Episode 111: Chopin's Rubato

Nocturne in G minor, Op. 15, No. 3

rc-rubato-200“Look at these trees,” Franz Liszt said, “the wind plays in the leaves, stirs up life among them, the tree remains the same, that is Chopinesque rubato.”

Rubato. Rhythmic flexibility; a relaxation of strict time. Metric larceny. Literally, “rubato” means “stolen” but it’s a bit more like borrowing. Time is taken from less important notes to lavish on more important notes.

As one of Chopin’s students puts it, rubato is about “holding back and pushing on.” Chopin’s rubato, he continues, “was charm itself; each note was rendered in the most perfect taste.”

Karol Mikuli, a Polish-Armenian pianist and composer who studied with Chopin described how his “rubato possessed an unshakeable emotional logic… It was fluid, natural; it never degenerated into exaggeration or affectation,”

It follows that Chopin’s students report he had no patience for lingering, exaggerated or misplaced rubatos. "‘Pray do take a seat’ he said on such occasions, with gentle mockery.”

Wilhelm von Lenz, who studied with both Liszt and Chopin, believed rubato formed the very heart of Chopin’s playing: “He would say, ‘A piece lasts for, say, five minutes, only in that it occupies this time for its overall performance; internal details are another matter. And there you have rubato.’”

“Rubato” may be written in only nine of Chopin’s manuscripts—this Nocturne among them—but is essential to nearly all of them. - Jennifer Foster

Radio Chopin Episode 111: Chopin's Rubato

Nocturne in G minor, Op. 15, No. 3