More than Andante: Some Thoughts on the Language of Music
Due to a series of circumstances not worth recounting here, I went directly from composition studies at Princeton University to Rome where I worked with the Italian composer Gofreddo Petrassi (Max Davies, my fellow Petrassi student, actually reversed this pilgrimage, going from Rome to Princeton). I spent two years in Italy and, for part of the time, lived with an Italian family. The result is that I am quite fluent in Italian, a most beautiful and eloquent language. This is a useful skill for catching the untranslated lines in Italian movies, the subtleties of confused opera libretti and obscure references in the writings of Umberto Eco. It has also allowed me to become something of a connoisseur of that curious language known as Composer Italian.
As Fritz Spiegl points out in a recent article in this magazine, Italian is the lingua franca of music. This dates from the days when European capitals, small and large, had Italian opera houses and itinerant Italian musicians swarmed all over Europe, teaching music and filling out the ranks of the operas, orchestras and court music establishments. In the eighteenth century, northern Italy was an Austro-Hungarian possession but, musically speaking, Vienna was a colony of Italy. Even those remote outliers of the continent, Petersburg and London, were remarkably Italianized. Until Beethoven’s day, western Europe (at least outside of France and sometimes there as well) spoke music with an Italian accent.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, composers from northern lands were required to make the pilgrimage to Italy or, at least, to present themselves as the disciples of Italian music and music-masters. As a result, Handel and Mozart spoke Italian fluently—in words as well as notes. Italian was as essential to the international music business as English is today in the world of science and technology.
Beethoven’s Italian was not negligible although perhaps not quite as polished by close contact with Italy or Italians. After the turn of the nineteenth century, the pervasive presence of Italian musicians and musical style began to wane and the quality of lingua franca Italian deteriorated. But Italian never entirely vanished from the musical scene and neo-classicists like Brahms and Stravinsky helped keep it alive into the twentieth century. Scott Joplin and W. C. Handy wrote Tempo di rag or Tempo di shimmy on their sheet music and song writers and pop arrangers still talk about a segue (‘no pause’) or call out “da capo” (‘from the top’) or “crescendo!” (‘louder!’) without the slightest consciousness that they are talking Italian.
The issue of the accuracy of musical Italian is of more than academic interest. It is true, as Fritz Spiegl points out, that many Italian words originally referred to mood, rather than speed. For example, allegro means ‘happy’ or ‘vivacious’ but it works quite well as an indicator of tempo; a good English equivalent would be ‘lively’ which also suggests both mood and speed. Presto literally means ‘right away’ or ‘with the greatest immediacy,” hence, ‘in the greatest haste’; again, as with the English word “quickly,” it works both ways. Grave, as in the equivalent English word, suggests something serious, of great weight and not to be taken lightly (but not necessarily enormously slow).
A much more difficult case is the word Andante which has come to suggest a moderately slow pace but literally means ‘moving along’. What is the proper speed for a musical movement marked Andante? What is supposed to happen when, as in Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail, the marking is più Andante? Is ‘more Andante’ faster or slower than Andante? To get the correct answer, I think you have to determine the composer’s actual degree of fluency in the language! Wolfgang was a real Italophone and therefore the traditional slow-up is almost certainly wrong; he clearly meant ‘move it along’. When these same words appear in German Romantic music, they almost always mean the opposite.
There is a lot of fractured Italian in the common musical lingo. Piccolo, which is an adjective in Italian, should not really be the name of an instrument; it is merely a shortened form of piccolo flauto or ‘little flute’. The correct Italian word is ottavino which means ‘small octave’ or ‘high octave player’. Cello (sometimes written ‘cello) is, of course, fractured Italian which literally refers to something small! The correct word, violoncello means ‘small bass-viol’ which actually makes sense.
In a series of confusing reversals, the word battuta often means ‘measure’, misura means beat (or meter), tempo is movement (as in Sinfonia in tre tempi), section, measure or bar, and movimento means ‘tempo’ (as in doppio movimento or double time). Got it? When Beethoven writes “Ritmo in tre battute” he is accurately informing us that his Ninth Symphony Scherzo has switched to three bar phrases. On the other hand, tempo primo is common Composer Italian for “go back to the first speed” but the usual Italian expression is primo movimento. Go figure.
This is all confusing enough but probably the most misunderstood and often misused word is subito which merely means ‘suddenly’—as in subito piano, ‘suddenly soft.’ I have actually seen in print and under an otherwise distinguished byline of yesteryear, a comment about a pianist’s subito.
It may be bad Italian, but the direction più andante certainly does mean ‘slower’ when it appears in the music of Brahms. This great lover of moderation is also rumored to have directed one of his pieces to be played Moderato, ma non troppo; alas, I have never actually been able to find this direction and the question of whether it is faster or slower than moderato must remain academic. I can, however, attest to the fact that Schumann, who scattered both Italian and German directions liberally over his scores, did write Prestissimo possibile (“in the greatest of greatest possible haste”) and then afterwards, in burst of truly prodigious Italianate bravura, più presto.
This piece was written in 1999 as a response to an article on musical Italian in the BBC Music Magazine.