Choice of Tempo


The conductor is responsible for the choice of tempo. The most obvious factors influencing the conductor's decision here are the composer's suggestions, particularly the use of Italian terms (Adagio, Allegro, etc) and any accompanying metronome markings. Such indications cannot always be accepted at face value, however. The precise meaning of Italian terms is always open to interpretation, and metronome speeds can be just plain wrong. In many modern editions of Baroque and early Classical works, for example, metronome speeds are indicated on scores by an editor, often without any statement in support of their historical accuracy. Transcriptions for wind band may therefore suffer the same fate.

Composers themselves have also occasionally suggested metronome speeds so fast that it is widely believed they may have been working with faulty metronomes. A case in point is the Funeral March in Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony. Beethoven indicated a speed of 80 quavers (eighth notes) to the minute, whereas conductors such as Beecham and Toscanini have typically recorded the work at speeds closer to 50 or 60.

What is ultimately important is what members of the audience imagine they are hearing
One's general approach to a particular work will also influence the choice of speed. If the intention is to make every detail clear, then a slower tempo may be selected. On the other hand, if a broad brushstroke approach is preferred, then a fast tempo will probably be more appropriate. Depending on the particular work involved, both interpretations may be equally legitimate. It is also important to bear in mind that a highly rhythmical piece may give the impression of being faster than it actually is. What is ultimately important is what members of the audience imagine they are hearing, not the actual tempo the conductor adopts.

There are also other factors to consider. These include the style and historical period of the piece, and the mood of the text (if a song is involved). The acoustics of the auditorium where the work is to be performed also needs to be taken into consideration. A high level of reverberation, for example, usually indicates that a slower speed would be more appropriate if the music is to have a positive impact on the audience. Last, but certainly not least, is the ability of the players. There is obviously little point in adopting a rapid tempo if the ensemble is technically incapable of keeping pace.