About rallentando, steam locomotives, and least common multiple.

A well performed Rallentando is one of the most important musical means for a striking phrasing and can be an extremely gratifying experience for the listener. But why is it so special? This question can be partly answered as follows: a well performed Rallentando creates a strong connection between the player and the listener, the former creating in the latter the temporal expectation that the next note will fall naturally on a very specific point, and so on, until the end of the Rallentando. A well-performed Rallentando succeeds in creating these expectations. And now some relevant questions: which are the mechanisms which regulate a fulfilling realization of the Rallentando? Can ‘Rallentando’ be practiced? If so, how?

In an attempt to give an answer to these questions, I would like to share with you some thoughts and some useful exercises through which you will always be able to perform a smooth, logical, and organic rallentando in any musical situation. Undoubtedly, in addition to slowing down, the most important attribute of a well performed Rallentando is that it is perceived as a fluid, gradual, and organic event, without sudden changes of pulsation and/or disregard for the relation within the values of the notes.

The easiest form of Rallentando is presented in the next example, in which a regular pulsation of notes of the same value becomes gradually slower and slower. I call it the ‘Steam Locomotive Rallentando’, as it reminds me of a steam locomotive entering the station, slowing down its speed gradually until it stops.

If you don’t already know this piece I warmly suggest you listen to it. It is amazing! It represents, literally, the concept of steam locomotion.

Finale of the Introduction from the Fantaisie Elegiaque op.59 by F.Sor:

The only skill required of the performer here is to be able to slow down a sequence of notes gradually and with regularity (8th notes in triplet rhythm).

The performance becomes more complicated when notes of different value occur in the section in which a rallentando must be played, like in this example from Asencio’s Collectici Intim (La Serenor, finale):

Here we have 4th, 8th and 16th notes which gradually slow down. We cannot count on a regular pulse or on a ‘framework’ in which the rallentando can take place organically.

In this case math comes to our aid. Indeed, transposing the concept of lowest common denominator in music we will find a great solution to this problem. The least common multiple between two positive integers is defined as the smallest divisible number for both numbers. In the musical context of a Rallentando this means to find the shortest usable value* present in the measures in question and then using it as regular pulse after which the Rallentando can be developed.

*When I speak of ‘shortest usable value’ I mean a value which has a structural function and not a value used for a passing or grace note, which might be too fast for being used as regular pulse.

We see that the shortest value in the above-mentioned Asencio’s example is the 16th and that we can thus use it for giving a framework in which the rallentando can be performed as it was virtually composed by a sequence of notes of the same value. This can then also be used in practicing:

In the penultimate bar of Sor’s op. 59 The very slow tempo makes it even more difficult to play the last 16th on the right spot at the end of the Rallentando:

As in the previous example, the 16th is the shortest occurring value. So, we will take it as the lowest common denominator and practice as follows:

In this way we avoid counting only on our musical instinct and feeling of the pulse and can have complete control of the subdivision. We can thus decide on the spot, so to speak, how ‘much Rallentando’ we want to create without losing the proportion between the musical values.

It might happen that during the rallentando changes of subdivision occur in the unity of tempo (from binary to ternary and vice versa). By using the lowest common denominator system this will not be a problem at all. A meaningful example are certainly the last bars of the Passacaglia from Britten’s Nocturnal op.70 (just before the Theme):

The last triplet (in minims) could really become uncomfortable to play precisely and in rallentando. Here how we can practice the passage (the values are twice fast for ease the practicing):

It goes without saying, that the aim of all the exercises I have presented is achieving security in the control of the subdivision. If one practices correctly in this way enough times, then the notes of the triplets in the above example, which have no line underneath, will be easily imagined in our head, providing the necessary inner frame for the rallentando.

All the above considerations and strategies can obviously be applied to an accelerando.

In conclusion, I would like to firmly point out that ‘rallentando’ is gerund of the Italian verb ‘rallentare’, which means ‘to slow down’. Gerund is the future passive participle of the late Latin word ‘gerere’ (to fulfill) and indicates therefore the ‘action to be taken’ (of slowing down) and not a state (in this case the composer would have written Lento). This is a quite crucial difference, which is too often overlooked by players, who thus slow down abruptly when they read the word ‘Rallentando’ on the score.

The reason for this behavior is probably attributed more to an instinctive, psycho-visual reaction to the word ‘rallentando’, than to a conscious and voluntary one (in the same way, when we see police on the side of the road from far away we suddenly brake the car instead of smoothly slowing down to avoid the fine, in this case the Rallentando being the police).

Well, I thank you heartily for having read until the end of this blog and hope it will be of some use to you. Please, share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, they are very welcome! Take care and see you next time!



My warmest thanks to Mike Ibsen for his correction of the English text :)

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