The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Should your playing slow down or speed up when an audience seems bored? | July 9, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

So there was The Ear, working at home and listening to “The Writer’s Almanac,” which airs weekdays at 1 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio.

And famed host Garrison Keillor was quoting composer Gustav Mahler (below) on the occasion of Mahler’s birthday.

Yes, the literary program moved beyond writers to musicians and other artists, scientists and historical events long ago.

Gustav Mahler big

Here is what Keillor (below)  said:

Garrison Keillor

Gustav Mahler, who was a famous and highly respected opera and orchestra conductor as well as a major composer,  said, “If you think you are boring the audience, go slower -– not faster.”

Hmm. Food for thought.

Now, that seems just the opposite of the experience so many of us have during practicing. That’s when slow repetition grinds us down and bores us and makes us long to speed up and hear the music up to tempo as it sounds in a real performance – as if we have already mastered the notes and can turn them into music.

So here is my question:

What do you think Mahler meant by what he said and why did he think playing more slowly works to relieve boredom?

And also: Do you agree with what Mahler said and can you think of a good example where slower is better and can you say why it is better?

The Ear wants to hear, preferably with a YouTube link to a specific performance of a specific work attached, in the COMMENT section.



  1. I LOVE those Klemperer Beethoven Symphonies, by the way, they really stick to your musical ribs.

    Comment by 88melter — July 9, 2015 @ 9:55 am

  2. I think that MOST classical music is played too fast. Most jazz, and live rock music performances are also faster than the acoustic environment can handle. Letting notes, washes of notes, and individual melodies, harmonies and rhythms have a chance to resonate and sink into the ear of the audience is a Total Cure for the boredom that comes from not being able to hear clearly enough.
    Musical detail builds up to create the impression of the whole. The more details the listener can grasp, in a strictly auditory sense, the more attention CAN be paid to a performance, since, without adequate auditory perception there is not enough material to pay attention to!
    Here is the most famous example of deliberate
    slow-osity. Glenn Gould is at it again, of course.
    And Lenny B. is aiding and abetting him, but makes GG take all the “heat” for the slow pace. Covering his own legacy’s arse, no doubt. interestingly for this thread, the slow pace makes the Brahms Concerto sound like it WAS written by Mahler!

    Comment by 88melter — July 9, 2015 @ 9:54 am

    • You sound like you did not listen to Bernstein’s introduction explaining “this adventure!”

      Highly thoughtful and completely complimentary towards Gould, in my opinion. It was not only differences in tempi where conductor and pianist differed, as Bernstein explained; it was also in dynamics. I loved Bernstein’s explanation and in no way see it as his covering his “legacy’s arse”. He also indicated that although he personally was not persuaded by Gould’s interpretation, he believed it was thoughtful enough to be given a a performance. What more can be asked. (And in my opinion, slowing down the tempo in Brahms was not nearly as effective as in the Elgar Nimrod).

      Bernstein didn’t need to worry about his legacy because he is/was widely considered one of the great conductors of the century. And he knew it. As a side note, one of the few conductors he looked up to was the elusive Carlos Kleiber.

      Comment by fflambeau — July 10, 2015 @ 12:16 am

      • Fine,. Legacy intact. So many people read too much into what someone writes online. it was Gould’s Idea, and LB made that clear. He made it clear he was doing on Gould’s behalf, as a serious artist. End of story,

        Comment by 88melter — July 10, 2015 @ 7:36 am

  3. Is the age of the performer or conductor a factor? Klemperer used to drive me crazy; everything felt like a dirge — although I understand in his younger years, his tempi were faster. At the other extreme, Dudomel’s Beethoven Seventh with the Simon Bolivar is way too fast, in my opinion. I love his energy and enthusiasm, but the last movement leaves me breathless and not in a good way! Maybe that young orchestra was hard to control?

    Comment by Susan Fiore — July 9, 2015 @ 8:46 am

    • If a “young orchestra” is hard to control, then it means the conductor isn’t much of a conductor, doesn’t it?

      “Mozart in the Jungle” nails it with the mythical conductor, “Rodrigo” (yes, of one name). More show than anything else and a direct commentary on Dudomel. Perhaps more flair than a question of age?

      Comment by fflambeau — July 10, 2015 @ 12:22 am

  4. One famous example of a much slower than normal tempo is Leonard Bernstein’s take on Elgar’s Nimrod variation (Enigma Variations).

    It take some time to get used to his quite slow take on this but he makes it work. It sounds far more solemn and impressive taken slowly. But some people love Bernstein’s slow tempo (like me), others don’t. I find it both powerful and transcendent.

    Here’s a link:

    Bernstein conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a DG recording.

    Comment by fflambeau — July 9, 2015 @ 1:35 am

    • To add: the slower tempo in Bernstein’s Nimrod seems to underline the solemnity of the music and to strip some of the “glorious” from it (see 3:43 of the track) but when it does nevertheless reach the glorious stage (about at 4:40 and again at 5:50) it is solemnly glorious and profound, slipping away into the ethereal at 6:12. To me, the slow tempo heightens these contrasts in the music.

      Bernstein’s tempo here makes this variation sound like an almost completely different piece of music than when it is performed under other conductors. Note that at Bernstein’s tempo, the Nimrod is about 1 minute slower (for just this variation) than other conductors’.

      Comment by fflambeau — July 9, 2015 @ 2:17 am

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