A couple weeks ago I was preparing a song for a wedding. The sheet music didn’t offer much help in the way of tempo, for it simply said “with feeling.” With feeling?! How would you play otherwise? I’ve never seen without feeling. Or a la zombie. If music is played stoically, then it shouldn’t be played at all. This got me thinking about musical directions …
Though I love ice cream I’m not a fan of gelato
One of the more confusing aspects of music is the tradition of using Italian words for musical directions. I always thought with words like crescendo, diminuendo, dolce, and Dal Segno that it’d be easier to learn to play a classical instrument as an Italian kid who already knew the language. “Why couldn’t they just write these things in English?” I wondered as a 12 year old. This was before you could simply type a word into the Google search bar and get a definition. You had to actually look them up in a musical dictionary. I suppose if you had an Italian dictionary, that would have worked too.
Composers of all nationalities used Italian direction in their music, including Mozart (Austrian), Beethoven (German), Rachmaninoff (Russian), and naturally Scarlatti (Italian). A few didn’t, however, like Debussy, who stubbornly kept with his native French. (You know how those French are.)
It seemed the classical composers saved their favorite words for tempo markings. (The Italian tempo actually means time.) There were some standards you’d see a lot:
- Largo – slow
- Adagio – slow, but not as slow as largo
- Andante – moderately slow (literally means walking)
- Moderato – moderate
- Allegretto – slightly slower than allegro
- Allegro – moderately fast
- Presto – very fast
These were all quite subjective. Some composers were especially creative and further defined the tempo with these moods, to name a few:
- Agitato – excited and fast
- Animato – animated
- Maestoso – mysterious, secretive, enigmatic
Knowing the tempo and mood of a piece is extremely important in order to play it the way the composer intended, especially when you don’t have a guy waving a magic wand at you. What makes things a little tricky at times is that modern sheet music editors often add their own expressions, which is sort of like reading a Bible commentary—it can be helpful but it’s still not the Bible.
One of the more challenging things for me today, not having grown up in a church with hymns, is not having tempo markings in hymnals. Very often, I’ll mistakenly take the fast ones slow and the slow ones fast. But then, I think you can’t go too wrong taking a hymn a little faster; they all need to be pepped up a bit—animato.
All this tempo stuff was made much easier with Maelzel’s Metronome. You may have seen one—it’s a wooden pyramid featuring a thin, metal blade with a moveable weight attached. The lower you slide the weight the faster the tempo clicks, and vice versa. (Oh no, more Italian. Or is that Latin?) To many Italian expressions Maelzel assigned numeric values based on the amount of beats per minute. If you set it to 60, which would be one beat per second, you’d have lento or maybe larghetto, whereas allegretto might be 120.
I had a metronome like this when I was learning to play piano. But there were two obstacles to my acquiring steady rhythm. First, my older brothers were concurrently learning to play drums. They had a set in their back bedroom, and frequently they would be banging away like Animal from the Muppets while I was trying to play Chopin in the living room. Second, my metronome often malfunctioned. I’m not sure how. I think the blade bent somehow. In any case, it didn’t produce consistent, even beats for me. Needless to say, it took some time to get me straightened out. (Was that a pun?) But now, hey, I’m like a Swiss watch. Sort of.
The Great Composer and Conductor
I always wondered what it’d be like to play a classical piece under the direction of its composer. What would Beethoven think if he heard me play his music? Would he scowl in disgust? (I’ve read he was grumpy.) Or would he approve of my attempt, realizing I’m far from a virtuoso?
I think of God as the Great Composer and Conductor. Not to brag, but he has written a masterpiece in creating me. And each day is a new movement with similar musical themes from before but also new rhythms, new melodies, and new harmonies. He doesn’t stand idly by, though; he helps me along to play something beautiful. For he has written all sorts of musical directions onto the manuscript paper that is my life.
As in music, I want to approach life affettuoso (with feeling). I don’t want to live a sotto (subdued) life, when it can be lived brillante (brilliantly) and comodo (unrestrainedly). I can make it grazioso (with charm) and semplicemente (uncomplicated). And most importantly con amore (with love) and con fuoco (with fire). While consistent pace and sticking within the boundaries of tempo can be good, sometimes it’s best to live rubato (free flowing and exempt from steady rhythm). You could never knock Animal for his intensity, and you can admire his out-of-time drum solos.