Time signature and Tempo: Conducting or Composing the right mood
What is the proper time signature and tempo for a section? Should the tempo follow the perceived beat, or should it be related to what the composer wants to impose as the beat? Are they provided to give ease to the performers or arbitrary points to control the passage of time and nothing else? Over the next few weeks I will be examining the role of time signatures and their relationship to tempo and the eventual performance of a piece. While I will begin by using my own music as examples, these posts will not be limited to my music. If you have selections of music you think agree or refute what I say here, please add your comments. I will endeavor to find and post the suitable examples as images to coincide with your arguments.
Time signatures are something I struggle with as a composer. I feel as though they should be indicative of where the stresses are in a piece. This means it should be as fast or as slow as the stress intended by the composer, even if the piece "seems" to move faster. For example, the piece to the right is the first page of my Symphony No 1. It is marked in 2/4 and at the tempo of Largo (quarter note equals 50). This is very slow, even though the movement of the upper strings (and eventually the woodwinds) is much faster than the tempo suggests. In performance the piece "feels" as if it might be written just as easily in 4/4 with the tempo of Moderato (quarter note equals 100) - the notes doubled in length. However, I think this gives the opening of the piece a much different feeling than the 2/4-Largo version.
Later on in this piece (page 4, bar 24), the time signature switches to the 4/4-Moderato I had suggested could start the piece. When I originally composed this portion, I did not switch to the faster tempo. However, post concert, I really felt this portion definitely moved at the faster tempo. At bar 60 the time signature/tempo revert back to the 2/4-Largo for a brief moment as the music returns to the opening motive - only to move to 4/4 and an Allegro (quarter note equals 116) at bar 69.
The purpose of the slower beginning is to stress the first beat of the bar and then slightly less on the second beat of the bar. if the music were written in 4/4-Moderato the first beat would still be the primary stress with the third beat the secondary stress (what was the second beat). However, the second and fourth beats would also become points of stress, with the up beats receiving a slight stress as well.
In the first example, this would cause (in the Flute part) the F to be primary stress, the D to be secondary stress and the E-flat to have a tertiary stress. In 2/4 the E-flat has no stress (or shouldn't). Looking down at the Violin I part, the C, E-flat and B should all have the same stress equivalent. This may seem a bit pedantic on the part of the composer - but it does have an effect.
The first bar also has phrase marking in the Violin I which seems to belie the desire to have the second third and fourth note non-stressed. If the performers, tie the first two notes together, and then the second two notes together there is a natural accent which occurs on the third note (the first of the second pair of notes). This would be count two in 4/4 or the upbeat of one in 2/4). In 2/4 there shouldn't be an accent on it and yet... I've written the phrase markings to put an accent there. Hmmmmm... Is the composer out of his head?
No. Because if you look at bar 4 in the Violin I part, the first beat of the bar rests, followed by three notes tied together (removing stress from the second and third notes). Up in the Oboes and 2nd Flute their notes are on the up beat with rests on the beat (if it were written in 4/4). This "up beat" movement puts stresses where there shouldn't be stresses, removing or lightening the stresses where there are or should be stresses. Thus, the music should feel a 2/4 pulse and not that of 4/4.
Perhaps this subtlety is lost in most performances and certainly conductors could ignore my markings and conduct it any way they choose - but, I spent a fair amount of time going over this section trying to decide just what it needed in terms of time signature and tempo markings. It is, after all, the first of the piece and therefore sets the expectations for what is to follow.