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Are Classical Music Performances Speeding Up?

For Johann Sebastian Bach’s 333rd birthday, a team looked at recordings of the composer’s work over the last 50 years

This year marks the 333rd anniversary of J.S. Bach's birth (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Johann Sebastian Bach’s music may be timeless, but a gander by Universal Music Group labels Deutsche Grammaphon and Decca suggests that even the compositions of the man generally considered to be the greatest composer of the Baroque era are not immune to today’s breakneck speed of life.

As Amy X. Wang reports for Rolling Stone, the researchers found that performances of Bach’s famous Double Violin Concerto—a lively three-movement composition that finds two violinist soloists working in harmony to weave, in the words of a New York Philharmonic program, “a magical tapestry from threads of poignancy, resignation and tenderness”—have actually sped up by as much as 30 percent over the last 50 years.

The team looked at three recordings: a 1961 performance by father-son duo David and Igor Oistrakh that clocks in at 17 minutes and 15 seconds; a 1978 rendition by Arthur Grumiaux and Herman Krebbers, which lasts 15 minutes and 42 seconds; and a 2016 recording by Nemanja Radulović and Tijana Milošević, which concludes at just 12 minutes and 34 seconds. The small survey suggests that modern recordings are picking up the pace by roughly a minute per decade.

As British music scholar Nicholas Kenyon explains in a statement accompanying the work, the quickened speed of contemporary Bach performances may speak to a shift in preference from the “rather weighty concert style” popular in decades prior to “something that is more light, airy and flexible.”

Back in 2003, composer and writer Jan Swafford called attention to this phenomenon in Slate. According to Swafford, “Sometimes textures got so slimmed down they became anorexic, as with the conductors who started doing big Bach choral works with one singer on each part.” However, he wrote, “The more obvious extremes … have to do with tempo. Clock the last 40 years and you’ll find the beat getting relentlessly faster. The scholarly rationalizations are more sophisticated now, but somehow what they invariably add up to is: You can’t be skinny enough or fast enough.”

The new exploration into Bach’s tempo was carried out in conjunction with the release of Bach 333, a comprehensive box set designed to mark the composer’s 333rd birthday, which was observed on March 21.

While the Universal Music Group team didn’t delve into the work of other classical composers, Classic FM’s Maddy Shaw Roberts notes that the work builds on a 2017 study published in Musicae Scientiae. The research, which was led by Hubert Léveillé Gauvin of Ohio State University, showed the intros of top 10 hits released between 1986 and 2015 dropped from an average of more than 20 seconds during the mid-1980s to just five seconds today. The tempo of the songs also exhibited a marked increase over the decades.

At the time of the study’s release, Léveillé Gauvin suggested that the change of pace was triggered by today’s “attention economy.”

"It's survival-of-the-fittest,” he said in a statement. “Songs that manage to grab and sustain listeners' attention get played and others get skipped. There's always another song.”

But like everything, take the state of fast-tempo music with a grain of salt. In a separate 2017 Rolling Stone piece, Elias Leight investigated why “slow tempos took command” of mainstream pop music in recent years, ultimately noting that some artists adopted a slower tempo in order to stand out. Bonnie McKee, a songwriter who has co-written multiple No. 1 hits, speculated in an interview with Leight that the country's tenuous sociopolitical climate may be a factor in the public’s newfound appetite for slowed-down songs. “People don’t really feel right about jumping up and down and bopping right this second," McKee said.

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