Thomas Stevens

Two Masters of Tempi

  • General Quotes

Count Basie and Igor Stravinsky had something in common.

An old saw, one not quite in the Quotable class since its sources are many and its precise wording varied: Count Basie and Igor Stravinsky had an uncanny ability to always set the right tempo. This is something I heard a number of times during my youth. It was further posited that so perfect was each gentleman’s sense of tempo that if something they performed were only a couple of beats per minute to the left or right of where they set it, it would miss its groove entirely and sound unsettled.

During he 1950s, for example, when The Count of Basie set the remarkably effective slow tempo for trumpeter Neal Hefti’s L’il Darlin, ("The Atomic Basie") which the writer had originally conceived as a medium tempo tune, it instantly became a famous jazz band classic. Similarly, many believe Stravinsky’s music always sounded “right” in the composer’s hands, but has historically often suffered when performed by others because of questionable tempi. There is a marvelous 1990 Quotable from Erich Leinsdorf re: the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements: “The urge to get faster and kill someone with your own brilliance is not a part of this music.” Indeed, the often-too-fast tempi of many conductors in performances of some of Stravinsky’s music is especially in evidence in the ballet scores (e.g. Petrouchka) where many have suggested that any ballet company trying to accommodate such tempi would need to provide medical personnel backstage and ambulances nearby to care for and transport its injured dancers to nearby hospitals. And, although Stravinsky's tempi were usually slower than others who performed his music, there were also occasions when Stravinsky the older chose even slower tempi than Stravinsky the younger.

A Personal Experience:

Date: Early 1960s
Place: American Legion Hall, Highland Ave., Los Angeles, California
Event: Columbia Records Recording Session
Repertoire: Igor Stravinsky’s Chant du Rossignol (the composer conducting)

When I arrived at the session, the music contractor*, Philip Kahgan, told me I was to play fourth trumpet. This presented me with a rather unique challenge, one for which I was unprepared by virtue of my training and experience, to wit: the work has always had only three trumpet parts. After Kahgan discovered his mistake, he instructed me to sit in the fourth trumpet chair and “be ready in case you’re needed.” I did so, and this presented me with a ringside seat to witness some of those types of activities that take place at the periphery of recording sessions that musicians don’t generally see (or care about) since they are usually too involved and concerned with their musical responsibilities.

During the session when one particular section of the work was being played, there seemed to be a flurry of activity in the recording booth, followed by a couple of instances when someone from the production staff would come out to speak privately with Stravinsky. Then, a short time later, a voice came over the playback loudspeakers advising Stravinsky he was still conducting a (much) slower tempo than was indicated in the score. At that point the “old man” became a bit exercised, telling everyone he didn’t care what was printed in the score, he was conducting exactly the tempo he thought was right.

As one who had been indoctrinated in Stravinsky performance practices by some of the composer’s collaborators, notably Ingolf Dahl and Lawrence Morton, I viewed this as a watershed moment, with Stravinsky exhibiting the same disregard for one of his own tempo markings that he had so often and relentlessly berated others for doing. Without saying a word**, I tried to make eye contact with my friend, tympanist Bill Kraft, who was stationed to my immediate right and doing his very best to ignore me by looking straight ahead, hands clasped together resting on one of the tympani heads while holding his two mallets by their stems. He finally spoke, with eyes still focused straight ahead as if addressing some unseen entity: “You didn’t hear that. I didn’t hear that. He didn’t say that. And if we ever tried to tell anyone he did, no one would ever believe us.” (This story has been posted here with the express permission of Mr. Kraft.)

A few minutes later, Mannie Klein’s assertion (below) was validated when some person(s) who had obviously heard Bill’s comment dispatched Phil Kahgan to excuse me from any further obligation to remain on the premises. ( And I hadn't uttered so much as one word!)

*A music contractor is one who hires musicians in the free-lance music business.

** Mannie Klein, the legendary Hollywood trumpeter once advised me never to say anything I didn’t want the world to hear when doing recording sessions because the mikes were often-times “live” (left open) and everyone in the recording booth, and perhaps beyond, would hear everything I said. Quotable from Mannie: ….”[I]t’s like having a constant wiretap on your telephone, so watch out, kid!” (a "heads-up," timeless lesson for all musicians!)