now we are dealing with RUBATO – you are stealing time to make something in the structure of the piece clear, even to a casual listener. It will help that person not to be a casual listener anymore.

At the end of each of the following bars, the line descends from C down to B (bar 9), then to A (11) and then to G. Each one of those notes needs a little space around it for the notes to make their point (D C B! And then C B A! at the end of bar 10.  That is rubato. Of course it is very subtle and it is going to be slightly different every time you play. But that is the way that a performer can “teach” the listener about the structure of the piece. To help the listener distinguish between notes that are structural and notes that are merely decorative – to follow the discourse of the music.

Rubato is essential for clarity.

Some people say that when you take time you have to give it back by rushing. In my experience, whenever something is stolen, It’s gone forever.  So too with rubato. Taking time is like stretching a piece of elastic. When the moment of beauty, surprise or emphasis is over, the elastic relaxes and the original tempo is restored. Rushing to make up for time taken is a bad habit and gives a very disorienting feeling to the music.


It’s a bit like driving. When nothing interesting or surprising is happening, like going  through miles of Kansas corn-fields, or playing the Flight of the Bumble Bee, you put your foot on the accelerator, perhaps even cruise control. But when you are driving in the Swiss Alps it’s the opposite – The road twists and turns; or it runs by a breathtaking view, or a beautiful church on a hill catches your attention, or a cow has wandered into the road. Your foot is rarely going to be far from the break. But remember that when the beauty or hazard is passed, it goes back to the original tempo. Rubato is ALWAYS pulling back.

It is generally true that the greater the surprise, the more time it needs.   


 Well yes, but beware!  Don’t try it if people have to march.


But what about that beautiful 2nd theme? 

Whenever I conduct Stars and Stripes, I turn to the cellos for the second theme, hoping to coax a little freedom out of them, but the image of the marchers tripping over each other keeps me from indulging too much. However, if I happen to find myself singing it in the shower, you bet I find all sorts of freedom!

SECOND THEME (click here)

Rubato has no place in a march. Nor does Tempo Modification. Roger Norrington, in his recording of Beethoven’s 9th starts the Alla Marcia in the Finale at MM=84 and then gradually increases the tempo until it is MM=104 by the time the tenor urges the soldiers into battle: “wie ein Held zum Siegen”(Like a hero to victory) at bar 431 – even though Beethoven writes specifically sempre l’istesso tempo! You can’t have soldiers making an accelerando!

Most conductors start the Funeral March of the Eroica Symphony at a very slow tempo (Toscanini, Klemperer and Karajan all are  43-45 (!) points below Beethoven’s marked tempo) and then gradually increase the tempo until by bar 114 – the great double Fugue – they are well ABOVE Beethoven’s marked tempo! I have made two recordings that set out to realize Beethoven’s intention of keeping a steady Funeral March tempo (eighth = 80, or Half note = 20) from beginning to end: one with The Philharmonia, the other at a memorable recording session with BPYO in Escorial, Spain. Both recordings will be released  on the Benjamin Zander Center website in the New Year.

(We will do a ”rehearsal” on the Eroica 2nd movement next semester. I can’t wait!) 

Rubato can be found in many tunes that are usually sung or played metronomically. Now that birthday parties tend to be solitary affairs, try calling up someone you love on their birthday and give them the full rubato treatment. Unencumbered by other singers, you will be able to shape every syllable, caress every note, launch every phrase and pour out your deep affection for your friend. I had occasion (this December 16th) to leave a message, in a rather croaky voice, for somebody who was celebrating a  very special birthday indeed:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY (click here)

With Christmas also a largely solitary affair this year I found I could render a performance of a few of the beautiful carols shaped with some judicious rubato and infused with genuine enthusiasm. It can turn almost anyone into a momentary believer. 

O COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL (click here)

Just as you have to go to Austria to find the most delicious Apfelstrudel mit Schlagsahne (or at least find an Austrian cook), so too, you have to listen to local musicians to hear echt (true) Viennese rubato.

Listen to this marvellous group led by Alexander Schneider (founding second violin of the Budapest String Quartet) in a waltz by Joseph Lanner.   

Admire both the infinite flexibility and the infinite control. It is never wilful, always intentional.

People who grew up close to that tradition seem to do it naturally. Probably the only way to get it into your body and your heart is to listen a lot. If you TRY to do it, it can sound awful. “Oh yes,  the second beat has to come early”.  It must sound subtle, natural and organic.

Within seconds of putting on this recording you can imagine you are in Vienna – the charm, the ease, the control, the elegance.  Can you see the flowing dresses and the chandeliers?

Alexander Schneider – Waltz  (click here – 6min)

Here is another example of “echt” Viennese rubato:

Berlin Philharmonic Chamber Players – “Trout” Quintet  (click here)

(listen especially from 30 mins and 30 seconds to the end of the movement, but it is all delightful)


What can you do with Rubato that you can’t do without it?
Keep a constant tempo while still changing moods


Most musicians instinctively change the tempo when they want to change the mood.  (Tempo modification).  i.e. when the music gets energetic or exciting they push the tempo faster and when it is calm or reflective they take a slower tempo. This is a perfectly valid and natural way of approaching music. It is, after all, what we do when we speak.

However, the music of the great German tradition is a structural, as well as a histrionic art. Maintaining a constant tempo, can be very helpful in making sense of the structure. In the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th the contrasting second theme must be played at the same tempo as the first theme, because the accompaniment in the cellos and basses contains the famous four-note figure from the first theme.  da-da-da-daaa

BEETHOVEN 5th, Mov. 1 (Second Theme) (click here)

There are other examples of second theme material that benefit enormously from being played at the same tempo as the rest of the first movement. In the first movement of Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto, the second theme has some of the same rhythmic characteristics as the first theme. Stefan Jackiw gave an illuminating performance with BPYO last year, in which the contrast of mood for the second theme was achieved, not by a marked tempo change, but rather by lavish (and elegant) use of rubato.

Stefan Jackiw plays Mendelssohn (click here)

The first movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto is the most notorious example of all of a piece which became, in the hands of generations of Romantic violin virtuosi, subjected to constant tempo changes. Played at one tempo, with appropriate rubato, it emerges as a new and thoroughly coherent piece of music:

Liza Ferschtman plays 1st movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto  (click here)


Rubato as a solution to a famous old problem


The first movement of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto presents a fascinating problem for performers. The opening horn motive seems to cry out for immense breadth. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s legendary performance with Edwin Fischer takes this to an extreme. The opening phrase in the horn is played extremely slowly. The pianist, Edwin Fischer, urges the tempo forward for the flowing rising arpeggios. Furtwängler indicates to the horn player that he may play the second phrase just as expansively as before, whilst the pianist insists on his own tempo for the second lot of arpeggios. Each plays exquisitely, but the result is almost comical.

The winds then play the second phrase at a still faster tempo and the pianist enters for his first ff entrance even faster.  


If you listen to almost any recording of the Brahms you will hear a huge discrepancy between the tempo of the horn introduction and the piano entrance. Indeed it is not uncommon for the tempo to be almost doubled!

It is possible that Brahms intended this huge tempo modification, but I submit that it is unlikely. He is writing music of a symphonic nature with the same structure as is found in his symphonies. Maintaining a constant tempo throughout the movement will greatly enhance the sense of structure. Here is the recapitulation of the 1st movement in a performance by Alessandro Deljavan with the Boston Philharmonic:


Now here is the opening. By lengthening the first note and with judicious use of rubato, all three phrases can be given their expressive due without changing the tempo. The first Bb in the horn is being treated as an elision – i.e. both the end of the previous phrase (that took place before the piece began), AND the first note of the horn melody. The freedom given to the triplet at the end of the bar (which could be even more broadly sung) allows the required spaciousness, without needing to play the whole phrase at a slow tempo – a la Furtwaengler.

OPENING (click here)

You can hear the whole performance here

This solution, of treating the first note of a piece as the end of the previous phrase (as it often is at the end of the first ending and even more markedly at the end of the Development, in its join with the Recapitulation) can be used to solve the opening of innumerable romantic works, thus avoiding the confusion caused by constant and disruptive changes of tempo. The Deljavan/BPO performance demonstrates this and offers an instructive example of a radical and satisfying approach to a perennial problem facing interpreters of structurally coherent romantic works.

Another wonderful example (and there are many) is the e minor cello sonata of Brahms. Cellists (and pianists) all seem to agree that that the passage with moving quarter notes (bar 47 – G F#F# G)  has to be played somewhere between MM = 112-124, but no one plays the opening of the movement even close to that tempo. By treating the opening E as an elision (simultaneously the result of the natural ritardando during the bars of the first ending 88 ff and the beginning of the first cello phrase), it becomes natural and extremely satisfying to play the opening at that same tempo, by simply responding to the surprises (especially the C natural in the second bar) with rubato, rather than setting a slower tempo for the opening. 

Here is a class in which I explore this idea with the exceptionally gifted 13-year-old Yihang Li (We work on the opening for quite a while, then at 9:40 we address the very issue discussed here. Yiyhang realizes the idea amazingly)

Yihang Li, Brahms E min Cello Sonata (click here)



Chopin Largo


It was fascinating to hear Melanie Chen approach this exquisite short movement in an absolutely natural way, even though her “pianist” was not quite able to follow her rubato really effectively. (“Good news for pianists” BZ)

It was especially striking in contrast to the recording from the world-famous and fabulous sounding cellist Truls Mørk, whose pianist started SO slowly that it was difficult to get any sense of 3 beats in a bar (it is marked a Largo in 3/2).

TRULS MØRK (click here)

They do not maintain this glacial tempo (even in the second beat of the very first bar, Truls shows a very slight Edwin-Fischer-like impatience).

As they approach the cadenza-like passage, the tempo begins to push forward and for the “cadenza” itself a completely new tempo has been unleashed, undermining the sense of structural coherence of the movement as a whole.


Using rubato and a much more natural and vocal approach, Melanie was able to make the little cadenza feel part of the composition, instead of a gratuitous “add-on”. Even with her insensitive “pianist” she was, I feel, able to get closer to the “truth” of the movement than her famous colleagues.

I am looking forward to having Melanie over some time to record the movement with Dina. I am sure it will be exquisite.


Here is a rule for playing a movement in one tempo using rubato to create changes of mood:


Take as the tempo of the movement the fastest tempo you need and then pull back, or elasticize, the moments that seem to call for it (such as the horn opening in the Brahms Concerto or the cello opening in Brahms e minor). For the Chopin, the tempo will be found in the Cadenza. When that moment arrives, the forward motion and sweep is naturally released – though it has been there all the time waiting to be freed from the twists and turns of the mountainous road.


To fully appreciate the magic that rubato playing can bring to music, here is one of my all-time favorite Interpretation Classes with clarinetist Milo Bjelica.

Brahms: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F minor (click here)



Mahler: Adagietto


I know of no piece of music that requires a more pervasive use of rubato to convey its message than does the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. However, what its message is, has, as I will explain, caused much controversy. It is a remarkable story. 

The fastest performance on record of the Adagietto is by Mahler’s close friend Willem Mengelberg, It lasts for a mere 7 minutes and 8 seconds. The slowest is by the German conductor Hermann Scherchen and lasts for 15 minutes and 38 seconds. That is more than twice as long! There is no other work in the repertoire that has been subjected to such a huge discrepancy in its interpretation.   

What happened?

 Mengelberg said: “(with the Adagietto): Love, a smile enters his life”. In the margin of his score he scrawled the following words:  

“This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love to Alma! Instead of a letter he sent her this in manuscript: no accompanying words. She understood and wrote to him that he should come. Both told me this.”

Really??  Mahler apparently sent a message to his beloved Alma in the form of a short movement for strings and harp. Alma, an accomplished composer, capable of reading the manuscript, and intoxicated as she was with love for Mahler, recognized it for what it was – a message overflowing with his love. She wrote back to tell him to come and see her immediately. It could not have been clearer if he had sent her a message on Instagram.   

What did Alma “hear”?  From the first notes it is clear that the music is saturated with affection, heartache, tenderness and yearning. As she read through Gustav’s manuscript, I imagine that Alma was listening in her mind’s ear to a song, as if it was being played on the piano by Gustav:

 This is how I imagine it (you might excuse some vagueness in the piano playing – she was, after all, “sight-reading”):

ON THE PIANO (click here)

When Mengelberg came to record the movement in 1926, I think that is the scenario he was trying, with its swooning portamentos and flowing tempo, to recreate:

MENGELBERG (click here)

Another student and close friend of Mahler, Bruno Walter, approached the movement essentially the same way (8 minutes) in his 1938 recording.

But somewhere along the way the Adagietto changed from being a piece about love to being a piece about death. It is not clear how or when it happened. I have to think that Leonard Bernstein was primarily responsible.  In his 1964 recording (12 minutes long), rather than an ecstatic message to the beloved, the music seems almost depressed and death absorbed.  And  because it is so slow there is very little rubato.

BERNSTEIN (click here)

(I suspect that had Alma received THAT message, she might well have called off their engagement!)

Other conductors followed suit: Herbert von Karajan (11.59): Tennstedt (13) Bernard Haitink (13.55). The longer the Adagietto, the sadder it sounds. In 1971 the Adagietto was pressed into service by Visconti as the languorous theme music for the film Death in Venice and Bernstein conducted it at Robert Kennedy’s 1968 funeral. It became, along with Barber’s Adagio, the work of choice for orchestras to perform at memorial occasions. So that when I came to study the work for the first time, the Adagietto had become firmly established as a very slow piece with overtones of death.

Whilst preparing the first Boston Philharmonic performance of the Fifth in 1980, I discovered the note on the page of Mengelberg’s score and realized that the Adagietto was a piece not about DEATH but about LOVE! Mahler’s marking for the movement is admittedly Sehr Langsam, but as soon as one understands that “very slow” does not refer to the individual eighth notes (as conducted in painfully slow 8’s by Bernstein), but rather to a VERY slow ONE IN A BAR, the message of the movement – the message of love – becomes clear. By applying infinitely supple rubato and feeling it as a singer might sing to a beloved: “I love you, Darling” (for the first violin phrase) and “Don’t ever leave me” (for the second), the ILLUSION of extreme slowness can be created, while nevertheless adopting quite a moving tempo. For the characteristic Mahlerian rubato to work, it requires a sense of motion, not of stagnation. The markings “nicht schleppend” (don’t drag) and “fliessend” (flowing)“etwas drängend”(push forward) were surely warnings from Mahler not to allow it to become too slow. The full revelation came to me at Rehearsal #2 when the music bursts out with torrents of passion in what MUST be a feeling of one in a bar.

Suddenly the whole piece felt in ONE sweep, moving imperceptibly, ever forward, to the moment in bar 64 (see score below), where we hear a premonition of the joyous marriage theme from the last movement, thus linking the two final movements in their exploration of love, as closely as the first two movements of the symphony had been linked in their exploration of death. 

I arranged two full-length rehearsals at my home, one with our harpist, Martha Moore, and the concert-master and another rehearsal with the harp and the leaders of the string sections. Gradually, as we worked, the eighth notes in the harp became fluid, flowing over the bar-lines, as if in the hands of a master pianist. The transformation of the piece was complete. It had been restored to its original conception.  

When I came to London in 1991 to record Mahler 5th with The Philharmonia, I called an extra rehearsal for just the harpist, Aline Brewer, (whose name and phone number (!) are memorialized on my score). Astonished, Aline told me that no conductor had ever asked her to play the harp in that manner – like a pianist with the pedal down, accompanying a singer. She seems, alone amongst harpists on record, to suggest the turbulence of emotion from the very beginning, so that when full passion is released at #2, it sounds as though we have been there already.

Here is my Philharmonia recording of the Adagietto.


Follow the SCORE (click here)

P.S. When I was trying to decide which performance to play for you at the end of the class on December 5th, I was choosing between my own recording with the  Philharmonia and the one by the fabulous orchestra of soloists put together for the Lucerne Festival under Claudio Abbado (amazingly both timed at 8 minutes and 33 seconds)*  I chose the Philharmonia because Abbado treats the opening too dreamingly, as if it is separate from the middle section – like a baroque Da Capo aria, in which the heroine laments languorously about her absent love in the A section; storms in fury against her rival in the B section, with many trills and high C’s, and then returns to languorous despair in the Da Capo section. The Philharmonia performance, by contrast, unfolds in a single emotional arc. It is interesting to note that there is an earlier Abbado recording that times at 11 minutes, so obviously he had a change of mind about the movement.

P.P.S. There is a very beautiful 1952 studio recording by Hermann Scherchen with the Vienna State Opera, which lasts only 9 minutes! So, he changed his mind the other way – not for the better this time – for his 1964 (post Bernsteinian) live performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, at over 15 minutes!

Here is Scherchen’s complete recording with his original conception for the Adagietto (43.05 – 52.16)

SCHERCHEN (click here)

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