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manuscript of the Messiah
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The many performances of Händel’s Messiah during the Christmas season bring to mind the necessity of finding an appropriate tempo.

What does that mean?

Well, let’s look at a Messiah aria.  It provides a wonderful example of good vs. unfortunate choices.

“Rejoice Greatly”

It would be difficult to find a better aria to cite for this discussion.

As you know, there are different types of soprano voices.  The differences that are important in relation to this aria are the weight of the sound and the relative ease of lyric or coloratura singing.

A lyric soprano would need a tempo that accommodates her passagework, sung clearly.  She would most likely sing the aria more slowly than a coloratura.


A coloratura has the ability to do fast passages easily, and perhaps needs to sing lyrical passages a little faster.

On the other hand, a lyric soprano’s legato singing is her calling card.  Coloratura singing may be a little more difficult for her, so that needs to slow down a bit in order to be clear.  She doesn’t want to gloss over the notes, nor should she.

Obviously, there needs to be one tempo for the entire aria.

“But the tempo on the recording…”

… is faster?  slower?  IT DOESN’T MATTER.

Every soloist needs to find her/his own tempo.  The tempo must be comfortable for you. If your tempo comes from someone else’s recording, you will always sound like you are imitating the recording.  How can you internalize a tempo and “own” the piece unless you find a tempo?

“But the tempo marking…”

… is what, presto?  Scherzando?  Allegro molto?  (This is a random list, not from the score of Messiah.)

You can honor the spirit of the tempo marking and have a reasonable tempo at the same time.  That might have to do with lightness or gravity of sound, feeling the pulse in 2 rather than 4, in 1 rather than 3, facial expression, even the way you treat the words.  It’s about the way you convey the piece.

These comments are valid for mezzos, tenors, and basses as well.

A recent experience

While learning a Bach prelude a few months ago, I was having a hard time settling on a tempo.  It seemed to me that there were at least 3 ways to play the piece!  After several practice sessions, I finally decided to listen to two recordings.

Angela Hewitt‘s tempo, I felt, was too fast.  It just didn’t have enough clarity for me.  And, in that I respect Glenn Gould‘s playing and imagination so much, I expected his tempo to be perfect!

Gould’s tempo was so slow, I was shocked.  It sounded as if he had been listening to Wagner for a month.  Every little nuance was heard, certainly, but where was the line?  The sounds lasted so long, they faded from note to note.

Every change of a 1/2 step is not a high point!  How many can there be, 10 per phrase?  In this recording, everything about the harmonic changes was clear, but there was no arc to the phrases.

So there I was.  Now what?

That experience reinforced for me the importance of finding my own tempo and making it work.  By that I mean finding a way to communicate the piece with conviction at my chosen tempo.  I no longer felt the need to agree with anyone else’s ideas concerning the tempo.

Two more thoughts:  a fast tempo must be your fast playing, where you don’t have train wrecks or feel out of control.  (Although when you know a piece extremely well, sometimes it’s fun to just take your chances and “let it rip.”)  And by contrast, a slow tempo has to sustain the sound from note to note.

How do you find tempi?  What choices have you encountered?  Please share your experiences in the comment section below!

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