The first day of my first piano repertoire class in the fall of 2017, I gave my students a quiz. There were no wrong answers per se, but I was interested in presenting them some pianistic problems, or, challenge some commonly held assertions about the piano repertoire.
One of the questions that I asked was:
On the surface, this is a simple matter of confirming whether or not the piece was in triple or quadruple meter. Perhaps some considered whether it was actually notated in 4/4 with triplets, or in compound 12/8 time. But several students, including some who had performed the piece quite recently, gave pause, simply for the fact that I asked a seemingly obvious question.
They were perhaps more perplexed when I asked a follow-up question:
In some ways these were trick questions. Tricky because a) the question of time signature seems relatively uncontroversial, and in fact, obvious; b) because we all have a pretty clear sense of tempo in this movement. It has to be some sort Adagio, no?
Well most people fail to realize that the time signature in the Moonlight Sonata's first movement is actually cut time. Though the tempo marking is Adagio Sostenuto, I always like to ask what is 'slow and sustained'? Students don't often think about the connection between the tempo marking and the meter marking.
To me, the tempo marking relates directly to the note value of the basic beat, as revealed in the time signature. Therefore, the half note ought to feel like the basic beat, and it's the half note which ought to feel slow and sustained.
Could it be that most people play the famous first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata too slow?
Well most performances nowadays are so slow that one cannot sense the half note as a beat. It's possible to hear this movement with the half note as a slow beat. It sounds faster to our ears, yet I think makes considerable sense so that the harmonic rhythm doesn't seem intolerably slow. Besides, when you count the quarter note in most 'slow' performances, the beat is actually rather fast, not anywhere near a sense of slow and sustained.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act