Solutions to the “Great Nineteenth-Century Rhythm Problem” in Horowitz’s Recording of the Theme from Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16, No. 2

Alan Dodson

KEYWORDS: microtiming, phrase rhythm, meter, Schumann, Horowitz

ABSTRACT: This case study on the interpretation of microtiming is framed by the hypothesis that the avoidance of monotony in the case of highly regular phrase/hypermetric structures was not only one of the great compositional problems of the nineteenth century, as William Rothstein has proposed, but also was and remains a problem for performers. This analytical strategy helps to organize and synthesize diverse observations about a complex set of subtle microtiming practices in the titular recording. It is shown that Horowitz introduces subtle variations when materials are repeated, and that he tends to bring out the most salient aspects of Schumann’s own solutions to the “rhythm problem” (metric tensions, contrasts in rhythmic shape), except in cases of phrase linkage. This study suggests that principles of phrase rhythm could make a valuable contribution to the analytical toolbox for performance studies.

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Received October 2011
Volume 18, Number 1, April 2012
Copyright © 2012 Society for Music Theory

[1] The empirical and statistical tools that music theorists interested in performance have borrowed from our colleagues in other disciplines (see Clarke 2004) offer considerable clarity and precision, and these tools will no doubt continue to evolve in the years ahead. Even at its most precise, however, the analysis of microtiming data tends to produce results that are heterogeneous and resistant to interpretation, and we are still at the stage where new analytical strategies need to be developed and evaluated. In the present study, I am especially interested in exploring ways in which a familiar, speculative (theoretically driven) approach to the analysis of works can feed into the lexicon for the interpretation of microtiming.(1) At the outset I think it is important to mention that although the object of my analysis—the microtiming in a recording—was measured in a very precise way, my interpretation of that object is by no means “scientific” or “objective.” As Marion Guck has demonstrated, “musical analyses typically—necessarily—tell stories of the analyst’s involvement with the work she or he analyzes” (Guck 1994, 218). Accordingly, this case study should be taken as only one of many possible readings of the microtiming in a recording.

[2] In Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music, William Rothstein points out that a “danger...of too unrelievably duple a hypermetrical pattern, of too consistent and unvarying a phrase structure” was “endemic in nineteenth-century music,” and he refers to this danger, memorably, as the “Great Nineteenth-Century Rhythm Problem” (GNCRP) (Rothstein 1989, 184–85). Rothstein makes frequent reference to the GNCRP in the analytical chapters that comprise the second part of his book. He shows that Romantic-era composers did not necessarily have to retreat to an earlier, more elastic style in order to solve the GNCRP, although some (most notably Mendelssohn) did so. For other composers, such as Chopin and Wagner, the solution to the GNCRP lay not so much in manipulating the phrase lengths as in finding new ways to conceal—and ultimately to transcend—phrase boundaries and thereby to achieve the effect Wagner referred to as “endless melody.” These composers, in other words, solved the GNCRP not by avoiding regular metric and grouping structures, but instead by enlivening them in novel ways so that their effect would not become mechanical and tiresome.

[3] I would like to build on Rothstein’s composer-centered narrative by proposing that the GNCRP was a problem not only for composers, but also for performers. This problem can be solved by performers, I suggest, through effective use of the various expressive means under their control, including subtleties of microtiming. I will try to demonstrate this through a short case study on both the composer’s and the performer’s solutions to the GNCRP in a recording by Vladimir Horowitz of the theme from the second movement of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, op. 16 (“Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch”) (Horowitz 2011, first issued 1969).(2) Some readers will find it self-evident that the manner of performance can mitigate the risk of musical monotony, a danger that is especially acute in the case of works that feature a high level of rhythmic regularity. However, the ramifications of this idea have not yet been explored in the theoretical literature on phrase rhythm or in the empirical literature on microtiming, so a case study seems warranted.

Example 1. Schumann, Kreisleriana, op. 16, no. 2, theme

Example 1 thumbnail

(click to enlarge and see the rest)

[4] The score, based on the version in the Gesamtausgabe edited by Clara Schumann (Schumann 1887) is provided as Example 1. The rhythmic structure of the theme is very regular; duple hypermeter and four-bar grouping (with one-beat anacrusis) are present throughout, and there are continuous eighth-note subdivisions in all but six of the theme’s thirty-seven measures. Overall, the work has a clear rounded binary form with coda, within which the four-bar groups combine to form three phrases of ever-increasing length:

  • A (measures 1–8, repeated)
  • B (measures 9–20)
  • A’ (measures 21–28) + coda (measures 29–37)

Each of these phrases is supported by a straightforward harmonic progression: I–