Wikipedia ~ "In musical terminology, tempo (Italian for time) is the speed or pace of a given piece. Tempo is a crucial element of any musical composition, as it can affect the mood and difficulty of a piece .... In classical music, it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words. Most of these words are Italian, because many of the most important composers of the 17th century were Italian, and this period was when tempo indications were first used extensively.
"Before the metronome, words were the only way to describe the tempo of a composition. Yet after the metronome's invention, these words continued to be used, often additionally indicating the mood of the piece"
Tempo markings (expressed in beats per minute, or bpm) provide a useful guide to the composer's intent, for the orchestra and its conductor. For example, here is a sample of tempo terminology, and the corresponding speed at which that piece should be conducted ~
- Lento ~ slowly (40-60 bpm)
- Adagio ~ slow and stately (66-76 bpm)
- Andante ~ at a walking pace (76-108 bpm)
- Moderato ~ moderately (108-120 bpm)
- Allegro ~ fast, quickly and bright (120-168 bpm)
- Presto ~ very fast (168-200 bpm)
I first fell in love with classical music early in my teens (back during the Punic Wars). In those pre-XM satellite radio, pre-Internet, pre-CD, pre-cassette tape days, we listened to music on vinyl records. Because I grew up on the northern prairie, far from urban classical music radio stations, I had three resources to guide me in my exploration ~ the music we played in the school band, the modest collection of classical records at my public library, and recommendations from a girl I knew who was a classical pianist. On such fragile foundations are lifelong passions built.
So where is all this leading, you may well ask. Just this ~ as our lives have become more complex and faster-paced over the past five decades, so has the tempo of recorded classical music. I don't mean that people are listening to more allegro pieces. I mean that conductors and recording studios are taking liberties with the tempo indicator of a given piece. Something written as adagio may come out sounding andante or even moderato. And where's the harm in that, you may wonder? Just this ~ a piece is written to be performed at a slower tempo for very specific reasons of mood, tonal nuance, lush harmonies. If you race through it, you are missing the mood, the nuance, the harmonies. It becomes musical mush. You have been deprived of the leisure to savor the intricacy of rhythm, the subtle relationships between instruments. In short, you might as well be listening to a kazoo band rather than a symphony orchestra.
This evolution in the manipulation of tempo wouldn't be noticeable to someone new to classical music. It is gratingly obvious to me. To illustrate, below you will find links to three different performances of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, Second Movement (Allegretto). The first example is typical of modern renditions, and takes only 7:15 minutes to complete. The second example might have been performed fifteen or twenty years ago ~ it takes 8:19 minutes. The third example is typical of what you might have heard forty or fifty years ago, and I believe is the truest to Beethoven's intent and the pacing of music of his time ~ it takes 9:01 minutes.
Sampling the initial passages of each performance will clearly reveal the tempo differences, and the alterations to their emotional impact. I encourage you to listen to the entire performance of either the second or third example. The second example is fun because the video presents both the music and a visual bar-graph score (see image above), color-coded to each orchestral instrument. After watching and listening for a few minutes, you'll discover you can predict what sounds are coming up just by looking at the score. And of course, the third example is truest to the music ~ close your eyes and immerse yourself in Beethoven's genius.