Classical guitarists are famously reputed to be unable to string together a sequence of phrases without an exaggerated reliance on expressive devices such as arpeggiated chords, vibrato, glissando and above all rubato. Ah yes, rubato. The very word has a mystique to it. It is treated with deference for some feel it contains the very secrets to musical expression. An artist who can rubato deftly is regarded as a superior type. But many a guitarist, it is said, confuses rhythmic anarchy with the genuine rubato article. Paco de Lucia is on record as saying he wished to restore rhythmic precision to the playing of the Aranjuez Concerto after listening to so many wayward performances.
Now, you may detect a note of irony from me. And indeed, that would be correct, for I think a lot of the criticism is appropriate. At the heart of the classical guitarist’s dilemna is that he/she cannot think of expressive playing without rubato. Here is a short guide to the do’s and dont’s of what rubato is about:
Rubato is not about:
Changing rhythm and time values because otherwise the music “might be a bit boring.”
Slowing down at every cadence point and milking it for all it is worth
Playing as you “feel” the music. Relying on “feel” alone is a lame way of avoiding other important considerations. Besides feelings are not a sufficient guide, whether it be to music or life itself.
A conveniently easy way of dealing with difficult passages which would sound best played in tempo.
Rubato is about:
Consideration of it for the musical phrase in question, and its place it in the structural scheme of the whole piece.
Taking note of the composer’s own indications.
The musical style of the period.
Creating smooth curves of speeding and slowing down which are often scarcely perceptible to the listener.
Rubato has a secret gentle rhythm of its own, as opposed to the sudden stops and starts so beloved of some players. These are sometimes OK, but not as frequently as rubato addicts go for.
To sum up: rubato is a hugely important element of music making. It should be treated with the same caution and consideration as all the other expressive devices at our disposal. At its best it is elevated from the realm of a personal whim to something altogether more interesting.
This has been my rough guide to rubato.
6th December 2014, London