Music dictionary

Edited: November 5, 2019, 9:50 AM · Can anyone recommend a paper- or online music dictionary?
A virtual punch in the face for anyone who suggests I buy Groves, or equivalent.
There are prosaic things I often want to look up, such as, what exactly is a bourree? What exactly is a minuet?
But there are also questions such as how Italian is used.
E.g. Today I saw the markings Fz and Sf.
I had always assumed that Sfz was all that was available, but my Cambridge Italian dictionary tells me that Fz can mean "forzato/a" (forced) and Sf "sforzando"(usually Sfz, = "forcing out", the Italian s- being the equivalent of Latin ex-), but is there any real difference, or is it hair-splitting? And anyway, I would not take my Cambridge Italian dictionary as musical gospel.

Replies (12)

November 5, 2019, 10:59 AM · I still use my 1969 ed. Harvard Dictionary of Music. And standard Italian-french-german dictionaries are useful. Sometimes our musicians' understanding of a term can drift away from the composer's original intent. One example of that misunderstanding is the bowing term "Detache' ".
November 5, 2019, 11:02 AM · Am I alone in thinking that ff means fortissimo, as loud as possible, and that therefore fff, ffff, fffff are stupid?
November 5, 2019, 12:06 PM · -Gordon- You are not alone. fff first appears in Beethoven-7, Tchaikovsky uses ffff. I think that notation is for the brass and percussion. We string players are already maxed out at ff.
November 5, 2019, 12:12 PM · I use Rolande de Cande's lovely little paperback "Dictionnaire de Musique". If you have French that may be all you need.

In orchestra when I see fff I don't try to bust my gut getting beyond ff because I know that fff, ffff etc are intended by the composer to denote the overall decibels of the full orchestra when the brass, woodwind and percussion are busting their gut, and incidentally obliterating the upper strings. As long as you "look" as if you're playing fff (use fast full bows) then the conductor will be happy.

At the other end of the scale we once had a symphony movement (I think it might have been by Vaughan Williams) that required the strings to sustain notes dying away to ppppp. In rehearsal the conductor told us to gradually lift our bows just off the strings over the last couple of measures, but to keep them moving until he indicated us to stop with his baton. In the performance the audience were quite convinced by the deceit!

Edited: November 5, 2019, 2:08 PM · Thanks, Trevor. I just found a cheap copy of that French book in hardback. I've just got to wait for it to arrive from Illinois! (I read French and speak German. Don't ask why! OK, I can read German, but it's more trouble than it's worth!)

I forget where I heard the quote, but it was along the lines of "Pablo Casals once said that mp goes from really quite quiet to really quite loud, and mf goes from really quite loud to really quite quiet."

November 5, 2019, 2:19 PM · For markings such as FFF and FFFF, when I was in college my theory professor said that such markings were used in frustration by composers who found that the musicians weren't playing their loudest when FF was used. After reading Berlioz's accounts of the provincial musicians he ran into, whom he often describes as lazy and poor musicians, I can understand why someone would write 3 or 4 Fs as a means of saying "I really want you to wake up and make a lot of sound!"
Edited: November 5, 2019, 6:49 PM · Don't look down on wikipedia. I know anyone can contribute to it, but that also means that anyone really knowledgeable can and does correct it.
November 5, 2019, 4:54 PM · I have done some transcriptions of 19th century orignal editions or manuscripts and my conclusion from that would be that many composers used Fz and Sf (and several variations thereof and even the accent sign "<") interchangeably. I do not think that there is an internationally respected definition for each of these markings.

In practice one will have to decide from the musical context how to execute.

November 5, 2019, 5:50 PM · Sounds like you're looking for access to Grove Online for basic entries, JSTOR for scholarly articles, and ProQuest for dissertations, and Oxford Bibliography (for obviously, bibliographies).

You're asking excellent questions but they aren't easily answered by any one dictionary entry. The same markings and terms were often used by composers differently and they are no easy answers. You're looking for a magic unicorn that can tell you everything in a book. Let me know when you find it because I want one too.

November 5, 2019, 6:16 PM · https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/page/about-gmo/about-grove-music-online
Edited: November 6, 2019, 1:14 AM · The only thing I have against Wiki is that there seem to be no space limitations, so some of their technical articles can be much longer than I want and it's too much trouble to wade through the extraneous detail looking for essentials.
So Wiki and Grove online will probably be my ports of call. Thanks, everyone.
Edited: November 8, 2019, 4:28 PM · Some further information about Rolande de Cande's "Dictionnaire de Musique". This is in fact a fairly detailed and well thought-out miniature encyclopedia rather than a dictionary as such; so its title is perhaps misleading.

What I also have (and have had since childhood) is the useful Alec Rowley's Pocket Pronouncing Dictionary, which contains also the rudiments of music and biographical dates of composers. This is perhaps more suitable for everyday use. This is what it says about Sforzando: “single notes or chords so marked have to be played with emphasis”.

Rowley may no longer be available, but there must surely be similar pocket dictionaries published by or in association with today's music colleges. Try the Associated Board.


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