Beauty In The Slow

What are the effects of slowness in music on the listener?

'Rain in an Oak Forest'. Ivan Shishkin, 1891
‘Rain in an Oak Forest’. Ivan Shishkin, 1891
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

Music that unfolds gradually and slowly brings about a unique quality of emotional gratification. While there is plenty of enthusiasm arising from the incisive excitement of scintillatingly brisk performances, beauty that is to be found in the ponderously lasting presents a differing world altogether.

The apparent impact of slowness in music emerges when one compares interpretations of a piece of work by conductors favouring opposite poles in tempo. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s lively account of Beethoven’s 9th symphony shows how a work can sound when played at an unusually swift tempo (by 20th-century interpretative standards). A sense of lightness and urgency prevail, at times resulting in feelings of breathless fury.

In contrast to the daring athleticism found in Gardiner’s work, the sound-world shaped through Karl Böhm’s majestically slow vision – one of the last recordings of the great Austrian conductor – calls for weight and the monumental, an aged grandeur that imposes and sweeps with bold conviction.

One can argue that the lightness so prevalent in Gardiner’s reading may be accounted for by the historically informed performance, with the period instruments and reduced size of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Yet even if one listens to another rapidly paced account, this time with the modern Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly, the overall impression is not too dissimilar.

As such, slowness in music can carve out a sense of the broad and immense; through taking a deliberate and slow tempo, a dimension of physical magnitude emerges. This may be in accordance with an ecological perspective, since most things large in real life tend to also be slow. Supporting this notion, Newton’s second law of motion, F=ma, implies that in changing a fixed amount of force, mass and velocity are in an inverse relationship, such that an increase of mass is connected with a decrease of speed/velocity, and vice versa (particularly relevant is the mechanics of momentum, a derivative function of F=ma, also known as p=mv). In either case, the mind may automatically ascribe a sense of mass and vastness to something that is (or sounds) slow.

This idea that slowness leads to a sense of grandeur is often applied as a dramatic device by some conductors. Within a unified tempo structure, unexpectedly slowing down the tempo of a subsection in a movement can, when applied suitably, release an energy imbued with a sense of scale and breadth.

The technique can have various names depending on the contexts, such as ritardando, rallentando, tempo rubato (‘stolen time’ in Italian) or ritenuto, amongst many others. The slowing down can be done within such a short amount of time that it even applies even to a single note.

A memorable demonstration of such effect comes from Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the 4th symphony of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) with the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 80s. While Bernstein’s overall conception of this work is of an expansive nature, the conductor significantly slows down the tempo at the apotheosis of the symphony, in the last few bars of the finale. The effect is deeply felt for its far reaching sublimity.

Comparable to this is the live recording of the same symphony by Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, where the tempo is picked up vigorously in the same section. While not short in intensity, the generated energy is of a different kind of sinew compared to the aforementioned recording by Bernstein. In place of the grand is a sense of electric relentlessness, a driving momentum that is gratifying with a raw edge, not shy of showing itself.

While it has been indirectly referred to, the slow itself warrants an observation. In essence, the concept of the slow is a mostly relative one; the perception of slow is slow insofar as when preceded by a passage of a quicker speed. Furthermore, it may be insightful to know that ritardando means to ‘slow down’, not ‘slow’ per se. Therefore, to judge Böhm’s rendition of Beethoven’s 9th symphony as slow is possible through the assumption of having heard other faster versions of that same work.

Likewise, tempo markings within a work are likely to represent a pulse intrinsic to the architecture, logic and ‘life’ given to the work during its conception by the creator. In the case of multi-movement works, composers are likely to allocate unique tempo markings to specific movements, or moments within a movement, in order to enhance the argument and flow of music. Therefore, the incipient slow sections in many first movements of Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) symphonies prepare an exhilarating delight at the arrival of the first – usually faster – theme.

Relatedly, a slow movement – usually marked as an adagio or lento – in a symphony or a similar large scale work brings about a sense of contrast between the more extroverted surrounding movements. The slow breath of the slow movement provides an equilibrium to the work’s overarching rhythm.

Similar observations can be made within scherzo (‘I joke’ in Italian) movements, where the ternary structure (i.e. ABA) consists of a short contrasting section – also known as the ‘trio’ – located in between two often dance-like sections. Certain composers insert a songful slow section in this central section. When section A is reprised, its return renews a sense of freshness, through which the movement regains and prolongs its rhythmic momentum.

Either as a slow movement of a symphony or as a poignant trio section within a scherzo movement, the revealed slowness plays the role of an oasis of cool poise in the midst of bumpy terrain. Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) scherzo of the 8th symphony demonstrates this notion well.

In Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, the slow movement being placed last, suggests a picture of a work that is overall solemn and elegiac. By concluding the work in such unexpectedly slow fashion, the listeners not only find the joyous moments of the 2nd and 3rd movements somewhat negated, but also understand retrospectively that these moments of joy are precursors to the inevitable melancholy of the conclusion. When the day is done, a sigh not only signifies an outlook towards the rest of the remaining day, but also a newly springing nostalgia of all what came before. As such, slowness may play an integral role in how one interprets and understands a whole piece of work.

Slowness, then, can also be used as a powerful structural device. If so, is there a unifying experience to the slow? While every piece of slow music is slow in its own way, in many examples mentioned so far the unique qualities of slowness in music depict feelings of a contemplative, often introspective and/or sombre nature. This is often opposed to the often active, buoyant, and/or light counterpart of faster music. If the world of the slow is the night or an afternoon of cool rain, the world of the fast is broad daylight or the blazing sun itself.

And if empirical research may shine additional light on this matter, recent studies in psychology have shown that slow tempo is associated with the experience of sadness among listeners. Conversely, speeding up a piece would elicit happiness (read research here). In other words, the interplay of tempos, by having a piece slow down and speed up, may play an important role in shaping the emotional tapestry of a given work.

I would like to think – should such scientific argument be true – that the principle would feed itself into the working knowledge of composers, to the degree that they would consciously or unconsciously choose a slow tempo for ‘sad-sounding’ musical sections. As an example, it is difficult to conceive of plaintive and reflective musical ideas created for deeply mournful purposes written in tempos of relative briskness. Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) inward-looking Funeral Sentence In the midst of life, written for Queen Mary II’s funeral, demonstrates this point.

Furthermore, slowness goes beyond a matter of music. While there is an increasing number of opinions in recent times towards the appreciation of a slow-paced life, slowing down cannot be a mere counterpart of, or panacea to, the hectic density of modern cosmopolitanism. Rather, to slow down is a quality intrinsic to life and its components. Accordingly, by immersing oneself into the slowness of a musical work’s life, one encounters an experience very true to being alive.

From the grand to the wistful, qualities of the slow in music play out a common denominator of austere sincerity, a sense of self-aware profundity. One can at least say that while not all slow music is ‘sad-sounding’, sadness is best executed in a slow pace. A similar pattern can apply for ‘grand-sounding’ music, too.

Needless to say, music is complex, and musical experiences even more so. There are numerous things to consider, such as memories of what came before and expectations of what might happen afterwards. There are also other factors such as rhythm, pitch and loudness that are crucial in shaping one’s musical experiences – this cannot be denied. However, that there is a special beauty in the slow in music – this also cannot be denied.

'Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge'. James Whistler, 1871-1874.
‘Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge’. James Whistler, 1871-1874.

Read more by Young-Jin Hur on Corymbus:

From Darkness To Light

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). His writings are available at his blog Where Cherries Ripen.