How were you taught to interpret musical definitions or expressions?
I was reading another discussion thread
and a light hearted question was posed about the meaning of the term “allegro vivacissimo”. Some of the responses stated that the meaning was to play “very fast” or to that effect. If you had asked me in my earlier years of playing the violin, I would’ve probably agreed. But my approach to these terms changed when I took some lessons from a teacher after college to improve on my playing.
In one of the lessons, he presented the idea that the musical expressions, which are stated in the beginning of a movement, typically describe the “mood” or state-of-being of the movement and that there are very few musical terms that dictate tempo. And, all of this is based on the Italian language. For example, “allegro” does not mean “fast” but instead means to be “happy” or “merry”, as defined by the Italian language. So going back, one interpretation of “allegro vivacissimo” could mean “to be happy and lively”. Another example, “Adagio” does not mean “slowly” but instead, it would mean “to be at ease”. Finally, one of the terms that would dictate tempo is “Presto” and all the derivatives (e.g., -issimos, -issimossos, etc), which would mean “fast”.
Growing up, I vaguely recall that I was taught, while in orchestra, that these musical expressions usually dictated tempo, with qualifiers that are relative to one another. For example, “allegro moderato” is slightly slower than allegro and ranges between 100-120 bpm or to something of that effect. I’m curious to know if this is how you were taught? For those of you that went music school, was this brought up in your training, whether in the classroom or in private lessons? For those of you that have studied music outside the United States, is this similar to how you were taught?
Another trap is Andantino!
Andantino is strictly speaking the diminutive of andante ("going" i.e. faster than you might think).
I was never taught more than the bare approximation that you can read in books. A real understanding is something that can only come with experience. Put yourself in the composer's shoes - every work is composed with a particular tempo in mind, but before the invention of the metronome how was the composer to indicate what tempo? Of course they relied on tradition, that musicians have come to a consensus as to what "andantino" means amongst other musicians, regardless of what the dictionary says.
Right, it depends on the historical period as we all eventually learned.
While the words do indicate mood rather than strict tempo, they also imply a range of tempos which are as always open to individual interpretation.
As an Italian speaker, the way people interpret the Italian instructions given at the start of a piece of music, has long been an irritant to me. Andante means “going” no mention of walking speed that I so often hear. Allegro of course is not a speed indication, it means “happy”. The biggest bugbear is “allegro assai” which means “happy enough” not “very fast” as I hear from non-Italian speakers. I could go on...
My favorite music expression is:
Mozart used “Allegro Aperto” but I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that (I think he used it in the A major violin concerto if I’m not mistaken).
So where does this leave my favourite conundrum - 'andante ma non troppo' (Thanks, Ludwig)? Not too fast, or not too slow - ie slower or faster than vanilla 'andante'.
Allegro assai is another of those ambiguous ones (like andantino) - some think it means very allegro. I am happy with Carlo's version (and I am happy that andantino means on the slower side of andante).
I don’t think that the “mood” vs. the speed really contradict each other.
"I don’t think that the “mood” vs. the speed really contradict each other."
Not quite sure if I really got the analogy, but I would rather regard us as horses than as carts.
"In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use"; Wittgenstein.
Italian isn't the only language used in music. What about German? I remember our first rehearsal of one of the Bruckner symphonies. As the scores were being distributed to the sections you could hear the wails going round the orchestra, "what's this mean?", "anyone speak German?" etc. The problem was solved at the next rehearsal when we were all each issued with two sheets of translation into English.
Not to mention Erik Satie.
David, the thought occurs to me that perhaps the clarinettist's reservation about playing at 70 instead of 80 had more to do with breathing than anything else.
I see some words as denoting speed, while others denote mood. In the original example, “allegro vivacissimo”, I interpret "allegro" as "quickly", and "vivacissimo" as "as lively as possible".